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TN Member Memories: National Championship, camping, and when did FSU go wrong?

“I loved camping, but I loved FSU more.”

1994 ORANGE BOWL

Passing through time it’s obvious that the real Florida State Seminole fans don’t just come and go.

Ask anyone who has been around Florida State over the past 40+ years, and they will tell you there is something remarkable about FSU and Tallahassee.

From the people you meet, the things you observe, and the type of characters it attracts, even if you can’t put a finger on what makes FSU unique, it is still there.

Tomahawk Nation has been gathering a collection of memories from fans, old and new, big and small, through all walks of life, to share their stories from their experiences in Tallahassee, and from being a Seminole fan.

Next up in our Tomahawk Nation Member Memories series, TN member Keats1821 shares his personal memories from what he was doing during Florida State Seminoles football’s first national championship victory, and as a bonus, Keats shares his thoughts on how history might have been different had Florida State gone in a different direction when the time was right.

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I hated Tommie Frazier.

It was nothing personal, of course. It’s just that where I come from you were one of four things: A Nole, a Gator, a Cane or someone whose opinion didn’t matter. And I was a Nole to the core. I was so much of a Nole that when my father told me we were going camping over my school’s winter break, I complained. FSU was about to play for their first National Championship.

I loved camping, but I loved FSU more. So, there was nothing that was going to keep me from watching that game. Missing it just wasn’t an option.

Fortunately, I was able to convince my father to fit a small color TV into the bed of the truck that held all of our camping gear.

A few days later, when January 1, 1994, rolled around, I politely asked the people on the campsite next to me if I could run an extension cord from their site to my TV since the cord couldn’t reach the electrical outlet on our own site.

They were of the “people whose opinion didn’t matter” variety. But I like to think they sensed the severity of the moment, especially since I was wrapped in my Seminoles jacket and donned my Seminoles hat and explained that I wanted to watch the Seminoles play for the National Championship.

They agreed to my request, so I decided in my head to make them honorary Noles for the day. After all, it was because of them that as nighttime rolled around and everyone else was huddled around the campfire laughing and telling jokes, I was able to sit alone in my tent watching Charlie Ward and my Noles pummel the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Except, that’s not what was happening. Frazier and the Huskers were giving us everything they had, and we barely hung onto an 18-16 lead.

To my horror, with eight seconds left in the game Frazier hit Trumane Bell down the middle of the field for a big gain. Even though the clock showed double zeroes, the announcer was yelling that Nebraska should have one more second left. At Florida State’s 28-yard line. In field goal position. In a two-point game.

At 13-years young, my life was over - and I blamed Tommie Frazier for it.

As the chaos on the field died down, I chewed off the last of my fingernails. (A lingering habit that to this day I blame on Tommie Frazier.)

Field goals had not been kind to the Noles over the past few seasons. Of course, those were both against Miami and it had been us kicking the ball each time. But up until that point every Florida State fan everywhere hated what field goals represented: Lost Championships.

As I watched Byron Bennett saunter onto the field, I could tell he was going to do his best to make sure we all still felt that way. There was nothing I could do but hold my breath and close my eyes - I couldn’t bear it.

The Seminoles had just stormed the field thinking they had won the game, smiles on their faces as they leapt in the air with youthful enthusiasm.

And then they were betrayed by the clock.

All of their joy was swept away callously with the realization that Nebraska had one more chance at victory. One more chance at glory. I just knew that an arrow was about to be sent through the heart of Nole Nation in the shape of a football launching off of Byron Bennett’s right foot and splitting the uprights.

Except, that’s not what happened. The football that launched off of Byron Bennett’s right foot bent left and kept going that direction until it sailed well outside the left upright.

All around Hillsborough River State Park you could hear pockets of Seminoles fans erupting in relief. The field was filled yet again with jubilant players, and the camera focused on Coach Bowden as he walked across the field to shake Tom Osborne’s hand.

I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up at the sight of it.

My Noles had won the National Championship!

We were finally where we belonged: At the top of the college football world. And this was only the beginning for Florida State. This wouldn’t be the last of our Championships. No, this was the first of many. FSU was going to be the dominant force in college football, a name that was going to be feared for decades.

Other universities were going to look at us as a road map for how things are done. They were going to look at us and wish they could match what we were doing. They were going to look at FSU and wish they were FSU.

Except… that’s not what happened. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but as I sat in my tent on January 1, 1994, joyously celebrating the first National Championship in Florida State history, the decision that would doom Florida State football - and possibly the entire Athletic Department - had already been made.

When you think about the worst decision Florida State has ever made as far as the football team is concerned, there are probably more than a few things that come to mind. As much as I hate to say it, Bobby Bowden being retained through 2009 might be one of them.

Allowing Jimbo Fisher to leave is another.

The Willie Taggart hiring most certainly ranks amongst the worst decisions FSU has ever made, bar none. And I would surmise that signing away television rights through 2036 would be one more face on Florida State’s Mount Rushmore of poor decisions. But while each of those decisions absolutely changed the fortunes of our beloved Noles, it’s not a stretch to say that all of them probably would have been avoided if FSU had done the right thing in 1990 by accepting the SEC’s offer to join the conference.

