FSU was once one of the crown jewels of college football. Out of the dirt, Bobby Bowden cut and polished a blazing dynasty that spanned more than a decade and multiple national titles. The first Death Star before Nick Saban’s fancier, no ventilation shaft-having version at Alabama, Bowden’s Seminoles put together a level of consistent success that place its run amongst the greatest the sport has ever seen.
Bowden described how he accomplished such a feat with yet another catchy quote: “A program is built in four stages. First, you lose big, then you lose close. Then you win close, and finally, you win big.”
We’ve heard the story plenty of times, but just like every Batman reboot forces the audience to relive Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered, let’s relive the roller coaster that has been Florida State football.
For all his experience, recruiting prowess, and reputation for affable folksy charm, in the end, Bowden himself personally oversaw the slow and inexorable atrophy of the empire he had built, like a long summer sun finally and gently giving way to the humid night.
A change had to be made, and so it was. Into the twilight of Bowden’s star stepped Saban protégé Jimbo Fisher, who was able to see and gauge from the inside with his own eyes what the program needed during Bowden’s last three seasons at the helm.
For the last two of those seasons, Fisher was named “head coach in waiting,” effectively sidestepping the national push to get college and NFL programs alike to interview minority coaching candidates.
But with a coaching pedigree coming from the Saban tree, few raised any questions about the move. When Fisher was finally named the head coach following the 2009 season, he knew just what to do to halt the regression.
It’s called The Process, and it’s most famously synonymous with the aforementioned Nick Saban, under whom Fisher coached for five seasons at LSU. While the phrase is one that fans are intimately familiar with, what exactly is The Process?
Essentially a philosophy of thinking, one that was around even college football long before Saban — in fact, in some ways can be traced back to ancient Greek Stoicism — that at its most basic level is focusing on preparation for every possible outcome in the future.
Setting a goal to go 15-0 and win a national championship is an overwhelming and impossible task, especially in the mind of a single young athlete. Setting the goal to perfect a particular drill in a particular moment is much easier. Saban’s goal is to get you to do this 10,000 times in everything he tells you to do.
When Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer was just starting out his head coaching career at Bowling Green in 2001 he asked Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz for help. Holtz told him there were four stages to building a program.
- Learning how to compete
- Learning how to win
- Learning how to handle winning
- Learning how to become a championship-level program
You’ll notice it’s the same as Bowden’s stages, just devoid of memorable charm and probably delivered with considerable more spittle. Saban perhaps sets himself apart by also being very good at teaching his athletes to adopt this framework for themselves, in what likely turns into a feedback loop as he reinforces it. Fisher was coaching on Nick Saban’s national title-winning 2003 LSU team, whose senior leaders came up with these goals:
- Be a team
- Work to dominate your opponent
- Positively affect your teammates
- Individual responsibility for self-determination
- Be champions on and off the field
As the author of that article points out, nowhere in there — or in any of these coaches’ axioms — is a win/loss goal. Even “Be champions on the field” is vague but also inextricably linked to being champions off of it.
All of these goals, however they’re phrased, are about creating and maintaining discipline, habits, preparation, confidence without arrogance, and finally, a culture built on sacrifice and expectations and above all, love. They are all about a state of being, about a presence in the moment.
About details and choices; never about any one outcome.
In just three seasons of Fisher yelling in his West Virginian twang “You make the helmet, the helmet doesn’t make you!” Florida State quickly found themselves back among the elite, dripping with swagger and NFL talent.
The meteoric rise of the ’Noles culminated in the program once again sitting atop the college football world, holding in their trophy case yet another crystal ball, another Heisman, two more undefeated seasons, a 29-game winning streak, the SEC’s broken seven-season title streak, and a litany of other awards. The Process claimed another victory.
But there is only one Nick Saban, and while Fisher and FSU’s success was yet more proof that it worked, by the time Kelvin Benjamin caught his last pass from Jameis Winston Fisher couldn’t see that the star he’d ignited had already begun to supernova under the weight of its own logo and would soon collapse into a black hole.
In what would later appropriately be described as a deep, deep hole, the unraveling of Fisher’s Process and by extension the Florida State program can’t be traced to any one thing. Some of the problems were much bigger than the locker room. But some of them weren’t, as the following describes:
A pervasive attitude of entitlement within the locker room. Declining academic performance. And a string of high-profile, off-field trouble that bruised the program’s reputation.
The dysfunction could be overlooked in service of the common goal: victories on the field.
