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Florida State Sports Notebook: New Soccer Coach Edition

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Just a few thoughts on Seminole sports. As always read at your own risk.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

It has been an eventful last few months for Florida State soccer. On December 6th the Seminoles captured their third national championship in the last eight years. Florida State soccer was a certifiable juggernaut. Head coach Mark Krikorian had elevated the program to become arguably the preeminent program in the entire nation. Many fans were speculating on when, not if, the field would be named after him. Then the unthinkable happened.

On March 29th Krikorian announced that he was resigning from his position as head coach at Florida State. This announcement was a bolt from the blue that no one saw coming. It naturally spawned a major controversy that continues to this day.

The focus of this article is more on understanding where the program is now and making some (educated) guesses on where it is headed in the future. Therefore, I won’t spend much time on the controversy attendant to Krikorian’s resignation. However, I will briefly comment on it and then we will move on to the focus of the article.

Mark Krikorian made it clear (through his representation) that he had no interest in remaining the coach long term at Florida State as long as Michael Alford was the Athletic Director. Through evidence that came to light after the resignation it became clear that Florida State made an aggressive offer to try to keep Krikorian but the former coach wasn’t interested. We simply don’t know what reason Krikorian had for this apparent antipathy toward Alford. It could be a good reason or a not so good reason. But since we don’t know we don’t have enough information to adequately assign blame in my view. Therefore, all we can say is that the divorce happened, it wasn’t amicable, and we all have to deal with the consequences and move forward.

After the resignation the premier soccer program in the land was left without a head coach mere months after winning a third national championship. This is just a stunning development. To put this in context, it would be similar to Nick Saban resigning out of the blue from Alabama in 2012 right after winning his fourth title. It would be like Mike Krzyzewski resigning in 2010 right after winning his fourth title. Obviously football and basketball are more popular sports than soccer at the college level but the impact on the relative sports would be the same. The announcement sent shock waves through Nole Nation and the college soccer world more broadly.

Florida State was left without a head coach and faced significant pressure to hire an impressive replacement quickly. The administration answered the challenge by choosing Brian Pensky who has been the head coach at Tennessee since 2012. With Pensky’s hiring the Florida State soccer program has begun to move on to a new era.

Let’s discuss in more detail where the program is now and where it may be heading in the future.

Program Overview

Head Coach

I am on record with my opinion that Pensky’s hire is about as good as can be expected given the circumstances. To be clear, the best outcome for the program would have been to keep Krikorian. Alas, that ship has sailed so Pensky seems a more than adequate replacement.

I said earlier that Pensky is a good hire given the circumstances. What are those circumstances? I see three of them.

Time/Timing

We will discuss this in more detail in a minute when we consider the roster but Florida State needed to move quickly on this hire to maximize the chances of keeping the current roster. Normally this short term consideration would not be important since hiring a coach is a long term decision. However, this situation is the exception as FSU has a championship quality roster. Championships are so precious that Florida State had to do everything possible to take advantage of this opportunity to repeat. Therefore, the Noles had to act quickly to reduce uncertainty and give the new coach a chance to try to keep the roster intact.

Experience

It is obvious that Florida State was looking for a coach with head coaching experience. That requirement makes sense as this is a team looking to win now with such a loaded roster. There isn’t time for a coach to engage in on the job learning when a repeat title is within reach.

Krikorian’s Tree

This one is a bit of speculation on my part but I don’t believe that anyone with connections to Krikorian was really interested in taking this job. That is understandable given the circumstances surrounding Krikorian’s resignation.

Pensky is also a good hire based on his credentials. I won’t go into his record in detail as it was discussed in yesterday’s article covering Pensky’s hire. However, there are a couple of things worth highlighting. Pensky’s Tennessee team reached the Sweet 16 last year and finished 11th in the coaches poll and eighth in the RPI. He has also proven to be a very good recruiter:

In addition, while at Tennessee Pensky had assembled a 10 player recruiting class for 2022 that featured six players ranked four stars or higher.

