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Opinion: Firing Norvell now will only set Florida State back even further

The only path forward is patience.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Wake Forest Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There’s currently a significant and growing groundswell from the Seminole fanbase calling for FSU’s coaches to be fired, including head coach Mike Norvell. They cite Willie Taggart getting fired after less than two seasons, and have some evidence to support their cause. While the various similarities and differences between their tenures have been picked apart, Taggart went 9-12, a winning percentage of 42.9 percent.

At the time, Taggart’s tenure had been described as a nightmare, one that Florida State could not afford to let continue. Rumors of short hours from the staff and rampant disorganization dogged the program, while Boosters were not following through on pledged donations and Taggart’s 6-9 start was the worst fifteen-game stretch for FSU since 1973-74.

But Norvell is currently 3-9, a winning percentage of just 25 percent. Florida State’s 0-3 start is the worst for the program since Bobby Bowden’s first season in 1976. The ’Noles are one of only two Power 5 teams this season (Arizona being the other) that are still winless after Week 3.

What’s most disappointing about the debacle that is this 2021 team is they have regressed each week since nearly upsetting No. 9 Notre Dame to open the season. While the roster issues are incontrovertibly a real and significant issue and not just an “excuse”, this team is also undeniably poorly coached. It has been plagued with bad and sloppy penalties, turnovers, and other self-inflicted mistakes. There are legitimate questions about personnel usage and playcalling from coaches on both sides of the ball, as well as offensive identity issues and basic communication mistakes and awful effort levels from defensive backs.

The loss to Jacksonville State in Week 2, FSU’s first-ever loss to an FCS team, is a fireable offense on its own. The inexplicable man-free defensive play call at the end of the game that allowed a 59-yard Hail Mary touchdown as time expired would be a fireable offense for almost any defensive coordinator. The game plan itself looked like Norvell and his staff got too arrogant and treated the game like a spring game scrimmage. It’s a wild miscalculation for a program that has flirted with losing to an FCS team multiple times in recent seasons.

Even before the blowout loss to Wake Forest, Florida State hit rock bottom. Some might argue that it can still go lower, but it can’t. Losing to an FCS team is as bad as it can get for a Power5 FBS program. FSU can however continue to drag its bloated carcass along the rock bottom of the college football Marianas Trench for the rest of this season, finishing with one, two, or maybe three wins. In three short weeks, this team went from the moral victory high of almost upsetting Notre Dame, to blowing all of the goodwill it had earned, to the season being over. The “Lost Decade” of 2004-2009 has in hindsight been exposed as nothing of the sort.

But, unfair as it might be, Florida State cannot fire Mike Norvell.

The program cannot afford another transition class setting the roster back another four years. It can’t afford the stigma and instability that will come with sacking two head coaches in four years. It also can’t monetarily afford it as it is reportedly still paying Taggart’s buyout, somewhere in the range of $3.5 million this year. The school and Boosters can’t cover Taggart’s buyout, Norvell’s buyout and the buyouts of his staff, and also hire a new competent head coach of “FSU quality” and an entirely new staff, much less still have money left over for recruits and other necessities.

Miami v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

When Jimbo Fisher left Florida State following the 2017 season his replacement Willie Taggart had just fifteen days to pull together a recruiting class under the NCAA’s inaugural Early Signing Period.

These hastily rushed groups of signings called transition classes (where a new staff has very little to zero time to establish a relationship with prospects) have been significant sinking weights on the programs that have had to endure them. New head coaches must pull together a staff, meet with recruits, decide which recruits to keep or not, and then try to convince new recruits to come all at the proverbial last minute. The issues that stem from these conditions often lead to “sky-high attrition rates”, according to Bud Elliott in a piece he wrote for CBS Sports earlier this year.

That’s forcing some schools to sign smaller classes of high school prospects in transition years and then investing heavily in the transfer portal, and Florida State is no exception.

But the transfer portal brings its own risks and is not unlike the National Football League’s free agency period, which itself has been described as a sort of lottery. Schools would prefer to sign kids from high school but feel the portal may offer less risk given the difficulties inherent to a transition class.

As Elliott has pointed out, to date no program that has hired a head coach in the Early Signing Period era has made the College Football Playoffs. Florida State has not one but two transition classes currently weighing down its roster under head coach Mike Norvell; Taggart’s initial 2018 class in the very first Early Signing Period (signed December 2017), and Norvell’s initial 2020 class (signed December 2019).

After FSU’s lackluster 35-14 loss to Wake Forest on Saturday that dropped the ’Noles to 0-3 on the season, it became necessary to take a hard look at the Seminoles’ roster. What we found shows it’s undeniable that FSU’s transition classes have led to significant attrition that has robbed this roster of talent.

But it’s more than that; the issues actually go back at least as far as Jimbo Fisher’s 2016 recruiting class in Tallahassee, and more attrition from Norvell’s transition class should be expected.

