Florida State coach Mike Norvell stood inside the visitors tunnel at Clemson last month, waiting for his players to come off the field and into the locker room. Hands on his hips, head tilted toward the sky, a look of relief washed over his face.
It was perhaps the biggest win in his Florida State tenure, a 31-24 overtime triumph over the Tigers that signaled a changing of the guard atop the ACC. Norvell, now in his fourth year at FSU, had never beaten Clemson. In fact, Florida State had not won in Death Valley for 10 years.
So Norvell waited until each and every player came in. He hugged them all because he wanted to remind them just how far they had come to get to this point.
The program he inherited in 2020 was not the college football behemoth of decades past. It had slipped in the final years under coach Jimbo Fisher and during the Willie Taggart era. The Seminoles were coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 1970s, were underfunded and had disarray in the locker room.
During his very first game as head coach, Florida State led Georgia Tech 10-0 at halftime. But at the first sign of adversity in the second half, the way it did the year before and the year before that, the team folded. Heads sagged, fingers pointed. Florida State lost.
In his 11th game as head coach, Florida State lost for the first time in its history to an FCS opponent, falling at home to Jacksonville State. Negativity swirled outside the program. Pundits wondered whether Norvell was on the hot seat in his first season.
Now, in his 38th game as head coach, he had finally beaten Clemson and put the Seminoles in position to chase championships again. It took a village: from Norvell and his staff, from the administration, from the guys who stayed and the guys who transferred in, from a quarterback who nearly walked away from it all.
“We’ve been through it,” Norvell said. “We’ve been challenged. We’ve been knocked down, we’ve had to get up but they’ve continued to push. Those are the types of games where you’ve got to show what you can do in those moments.”
Florida State — 6-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country ahead of Saturday’s game against No. 16 Duke (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) — looks like a playoff contender for the first time in nine seasons. Here are six stories that explain why.
Losing to Jacksonville State
It was quiet in the locker room after the lowest point in Norvell’s tenure as Florida State’s head coach.
In September 2021, the Seminoles, once the most feared program in college football, lost to FCS school Jacksonville State. Worse, the loss came on a 59-yard heave down the field with no time remaining, a play that baffled Florida State’s defense and resulted in a touchdown. It was less a defeat than it was a punchline.
Still, there was no cursing or shouting. No one threw a helmet or slammed a locker. Truth is, defensive lineman Fabien Lovett said, most of the players packed up and left without saying much of anything.
“It was bad,” Lovett said, “and we had to get over that hump.”
Players arrived for a team meeting the next day, and Norvell stood at the front of the room, telling his players to look past the loss, insisting he’d take the heat.
Outside, it was chaos — fans wanted answers, pundits suggested Florida State’s program was in a tailspin and anyone with a keyboard was ready to crack a joke on social media at the Seminoles’ expense.
Inside, the Seminoles watched film and went to practice. Business as usual.
“We moved past it like we move past a win,” Lovett said.
That’s the Norvell way.
Norvell took over a program in desperate need of leadership and stability, but even amid low expectations, his first 18 months at Florida State were a mess. He arrived in 2020 just before COVID-19 shut down the program, which hampered Norvell’s ability to build any sense of culture. That summer was marked by allegations from star defensive lineman Marvin Wilson that Norvell had lied to the team about addressing every player individually following the death of George Floyd. Players opted out amid virus concerns or outright quit.
When Florida State canceled a game against Clemson in November, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney accused the program of using the pandemic as an excuse to avoid an embarrassing loss — effectively suggesting Norvell was too scared to play mighty Clemson. Then 2021 began with four straight losses, including that dismal ending against Jacksonville State.
But if the world saw a team on the brink, Norvell saw a group desperately in need of a foundation.
“We had one of the worst moments you could ever imagine, but ultimately it was about the response to it,” Norvell said. “We started that season at a very low point but we continued to work and continued to believe in the process. We just had to do it better. Through that adversity, we developed the grit and toughness and character that was necessary.”
