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We turned the FSU job opening into a playoff bracket. Here’s who won.

John Romano | After eliminating six contenders, we reduced the FSU coaching search to Mike Norvell and Matt Campbell. One is a safer pick, the other may have a higher ceiling.
Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, who made a name for himself with high octane offenses as a coordinator at Arizona State, is 36-15 in his four seasons with the Tigers. [CHRIS O'MEARA  |  AP]
Memphis head coach Mike Norvell, who made a name for himself with high octane offenses as a coordinator at Arizona State, is 36-15 in his four seasons with the Tigers. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]
Published Nov. 29, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — You can whiff on one football coach. Eventually, everyone does.

Maybe it’s the wrong coach for that program. Maybe it’s the wrong coach at that time.

Or maybe it’s just the wrong coach.

No matter the cause, it happens. Even college football’s greatest programs have been through it. You can call it a slip, a miscalculation, a bad lunar cycle. You can blame the athletic director, the university president or fate. One mistake is always correctable.

Two mistakes can change everything.

Related: RELATED: The FSU coaching search is winding down: Time to get out your brackets!

A two- or three-year blip can become a five- or six-year trend. Recruits look at you differently. Boosters learn to live without you. And suddenly, if you’re Miami, you go from five national championships in less than 20 years to finishing outside the top 10 for 16 consecutive seasons.

This is where Florida State is today. Not quite in decline, but near enough to sweat.

FSU cannot afford another step backward. The current malaise began at the end of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure and did not abate during Willie Taggart’s short stay. That makes the current coaching hire the difference between a short downturn and a potential tumble.

Do the Seminoles listen to their players and hand the job to interim coach Odell Haggins? Do they listen to their accountants and make a splash hire? Do they listen to common sense and hire the best fit for their university, no matter what the headlines and social media might say?

The hour is growing near. The regular season will be completed this weekend with only a handful of teams still competing in conference championships. A hire should be made in the next 3-10 days.

Looking for a fun way to review the most widely speculated candidates, we’ve conducted a coaching bracket the past few days. Haggins, Josh Heupel, James Franklin and Brian Kelly were eliminated in the quarterfinals. The Clemson coordinators (Brent Venables, Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott) and an anonymous wild card entry were eliminated in the semifinals. That leaves today’s championship round.

Related: RELATED: Is FSU desperate enough to take a leap of faith with its new football coach?

No. 1 Matt Campbell vs. No. 2 Mike Norvell

It’s probably no surprise, but our two finalists share common ground.

Norvell is 38, Campbell turns 40 today. Norvell is in his fourth season at Memphis, Campbell is in his fourth season at Iowa State. Both were offensive coordinators before becoming head coaches. Campbell is the 36th highest paid coach in college football ($3.6 million) and Norvell is 54th ($2.66 million).

Even so, Campbell feels like the safer choice.

He’s had two jobs as a head coach (he went 36-15 at Toledo) and he’s been in a Power Five conference. Campbell also has some experience rescuing a program that has fallen on hard times – Iowa State was 8-28 in the three years before he arrived.

And despite all of that, I would still hire Norvell.

While Memphis was in good shape when he arrived, Norvell has taken the program a step beyond. The Tigers have been in the past two AAC championship games and will be in their third straight if they beat Cincinnati tonight.

His offensive system is innovative, exciting and has caught the eye of other coaches. He lost nearly his entire coaching staff to promotions in the past two years, with his assistants going to Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn. A half-dozen of his former assistants are now coordinators elsewhere.

Norvell has been linked in the past to head coaching jobs at Arkansas, Louisville, Colorado and Kansas State. A bigger program will eventually snatch him up, and this might be the year to get him before he is tempted to go elsewhere.

Not that this should be the deciding factor in a decision this important, but Norvell can be bought out of his contract at Memphis for only $500,000. Campbell’s buyout at Iowa State is reportedly $6 million.

Are either of these coaches can’t-miss candidates? No. Neither is in the same area code as Bob Stoops, who apparently told FSU he wasn’t interested. And neither Norvell nor Campbell will get hearts racing in Tallahassee.

But both appear to be solid choices with Norvell perhaps having a higher ceiling.

Winner: Mike Norvell.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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