TALLAHASSEE — With Florida State coach Bobby Bowden under mounting criticism as his football team struggles, folks continue to ask why things have gone so wrong.
You've heard the theories over the years. Chris Rix's inconsistent play at quarterback. Jeff Bowden's stint as offensive coordinator, which ended after the 2006 season. Now Bobby Bowden for not retiring years ago.
But it's naive to offer up a single reason for the Seminoles' decline during much of this decade. It isn't as simple as a ship colliding with an iceberg. Instead, it's more appropriate to point to a series of events — some of which you couldn't pin on any one suspect — beginning more than eight years ago that produced a cascade effect still being profoundly felt as the team hosts Georgia Tech today.
Richt's departure, January 2001
After the 2000 season, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mark Richt left to become head coach at Georgia. FSU lost not only a seasoned and accomplished play-caller, it lost a stellar teacher with a calming, confidence-building demeanor. His quarterbacks improved during their careers, and it wasn't just from the talent surrounding them.
In Richt's place, Bowden elevated son Jeff, the longtime receivers coach, over the protests of then-school president Sandy D'Alemberte, and hired Daryl Dickey to coach the quarterbacks.
As a play-caller, Jeff Bowden would get conservative — and a bit predictable — if his quarterback struggled. And that happened. A lot. Was that the play-calling, planning or teaching?
As with most things, a combination and not all had to do with one person alone.
Consider: Rix threw for 24 touchdowns and had a passing efficiency of 156.6 in 2001 when he was the ACC freshman of the year. He never improved either statistic. Drew Weatherford, the former Land O'Lakes quarterback and a tireless worker on and off the field, threw for 3,208 yards and 18 touchdowns as a freshman in 2005. He never came close to duplicating those numbers. By the way, FSU last won the ACC title in 2005.
Devaughn Darling's death, February 2001
Devaughn Darling, a rising sophomore expected to start ahead of future standout Michael Boulware at linebacker, collapsed and died during an offseason workout. It was linked to sickle-cell trait, a genetic condition.
Young men who considered themselves invincible had to face the reality they were not. Some were angry at the coaches for pushing them too hard during the workouts. (The drills were adjusted the next year to address safety concerns with more water breaks, for example.) The anger, for some, turned to a mistrust that didn't help the environment. You can bet high school prospects were exposed to that.
Meanwhile, Darling's twin, receiver Devard, wasn't cleared to play for FSU and transferred to Washington State where he had 104 catches for 1,630 yards and 18 touchdowns in two years.
Of the FSU receivers who began their careers since 2002, only Greg Carr finished with more touchdown catches (29) than Darling had in his time with the Cougars.
McPherson dismissal, November 2002
After losses to Miami and Notre Dame, Bobby Bowden benched Rix and turned to heralded sophomore quarterback Adrian McPherson. The Seminoles won their next three with McPherson hitting 51-of-98 for 654 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception. He also gained 121 yards on 28 runs. Critics of Jeff Bowden, by the way, grew quieter.
But after his fourth straight start, a loss at North Carolina State in which he played poorly, McPherson was dismissed from the team. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested and charged with felony grand theft and misdemeanor theft and, later, charged with misdemeanor gambling. After a first trial on the gambling charge resulted in a hung jury, he pleaded no contest and received probation.
In FSU's search for stability and stardom at the most crucial of positions, Bowden has lamented that "McPherson might have been the answer." But he wasn't, and the Seminoles' search dragged on through much of this decade.
Loss of talent
All of that happened years ago, so how does that play into what folks are seeing these days? Well, the ship began taking on water then and the only way to slow it, or stop it, was through recruiting.
But each of the aforementioned events affected recruiting to varying degrees — less than energetic or effective recruiters on staff, other teams pointing out FSU's woes, fewer marquee players who could in turn lure other prospects. (Who doesn't want to play with a Charlie Ward or Chris Weinke or Peter Warrick or Derrick Brooks or Peter Boulware?)
FSU also has been hampered by signees who didn't live up to their hype, some of which must come back to shortcomings in the evaluation process but also to player development through teaching — a clear demonstration of how interwoven and complex the problem.
From the 2006 class, for example, linebacker Marcus Ball, safety Anthony Leon, tight end Brandon Warren, offensive tackle Daron Rose (Jefferson High), running back Marcus Sims and receivers Preston Parker and Damon McDaniel all could be starting or getting significant playing time as seniors this year. All left early for various reasons (Parker was dismissed and Rose had academic woes, neither of which can be blamed on Bowden).
Warrick, in town recently as FSU honored the 1999 national championship team, said he has heard the grumbling that his coach's era should end and argues against that stand.
"It's the people that you have out there; Coach Bowden ain't running no plays," he said. "For the players to have a great coach, they have to back up the coach. They've got to go out there and step it up. Somebody's got to make some plays and right now, we don't have that."
Brian Landman has covered FSU athletics for 14 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347. Follow his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/seminoles.