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Why FSU’s Mike Norvell isn’t Willie Taggart 2.0

Florida State’s new coach has a lot in common with its old one, but the differences will be vital to the Seminoles’ success.
Florida State new head football coach Mike Norvell, wife Maria and 5-year-old daughter Mila are introduced during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Clemson in Tallahassee on Sunday. [MARK WALLHEISER  |  AP]
Florida State new head football coach Mike Norvell, wife Maria and 5-year-old daughter Mila are introduced during a timeout in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Clemson in Tallahassee on Sunday. [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]
Published Dec. 8, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — When Mike Norvell strolled into Florida State as its new coach Sunday, he received the same kind of hero’s welcome that Willie Taggart did only two years and two days earlier.

The Seminoles chose Norvell after a five-week search for many of the same reasons they hired his predecessor: Because he’s a young offensive mastermind who built his rising-star reputation in the American Athletic Conference. And Norvell won the news conference on the same stage in the same room in front of many of the same people that turned on Taggart in less than 24 months.

RELATED: 10 thoughts and notes on FSU coach Mike Norvell’s introduction

The Seminoles hope the déjà vu ends there. They can’t afford another 9-12 disaster like the one Taggart led.

As similar as Norvell and Taggart are at first glance, there are five reasons to think the 38-year-old Texas native will succeed in a way Taggart never did.

“He’s a winner,” FSU president John Thrasher said.

That was a major selling point for the Seminoles and their fans. Although Taggart left USF and Western Kentucky better than he found them, the 47-50 career record he brought to FSU was an ominous sign of his future.

Norvell doesn’t have that problem. In four years at Memphis, Norvell was 38-15, including 12-1 this season. He’s responsible for the program’s best three-year stretch ever and coached the No. 15 Tigers to the AAC championship and the right to play Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.

RELATED: How have American Athletic Conference coaches fared in the Power Five?

“As (search firm consultant Glenn Sugiyama) kept saying to us, ‘Nothing predicts future success in this business like your past record,’” athletic director David Coburn said.

Norvell’s past record has other positives that suggest a successful future during his six-year deal (financial terms have not yet been disclosed). Taggart doomed himself early by failing to land a championship-level staff. At least five of Norvell’s former assistants became Power Five coordinators, and he had the best year in Memphis history despite replacing seven assistants last offseason.

Florida State head football coach Mike Norvell answers a question at a news conference Sunday. [PHIL SEARS | AP]

Norvell has proven he can tweak his offense to fit his personnel — the sign of a great coach. He fielded a top-10 passing attack in 2017 and the No. 4 ground game in 2018. This season was somewhere in the middle with a top-10 quarterback (Brady White) and one of the nation’s most explosive running backs (Kenneth Gainwell). All three offenses finished in the top eight in scoring.

But Norvell also stresses special teams, where FSU has struggled for years.

“People can talk about offense and defense,” Norvell said, “but if you want to see a team that has tremendous culture, tremendous passion, tremendous belief in each other, watch them on special teams.”

If you watched his Tigers this year, you saw the third-best special-teams unit in the nation (according to SP+ advanced metrics) and more explosive kickoff returns than anyone else. Those easy-to-overlook plays will be critical for Norvell’s ’Noles, who will need every edge they can get to win with what will likely be FSU’s worst roster of the modern era.

RELATED: Five things to know about Mike Norvell, FSU’s next coach

And that leads to the final critical reason why Norvell seems different than his predecessor: He knows what he’s getting into.

Norvell said all the right things about restoring FSU to its championship glory Sunday, but he did so with a sense of realism. While Taggart said his job would be more of a realignment than a rebuild, Norvell stressed step-by-step progress.

“I believe the sky’s the limit for where we can go,” Norvell said. “But I also understand the journey it’s going to take.”

It’s foolish to know one way or the other whether Norvell can lead that journey. Coaching hires are crapshoots. Dan Mullen was Plan C at Florida. Thrasher fatefully called the decision to hire Taggart a “no-brainer.”

Looking back, Thrasher said the search that netted Taggart was too fast. With a slower process, maybe the Seminoles would have followed up more on another name they considered in 2017 — a whiz-bang offensive guru who had a lot in common with Taggart.

Two years and two days later, they took their second chance and hired Mike Norvell. Now they must hope the similar resumes lead to different results.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes

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