Of Fisher’s 2016 class, just two players remain on the current roster: backup center Baveon Johnson and linebacker Emmett Rice, who has yet to play this season due to injury. Due to COVID-19 and an extra year of eligibility, Florida State could have had additional “super-seniors” like other programs around the country are taking advantage of. But of this class, twelve players either transferred out, left the program by other means, or never made it to campus.

Of Fisher’s disastrous 2017 class, just five players remain for the 2021 season: starting wide receiver Ontaria “Pokie” Wilson, and reserve players in running back Deonte Sheffield, offensive lineman Brady Scott, linebacker DeCalon Brooks and converted linebacker now-defensive lineman Leonard Warner III. Eleven players in this class transferred out of the program or left the team in some manner, while several more left early.

This class should be the redshirt senior leaders on the team, but the only starter is Wilson.

Taggart’s 2018 transition class was almost as bad. The following seven players are still on the roster: nose tackle Robert Cooper, defensive tackle Dennis Briggs, linebacker Amari Gainer, tight end Camm McDonald and wide receivers Keyshawn Helton and Jordan Young, and finally reserve offensive lineman Jalen Goss. Twelve enrollees in this class have transferred or otherwise left the program in some manner. To be fair to Taggart, Fisher infamously quit recruiting midway through the 2017 season and he left Taggart with the country’s worst APR, which handcuffed Taggart’s ability to reshape the roster.

Attrition has also affected the signees of Taggart’s first (and only) full class in 2019: Dontae Lucas, Raymond Woodie III, and Curtis Fann are gone. JUCO offensive line recruit Jay Williams also transferred out. Maurice Goolsby transferred before he ever enrolled, and transfer quarterback Alex Hornibrook made a minimal impact before leaving.

That’s attrition of 23 players from just the 2017 and 2018 classes, between them the loss of nearly a full recruiting class in and of itself. From 2016-2018 Florida State on average lost almost half of its recruiting classes to attrition. Due to this, most of the players on FSU’s current two-deep come from the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes, one of which is also a transition class.

Norvell got even less time for his first class than Taggart got. Norvell was hired on December 7th, 2019 while the Early Signing Period started on December 18th that season; just eleven days. That 2020 class has already suffered some attrition; defensive end Josh Griffis and running back La’Damian Webb are gone. Norvell hammered the transfer portal for ten players, though that hasn’t been without attrition either; linebacker Cornel Jones was dismissed from the team back in June. For this 2021 team, 9 of FSU’s 22 starters were signed through the transfer portal. In total, Norvell’s 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes has signed approximately 22 players through the portal.

With transition classes, it’s not about who is still here. If just five players are left, the class hasn’t largely cycled out. It’s about all the players that could or should be here who aren’t, and the potential talent and leadership that disappears with them. Attrition is a black hole, and it’s the gravity that kills you.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

This team is nothing short of its own kind of nightmare. There’s no getting around that. Though by all accounts Norvell is very organized and detail-oriented. After all, Norvell’s Memphis teams were widely regarded and respected for how well-coached they were. They might not have come close to the talent level Alabama or Ohio State, but they did a lot of the little things right, and in the process Norvell guided Memphis to its best-ever teams and won an American Athletic Conference championship. Those teams would run the 2017-2021 FSU teams out of the stadium.

Whether you feel it’s unfortunate or not that FSU is “stuck” with Norvell, Florida State’s only path forward is patience. It must wait for the transition classes to cycle out, which history tells us will unfortunately likely include much of the 2020 class. For better or worse, the program needs stability more than it needs any particular head coach, if for nothing else but the sake of the roster. Though it may not need any particular assistant coach.

It’s true, every year FSU languishes it comes closer to slipping behind that event horizon and becoming Miami, or Tennessee, or Nebraska, has-beens who are past the age of competing for national titles. But Norvell should be safe through at least Signing Day 2023, and arguably through the 2024 season, because Florida State’s football program cannot afford anything less. Firing him sooner will only set the program back further and bring it closer to the irrelevance we all desperately hope it’s not sinking into. Panic is not a solution. It will only hasten the very thing FSU is trying to avoid.

Right now Norvell must do anything and everything he can to salvage FSU’s excellent 2022 recruiting class. The future of the program hinges on it. To do that he must start taking responsibility, which includes following through on the accountability he has consistently preached. That means changes, including tough decisions about who plays and who doesn’t, or who coaches or gets to call plays. There should probably be significant coaching turnover after this season and Norvell should again judiciously search through the transfer portal.

It might not be a bad idea to go full youth movement and play only the kids he has recruited, wherever possible. That includes looking at what you have in Chubba Purdy, and playing younger receivers and defensive backs. It’s bleak to be talking about a youth movement again so soon after Norvell ejected a lot of players last season and turned over FSU’s roster into one of the younger teams in the country. But desperate times call for desperate measures. If desperation can be defined as a kind of urgent and tenacious determination, Florida State and Norvell could use some of that right now.

Just don’t panic.