On the wall in Norvell’s office, he has a poster of a mountain peak with the word “Climb” written underneath. It’s the mantra for his program — an acronym for commitment, little things, intensity, mental toughness, brotherhood — but also a literal accounting of the Seminoles’ path back to the top of the college football world. From rock bottom, one foot went in front of the other, slowly getting better.
It’s the only way to build something sustainable, Norvell said.
“That team could’ve gotten completely derailed, and the season been a wash after that one game,” former offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons said. “But we weren’t focused on the outcome of a game — win or loss. It was incremental growth each day.”
Gibbons used to arrive at the football facility early each morning, sitting outside the training room waiting for treatment. Each morning, Norvell would arrive at his office and yell “Good morning!” to his O-lineman. By 9 at night, Gibbons would often still be lingering around the football building, and he’d see Norvell as the head coach left his office for the night, and Norvell would again yell, “Good morning!”
It’s a joke, but it’s also symbolic, Gibbons said. Norvell is the same guy — every day, morning and night.
“When you’re down, show you’re up,” former safety Jammie Robinson said. “He always stayed the same. I take that from him to this day.”
That’s the key to the climb. To stop and look back is perilous. To linger too long in the same spot is a waste. Good or bad, the job is to inch a little higher.”
“It was celebrating the small victories that were going to bring wins,” said offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Alex Atkins. “We saw that constant growth. So to the outside, it’s just the records. But in here, we talked about academically, where are we with APR and how did that start to change? Now we’re doing conditioning drills, where we had two people finishing, now we have 14 people.”
Gibbons remembers Norvell making the team watch film backward, starting with the final play of the game — just to focus on how they finished. There were no good or bad practices, just good and bad reps. And the bad ones were just as valuable as the good ones. They offered lessons.
Eventually, those small steps of the climb reached a critical mass when it became obvious how far Florida State had come.
“The work was hard,” said D-lineman Dennis Briggs Jr., “but when you see the results little by little, you see yourself getting better and better — not just as an individual, but as a group and as a team. You start to realize, maybe what he’s saying isn’t just a bunch of smoke, what he’s saying is really working.”
Norvell can’t say when Florida State figured things out, when all those small steps up the mountain opened into a clear path to the peak. Or, maybe, he won’t say. Norvell is quick to suggest Florida State “has not arrived” because that’s the thing about the climb. There’s always a little higher to go, always another peak left to scale.
So maybe the turning point was Jacksonville State. It makes sense, after all, that every great climb must start at the bottom.
“It’s not a point you ever want to talk about, but it’s part of our journey,” Norvell said. “It’s helped us get to where we are, even in some very dark moments.”
Odell Haggins sticks around
Norvell had plenty to fix because the program began to slip in the final years under Fisher. When Fisher left for Texas A&M in 2017 with one game remaining in the regular season, Florida State was one win away from keeping its 36-year bowl streak alive. It was up to interim coach Odell Haggins to save it.
Haggins looked at the hurt and pain on the faces of his players in their first team meeting, and thought to himself, “How did my school get here?” Haggins is a Florida State lifer.
Now in his 30th season with the Seminoles, Haggins connects Florida State’s glorious past with its present, serving as defensive tackles coach and associate head coach. He played for Bobby Bowden in the 1980s, and after a brief NFL stint, embarked on his coaching career under Bowden in 1994.
So he had no choice but to take the interim job, and after Florida State beat Louisiana-Monroe 42-10 to keep its bowl streak alive, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. He cried.
Less than two years later, he was appointed interim coach again after Taggart was fired in November 2019, the program spiraling further downward.
“I was numb,” Haggins said. “The first time was tough, the second time was tougher. Because there was a lot of stress. There was a lot of uncertainty. It wasn’t about me. It was about those kids, and how we were going to stay afloat. It felt like everything was on my back.”
Once again, Haggins led Florida State to bowl eligibility. That season, he said, was painful. “I had to learn to trust again in this profession.” He had opportunities to leave multiple times during his Florida State career, but he chose to stay every time.
