TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Five sleeps before one of the more seismic jolts in recent Florida State football history, Mike Norvell paces inside the Dunlap Training Facility as players loosen up for practice. He stops occasionally, cupping his hands to his mouth to shout something. It’s an accident if anyone hears him. The school’s ubiquitous “War Chant” aggressively churns over the loudspeakers; the man who runs this program has made it nearly impossible to listen to him, while choosing to scream into the din anyway.
This happens every day, mostly because once the head coach does a thing, he often obligates himself to do that thing in perpetuity. Norvell decided the chant would start practices, so best anyone remembers, the chant has started every practice since he arrived in late 2019. Same way he daily yells “Good morning!” loud enough to be heard two floors up in the Moore Athletic Center. Same way a “Hi, everybody!” precedes media sessions like a starter’s gun popping.
A coach compelling everyone into his time loop. Florida State football, a flat circle. “Every day, he’s the same person,” says junior tight end Markeston Douglas. “He’s never changed.”
Some things, of course, shift. Sometimes a hurricane closes in on the area during preparation for a massive season opener. Sometimes a work crew props open an emergency exit door and an alarm annoyingly whoops throughout the entire practice. Sometimes the Seminoles have been a punchline, losing more games in a month than in whole seasons. Sometimes they’re five days away from beating LSU to launch College Football Playoff expectations, like they are in this particular moment. Sometimes they fly into a storm in Boston and barely come out the other side, prompting everyone to ask who they are again.
Norvell has been around for all that, shouting into the noise, sprinting from one field to another, telling everyone to hurry up. He chose to be the same. Now everything’s different.
Places to be. One way there.
“You need to prove,” Florida State’s coach says, “you can get through it.”
This is Mike Norvell’s eighth year running his own college football program.
He’s asked if it feels more like 80.
“Well,” Norvell says, “a couple of those middle years were really, really interesting.”
He laughs a little, because he knows they were interesting in the way piloting a space shuttle through a magnetic storm is interesting. It’s the same this week as the fervor over that opening-night win against LSU has run up against a disquieting struggle at Boston College last weekend, after which the head coach flatly conceded his team didn’t play to its standard. A trip to Clemson awaits on Saturday. The identity of Norvell’s 2023 Seminoles, suddenly in the balance again.
Going a long way up, really fast, creates a long way down, too.
Norvell became a passing-game coordinator at Tulsa in 2009, his second season as a full-time assistant coach. He was an offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh two years after that. He was 34 when Memphis made him the youngest head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision at the time. Norvell had the Tigers in the Top 25 in Year 2 and the Cotton Bowl in Year 4. It happened that Florida State had jettisoned Willie Taggart after just 21 games and needed yet another new head coach, so Norvell bounced to Tallahassee the day after Memphis’ New Year’s Six bowl invitation landed. Into the exosphere. Full speed ahead.
Then the engines dropped clean off. Florida State lost 10 of its first 13 games under Norvell, including the ignominious 0-4 run to start 2021 that included the program’s first loss to an FCS team. By the end of that season, the Seminoles coach infamously had a Twitter Space devoted to his two-year tenure. It was titled “Fire Mike Norvell.”
Around every corner, someone with a razor-edged opinion of him. “It’s really easy to question what you’re doing, how you’re doing it,” Norvell says of those dimmer days. Meanwhile, he didn’t do that. Florida State would change, and the coach wouldn’t. Because the coach wouldn’t. It was going to work like that or not at all.
“I mean, I was very passionate about what we were doing,” Norvell says now. “I was very convicted. I got to watch the players. I saw the practice. I saw the belief; I saw they didn’t stop, they didn’t question, they didn’t pull back. So I was very passionate about where we were going. And I had the utmost confidence of what it would be.
“Obviously, there’s plenty of outside noise. And there’s the internal drive of wanting to be successful. When I came to Florida State, my expectations were to win every game from the very beginning. And that didn’t happen. We had to go through some challenging moments. But I never lost belief in what it would be, and then it just came down to the work.”
The most effective part of the work has been consistent talent evaluations. Florida State under Norvell has been as good as anyone – or better – at one of college athletics’ increasingly critical chores: plucking high-end contributors out of the transfer portal.
Thirteen offensive and defensive players who started against LSU, for example, began their college careers elsewhere. Quarterback Jordan Travis, an early Heisman Trophy front-runner, decamped from Louisville for Tallahassee a year before Norvell arrived. Jared Verse, meanwhile, was not happenstance. He was a sack-happy defensive end for Albany, an FCS school, when he decided to transfer. Soon after, a former high school coach checked in with a question.
Why did the Florida State coach just call me?
“That was before I even heard from Florida State,” Verse says now. Norvell had begun a background check before he even made contact with the player who would record 17 tackles-for-loss, including nine sacks, and earn first-team All-American honors from The Athletic in 2022. Norvell was struck by Verse’s “relentless motor;” the Seminoles coach still recalls a clip of Verse chasing a Syracuse running back, maybe 50 or 60 yards down the field, during a blowout loss. Even more intriguing was Verse using downtime on his official visit to launch his phone’s Google Docs app to finish an eight-page paper for a class at Albany.
