As the Wheels Came Off: Rethinking Chris Rix

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

A story from the fan post section that we should have promoted to the front page a while ago.

The "Rix Happens" t-shirts were a succinct expression of fan discontent. The verb to happen implies a lack of intention, the randomness of an event. Accidents, acts of God, and yes, shit, happen. That, of course, was the point, to make Christopher Charles Rix’s name a four-letter word. The moniker even lent itself to abuse. R-I-C-K-S would not have had the same punch. X is vulgar, the rating on pornography, but also marks the spot, is a crossroads and an indicator of mystery as in X-files or X-factor, or even the unknown: solve for X.

The t-shirt was clever if mean-spirited, but almost genteel compared to what followed news articles on-line. After any article on Florida State football the anonymous comments section—the hairy anus of the internet—came streams of invective laced with expletives and unburdened by common decency, directed at a man who for much of his time as starting quarterback could not legally purchase alcohol.

In 2001 Chris Rix was the quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles. He was a freshman who burned his redshirt during Chris Wienke’s senior season, a Heisman-winning campaign that ended with a loss to Oklahoma in the national championship game. According to some reports Weinke had not been especially helpful to the younger QBs on the team, but that really didn’t matter because no freshman was going to be starting. Bobby Bowden had been the head coach at FSU since 1976 and had never named a freshman quarterback; he had never had the need. But in 2001 FSU football was about to head south and a 19-year-old kid was going to shoulder much of the blame. As Florida State has recently completed a far more successful 2013 season with another redshirt freshman taking snaps, perhaps it is time to reconsider the tempestuous college career of Chris Rix.

Let’s recap. For the three years of 1998, 1999, and 2000, the Florida State Seminoles had played in the national championship game, winning it all in 1999, a perfect season, 12-0, and FSU was ranked #1 from the first game to the last. By the end of 2000 there had been nine Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, one each for every year the ‘Noles had been in the ACC. And for 14 consecutive years, Florida State had finished the year ranked in the top five, a once-in-forever achievement; never before and not since by anyone.

It can be difficult to identify just when an epoch concludes, but a handy date for the end of FSU’s historic run is September 22, 2001 as the Seminoles walked off the field in Chapel Hill, NC, in stunned shame. Florida State was accustomed to tarring the Heels; the previous year the score in the same game had been 63-14 in the Seminole’s favor. In 1999 it was 42-10, in 1998 39-13, in 1997 20-3. But in 2001 the scoreboard seared the eyes of the Seminole faithful: UNC 41, #6 FSU 9. The Tarheels had entered the game as 17-point underdogs. FSU had never before lost to UNC but in 2001 streaks were broken like hearts in divorce court. Miami smashed a 54-game home unbeaten streak in a 49-27 trouncing. NC State ended a 39-0 unbeaten ACC streak of home games and FSU failed to win the conference for the first time since joining in 1991. There would be no fourth consecutive title game appearance, no more consecutive ten-win seasons, and Bobby Bowden, as it later turned out, had seen his final top-five finish.

After throwing for 381 yards, 3 touchdowns with a fourth rushing, and no turnovers in his first two games against Duke and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Chris Rix (who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview) threw an interception and lost two fumbles against North Carolina. A single bad game by a freshman quarterback does not a narrative make. The next week he was perfect against Wake Forest, throwing for 345 yards, but the week after that he lost two fumbles and threw four interceptions in that aforementioned trouncing by Miami, thus establishing the chief complaint about the young quarterback, the one that would render his name an epithet: inconsistency. There is an apocryphal story that Bobby Bowden once said, "Every time Rix threw the ball you knew something good was going to happen. You just didn’t know who it was going to happen to." It sounds like vintage Bowden but could not be verified, but he did say this to the press once: "The thing about Chris is that he is a feast or famine guy. It's the consistency thing he's working on."

Long before the name showed up on t-shirts, Rix had developed a reputation as a showy Californian even though he was raised in upstate New York. His mother died when he was only seven and he and his father moved to Seattle. They relocated to Southern California only in time for Rix to start high school, but those are essential years when the boy takes on the musk of a man and he came back east thoroughly covered in a SoCal patina. He had been a three-sport athlete and was part of the inaugural Elite 11 QB Camp. He led the California team to victory over Florida in the CaliForida Bowl 1 at the Rose Bowl and was one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation. FSU offensive coordinator Mark Richt offered Rix a scholarship more than a year and a half before signing day.

Rix was tall but not imposing, strong but not ripped, and handsome but with dimples and vaguely exotic features (he is half Filipino) that made him cute more than dashing. He smiled easily and often and that was how he generally appeared in photographs. He arrived on campus a scripture quoting, Bible toting Christian who did not go to parties or drink. He was squeaky clean and his mug should have been the perfect face for the program, but that, of course, was not how Rix Happened.