His first meeting with Norvell convinced him to keep pushing forward in Tallahassee.
“My mother always taught me, ‘Son, when adversity hits, you’ve got to dig your heels in. You may fall, it’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up,'” Haggins said. “There were some tough, embarrassing days but when Mike came in, that gave me strength to do my part.”
With Haggins atop the longevity depth chart, Florida State has had coaching stability for nearly the entire time Norvell has been there. Three coaches have departed the staff in four years — two of them were replaced with assistants already on staff. That consistency was welcomed for a group of players who were used to change. Between 2017 and 2020, Florida State had a different offensive coordinator each season and three different head coaches.
Haggins is the mainstay.
He has coached 20 defensive linemen who have been drafted by the NFL. He is a reason players like Keir Thomas and Jared Verse made their way to Florida State from the transfer portal. Haggins first recruited Thomas out of high school under Fisher, but Thomas ultimately went to South Carolina. It was Haggins who reached out after Thomas entered the portal.
“Coach Odell stood on a table for me when I was in high school,” Thomas said. “That stuck with me.”
Briggs, who signed in 2018, said having Haggins remain on staff was huge for the players who decided to stay and play for Norvell.
“We would definitely come to him with questions but he continued to place his faith not only in Coach Norvell, but reassured us that Coach Norvell was the guy,” Briggs said. “Seeing Coach Odell have that faith and belief in Coach Norvell made us put our faith and belief in Coach Norvell.”
There is a big reason why Haggins placed that faith in Norvell: Bowden.
“Coach Norvell never flinched, he never blamed anybody,” Haggins said. “He kept moving forward, believing in the climb. That goes back to a man that recruited me out of high school named Bobby Bowden, who believed in what he believed in and never flinched. I saw it every day. That helped my spirit.”
Investing in football
When Michael Alford became athletic director in 2021, he had already been at Florida State for more than a year as CEO and president of Seminole Boosters — the primary fundraising arm of the Florida State athletic department. He already had a good relationship with Norvell, who was on the search committee when Alford was hired with the Seminole Boosters.
It turns out their connections ran deep — Norvell had previously coached at Memphis, and Alford still had an affinity for the school. His father worked there decades earlier, and his brother played football there.
In one of his first conversations with Norvell, Alford simply asked, “What do you need?”
There was a fairly substantial list. Florida State was not investing in football at an elite level, whether through staffing, facilities, coaching salaries and what they were providing to players. Finances were in poor shape, thanks in part to a roughly $14 million buyout being paid in installments to former coach Taggart, a drop in season ticket sales, funding for other projects and the pandemic. But this was not just a 2020 thing, as Alford soon found out.
Alford said the ACC commissioned a study looking at various ways its league members invested in football over a 10-year period between 2012 and 2022. In one key category — percentage growth in football expenses — Florida State ranked last.
“It blew me away,” Alford said. “You do the analytics of: ‘How did we get here?’ It was a perfect storm: lack of investment, lack of facilities, a lack of vision for the program and some coaching hires that did not work out. So you throw that storm together, it got us to the point we were at.”
Since becoming athletic director, Alford has poured money and resources into football to help Norvell. Alford created 14 additional football staff positions in various areas, including recruiting and personnel. The coaching salary pool has increased — both offensive coordinator Alex Atkins and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller now make more than $1 million each. Norvell went from a pandemic-reduced salary of $3.53 million in 2020 to a contract extension that pays him $7.3 million this year, ranking in the top 15 in the country.
“I’m grateful for the investment within the program, when it comes to our administration and the things that we’ve been able to implement,” Norvell said. “We’ve had to be strategic, especially those first couple of years, having to make some tough decisions, and then build it from there. We are going to continue to push for the resources we feel are necessary to be competitive on that elite level.”
Florida State has broken ground on a long-awaited standalone football facility, expected to open in 2025, and has plans for a $275 million renovation to Doak Campbell Stadium that Alford said will allow the venue to become a major revenue driver. The final payment to Taggart is scheduled for Jan. 31, 2024.
