“I think if you allow yourself to learn from the experiences that you’ve had, and really, apply the lessons that were learned, I mean, that’s, it’s an opportunity for growth for everyone.”
It’s been said many times, many ways, but the truth remains — Mike Norvell’s 2020 was hard.
A first-year head coach already has so much to deal with, from roster turnover to relationship building to system install to adjusting to a new city. Add an unprecedented global pandemic and social strife into the mix and that’s a recipe for stress.
“It was a challenging year in all aspects, not only for people that are playing in college athletics but for people that are just living in normal day to day lives.
We all have an opportunity to respond for what this year was and to learn from those experiences and hopefully have a greater appreciation for the lives that we get to live and, and the opportunities that are in front of us. And that’s, you know, for this team in this program. You know, I am excited about some of the things that characteristically we’ve been able to establish — what we’re going to stand for and what we’re going to be about.”
Norvell, for his part, hasn’t engaged in a “woe is me” diatribe at any point. While the situations at play obviously have been sitting heavily on his mind since the 2020 season began, he’s been making sure to emphasize that lessons most often begin with Ls.
“I saw a lot, a lot of growth day-to-day [during the 2020 season],” he said via phone call on Monday. “And that’s something that, you know, been as young of a football team as we were, it was something that was critical and trying to establish the foundation for who we are and what we’re going to be about it.
We saw some, some bright moments, you know, throughout the course of the year, but there were also some disappointments and things that we have to continue to work through, and then grow and learn from the experiences.”
He points to the final weeks of Florida State’s 2020 campaign, in which the Seminoles saw three games canceled and one postponed far enough back that it was the latest that FSU had ever played a regular-season game, as the foundation of what could be the next step for the program.
“You had to take a practice field and not really know who the opponent was going to be. But, you know, I saw a team that committed to putting in the work, and they were excited about the next steps in front of us.
“As the season wrapped up in the last game against Duke where, where we played at a high level throughout the course of the game, and even whenever we had some adversity that hit and they made a run, we were able to respond. And so, you know, it’s just the small, small examples of the things that we’ve experienced throughout 2020, I think is going to allow us to reflect and build upon what we want 2021 to be.”
2021 presents not just a new challenge for the second-year head man, but a different landscape in college football overall. In 2021, the state of Florida is enacting a bill that will allow athletes to profit off their images, names, and likeness. Transfers have become a part of the overall recruiting process, with FSU going headfirst into the portal this year and snagging a multitude of players with multi-year starting experience, the bulk from SEC schools.
“With guys coming into the program, they’re here for a reason, and because we believe they’re the right fit for Florida State, for this program, to to be great teammates and guys that have tremendous ability to help continue to push us forward.”
A common refrain has been that these experienced players can bring in leadership potential — and while true, Norvell is by no means relying on them to be the sole force of personality behind a culture change within the program. Instead, he hopes their form of leadership comes in the form that all coaches crave and hammer home — leading by example.
“I don’t need any of these guys really, to stand up and try to rally the troops, we just need them all to go out there and, you know, every day be the best version of themselves supporting this team to push themselves to the best of their ability. And if they can be that example day in and day out, you know, then that leadership will emerge.”
McKenzie Milton, the former UCF quarterback who helped lead the Knights to two undefeated seasons and a Peach Bowl title, was arguably the biggest get of the class, bringing with him not just years of expertise and a level of leadership that FSU has sought, but a story that emphasizes the investment Norvell has in the responsibility of a coach.
“When I got hurt, [Norvell] and his whole [Memphis] team actually signed a ball for me, which I thought was a pretty cool gesture,” Milton said earlier this month. “Coach Norvell is a class act. Just doing something like that when I was down bad and they were our opponent the upcoming week after I got hurt. Him and his whole team, they signed a ball as a gesture of respect, I guess, for the battles. At the end of the day, football is one community. You’re not always rivals and stuff like that. Sure enough, we’re teammates now.”
For Norvell, the decision to make a simple, but giant, gesture was easy.
“Going against him, you know, I had a lot of respect for him, just for who he was, the way he went about his business, in all aspects. We’d played against him, I think, was three times, up until that point, and the week prior to the championship games, when he got injured, my heart went out to them.
“We wanted to him to know that we’re with them, even though we’re competitors on the field, you know, we believed in him and who he was. It was a sign of respect from our program and, and players, coaches, everybody involved just for the person and the player that he is.”
The 39-year-old always had his eye on coaching — a 2015 Athletic article discussed this, mentioning that as a teenager, he always imagined himself as one, holding a special reverence for the impact that it can have on all those involved. In his press conferences, when it’s easy to fall into a lull of answers being pelted from a screen by a group of hilariously underdressed sportwriters, his longest answers tend to come on questions that involved his role in shaping lives, and it was no different when speaking on the phone.
“We all need direction. And as a coach, I get to kind of pour everything I have into them to help provide them with the structure of what it takes to be successful and to push them to levels that maybe they don’t know that they’re capable of being able to achieve. It’s a profession and a position that I’ve always respected. The great coaches that I had, as I was growing up, you know, they helped you invest in me not only what I was a football player, but the young man and I’m excited to be able to do that. I’m able to coach each and every day.”
His staff has received their own dose of the Norvell desire to prop up those around him — several of his assistants at Memphis who were hired away are still enjoying success and there were even those on current staff getting eyed at by other programs.
One unique way he does that is allowing all coaches to be available to the media, a practice not typically seen in football. In an era where in-person communication has turned scarce, he says it’s important not just for his personnel, but for the community and fan base.
“I believe in the coaches that I hire — they pour a lot into their jobs, a lot into the players that they get to coach, and there’s a great sense of pride in the responsibilities that they have and the impact they get to make.
And so to help them and in that aspect of their job, I think it’s important that our community, that our fans that they get to know who these coaches are, because they represent Florida State. But it does help them and their personal journey for what they might face, if it’s position coach, when they become a coordinator, or coordinator when they become the head coach, and part of my job is to help develop them, just like we’re trying to develop our players for their next step for, for what they want to achieve.”
That next step is a continuous focus of Norvell’s mantra — literally, given his CLIMB slogan, and aspirationally, as he looks to take building blocks and turn them into an actual, concrete platform and structure in 2021.
“I’m excited about who we have, I’m excited about the pieces that are in place, and, and we’ve got to go out there and we got to get better, we got to get better in every aspect of our program. You know, I’m excited to see our team compete — first and foremost with themselves. Taking the lessons that we’ve learned, the good, the bad, the challenges — all those things that have got us to this point.
We’ve got to learn from them and make sure that we’re doing the things necessary to be better, to be able to compete at a higher level and perform — from every position that that’s associated with this program and continuing to work closer and more efficiently to put ourselves in the best position to succeed.”