Coach Bowden said of his young quarterback at the time, "He's from another country. He's from California. Quarterbacks from the East Coast are different from the West Coast. . . . Easterners are more conservative and more humble, whereas out there they're flashy." I spoke to Nick Maddox, a running back who played on the national champion 1999 team, Weinke’s 2000 Heisman year, and then two years with Chris Rix starting. Maddox confirms, "Chris was Hollywood. He was different. He was a terrific athlete and he was confident. Some people took that level of confidence as arrogance. He believed in the athlete he was."

And Rix was a tremendously gifted athlete with a lightning quick release on his passes and a powerful arm. He was physically courageous—which contributed to his fumble problems—and could evade defenders and sometimes even do flips over them. Despite missing three games his sophomore year and most of his senior year due to an ankle injury he still ranked second (until Jameis Winston) on nearly every measure for quarterbacks behind only Weinke who started for almost three full seasons. Rix was a team player too; when pulled from games he did not sulk, but encouraged the QB who played in his stead and consistently showed a positive outlook to the public. Reporters sought him and he would promise improvement while turning up the wattage on his smile.

When Rix arrived at Florida State he drove, to use Bowden’s word, a flashy Mustang with the vanity license plate reading "LKOUTDB," putting defensive backs on notice. He handed out business cards that read "Chris Rix Quarterback," and he took the jersey number 16. He had worn it through high school but it was also Weinke’s number and that rubbed some the wrong way. He was reportedly widely misunderstood in the locker room, so much so that when teammates invited him to join in a team photograph in 2004 a reporter for the Sun Sentinel found the occasion so unusual he filed a story about it. And as the years wore on Rix’s off-field mistakes fed the narrative he was a jerk. At the end of the 2002 season he slept through an exam—in religion of all things—and was not allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, which FSU lost. The following fall he parked in a handicap parking space with a fake decal and after his fellow students chided him to no avail, they reported him to the police. He said afterward that there were several spaces available, in effect asking, What's the big deal?

There was also that inherent dissonance between Rix’s confidence, cockiness, and sense of entitlement and his ostentatious religiosity. He wrote scriptures on his wristbands, knelt in prayer in the end zone, and pointed dramatically at the sky after completions. Expressions of faith on the football field are not unusual and another quarterback from a Florida university would later make striking a certain reverent pose an internet meme. Tim Tebow, however, has a statue on the University of Florida campus and his words embossed on Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The difference between the beloved Tebow and the derided Rix had less to do with Tebow’s Heisman trophy and two national championship rings (although the rings would have assuaged many a fan) than with humility. Tebow seemed to express his faith whereas Rix displayed his.

So for four years there were the two Chris Rixes. On the one hand there was the athlete who could amaze on the field, who always rooted for the team even from the bench, and who did not drink or party and stayed out of trouble. On the other hand was the Chris Rix of turnovers, of missed exams and parking decals, of repeated loses to hated rival Miami, the only NCAA quarterback to lose to the same team five times. This young man became the foil for mounting losses because everything was fine until he showed up from that other country, from California. After all, coaching legend Bobby Bowden was there. The Riverboat Gambler still prowled the sidelines.

Rix did not call plays, recruit players, or determine who would take the field, and as subsequent games would prove, Rix was the best of the lot. Back-ups would appear, shine for a game or two, then fade only to be replaced by Rix once again. It is an absurd proposition that Florida State’s woes could be attributed to one single player on a roster of more than 100 men but if it wasn’t Rix that Happened, what did?

There is no particular order to the troubles the Seminoles were beginning to face in 2001, but since Rix was so often blamed for the falling fortunes of Florida State the quarterback situation is a good place to start. Chris Rix was the only four-year starting quarterback Bobby Bowden ever had and for good reason. Freshmen did not fit into Bowden’s system of playing back up for two years then starting two years, usually taking a redshirt in there somewhere. That was how it worked for Peter Tom Willis (started 1988-89), Casey Weldon (90-91), Charlie Ward (92-93), Danny Kanell (94-95), and Thad Busby (96-97). Next in line was Dan Kendra, a hulk of a man who actually did a photo shoot once covered in green paint. Kendra was celebrated before he ever took the field (see "The Legend of Dan Kendra"), but when he blew out his knee in the 1998 spring game, the 26-year-old sophomore Chris Weinke took the starting position and that went pretty well, to use some writerly understatement.

