[Multiple Tomahawk Nation authors contributed to this article]
[Lunch Update: FSU is close to landing DT Kenneth Kirksey from Daytona Beach. Kirksey is 6'1" 290 and well put together (not obese). The 'Noles most desperate need is defensive line and while Kirksey isn't a stud at this point, he is another badly needed body.]
Many thought it could be disastrous. What would happen if Bowden retired? What would the media's reaction be? How would recruits handle the news. As it turned out, Bowden's retirement kicked off what has to be Florida State's best week of the decade.
Most of the national media didn't rip Florida State for its handling of Bowden's "retirement." Thanks to Tiger Woods, Notre Dame, and ESPN's relationship with the SEC, it didn't anywhere near the coverage that many expected it to receive. Of particular importance for FSU was winning over the ESPN TV crew of Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Jessie Palmer, and Brent Musberger. Those four are the most important as they are the most frequently seen college football commentators. They make the public's opinion.
It's very difficult for a college football team to make news during this dead period unless they are playing for their conference championship game or making the other kind of news (Rocky Top anyone?). Florida State though, has managed to make a ton of positive news in the week since Bowden's retirement. They made news with a Gator Bowl invite despite a 6-6 record, a fitting bowl tribute to Bowden's legacy. 'Nole fans sold out the game in two hours. The 'Noles have been going to bowl games for longer than my parents have been out of college (FSU Alums as well). But the main news has come in the land of recruiting.
The national media is a great tool to tell how outsiders view your team. Local media gives a better feel for what is really going on, but sometimes they get too close. This time, however, the local guys nailed it- at least when it comes to recruiting. While some casual college football columnists outside of the Sunshine State wondered if Florida State could recruit without Bobby Bowden, those who cover the team knew better. Not only did Bowden's retirement not slow down Florida State's recruiting efforts- ranked 37th as the time of the announcement, it ignited them. A week later, Florida State sits at 9th (14th in another ranking). Think about that. What if a college football team went from 37th to 9th in the polls in only a week? That would be unheard of. Perhaps the closest thing we've seen recently was Alabama's romp over Clemson in last season's opening game, after which the Tide went from unranked to a spot just outside the top 10. So what caused the jump from 37th to 9th? How did a team go from potential disaster to being a stone-cold lock to end up with one of the handful of elite groups of recruits in just a week? Ask an expert:
The Seminoles have 19 commitments, and the Hurricanes have 24, meaning FSU should breeze past the Hurricanes in the final standings.
"It's amazing how quickly momentum can change in recruiting," Newberg said. "I think the fact that there's finally closure with coach Bowden is really helping. There was such a black cloud over the university. Coach Fisher and his staff have worked really hard and stayed the course. They're just rocking and rolling right now." "They are the hottest team in the country."
It seems that the work done by Jimbo Fisher, James Coley, Lawrence Dawsey, O'Dell Haggins, and Rick Trickett (the 5 coaches who will remain on Florida State's staff under Fisher) was being outdone by the 'Noles competition, simply by telling recruits that they would be stuck playing for Bowden, that he wouldn't retire, or that Fisher would leave. But he finally did the right thing and retired. Recruits stated that they never saw Bowden and that his retirement was actually a plus for the program. Most viewed Fisher as the coach anyhow. The retirement took away the biggest weapon of opposing coaches in the game of recruiting. Florida State was like that pretty girl in a nice ride who kept trying to accelerate but didn't realize she had her parking brake on. Once it's disengaged- zooooooom. And her reaction to the burn-out is very similar to what Florida State fans are feeling like right now. After the "Lost Decade", many Florida State fans didn't realize the potential of their own program. Even the most optimistic FSU fan didn't see his team pulling the top two committed recruits in the country in a single week.
Yes, you read that correctly. As of this article, the top two commitments in the country belong to the 'Noles. A 6-6 team that plays in the ACC, has the top two commitments in the country and a top 10 class. That is a tribute to what Bowden built. No matter what went on during the Lost Decade, people will never be able to forget FSU's 14-year run of dominance from 1987-2001. Without those memories, recruits probably wouldn't come to Florida State. And FSU's top 10 class has only 19 commitments. The only other team in the top 10 with fewer than 20 commitments? The Florida Gators. The only other team to have two 5-star recruits? The Florida Gators. FSU won't catch UF this year, but the first step to putting the fear back in the spear undoubtedly is recruiting. With the ACC's worst defense in more than a half decade, the 'Noles need defensive help. It just so happens that those top two commitments line up on that side of the football.