Hubris. Victories on the field. Confidence with arrogance. A culture built on entitlement instead of sacrifice, a focus centered on the outcome rather than what can be controlled. A 59-20 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl on 2015’s New Year’s Day was of course the result of dozens of individual results within the game, but in hindsight also revealed the toxic undercurrents running through the program.
summary of today’s ESPN FSU article pic.twitter.com/fark7jXHwY— Seminole Wrap (@SeminoleWrap) November 19, 2020
FSU finds itself on its third coach in four years and since Mike Norvell was hired away from Memphis in December 2019, he’s forced a hard reset the locker room badly needed. Nearly 60 percent of the roster has been flipped as Florida State’s football team saw a massive exodus and substantial attrition somewhat balanced out by an influx of new recruits and heavy reliance on the transfer portal. FSU played more than 30 freshmen and sophomores down the stretch of the 2020 season.
Still, with young players comes variance. FSU in no order won big, lost big, won close, and lost close. Despite shocking then-No. 5 North Carolina 31-28 in October, FSU spent most of the season — and to be honest, most of the second half vs. UNC — not even being competitive on their way to 3-6.
So what is Norvell’s philosophy? What does he believe in? What is he telling the players in the locker room?
Tomahawk Nation recently interviewed him, and got a little bit deeper look at what Norvell expects from his players, coaches, and program. He used the word and/or phrase “in all aspects” no less than six times.
You can also go back through his press conferences since arriving in Tallahassee and find it over and over again. It is his entire philosophy encapsulated into three small words. It’s about excelling in every possible detail. It drives everything Norvell does and wants from his program and those within it. But it’s also more than that.
He also uses the phrase to describe adversity. That players and coaches and the program will be challenged in all aspects, like they were in 2020, and you must respond accordingly if you’re to survive.
Norvell’s made his current views of the program clear as he often talks about needing to show his current players structure, to teach them expectations about discipline and work ethic and how to practice.
He wants them to understand the standard he has set for them, and that standard is In All Aspects. Those are the goals he’s set for them, as illustrated by this key section of the call:
Oh, you know, I mean, I think being a coach is one of the greatest things you can do. I mean, in this world, and it’s an unbelievable profession that I get to be a part of, and because I get to help impact kids, I get to help impact guys that all have dreams, they all have goals and desires. And we all need direction. And as a coach, I get to kind of pour everything I have into them and 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. But to help support them, through encouragement, support them through challenge and adversity. I mean, all the things that you’re going to face in life.
None of this illustrates a new perspective, but it doesn’t have to. They’re not even high-bar goals. He’s telling us the rebirth of this program is in its infancy. It must be nurtured if it is to grow. Norvell just has to follow through, to walk the talk.
What he’s talked about is structure, fighting through adversity, and learning from it. He’s talked about “confidence built through work”. Tomahawk Nation also asked Norvell about his goals for the program in the 2021 season. He essentially said the following, boiled down to list form:
- Continued improvement in all aspects
- Compete first and foremost with themselves
- Take in the lessons and challenges of 2020 and learn from them
- Compete at a higher level
- Embrace the daily process
- Work closer and more efficiently with each other
Next year and the year after — and none of the ones after that — are or should be remotely about wins and losses. We as fans would do well to remember that. It’s about building a foundation so the program has a future. One that as fans has us again looking forward to Saturdays.
We don’t yet know how Norvell’s tenure at Florida State will shake out. We are not so naive as to believe that the day wins and losses do matter will never come, nor imply Norvell is on the cusp of launching his own dynasty.
If the sun is to ever rise on Norvell’s time in Tallahassee he will have to be the one to drive it forward, like Helios in his chariot physically pulling the sun across the sky. Except here, it won’t just happen on its own. First Norvell has to chop down the trees to build the wagon and find and train the horses — or else, like another Greek myth, Florida State might find itself endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill, hoping that one day, the peak will once again appear.
A Fancy, Academic Bibliography for the curious
4 stages of program building: https://blogs.usafootball.com/blog/288/the-4-stages-of-program-building
Deep deep hole, 6yr unraveling: https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/30331494/deep-deep-hole-6-year-unraveling-florida-state-football
Blueprint for powerhouse: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1902241-blueprint-for-building-a-powerhouse-college-football-program
2017 dominant teams FSU 3: https://www.businessinsider.com/bama-most-dominant-college-football-teams-2017-11#6-clemson-25
Bowden relied on youth to build culture: https://www.tallahassee.com/story/sports/2018/11/02/bowden-relied-youth-rebuild-fsus-culture/1858847002/