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On Record with TN: Matt Baker of Tampa Bay Times

Matt Baker goes ON RECORD.

I had the opportunity to invite Matt Baker, College football reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, covering #FSU & #Gators, to discuss his thoughts on the state of FSU Football, present and past, and his upcoming spring outlooks for the Florida Big 3 Football Programs (before the cancellations). You can follow Matt @MBakerTBTimes on Twitter.

Q: Mr. Matt Baker, something that to this day is still on the minds of many Seminole fans, why do you hate FSU so much? Are your motives for unfairly targeting FSU due to you being a Gator alum/homer? Why are you always asking for copies of private or secret documents from FSU?

It’s clearly because, as an Indiana native and Northwestern grad, I have always hated Florida State because (insert conspiracy theory here).

But seriously, I really don’t hate FSU, or love Florida, or hate/love any team. Fandom gets beaten out of you very early in this job, and that happened long before I joined the Times from the Tulsa World in 2011. I can’t prove what’s in my heart or head, but I can share a few facts. When I was a high school writer here, I volunteered to cover FSU games, even if it meant four hours on the road each way after looong Friday nights. I wouldn’t have done that if I had some sort of anti-FSU agenda. As I was becoming our full-time college football writer before the 2015 season, I pushed HARD to expand the job from what had been a Gators-centric role to one that included FSU, too. Again, I wouldn’t have done that if I hated FSU. Covering only one school (that’s two hours closer to my home) would be so much easier on me, my family and my poor car. But I think it’s important that we cover FSU, so I volunteered to do so.

I’ll point out, too, that I cover the Gators the same way I do the ’Noles. I’m not exactly beloved on their message boards because of the way I covered the Antonio Callaway and John Huggins cases (the latter resulted in a few personal threats against me). But, to me, part of covering a team on the field is covering the team off the field, too. That’s a job I take seriously.

Q: Speaking of your beloved Gators, please share your thoughts on what Mullen is doing in Gainesville? It’s very early, but some are saying they may win the East, if not the SEC Championship outright. Please share your way too early prediction for UF?

Mullen has done a great job at Florida, no question. How many teams could win a New Year’s Six bowl and 11 games with a backup quarterback playing almost the entire season? He has recruited at a very good (but not elite) level, and that was my only real question surrounding him before his hire. As I wrote in January, it’s time for UF to start challenging for championships:

I absolutely think the Gators can be in the mix for that this year, considering they return a veteran quarterback and four starters on the offensive line, among other things. I also think UF’s continuity with the staff and roster is a relative advantage; it won’t miss spring ball as much as FSU or Georgia will. I’m not ready to call UF the SEC East favorites, but I think that’s a reasonable expectation in Gainesville for this year.

Q: What do you hear from your colleagues about what is happening in Coral Gables with Diaz’s Canes? Do you think this will finally be the year the ACC becomes the All Cane’s Conference, as they once claimed it would become?

When I caught up with some of my friends and colleagues down there before the Orange Bowl, I kept having the same thought: Manny Diaz could turn into Willie Taggart.

A young, energetic coach with homegrown ties who looked like a rising star taking over a big-time ACC program had major offensive line and quarterback issues in a disastrous Year 1, setting up a pivotal Year 2 with a new offensive coordinator. Sound familiar? The difference, though, is that Diaz added D’Eriq King, who’s a dynamic quarterback; Taggart, obviously, didn’t make an addition like that. I don’t think Miami will be great in 2020, and it’s fair to wonder if the ’Canes will ever truly be The U again. But the Coastal is a jumble of meh. I wouldn’t be shocked if Miami rebounded to get in contention for the division … or if Diaz loses to Temple in the opener and fights just to save his job.

Q: Will you share any of your thoughts about some of the other in-state Florida programs you’ve been following or have heard about to keep an eye on?

USF is really interesting to me, for obvious local reasons. New coach Jeff Scott has done a good job so far getting involved with the area high schools, which will make or break him. He has recruited this area a lot before, so that’s not a surprise, but it’s still a positive, if you’re a Bulls fan. I’m also curious how Scott’s departure as co-OC at Clemson affects the Tigers. Dabo’s dynasty has been built, in part, on continuity. Maybe Clemson keeps on keeping on without him; if I had to guess, I think that’s what happens. But maybe Scott was so valuable that his departure weakens the Tigers more than we’d think, allowing the rest of the ACC a chance — a chance — to catch up.

I’m curious, of course, to see what happens with Willie Taggart at Florida Atlantic, too….

Q: What are your thoughts on Willie Taggart’s tenure at FSU?

Casual readers might not know or believe this, but I have no problem admitting that I’m wrong. And I was wrong about Taggart. I thought he was a great hire who would excite the fan base and bring in enough talent to make up for any of his shortcomings. I was wrong.