Now, you may be saying that the SEC never offered a spot in the conference to FSU in 1990. And you’d be right. But it’s no secret that the SEC as a whole wanted the Noles.

In fact, many schools and conferences at the time considered the way the SEC acted about the situation as arrogant, almost as if they refused to believe that any school would dare shun them. To the SEC, they could get any school they wanted and there was no need to actually discuss the matter with the school itself because why would they? It was a foregone conclusion that the school would join anyways.

Except, that’s not what happened. Coach Bowden felt that his path toward a National Championship would be too difficult with an SEC schedule, and what Coach Bowden said carried a lot of weight around the Athletic Department.

Of course, his wasn’t the only voice. College football at the time had yet to really tap into the world of TV contracts (courtesy of the College Football Association, or CFA), but basketball had. When the mighty basketball-centric ACC came calling with a lucrative basketball TV contract in tow, the administration was intrigued. More importantly, Bowden saw the opportunity to walk into the promised land: A football conference ripe for the picking - one that his football team could dominate on its way to National Championships. Florida State’s Athletic Director, Bob Goin, agreed, and Florida State accepted the ACC’s offer to join the conference.

The SEC was incensed. The athletic directors held a meeting and voted not to extend an offer to join the conference to Florida State, a largely symbolic vote since FSU had already agreed to join the ACC.

LSU’s Athletic Director, Joe Dean, went on to suggest that the SEC schools should go so far as to ban Florida State from their schedules. He even said that FSU would regret the day it turned down the SEC. Mr. Dean had no way of knowing how right he was.

An argument could be made that FSU did the right thing considering the evidence that was on hand in 1990. The SEC was widely considered the better conference for football, but most people would say that the ACC wasn’t far behind them. Besides, the ACC was clearly the better conference for basketball. So, Florida State choosing the ACC over the SEC wasn’t really as shocking at the time as it might seem now. Not as shocking to anyone outside of the SEC, that is. But that argument would be short-sighted.

In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oklahoma and Georgia, stating that it was actually the institutions that owed their TV rights, not the NCAA or CFA. The ruling went on to state that the NCAA’s TV contracts violated Federal antitrust laws, thereby immediately voiding all of the TV contracts the NCAA had in place at the time. Although the CFA would start to negotiate TV contracts for its member institutions, it soon became clear that the schools could do this for themselves - making more money for themselves in the process.

Just because this model hadn’t been tapped into yet doesn’t mean it wasn’t on the radar. The ADs knew the power football could have via TV contracts and could see how football was quickly becoming the new national pastime. But it would take a powerful football brand to show them the way.

In 1991, Notre Dame broke away from the CFA and signed its own exclusive 5-year TV contract with NBC. The move would bring the Irish a cool $6 Million per year - a figure that got the attention of the football world. In February 1994, the SEC collectively followed suit and announced it would break from the CFA beginning with the 1996 season.

The conference signed a 5-year deal with CBS worth $17 Million per year, which was only a little bit more than what the conference would have brought in with the CFA. However, the schools were more concerned about the national exposure they would receive as part of the package. And shortly after the deal with CBS was announced, the conference struck another deal with ESPN to broadcast more of its game. But in primetime.

Beginning in 1996, SEC schools began appearing in at least two broadcast games nationally every week. The money the conference received may have been comparable to what the ACC and every other conference was getting, but the brand exposure was lightyears ahead. Recruits saw more and more of the SEC schools and how exciting their brand of football was, helping the SEC to win the same number of National Championships (4) over the next 10 years as they had over the previous 20.

The ACC did what they could over the same time span. Because they were so rich in basketball heritage, their TV contracts were right there with the SEC’s for a good number of years. But it was clear that the SEC was growing more and more dominant.

In 2005, the ACC added Boston College, Miami and Syracuse. The hope was that it would help the conference bring in more money, both through TV contracts and by adding a highly lucrative ACC Championship game, and thus allow the conference to compete more directly with the SEC. It worked, but only for a short while.

Between 2005 and 2009, ACC schools on average received about $1 Million more from their conference than SEC schools. There was even talk about which conference really was better in football - the ACC o the SEC. The fact of the matter, though, was that an SEC school had won the National Championship from 2006-2009. The impact of that would be seen in 2010, when each SEC school on average received nearly $6 Million more than each school in the ACC. Between 2009 and 2010, the ACC’s overall revenue shrank 13.5%. The SEC’s revenue grew 57.7%.

The ACC panicked. In 2011 it brought in Pitt and Syracuse from the Big East. TV contracts were renewed based on the ACC’s strength as the premier basketball conference, and the gap was reduced. Still, between 2011 and 2014 SEC schools on average received just over $13 Million more than ACC schools.

FSU’s head football coach, Jimbo Fisher, could see the writing on the wall. Already, SEC schools were beginning to have nicer facilities than ACC schools. They had amenities that ACC schools could not afford. SEC schools were paying their assistant coaches more, meaning it was harder for the ACC to keep or even get the best coaches. In 2015, the gap between schools reached $5 Million. In 2016, it was almost an astonishing $17 Million.

