The game had come down to one play. North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell avoided the pass rush, stepped up in the pocket, and sprinted across the Florida State Seminole head logo, firing a pass to UNC running back Javonte Williams.
When Williams dropped the ball, FSU head coach Mike Norvell didn’t wave his team off the field. He didn’t instruct his players to stop celebrating.
Instead, he shot both arms and leaped into the air with joy. Norvell spun around to give the scoreboard one final glance, clasping the top of his head with both hands.
It may have looked like it, but it wasn’t the “surrender cobra” that has become synonymous with college football and commonplace for Noles fans the past four seasons.
Not this time.
Norvell had briefly allowed himself to soak in the moment, in contrast to Florida State faithful in the stands and watching on TV who began a rowdy celebration that lasted all night.
Expectations, morale, and enthusiasm for the 2020 Seminoles immediately flipped on a dime when Florida State hung on by a thread to defeat North Carolina 31-28.
Even more importantly, the 40-year-old first-year head coach is showing confirmation on the field that the FSU program could be heading in the right direction for something special with him at the helm.
Much more so than professional sports, success starts and ends with the head man at the top in college football. Players and staff will come and go, but obviously the importance of the head coach in NCAA football as a CEO of a program is paramount.
A laundry list of positives came out of the win on Saturday night. Seniors made some of the greatest individual plays of their careers. Freshmen led the team in statistical categories and made game-changing plays. FSU beat a top-10 team at home for the first time since Notre Dame in 2014. Norvell also continued to deliver on one of his original goals.
The importance of the special teams unit again rose to the forefront versus North Carolina. Florida State has 5 blocked kicks or punts in just 5 games, trailing only Kansas State (with 6) among FBS schools for the most combined blocks in the country. Blocking a punt to start the game and another special teams swat later in the first half by senior defensive lineman Marvin Wilson was an almost comically-obvious flashing sign of success.
If Virginia Tech fans hopped in the DeLorean with Doc and Marty McFly, went back in time, and sat in the stands for former head coach Frank Beamer’s first 5 games in 1987, I am not sure even they would envision this type of production.
A textbook example of the old parable of “having your team ready to play” led to a shocking 24-0 lead in the second quarter. Nearly anyone would tell you the level of energy and passion was palpable all night. It’s almost difficult to describe the performance from the team as a whole without using clichés. Offensively and defensively, Florida State was prepared and clearly locked in to the game-plan at a level higher than has been seen in Tallahassee in a single game since 2016.
Morale wasn’t a problem for Florida State’s roster, but it could have been a huge issue if the game had ended in a defeat. When North Carolina was driving on the final possession of the game, the morale disparity at stake between a win or a loss for FSU moving forward was the highest in recent history. If the Tar Heels could have capped off their comeback, it would have been beyond a crushing defeat for the veteran members of the team specifically.
Instead, the entire roster is likely currently in the process of doubling down on buying in to what Norvell is selling. It all goes back to his introductory press conference last year.
On December 8th, 2019, I was in the back row of the Champions Club in a seated crowd about 15 feet away from Norvell when he flew in and was officially introduced as head coach.
When he headed to the podium and first began to speak, he was so excited that he practically screamed into the microphone. I was taken aback at how loud and passionate the Irving, Texas native was.
After handling the typical topics like thanking the school, naming those who have helped him along the way, and stating how honored we was to accept the job, Norvell shifted the speech to what he will do as head coach to turn around the program at Florida State. He spoke about special teams, and how the unit is “the backbone of a program.” After just five games, pencil in a checkmark. Norvell clearly has already delivered in that area.
Next, he talked about the importance of recruiting and building relationships, particularly in the ripe and talented state of Florida.
Hopefully when Norvell was celebrating the victory Saturday night on primetime, high schoolers from the Seminoles’ home state and from around the country were watching.