“I had a clear vision. Mike had a clear vision,” Alford said. “You have to have patience. When you see the right things going on behind closed doors, and you see the commitment and the belief by the young men associated with the program, you know you have to have patience for that to take effect. I had 100 percent faith.”
Mastering the transfer portal
When Dillan Gibbons hit the transfer portal after the 2020 season, he approached it like a business decision. The former Notre Dame offensive lineman had plenty of suitors — more than 40 offers, he said — but he was looking for something specific in his next home, so he made a spreadsheet. Gibbons researched every FBS team, their coaching staffs and the number of O-linemen they had returning.
He did the math, weighed his options and one school stood out: Florida State. The Seminoles offered the ideal blend of opportunity to make an impact and a chance to win.
Still, Gibbons wasn’t sold until he talked to Norvell. He’d been inundated with calls from other programs — coaches who texted his mom, flooded his DMs, even found his sister’s phone number and started calling her. Norvell’s pitch was far less aggressive. Norvell and Alex Atkins called Gibbons from a plane and pitched him on the idea that he wouldn’t be guaranteed a single snap.
According to Gibbons, Atkins told him: “Come in, earn a spot and earn the trust of the group. You’ll have to do that before I put you on the football field.”
This was exactly what Gibbons wanted to hear.
After four years at Notre Dame, Gibbons had a good idea of what a successful offensive line room should look like and how to create it. That job, he said, started with earning buy-in from his teammates.
“I had to put my head down and f— a couple people up in order to gain the attention and respect of the group,” Gibbons said. “I put a lot of people on the ground during camp.”
His work ethic convinced others to follow along, and soon, Florida State’s O-line, once among the worst units in college football, began to win battles in the trenches.
While Gibbons reshaped the offensive line, Jermaine Johnson arrived via the portal to bolster the D-line.
Like Gibbons, Johnson came from a blue blood pedigree, having played at Georgia before hitting the portal. He knew what winning at the highest levels looked like, and he was eager to impart those lessons on his teammates at Florida State.
“To be blunt, when I went to Florida State it confused a lot of people,” Johnson said. “Why would this guy who’s playing significant snaps at Georgia transfer and go to a program that’s not doing too hot? I tell everybody, it’s as simple as Coach Norvell. He told me just come be yourself, and the rest of it will handle itself.”
Johnson’s relentless work ethic and leadership quickly changed the tenor of Florida State’s defense.
“Jermaine pretty much was running the show when I got there,” said Keir Thomas, who arrived via the portal just a few weeks after Johnson. “Jermaine was killing the drills. This is my first day there, I’m watching him work out, and Jermaine is leading the pack and he’s talking while he’s running, like ‘Come on, man, let’s go.’ I’m like, ‘Dang, that’s what it’s about.'”
Johnson went on to become a first-round NFL draft pick. Gibbons was a two-time All-ACC lineman. But that’s just the beginning of the impact they had on Florida State.
Norvell has gained a reputation as a master of the transfer portal. He embraced the portal early, and he identified talent quickly. In the years that followed Gibbons’ and Johnson’s arrival, FSU added numerous stars, including Jared Verse, Trey Benson, Braden Fiske, Fentrell Cypress II and Keon Coleman.
Coleman, the Michigan State transfer, has made jaw-dropping plays this season, starting with three touchdowns in the opener against LSU. Last week against Syracuse, he had nine catches for 140 yards, a touchdown and a sky-high one-handed grab that appeared to defy gravity. Said Orange coach Dino Babers about Coleman: “God was showing off when he made him.”
But what’s often unmentioned is that Norvell didn’t win the portal game by simply luring the most talented players with promises of playing time and NFL scouts. He strategically added players that fit a need on the field, but helped change a culture off it.
“There’s a lot of schools where you choose them,” Verse said, “but Florida State chooses you. You have to be the right fit for this program. You have to have the right personality, you have to have the right work ethic.”