Jared Jones was the future of the program, the backup who should have started as a redshirt junior in 2001. Jones was 6-foot-5-inches tall, 235 pounds, and had a huge arm. He was from the state of Washington and held offers from the Universities of Washington, Tennessee, and Michigan when all those teams were on top before signing with the Seminoles in 1998. Bowden did not even see the point of pursuing him, telling OC Mark Richt, "That kid ain't coming from Walla Walla to Florida State. You're wasting our time and wasting our money." But Jones did come because, as he said, "I've always wanted to be a Seminole." Thus was the power of Bowden's program, pulling a kid from 2,600 miles away, a perfect diagonal across the country. Only a handful of Division I schools were farther away. It was a great time to be a Seminole.

Jones played a little in garbage time in 1998 and 1999 but pulled on a redshirt for the 2000 season; Weinke was the starter in his senior season with Marcus Outzen, the proven backup, also in his final year. In 2001 Jones should have started as a mature, fourth-year junior but instead the fates began to turn on Florida State quarterbacks. Jones raided the refrigerator of a female student he did not know—he was holding a package of hotdogs outside when the police arrived. Richt gave him the choice to sit another year, losing that year of eligibility, and then compete for the job his senior season, or leave the team. He bolted to play baseball for the Mariners’ rookie team in Peoria, AZ.

Every single year since Bowden took over the program in 1976 the Florida State quarterback depth chart had been evenly spaced among classes, always with that seasoned junior or senior available to play and a few underclassmen taking snaps behind him. In 2001, barring injury, Jones would have been the junior starter; there was also a true junior, Anquan Boldin, who had played receiver the previous year during a season with two senior QBs. Boldin had been recruited as quarterback although he was practicing in the depleted receiver position for fall of 2001. In a pinch Boldin could have played QB if needed, but he tore his ACL during practice two weeks before the season started. There was a sophomore on the roster, the troubled Fabian Walker who had been academically ineligible as a freshman and went to a community college to get an associate’s degree. But upon his return, Bowden learned the ACC had a rule that a player with only a single year at a community college had to sit for a year, even though he would not lose that year of eligibility. So Walker was also out for 2001 leaving only freshmen on the roster, the Four Freshman of the Apocalypse. Rix got the start.

The quarterback situation was really a microcosm for everything that happened to the entire team in that after years of everything going so well, everything went wrong. When asked about the difficulties in his junior year (2001) running back Maddox pegged it to turnover higher up. "The loss of some of the coaches was crucial for us. There were new staff members and they were getting adjusted. We were in a transition period. If you look at how long staff had been together with Bowden, Richt, Mickey Andrews, Chuck Amato and others, they were together 20 years."

The worst coaching loss was Mark Richt to the University of Georgia. Richt began as quarterbacks coach in 1990 and picked up the OC position in addition in 1994 and had seven years of highly productive offenses, easily among the best of the Bowden era. Dave Van Halanger was at FSU for 18 years as the strength and conditioning coach and left after 2000 too. The previous year, 19-year assistant coach Chuck Amato had departed, taking the head coach job at NC State and ending FSU’s ACC home streak at Doak Campbell Stadium on Homecoming. Bowden was not just losing excellent lieutenants but also that tremendous continuity and stability that helped make the program so attractive.

One important assistant stayed, but in 2001, because, you know, shit was happening, Mickey Andrews’ normally rock solid defenses had a rough year. The 2000 defense allowed only 9.4 points per game. A much younger 2001 defense gave up 24 points per game on average and the four losses that year came mostly in significant bursts of opponent scores. Excluding pick sixes, kick or punt returns, and scoop-and-scores, the FSU defense gave up 41 points to North Carolina, 28 to Miami, 27 to NC State, and 37 to Florida. At least in 2001 the offensive production was not really a problem. In 2000, with Weinke and Richt at FSU, the Seminole’s offense averaged 36.1 points per game; in 2001 with Rix and the equally maligned Jeff Bowden as OC, the drop-off was only to 30.6 points per game. Those five-and-a-half points were missed in 2001 but only because the defense was giving up so many.

Losing Mark Richt might not have been felt so acutely had his replacement enjoyed more success. Richt was an extraordinarily good offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, a tough act to follow. As the years of what Tomahawknation editor Bud Elliot coined the "Lost Decade" wore on, however, it was clear Jeff Bowden was not the right hire. When it works out well coach fathers hiring coach sons seems like an obviously good idea—he grew up learning from the master!—but when the outcome is poor the hire seems lazy, uncreative, even shady (What would a father do for his child? There was talk after #3 FSU lost to Tommy Bowden’s Clemson in 2003 that Bobby threw the game to save his son’s job).