Some dogged enthusiasm helped sell Verse, yes. But Florida State’s relatively dire predicament did, too. “All I know is hard work,” Verse says. “That’s just how I am. When someone puts in that much work and you know what kind of people they’re bringing in, you know it’s going to be a good program. You know no matter what their record was – this is somewhere I want to be.”
Still, though transfers remain a boon – receiver Keon Coleman was the breakout star of the LSU win, months after leaving Michigan State – Norvell pushes back on the notion of winning primarily due to instant, ready-made talent infusions.
He points to Patrick Payton, the redshirt sophomore defensive end typically opposite Verse, the future first-round NFL Draft pick. Payton was a four-star prospect from Miami, sure, but he also was ranked 155th in the country, a 205-pound, all-gas-no-brakes player likely too lean and too raw to contribute immediately. “Speed, speed, speed, every time,” Payton says.
Florida State’s coaching staff called or texted every day anyway. He redshirted his first season – a personal disappointment for the player – as he learned how to use his hands, among other things, to contend with college-level offensive linemen. By the end of 2022, Payton was Florida State’s first ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in a decade. “When I had those dark days, (Norvell) still was pushing, pushing, pushing,” Payton says. “After the season, I looked back, and I saw they were real for that.”
Florida State’s 2023 recruiting haul was its highest ranked since Norvell’s arrival – 16th nationally, according to 247 Sports’ ratings – and contributed to the depth of talent raising the competitive level internally during the preseason. “You got top guys on both sides of the ball you can learn from,” linebacker Kalen DeLoach says. But the roster is not an entirely instant-mix product. It’s a lot of solid projection and attentive follow-through.
“It’s still about who,” Norvell says. “The talent is one thing. But who’s behind the talent?”
There is that, yes.
It is not because things went smoothly that a crowd gathered in a Twitter Space to rage about Norvell in December 2022. The transition was an emery-board rub to people outside the building … and many people inside it. The on-field results reflected the latter. “When he first got here, everybody was against him; a lot of people were selfish,” offensive lineman Maurice Smith says. “He had to get through that and weed out the cancers in the group.”
Even when it was a subtle revolt, it was insidious enough. Players who were disinclined to give the best practice looks if they weren’t seeing the field enough, and so forth, eroding the foundation. “In the moment, you didn’t notice that,” running back Lawrance Toafili says. “Until you see the change. I saw the change once everybody started to see how it works. How the work works.”
That word greets Florida State each day, to the left of the ramp to the practice fields: WORK. It’s the only catchphrase splashed on the only way into the area. The one sign with directions for the way through.
“A lot of coaches, one day they’ll be hyped, the next day it’ll be less,” Verse says. “Even with him, I’m sure that happens … but you can never tell. Because he doesn’t do fake energy.”
Or as Smith puts it: “Now nobody complains. Everybody just follows what he says. We were against him, and, obviously, he proved us wrong.”
On Aug. 2, Florida State had a moment.
As conference realignment roiled, a Board of Trustees meeting convened and the school’s president declared the shake-ups in the Big Ten and SEC had plunged Seminoles athletics into an “existential crisis,” saying Florida State would have to leave the ACC “unless there were a radical change to the revenue distribution,” which prompted one trustee to propose the school build and execute a strategy to leave the ACC within a year. This didn’t materialize – or at least Florida State didn’t give the ACC the requisite notice by an Aug. 15 deadline – but the school wound up as one of a trio unapologetically opposed to the league’s eventual annexation of Stanford, Cal and SMU.
Sound and fury. War chant, indeed.
Curiously, the discussion did not involve the man most responsible for making Florida State’s best case. But then Mike Norvell is accustomed to existing in the middle of all the noise.
“Control the controllables,” he says. “That’s what I’m here trying to do every day. That’s been my focus. I get to do this with some great people. Got a wonderful administration, from the president, board of trustees, athletic director, just all that represents Florida State. I let them handle that. If I’m ever needed in a conversation, I’m always available. But I’ve got a job to do.”
Not too long after he said that, his team scored 31 straight second-half points to beat then-No. 5 LSU. More than 10 million people, at the peak, bore witness on television. The Seminoles vaulted into the top 5 of the national rankings for the first time in seven years. Then came a trip to Boston College two weeks later, with yet another hurricane churning nearby along the Atlantic coast. Florida State nearly blew a three-touchdown lead before escaping with a 31-29 win against a mediocre and masochistic outfit; Boston College committed an absurd 18 penalties, including a disastrous face mask on a third-down stop with a minute left to play. The Seminoles ran out the clock. They could not avoid the juxtaposition of their two games against power conference teams, something that the head coach seemed altogether too aware of.
“That game didn’t need to be what it was,” Norvell said during his weekly news conference Monday. “But maybe it was just the thing we needed to show the importance of every snap, every rep, every opportunity. I think our guys, they got the message. And now we have to go do something about it.”
On Saturday, a vulnerable but capable Clemson team awaits, at home in Death Valley and parked just outside the national polls. Beat the Tigers, and the imaginations start running wild again. Florida State can claim to be everything it insists it is. Fall short, and the Seminoles are far from dismissable … but they also spend the next two months clambering to recapture what they found against LSU, only to let it slip too quickly.
Mike Norvell’s team has gone up fast. Now it has to avoid the long way down. We’ll see if Florida State can hear its coach through the noise.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Maddie Meyer, Joe Robbins / Getty Images)