Why has Florida State done so well in the transfer portal? Seminoles general manager Darrick Yray said they evaluate everything — even something as seemingly small as whether a player opens the car door for his mother when they visit campus. Norvell won’t make an offer to anyone he doesn’t believe can add to the locker room, and he makes no promises about playing time upon arrival. The Seminoles currently have 15 starters from the portal.
“There were positions we were really thin at, really young at, and we needed guys with experience,” Norvell said. “But we needed guys to come in and be an example of the leadership, things we wanted to do, guys that wanted to buy in to making a difference in this program. … All those guys had different backgrounds but they came in wanting to be Florida State Seminoles, wanting to make a difference, wanting to leave a legacy.”
That legacy remains as Florida State battles for its first ACC championship since 2014. The Seminoles’ O-line is now among the best in the conference, and Gibbons still talks with his former teammates routinely.
Johnson’s success set the blueprint for future transfers, who saw FSU as a place where they could make an impact and get noticed.
When Verse was mulling his transfer options, he got a call from Johnson, who pitched him on the virtues of FSU, but also promised he’d support Verse regardless. When Verse arrived in Tallahassee, he went straight from the airport to dinner. Sitting in the restaurant when Verse arrived was none other than Jermaine Johnson.
“I know that I ended up helping them get other guys because they could just use me as a pitch and Florida State did so much more for me,” Johnson said. “That’s the least I could do.”
Jordan Travis’ speech
Jordan Travis was hurting. He’d been knocked out of Florida State’s 2021 game against rival Florida, but with bowl eligibility on the line and the Seminoles down big, he insisted on taking the field again in the second half. Travis rallied his team from down 24-7, and after a 16-play touchdown drive, Florida State booted an onside kick that, if recovered, would’ve given the Noles a chance to win.
But Florida recovered, ran out the clock, and Florida State’s season came to an end.
Now, in the locker room, the pain from what tests would later show was a sprained AC joint throbbed. Travis sat at his locker, and he looked around the room. He hurt, but so did the guys who’d been on this ride with him, from an 0-4 start to a field goal shy of a bowl bid.
It was their pain that broke him.
“It was the seniors’ last game, and seeing those boys in there upset, their career’s done,” Travis said. “It just goes by so fast.”
Travis’ career, on the other hand, felt like a slog. He spent a miserable year at Louisville. He rode the bench during his first year at Florida State and saw his head coach, Taggart, get fired. He spent most of 2020 and 2021 fighting for security on a QB carousel that went from James Blackman to Chubba Purdy to Tate Rodemaker to McKenzie Milton. He thought about quitting.
And suddenly, it became clear: He wanted desperately to play at Florida State, to win there — and time was running out.
That’s when Travis made a speech that, looking back, marked a clear turning point in his — and the Seminoles’ — path to the top of the ACC.
“I talked to the guys and said, ‘We’re not going to feel this way again,'” Travis said. “I told the guys, ‘It’s time. This year, we’re going to work our tails off every day. We’re going to grow and gel together.'”
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” former tight end Wyatt Rector said. “Everybody’s emotional, and Jordan comes up and daps everybody up in the locker room and says, ‘This isn’t happening again.’ That whole offseason, we attacked it. We didn’t want to feel this feeling anymore. We’re tired of it. And that’s when that culture flip switched, and Novell he didn’t even have to coach — we were getting on each other. Jordan as a leader, I’ve seen him step up his game and grow so much.”
The 2021 season had been a roller coaster for Travis, but the numbers told a clear story: With Travis on the field, FSU’s offense averaged 25% more yards per play than without him.
After the Florida game, former offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham left for a job at Oregon. Alex Atkins was promoted to OC, and he handed the reins of the offense to Travis.
“It went from the Mike Norvell, Alex Atkins, Kenny Dillingham offense to the Jordan Travis offense,” Atkins said. “Everything started to be built around him, and now you get to see him showcase his ability.”