The reputation on Taggart (even when he was at USF) was that he could build programs and recruit talent, but he struggled with game management. That was the scouting report on him in the Pac-12, too, and it’s one of the reasons he failed in Tallahassee. Maybe he could have overcome that weakness with a better staff, but he failed to make the right hires for several reasons (some his fault, some probably not).

We can go on and on about the reasons it didn’t work out. I think he overpromised and underdelivered early. His team didn’t look disciplined enough. The way he handled the end of the Wake Forest game was perplexing at best and coaching malpractice at worst. But I think some of it comes down to the Peter Principle — you’re promoted to your level of incompetence. That sounds harsher than I mean it, because Taggart isn’t incompetent. He left at least two programs (Western Kentucky and USF) better than he found it. But I think the simplest explanation is the easiest one here; he was in over his head at this level.

Q: One thing I found interesting from your recent visit to Tallahassee for the opening of Spring Football was your Focus on Accountability story. What were your thoughts on what seem like pretty scathing reports that are now coming out of past player attitudes?

With a lot (most?) high-profile coaching changes, it usually comes with a swinging pendulum. I wouldn’t describe Jimbo Fisher as a players’ coach, but Taggart might have been. That didn’t work, so FSU swings back the other way. I think there’s some of that here.

I’ll also point out that accountability on past staffs is something that gets brought up a lot. That was one of the biggest changes players cited in the difference between Jim McElwain and Dan Mullen at UF. There was some of that, too, with Taggart from the Jimbo era; remember when FSU players had to sign that note saying they promised to let themselves be coached and to work hard? It’s hard for me to know a lot about a program’s culture because I’m not there every day. But I do know that people on the inside cited some positive changes Taggart made, and now they’re saying there are positive changes being made under Mike Norvell. I’ll wait and see what they mean on Saturdays.

Q: I also was surprised at reading, but not really after suffering through every single game, that FSU was outscored 130-83 in the 4th quarter last year and how S&C has improved to prevent it from happening again. Do you really believe this or is it possible that it’s just the new coach preseason smell? Are there any other S&C tidbits you can throw the TN’s readers way?

I think it’s more the new coach preseason smell; every fan base in the country with a new staff gets excited about the progress the new strength coach is making with the team. That said … I do think FSU wasn’t great in that realm last year. I put most of the blame on the second-half collapses (see: Boise State, ULM) on coaching, but I do think strength and conditioning played a part. That’s one of the only explanations I can come up with for how FSU withered in the heat while Boise didn’t.

Q: Please tell us your thoughts about this Mike Norvell fella and the staff he has assembled?

The Taggart hire taught me to temper expectations a little, because I think it’s so hard to predict what coaches will succeed and which ones won’t. But…I think Norvell has done a great job so far. The staff he assembled is very strong. His track record speaks for itself there, with how many of his Memphis assistants became big-time assistants elsewhere in such a short time. The recruiting backgrounds for some of them should pay off down the line (if he gets things turned around on the field).

I spent a day in December at the Cotton Bowl to talk to some of Norvell’s former players and assistants about him. I came away very, very impressed with how highly they spoke of him and the stories they shared. Again, that doesn’t guarantee success because he hasn’t done it at this level before. But if I were an FSU fan and not the world’s biggest FSU hater (kidding, kidding!), I’d be quite optimistic about his future.

Q: How do you rate Norvell’s first early and regular signing period recruiting class? UF’s? UM’s?

This is lame, I know, but Norvell gets an INC for me because the early signing period has made it SO hard for a coach to land a great first class.

Miami’s wasn’t too bad, all things considered, and Florida’s was definitely an improvement. Mullen finally got his first five-star signee at UF (Gervon Dexter). Add in a pair of five-star transfers (Lorenzo Lingard from Miami and Justin Shorter from Penn State), and he’s making strides toward closing the talent gap with Georgia.

Q: Lastly, what are your thoughts and expectations for the 2020 season of FSU football?

The cancellation of spring ball is not the most important thing going on in the world. But because this is a sports site and I’m a sports writer, I have to note that it throws a wrench into things for FSU. The ’Noles really needed the extra practice time to get adjusted to the new staff. That should soften expectations even more for Norvell’s first year.

The Sun Bowl should have been a wakeup call: FSU won’t climb out of this rut overnight, just as it didn’t get stuck overnight, either. I think Norvell can turn the program around, but it will take time. He’s inheriting the program’s worst roster of the modern era at a time where rivals Florida and Clemson could be challenging for championships. A road trip to Boise will be tough, and the Miami game is at Hard Rock Stadium.

That’s a long way of saying this: FSU fans should be patient. This isn’t the realignment Taggart envisioned. This is a rebuild. Don’t expect it to happen quickly.

On behalf of the Tomahawk Nation staff, community members, and our readers, I would like to thank Matt for taking the time to share his thoughts on FSU, and the other lesser college programs in the state. Matt is a good follow on Twitter for all Florida sports. @MBakerTBTimes