‘You get to Disney World and it’s closed’: FSU tries to move on from CFP snub

NCAAF

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The first day of spring practice opens like every other: Florida State coach Mike Norvell sprints down the field, end zone to end zone, racing other players in a quick dash to see who can cross the goal line first.

Norvell has done this hundreds of times, against 330-pound defensive linemen and 190-pound cornerbacks. The more who join in the better. He wins some. He loses some. But the important thing is that he keeps coming back, day after day. What started out as a fun way to get practice going in 2022 is now a tradition.

Norvell preaches consistency every day, no matter the circumstances. He had to when he arrived here five years ago, with a program in disarray. He knows tough moments, and finding ways out of them. But the toughest moment yet — a College Football Playoff snub last December — had him questioning himself.

For his entire career, Norvell has preached Coaching Maxims 101: If you put in the work, the rewards will follow. Control what you can control. Get 1 percent better every day. When Florida State opened the 2021 season 0-4 — the lowest on-field moment of his life — he kept his message the same. There is a light, he told his players, if you put in the work.

Until the promised reward never came. After losing starting quarterback Jordan Travis to a season-ending injury last November, Florida State kept pushing forward and won an ACC championship with a 13-0 record. But the grandest prize — competing for a national championship — was denied.

“We followed the format and we didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” Florida State offensive lineman Maurice Smith said. “That’s the toughest part.”

This spring the Seminoles take their first steps toward a new season following the disappointment of the last one. Beginning anew requires turning a proverbial page, a refresh and reset. Turning that page, though, has not necessarily meant leaving last year in the past.


HOURS BEFORE PRACTICE begins, Norvell sits in his office, a printed prototype of Florida State’s 2023 ACC championship ring on a table in front of him. He cracks a joke that he’s happy there would be no questions about being on the hot seat. Indeed, Norvell has gone 28-7 since that 0-4 start in 2021, when many outside the program questioned his long-term future at Florida State.

At the time, nobody would have put his name on a list of candidates to potentially succeed Nick Saban. Yet there he was this past January, having conversations with Alabama about its head coaching vacancy. Ultimately Norvell decided to stay at Florida State and Alabama hired Kalen DeBoer. As a result, Norvell got a new eight-year contract that will pay him more than $10 million per season, his future at Florida State seemingly secure.

“I’m confident in who I am but also grateful for what I get to do, and plenty of people can have an opinion on what you could, should, might do,” Norvell said. “Staying true to what you believe and who you are is always important.”

That belief and conviction helped get the Seminoles to 13-0 last season. Norvell and the team gathered to watch the CFP selection show on Sunday, Dec. 3, hours after winning the ACC championship game. He firmly believed they would make it. But when the CFP committee opted to put one-loss SEC champion Alabama into the four-team playoff over Florida State, cameras caught Norvell lowering his head. He said all he could feel was “unbelievable grief.”

“We had a great story,” Norvell said. “I still believe to this day if we were given an opportunity, it could have been really special to compete for a championship. I just felt grief. It was immediate heartbreak for that team.”

Norvell gathered himself and stood up. He told the players it was OK for them to work through their feelings, that this was a wrong, cruel and unfair decision. He told them he could not explain it himself, and that they would remember this for the rest of their lives.

As Smith looked at his coach, all he could think was, “It made him feel like a dad who tells his daughter he’ll take her to Disney World, but you get to Disney World and it’s closed and now the daughter is crying, you feel like you’ve disappointed her. That’s how he felt.

“We told him in that moment it’s not your fault, coach, but everybody has their own emotions.”

Assistant coaches, already out on the road recruiting, found out on their cell phones that they did not make the playoffs. Norvell would soon join them on the road. By 4:30 p.m. that Sunday, he had left to begin a series of in-person visits to solidify the 2024 signing class. With every coach out on the road recruiting, players were left in Tallahassee to deal with the aftermath.

To this day, Norvell wonders whether he should have stayed in town to console his players, and help them make decisions about their futures. This was a tenuous time for Florida State, with a looming game against two-time defending champion Georgia in the Orange Bowl set for Dec. 30. With Travis already injured and out, Florida State would need its entire team to stay together to have any shot against the Bulldogs.

The next morning, Norvell sent a team-wide text message.

“I tried to put my feelings out there for the team. I did it all through the week, trying to help connect with guys in some of the things they were feeling because I was feeling them,” Norvell said. “We tried to do our best, but when you’re not here, it’s really hard. That’s part of the gasoline of what made that time so hard.

“You’re on a dead sprint, two weeks to signing day and we had to be in front of those kids, too. But what if I would have stayed? It was a once in a lifetime experience because it never happened to anybody else at our level and obviously, it will never occur again. I think through all those things. How could it have been better?”

Norvell will never know. Nine starters, with NFL futures to protect, opted out of the bowl game against Georgia. Fifteen other players, nearly all backups, entered the transfer portal. The roster was so thin, players had to temporarily switch positions for the bowl game to fill out the depth chart.

The result was an ugly 63-3 loss, a performance that led some outside the program to question the culture Norvell had built.

“It’s not what our guys deserved coming off of the year that they had,” said John Papuchis, defensive ends coach and special teams coordinator. “But it’s a reality of modern-day college football that you’re going to have some guys that don’t play. I wish it could have been different.”