First came Jeff Luc, the top rated linebacker in the country. His announcement shocked a lot of people, including one of his own coaches. Even those of us who had heard that FSU had a real shot to run him were a bit skeptical. Luc wants to lead Florida State back to the top, and grew up a fan of the Seminole dynasty. And you can bet that Luc was in the ear of another talented defender...
Two nights ago, Lamarcus Joyner, the top rated cornerback in the country, pulled the trigger and declared his recruiting over. Florida State had won. Not surprisingly, Joyner also grew up a big fan of the 'Noles- even though he grew up with with the Canes in his own backyard. These are the type of commitments that turns heads. Joyner declared Florida State "back", and his mentor quickly produced a youtube video as a tribute:
FSU also grabbed the top rated JUCO cornerback and pulled a nice haul of 2011 recruits in the days following the announcement. And not only did Joyner declare Florida State "back", but ESPN did as well. ESPN Radio's Sportscenter update routinely trumpeted the commitments. ESPN.com's recruiting section looked like this (click for picture).
As if losing one of the most legendary coaches of all time and proceeding to grab the two best commitments in the country wasn't a wild enough story, consider that Florida State did this with only 5 coaches actively recruiting! FSU is using only Jimbo Fisher, James Coley, Lawrence Dawsey, O'Dell Haggins, and Rick Trickett. Most fans probably didn't realize that college teams carry 11 coaches. FSU played 5 v. 11 and won in a huge way. Florida State is taking addition by subtraction to the max it seems. Bowden and the also-retiring and probably College Football Hall of Fame-bound defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews weren't much for recruiting in their final years, but the other three departing position coaches (Chuck Amato, Jody Allen, and Dexter Carter) weren't much for recruiting. Particularly disappointing was Amato, who landed a job as a head coach at NC State in the early part of the decade in no small thanks to his ability to recruit South Florida. In his return to Florida State he failed to pull a single full-time starter from South Florida, and managed to rub at least one program that we know of the wrong way. Fisher has picked up the slack. In a recent story, ESPN called FSU's run "Unprecedented", and got Fisher on the record:
On why the recruiting has picked up...
"The biggest thing is clarity now," Fisher said. "[Prospects] see the future of Florida State football is bright. I don't know if I expected any of this because young men are going to make their own decision when they feel comfortable in making it. But we had a good plan in place and we're going to continue to follow that plan and see what we can get done."
On learning from FSU's past mistake of having too national of a recruiting focus and alienating local high-school coaches...
"It's a funny thing that everybody wants us to recruit nationally, but everybody in the world comes down to Florida to recruit," Fisher said. "There is no question there is great talent in this state. There are great high school programs, great high school coaching and football is important here. That's not only in the whole state of Florida, but also over into South Georgia as well [Tallahassee is only 34 miles from Thomasville, Ga., and 89 miles from Valdosta, Ga., which are two big hotbeds for talent.]. I am not saying that we won't ever go any of those other places, but it makes all the sense in the world for us to take care of the kids in our home area." "Recruiting is work, evaluation and relationships,"
While he didn't mention it specifically, there is no denying it: Florida State thinks it can take Miami from UM. It's considered an impossible task, to be the king in another's land. But if FSU is to compete with UF on a consistent basis, they first need to knock out the 'Canes and raid UM's talent pool. And they sense weakness in the Canes. The state of Florida has more talent than any state in the country, but it doesn't have enough to support three great teams. FSU, UF, and Miami all cannot be great for sustained periods. It just does not happen. So taking out the easier target (and conference foe) first makes sense. Luckily for the 'Noles, they have James Coley. The fast-rising cult-figure doubles as FSU's tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, and if you follow his twitter, seems to forgo sleep in favor of Cuban coffee and might violate FAA policy on cell-phone use during red-eye flights. He recently flew Tallahassee to Atlanta to Palm Beach to Los Angeles and back to Miami in a 24-hour period. Coley is the Cuban Conquistador in the 'Nole's battle to own the fertile recruiting grounds of Miami. He is relentless on the trail and fits the 305's culture perfectly. A scout from another recruiting site recently confided in me that Miami's coaches are scared of Coley and the other FSU coaches on the recruiting trail:
"Instead of being embarrassed by Coley and those guys, they just pull out early and make it appear as if they didn't want the kid. You can't lose if you don't play. But everyone in the country wanted those two. Heck, USC and Texas basically have an entire megastate to themselves and they would have loved either or Lamarcus of Jeff. If the 'Canes had Butch Davis or Jimmy Johnson or even (Dennis) Erickson, they would've fought tooth and nail for Luc and Joyner. And they probably would have won. But those guys aren't at Miami anymore. They get who they go after, but they rarely go after a kid they won't get."