Basically, Pensky’s time at Tennessee provides evidence that he will be able to keep the program from falling too far nationally. My expectation is that he will be able to keep FSU as a top 20 program at minimum and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he was able to keep FSU in or around the top 10 long term.

However, it is unreasonable to expect Pensky (or any other coach) to match Krikorian’s ridiculous accomplishments. I say that mostly because Krikorian’s results were crazy. He had the three national championships but he also reached the Elite Eight in 15 of the 17 seasons he spent in Tallahassee. It would be unfair to hold Pensky to that high a bar.

The practical reason that I am quite skeptical that Pensky (or anyone) can match much less exceed Krikorian’s success is that Krikorian had a special ingredient that was a huge factor in his stunning accomplishments at FSU. Many top programs have such a special ingredient. For example, Stanford has its academic reputation. North Carolina has its stunning soccer tradition. Under Krikorian, Florida State had its international recruiting.

I think that it is entirely possible that Pensky can match Krikorian’s record of recruiting domestic talent. However, there is no chance that he (or any other coach) can match Krikorian’s international recruiting. That is the special ingredient that FSU has now lost with Krikorian’s departure. As noted, Pensky is a good (maybe very good) recruiter but the days of FSU attracting the likes of Yujie Zhao, Jody Brown, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, etc. are over. Losing access to this talent from overseas means that the program will slide a bit. That is inevitable. The hope is that Pensky’s recruiting ability will mitigate the magnitude of the slide.

Roster

Florida State’s roster is loaded. Pensky is absolutely a good enough coach to keep FSU in the national title hunt for 2022 if he can keep the roster intact. However, there is no guarantee that he can accomplish this goal.

The first thing that Pensky needs to do is reach out to the current players and try to keep them on board. Pensky doesn’t need to keep all of them but he absolutely needs to retain most of them. Let’s examine this challenge in more detail.

Per the NCAA, the relevant transfer portal rules are reproduced below:

Q: What criteria does the student-athlete need to meet in order to utilize the new Division I one-time exception to seek immediate transfer eligibility?

A: In order to meet the criteria of the one-time transfer exception, the student-athlete must: » Transfer from a four-year collegiate institution to an NCAA Division I school; » Leave their current four-year school academically eligible; » Have not transferred previously from another four-year institution, and » Certify in writing, along with their new head coach, they did not have direct or indirect communication with the new school’s athletics staff prior to entering the NCAA Transfer Portal. Additionally, a student-athlete must provide their current school with a written request to enter the NCAA Transfer by May 1 if they participate in a fall or winter sport, or July 1 if they participate in a spring sport to use the one-time exception.

Q: Is a student-athlete who enters the NCAA Transfer Portal automatically eligible to compete at another Division I school?

A: No. Entry into the NCAA Transfer Portal is required for student-athletes to permissibly contact (and be contacted by) other schools about transfer opportunities, but they still must qualify for a transfer exception and be academically eligible at their new school to compete.

Q: Is the current four-year school the student-athlete is transferring from able to object to the student-athletes use of the one-time exception?

A: No. The former written support requirement was removed from the one-time transfer exception criteria. Please note that the student-athlete’s current school will still assist the new school with determining whether the necessary one-time exception criteria are satisfied by the student-athlete.

Q: What criteria does a student-athlete who has graduated with their baccalaureate degree need to meet to be eligible as postgraduate student at another Division I school?

A: A student-athlete who graduates with remaining athletics eligibility may be eligible as a full-time postgraduate student at another Division I school provided they meet the one-time exception criteria, including providing a written request to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal to their current school by May 1 if they participate in a fall or winter sport, or July 1 if they participate in a spring sport.

There are reports that several players have already entered the transfer portal. As Tomahawk Nation member RobOregon has noted, Noles247 is reporting the following players in the portal:

Emily Madril, Cristina Roque, Clara Robbins, Kaitlyn Zipay. Signees Olivia Smith, Heather Gilchrist and Mackenzie Smith also entered on Friday. Previous entries (all before K’s departure): Megan Morgan, Kristina Lynch, and Alyssa Stadeker.