In 2022, Travis emerged as a genuine star. He blossomed as a passer, used his legs to keep defenses on their heels and finished the season with 3,631 yards of offense, 32 touchdowns and just eight turnovers and a Total QBR just a tick behind Heisman winner Caleb Williams. More importantly, Florida State beat both of its in-state rivals last year and won its 2022 bowl game against Oklahoma — the Seminoles’ 10th win of the year.
When receiver Keon Coleman entered the transfer portal in the spring of 2023, he immediately set his sights on Florida State — because it was a team that had won, that had weapons, but more than anything, it had Travis.
“He has the ability to lead and make plays,” Coleman said. “He’s got the arm strength, the leg strength and an ability to change the game at any given moment. Every game, he’s the leader of our team, coming out and picking people up and keeping us going. He knows the buttons to push.”
Go back through Travis’ career, and there are likely dozens of small turning points, but the Florida game marked a line of demarcation.
Before that game, he was a guy who wanted more.
After that game, he was the guy who would set an example.
“It was a special moment,” Norvell said. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted on the field, but he willed himself to come back and play. That was heart, it was character and it was something our team saw that even in the hardest of moments, he rose up. He’s got a special story, and he’s lived up to it.”
Staying to slay the Tigers
In the hotel lobby ahead of September’s game at Clemson, linebackers Kalen DeLoach and Tatum Bethune had a brief conversation. “One of us needs a pick-six, or a fumble, something to keep the turnover game going,” Bethune said to DeLoach.
They got their chance with time winding down in the third quarter. Clemson ripped off a big run into Florida State territory, threatening to go up two touchdowns. Florida State defensive coordinator Adam Fuller called a blitz from the right side. But Bethune switched it at the last minute. DeLoach heard his name and number get called. This blitz would be for him.
As soon as Cade Klubnik snapped the ball, DeLoach sprinted for him. Bethune came storming up from his middle linebacker spot, taking up a guard and running back — opening a giant hole for DeLoach. All he could think was, “Dig deeper. I have to get there. I have to make a play.”
He hit Klubnik so hard, the ball came rolling out. Braden Fiske tried to pick it up, but batted it to DeLoach, who returned the fumble 56 yards for a touchdown, tying the score — perhaps the biggest play in the Seminoles’ 31-24 overtime win. In many ways, it felt as if it was meant for DeLoach to be the one to make that play, forever earning a spot in the Florida State record books for helping the Seminoles break a seven-game losing streak to the reigning ACC champions.
DeLoach is one of a handful of players who stayed at Florida State when times got hard, through the coaching change, and workouts that felt impossible, and losses that piled up. Because he believed, one day, all that work would pay off. One day, Florida State would be what he always believed it could be: a championship contender again.
“It definitely had its moments, like, ‘Why am I still here?'” DeLoach said. “My pops called me every day during those times saying, ‘Son you got this, you’re built for this.’ I appreciate him for that, keeping me levelheaded and humble. There’s no limitations on what we can do. If we put our best foot forward every day, we can do some special things.”
Seven of the 21 players from the 2019 freshman class to sign under Taggart remain on the roster: Akeem Dent, Ryan Fitzgerald, Renardo Green, Maurice Smith, Darius Washington, Malcolm Ray and DeLoach. Travis transferred to Florida State in 2019.
One player remains from the 2018 class: defensive tackle Briggs Jr., who could have walked away after 2022, but opted for a sixth season because he said he wanted to, “Come win it all.” He did so after enduring seasons that ended in 5-7, 6-7, 3-6 and 5-7 again before going 10-3 last year.
“I respect the guys that stayed so much because they could have easily left and went to another school like the rest of them,” DeLoach said. “I know it wasn’t easy.”
That is what makes their success in 2023 all the more gratifying for the players who chose to stay.
“I can’t give out the sauce of what we do here,” cornerback Renardo Green said. “We know this program isn’t for everybody. The amount of work we put in, the things we did, the approach, we knew it was going to change. We didn’t know when, but we knew. We were waiting on it to flip.”
ESPN NFL reporter Rich Cimini contributed to this story.
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