Though Coley is probably the runaway favorite to win the recruiter of the year award given by Rivals.com, owning South Florida is an enormous task. He can't do it himself. But help is on the way in the form of FSU added former Tennessee and Auburn coach Eddie Gran, who recently agreed to join forces with Coley and become Florida State's running back's coach. Gran was Coley before Coley was Coley. With 10+ years of tremendous success forming relationships with coaches in South Florida, Gran knows how to operate in this battlefield. He is widely considered the South Florida best recruiter among coaches not located within the state. And now Fisher, who knows he must quickly improve FSU's talent level, has paired the Sunshine State's best South Florida recruiter with the only out-of-state coach who could consistently pull talent elite from Dade or Broward county. Gran is so good that a confident Tennessee program erected billboards announcing their intention to be a major player in South Florida recruiting. While it is extremely unlikely that a school in the Appalachian mountains could "own" recruiting in Dade or Broward county, Tennessee's bold actions are a testament to Gran's recruiting prowess. It doesn't hurt that Gran is also an excellent coach on the field, having produced the SEC's top rusher in 5 of the last 10 years, including Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Deuce McAllister, Rudi Johnson, and Montarrio Hardesty. Gran has coached 7 NFL backs and multiple NFL Pro Bowlers. The scout on Gran:
"Eddie's been around Miami since the early 90's and can walk into any high school program down here and command respect. I can count on one hand the guys who can do that, and now FSU has two of them. Every team in the country would kill for Coley or Gran, and Florida State has both of them. Aside from UM, FSU has lapped the field in terms of setting itself up to recruit Miami."
Of course, FSU can't take every kid from South Florida. It looks as if the 'Noles will take 28 kids this year, by asking some recruits to finish high school early and enroll right after Christmas, thus utilizing an unused spot from last year's class. If they do take 28, look for at least 18 of those kids to be on the defensive side. Fisher's offense is already loaded and his crew of Sophomores (6 starters) and freshmen turned was the ACC's best offense in a decade. Scholarships are also opening due to some medical issues. I there is a strong chance that Maurice Harris and Aaron Gresham will not return due to injury. Neither were considered likely to make a significant contribution. There may be a few other current players who will look to transfer because they don't want to put in the work that the new coaching regime will require. With some elite recruits still considering Florida State, and the scholarship numbers favoring FSU, there's a very good chance Fisher's first class at FSU could end up in the top 5.
It also doesn't hurt that as FSU is hitting its stride, other programs are losing key people. Tennessee is under investigation for allegedly sending escorts to players in other stated. And as Jeff Luc mentioned, the Gators have lost two of their best recruiters and coaches. Charlie Strong, arguably the best defensive coordinator in college football, and an excellent recruiter for the Gators, took the head coaching job at Louisville. UF also lost its recruiting coordinator/ wide receivers coach Billy Gonzalez- to rival LSU no less. Add the total curb-stomping at the hands of Alabama in the SEC Championship game, and Tim Tebow failing to receive even 10% of the Heisman vote, and for the first time in a half-decade, the Gators might wish they would trade places with the 'Noles.
While the speed at which this all came together is remarkable, it was also very important that FSU act quickly, as a "quiet period" is coming up for the college football recruiting. In a few days the staff will re-group, focus on the bowl game, and ride the wave of positive momentum until they can again hit the recruiting trail in early January, leading up to National Signing Day in early February.