At first blush this seems like a lot of players in the portal. However, this needs some context.

The players in the portal should be put into different categories.

The first category is composed of players who would have entered the portal even if Krikorian had stayed. Those players are Megan Morgan, Kristina Lynch, and Alyssa Stadeker. These players were either not getting much playing time (Morgan and Stadeker) or had seen their playing time diminish (Lynch).

This is not unusual. Krikorian’s roster management strategy depended on players transferring out every year. Krikorian liked to have rosters of around 24 players. The rosters were a bit bloated the last couple of years due to the NCAA allowing an extra Covid year. However, Krikorian had pared the roster down to his customary 24 last year.

The next category are the members of the 2022 recruiting class. Those players are Olivia Smith, Heather Gilchrist and Mackenzie Smith. This is also not surprising. In fact it is mildly surprising that more members of the 2022 class aren’t in the portal. Although they have enrolled at FSU for the spring 2022 semester, most of these players haven’t developed any real connection to Florida State yet. Their connection was to Mark Krikorian and he is now gone. It is natural for them to want to look around.

The third category are current members of the team who are probably in the portal as a result of Krikorian’s resignation. Those players are Emily Madril, Cristina Roque, Clara Robbins, and Kaitlyn Zipay. Actually Zipay is a special case. She basically hasn’t seen the field since sustaining an injury a couple of years ago. She was starting to show something before she got injured so I’m not sure what her status would have been even had Krikorian stayed. However, the other players in this group have no such uncertainty attached to their names. Madril, Robbins and Roque are starters who would have seen major minutes this upcoming year.

This is the group that Pensky needs to concentrate on first. Madril and Robbins are especially key because they are the team leaders. If Pensky can convince them to stay he will be well on his way to earning buy-in from the rest of the team.

It would also be great if Pensky could retain the players in the 2022 class. They would be important for depth in 2022 but their real value would be in future years as they grow and develop potentially into starters. However, Olivia Smith deserves special mention. We have discussed Olivia before but she is a dynamic winger who had a great chance to secure a starting spot as a true freshman even on a team as stacked as FSU. I haven’t discussed this personally with Olivia but it is safe to assume that she chose Florida State to be coached by Krikorian. Now that he is gone FSU does not hold the same allure. Olivia is also special in that she likely has the most options - including turning pro.

We will see what all of these players choose to do but keep in mind that entering the portal does not mean that a player is 100% certain to leave. In the vast majority of cases (over 95% across all sports) players that enter the portal do choose to transfer. However, this is obviously a special case and it shouldn’t be assumed that all of these players will leave.

Most of the players that we have discussed above have checked “Do not contact” even though they have entered the portal. This means that they are asking schools not to contact them (email, text, phone call) in an attempt to recruit them. This is interesting as most players in the portal do not ask not to be contacted. I’m not sure exactly what it means because I haven’t discussed it with the players but I can speculate. It probably means that either the players know where they want to go so they don’t want to be contacted by a bunch of schools that have no chance or they are just entering the portal to cover their bases in case they didn’t like the new coaching hire and want to leave. I tend to think that the latter explanation makes more sense but that is just my speculation.

A couple more points are in order. The questionable circumstances under which Krikorian resigned matter here. The players were upset that the coach that they loved and respected was leaving but they were angry about the circumstances that could look to some observers like he was forced out. Again, I haven’t talked with them but it would be natural if players like Madril, Robbins and Roque had mixed feelings about playing for a University that from their perspective treated their coach unfairly. It is entirely possible that the emotions run so high that they don’t feel comfortable returning.

The second point is that Mark Krikorian has made clear that he is not retiring and that he plans to coach again in the future. We don’t know where, when or at what level but there is still time for him to take a college job. I am not predicting that he will (at least not for the 2022 season) but it is possible. If that happens it would be likely that some players on the current roster would follow him to his new University.

Final Thoughts

We will have wait and see how the roster machinations play out but if Pensky can keep this roster even reasonably intact he should be able to keep Florida State in the national championship contender conversation 2022 and maybe beyond.

As always, the comments are yours.