THE SEMINOLES RETURNED to campus in January a changed team — both literally and figuratively. Their best leaders, including Travis, defensive end Jared Verse and linebacker Kalen DeLoach were no longer there. Twenty-nine early enrollees — 15 freshmen and 14 transfers — now worked alongside returning players who felt the sting of the way 2023 ended.

Forget about production and starting roles. No. 1 on the agenda was to develop team leadership. Norvell moved a retreat he holds every year for his leadership council from the summer to late January in Panama City, Florida. Over two days, players listened to people in leadership positions across different industries give them advice and perspective about what it means to be a good leader.

“We’re trying to be intentional to provide that platform,” Norvell said. “We lost some guys that were great examples, some guys that were strong voices, but now it’s this team and it’s the voices that are in this locker room. But they have to show up and do the work. Anybody can stand in front of the team and talk, but if they’re not willing to be the example, it won’t really matter.”

Players also identified three key words to building a successful team: Relationships, accountability and mindset. At a team meeting the day before spring practice began, Smith, defensive back Shyheim Brown and running back Lawrance Toafili were asked to address the team on the meaning and importance of those three words.

Smith put it bluntly, when he told his teammates to get out of their comfort zones and start building relationships with guys outside their position groups: “We’re not here for NIL,” Smith told them. “We’re here to create a team and make a run. We only go as far as our relationship goes.”

Brown said it was the first time he recalled players addressing the team in this way before spring practice.

“We’ve got a new team and we’re still trying to set the standard,” Brown said. “I made a comment that we’ve only got three national championships at Florida State. We’re trying to go make history.”

Veterans like Brown used what happened last season as motivation during their offseason workouts. But he also pointed out that it felt good to have new players come in so they could avoid dwelling on the end result. Defensive end Pat Payton pointed specifically to transfers from championship programs – including defensive end Marvin Jones Jr. (Georgia), receiver Malik Benson (Alabama), Shawn Murphy (Alabama) and defensive back Earl Little Jr. (Alabama).

“I know they want to bring that same mentality from their schools with our own mentality that we’ve already got, and just put it together so that what happened last year will never happen to us again,” Payton said.


FLORIDA STATE HAS posted back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 2015-16, yet it feels hard to know what to expect in 2024. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller scoffs at the question. “Why would anyone ask that?” he says. “We’ve proven we can win.”

The goal, of course, is to make the CFP this time around, with an expanded 12-team format beginning this year. But so much change off a team that seemed destined for greatness at this time last year has led to questions that go beyond how the Seminoles will respond to adversity.

That starts with quarterback, a position group that features transfer DJ Uiagalelei, Brock Glenn and two true freshmen. Glenn has now taken on the role of veteran leader, because he has been on the team longer than any other quarterback — 15 months.

An early season injury to his thumb forced Glenn to the sideline, where he figured he would stay for the rest of 2023. But the week of the ACC championship game, Glenn was pressed into duty taking first-team reps with Travis and Rodemaker sidelined.

Looking back on it now, Glenn describes the run up to that week as “insane” as he worked to not only prepare as the starter, but get in sync with the starters. He had thrown approximately zero times in practice to receivers Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman headed into that week, and now all eyes would be on him.

In the Orange Bowl, he had to do it all again with a new set of starters.

“It keeps me up at night just going back and watching and seeing it was right there,” Glenn said. “I could have done better, I know that I have more than I’m able to offer. So there’s a lot to improve on. Every game is an awesome learning experience.”

Glenn has taken that experience, and his knowledge of the playbook, with him into spring practice, where he looks far more polished and confident as a second-year player. He helped Uiagalelei as much as possible, the way Travis and Rodemaker helped him. Uiagalelei, Glenn and freshmen Luke Kromenhoek and Trever Jackson spent time working with the receivers two to three times a week before spring practice started to try and get their timing down.

Uiagalelei has learned to adjust to a new team for the second straight year. He transferred from Clemson to Oregon State following the 2022 season before returning to the ACC this offseason. Whether Norvell and quarterbacks coach Tony Tokarz can help him take the next step and go from good to elite is yet another question that must be answered. Uiagalelei says he chose Florida State to specifically play in this offense. More than anything, he wants to show his consistency and confidence and to “go out there and have fun and rip it, no regrets.”

“I don’t really have the pressure on my shoulders anymore,” Uiagalelei said. “I lived it, gone through it, I understand how to deal with it. I’m just thankful to be able to play. I don’t want to waste any opportunity.”

Though 14 starters are gone, Norvell points to the 82 players who return from last year, keeping his entire coaching staff intact and another top-rated transfer class, as reasons he is excited about what is ahead for 2024. Though there are questions at just about every position, Norvell says he has a faster, stronger team, a team that performed better in offseason winter workouts than any other team he has coached at Florida State.

“I appreciate all the experiences, everything we went through,” Norvell said. “Now you turn the page and what is this team’s journey going to be? What are we going to learn from our experience and how are we going to use that to go get better? People will use a lot of different things to spark motivation. I want the true core of it to be this: Go be our best.”

How that all translates into 2024 is largely dependent on the work being put in now. Smith, a sixth-year senior, is one of three players on the roster who signed with Florida State under former coach Willie Taggart in 2019. He knows how far this program has come. He hurt as badly as anyone when last season ended, and used that hurt to fuel not only his own offseason, but his desire to create the chemistry any team needs to win.

He reminds his teammates of that every day.

“I’ve got to make this one really count, put all my chips in, and just go get that trophy, make sure we don’t fall short,” Smith said. “Make sure we’re that No. 1 pick in the playoffs.”

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