Between 2010 and 2021, SEC schools on average received $110.35 Million more than their ACC counterparts. They also won eight National Championships to the ACC’s three.

Bobby Bowden’s assertion that it would be easier to win a National Championship through the ACC was clearly flawed. Between 1990 (when the decision to join the ACC was made) and Bowden’s last year of coaching in 2009, FSU won two Championships and played for two others. By contrast, the SEC won eight. To take it a step further, Florida won three on its own. To paraphrase what coaches around the country like to preach to their team: Never shy away from competition. Competition always makes you better.

The SEC’s newest TV deal isn’t going to make the issue any easier. By 2029, it’s estimated that SEC schools will on average receive $105.5 Million from their conference, while ACC schools will receive on average about $55.3 Million. That’s nearly half of what an SEC school can expect.

We in the financial industry would call that a non-competitive market (the Big 10 being the only thing preventing a near monopoly). The SEC will have the bulk of the power because they have the money to pay coaches more, build better facilities, create more appealing amenities, hire better staffs, etc. And not just in football.

Remember, for many schools it’s the football team that makes the profit that allows the other sports to exist. This is the world FSU finds itself in. The music is about to stop while the SEC and Big 10 are already sitting in the only chairs in the room.

This isn’t necessarily meant to be a revisionist article, but we have to ask ourselves whether FSU would be in this position if it had joined the SEC in 1990. Sure, we can question whether Florida State would have been in a position to win the ‘93, ‘99 and ‘14 National Championships playing an SEC schedule. But it didn’t preclude Florida from winning them in ‘96, ‘06 or ‘08 - and some might say it actually helped them.

It’s entirely possible that the Seminoles would have won just as many Championships had they joined the SEC. Possibly even more.

Having joined the SEC, it’s possible that Coach Bowden didn’t last until the 2009 season. After several substandard years, what if he was asked to leave after going 9-3 in 2004 - his fourth straight year of at least three losses?

With two marquee programs to choose from in the state of Florida, would Urban Meyer have instead opted or Florida State? What if Bowden was pushed out after posting a 7-6 record in 2006? Does Saban leave the NFL for the Seminoles instead of the Crimson Tide?

Let’s say that the decision was to let Bowden stay as long as he needed and hire Jimbo Fisher as Offensive Coordinator, just like it happened in real life. Bowden retires after the 2009 season and Jimbo takes the reigns for 2010. In 2013 he gets Florida Sate’s third National Championship. In that timespan Florida State would have made almost $17.5 Million more than if they had been in the SEC.

The administration has the budget it needs and agrees to update football facilities and to pay the assistant coaches more. By 2017, FSU would have made nearly $55 Million more than if they had been in the ACC.

The administration continues to acquiesce to Jimbo’s requests (the money is coming in and will continue to come in, so why not?) and he’s a happy man. He continues to recruit hard, Florida State is still in contention for the Playoff each year and Willie Taggart never happens.

The Noles have no need to sign away their TV rights for an atrocious number of years, because they’re in a conference they have no reason to leave. When people mention the SEC, Florida State is one of the first schools to come to mind. It’s quite different than where we are now: Handcuffed to a sinking ship.

I don’t know what the future holds. What Florida State and the ACC should do to correct their current state of affairs is probably another article for another time. But it isn’t difficult to see a future where Florida State football is not in the national dialogue. The longer the ACC and Florida State stand still, the more increasingly likely that scenario is.

Of course, sitting in my tent nearly 30 years ago, none of this was on my mind. For the first time, I knew what it was like to be a champion. All the Miami and Gators fans at school would finally have to shut their mouths. There wouldn’t be any more taunts about wide right or not being good enough or your team lost to Notre Dame. Nobody else’s opinion mattered.

I quietly unzipped my tent and walked out toward the group of people sitting around the fire. My father caught sight of me first. “Did they win?” he asked. I was so excited that I could only share an awkward grin. But the smile he got on his face told me he was happy for his son, and happy that he made the effort to make room for that old color TV in the bed of the truck.

It meant the world to a tall, lanky 13-year-old kid who was still trying to find his place in life - a kid who felt like maybe he had finally found a place with all of the other celebrating Florida State fans around the country.

And maybe that’s what hurts the most right now. Florida State means so much to each of us. It’s a part of who we are, ingrained in our life through memories and heartache and special experiences. To see where the Seminoles are now - to imagine a very real world where the things we experienced in the past will no longer exist in the future… it’s difficult to accept. Especially when you realize that it could have been so easy to avoid.

Posted by Keats1821

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I would like to thank Keats for his contribution to the TN Member Memories series and for sharing his experiences with the Tomahawk Nation Community.

Please check out these other previously published TN Member Memories:

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  • Unfortunately, this will be the last TN MEMBER MEMORIES published for the time being due to a lack of contributions for this series.
  • However, if you have a story you would like to submit to share with us for publishing consideration, feel free to contact: frankdnole@gmail.com
  • Really, I’m only talking about 150-200 words or so.
  • Seriously though, I’m tapped out of material.
  • If you have a story, you think might be worthy of sharing here on Tomahawk Nation, it probably is.
  • We would love to share it with the Seminole Nation.

Be cool.