Maddox told me, "I would never criticize a coach," and he didn’t. But he also made the point several times that Florida State’s athletes were superior and, reading between the lines, a team with great athletes that loses to (often) inferior opponents must have some other problem and that problem has to be coaching. Jeff Bowden had performed admirably as receivers coach, but as one observer has noted the Peter Principle kicked into overdrive at the next level. Andrews’ defense rebounded from the poor showing in 2001, allowing 20.7 points per game in 2002, 15.6 in 2003, and then having a top-ten defense in 2004 that only gave up 11 points-per-game. Unfortunately for the ‘Noles, the offensive production from 2000 continued on a downward trajectory. In 2004 (when Rix played sparingly and the defense was excellent) the offense scored only 30 touchdowns, down from 63 in 2000. The offense was even worse in 2006 and Jeff Bowden was fired.

Then there is the most obvious explanation for FSU’s troubles, summed up in clichés: Bowden’s luck finally ran out; What comes up must come down; Nothing lasts forever. Bowden might have survived any one or two of these hiccups with a rejuvenated program, but the combination of a depleted defense, a roster full of freshman quarterbacks, a first-time offensive coordinator covered in the stink of nepotism, the loss of so much coaching continuity, and the Riverboat Gambler himself aging into his seventies was too much to overcome. If a few kicks had gone his way, Bowden might have had four national championship rings, maybe more. While the football gods were stingy with Bowden’s ultimate championships they made up for it with longevity at the very top of the college football food chain. That much success could not go on indefinitely, and when the wheels on this mighty machine started to come off, Chris Rix happened to be in the driver’s seat.

There is one other explanation for the disaster that happened when Rix started taking snaps: there was no disaster. A friend and Michigan State alum said to me in 2010 that he wished MSU had FSU’s slump. "I’d happily trade all those great years for what? 30-something straight bowl games?" During the Lost Decade seven wins was the floor, but those three 7-win seasons (‘06, ‘07, and ‘09) came after Rix; in his worst season FSU won 8 games. There were also two nine-wins and even a ten. The ESPN writer Gene Wojciechowski wrote back in 1999 that in 1977 hundreds of cars lined the highway as Bowden and his team returned to Tallahassee in victory over the Florida Gators, but in ’99 the town was quiet. Winning, and lots of it, was the expectation.

Over 11 years from 1993 to 2003 Nebraska had ten or more wins every season except two, including three national championships and then sunk to 5 wins in 2004. Penn State was consistently winning throughout the 1990s before bottoming out with three wins in 2003. Before its current run Alabama swung from 10-win seasons to 3- and 4-wins. The granddaddy of collapses must be the Texas Longhorns with 9 consecutive 10-or-more-win seasons, including a national championship and an appearance at another the year before going to five wins. Fans of Notre Dame, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee and Michigan can all tell tales of lower lows after the highs. For Florida State, it really wasn’t that bad.

The plague of locusts that was the FSU QB position would not end with Rix’s start. Fabian Walker left to play at Valdosta State and Adrian McPherson would be booted off the team after starting just four games for theft and gambling problems. And Wyatt Sexton who would enter games to rapturous applause as Rix left the field to the crow of boos, would be found by the police in the street claiming to be God and later given the specious diagnosis of Lyme Disease.

For FSU fans the nadir was the 2006 game against Wake Forest. Typically one of the worst teams in the conference, at least until head coach Jim Grobe got there, Wake had a particularly great 2006 and yet another one of those FSU streaks was broken. Well, two actually. Bowden had never lost to the Demon Deacons but did so on November 11, 30-0, also the sole home shutout of his storied career. That was the game that got Jeff Bowden canned and was the beginning of the end for Bobby Bowden’s FSU career although it would take a home loss to South Florida, a directional nobody, to force the issue. At the end of 2009 Bowden, Andrews, and Chuck Amato, who was fired by NC State after the 2006 season and brought back to FSU, were all ushered out as Jimbo Fisher installed his new staff.

Rix played for the San Diego Chargers for a couple years and then moved on to radio and commentating. He founded the Champion Training Academy in Orange County where he trains young players to play football with a foundation in faith. He is married and has children and still has that dimpled grin on his face nearly every time he is photographed just like he did when he was a Seminole.

The Rix Happens t-shirts are museum pieces now and the tone on the comments section of stories about the ex-FSU QB has changed. Seminole Nation has grown more understanding of what transpired during the Lost Decade while becoming less accustomed to so much winning. Things got worse for the Seminoles from 2005 to 2009 and in retrospect we can see Rix was likely a good quarterback in a bad situation. His teammate Maddox was with him for three years and notes, "If you don’t remember, he was ACC freshman of the year. He was a superb athlete. I just think the transitioning at the time, it was hard to improve. It was hard to be a better player around so much change. I think Chris was a great kid and a great man." Rather than Rix Happening, it seems, the happening happened to Rix too.

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