Why FSU’s youth football clinics matter to Mike Norvell’s long-term success

These clinics aren’t about recruiting. But the Seminoles wouldn’t complain if they helped down the road.
FSU football coach Mike Norvell and his staff have instructed more than 3,000 children so far during their series of free clinics across the state.
FSU football coach Mike Norvell and his staff have instructed more than 3,000 children so far during their series of free clinics across the state.
Published May 25, 2021|Updated May 25, 2021

TAMPA — When Mike Norvell arrived at Florida State a year and a half ago, he already understood one of his most important challenges: He was a relative stranger to this state and its fertile recruiting grounds.

He isn’t a Florida native, as Miami coach Manny Diaz is. He hadn’t previously coached here, as Florida’s Dan Mullen did. He hadn’t even recruited the area heavily, as USF’s Jeff Scott did at Clemson.

So Norvell, a Texas native coming from Memphis with no SEC or ACC experience, vowed not to be a stranger much longer — especially to the Florida high school coaches and prospects who will make or break his Seminoles tenure.

Related: FSU’s historic Tampa Bay recruiting class is (almost) all gone

“The only way you get to build trust,” Norvell said in his introductory news conference, “is by making daily deposits.”

Norvell and his staff have spent the past month making deposits all around the state through a series of free youth football clinics, including last week’s stop at the Tournament SportsPlex of Tampa Bay.

Technically, the clinics have nothing to do with recruiting. They can’t. Participation is limited to students from second through eighth grade, and signs throughout the complex remind everyone that FSU staffers can’t have contact with high schoolers or their coaches due to the NCAA dead period.

Norvell is clear that these daily deposits are a way to live up to one of the pillars of his program: service.

“Some of these kids that we’ll see will one day probably be Florida State Seminoles,” Norvell said of the more than 3,000 children his staff instructed over the first 10 clinics. “But right now, it’s not for the immediate gratification of what recruiting might be years down the road. It’s about giving back now.”

FSU football coach Mike Norvell addresses children during a youth football clinic in Tampa.
FSU football coach Mike Norvell addresses children during a youth football clinic in Tampa. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]

Even long-term payoffs aren’t the primary focus, Norvell wouldn’t complain if they became a positive side effect from his program’s outreach. FSU, frankly, could use the help.

The Seminoles only got a few weeks to recruit on the road before the pandemic shut everything down last March. Instead of getting to canvass the state during spring and fall evaluation periods, FSU was grounded in Tallahassee.

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Related: View renderings of FSU’s football operations center

Though every school in the country faced that same challenge, it hit harder for a staff like Norvell’s — new coaches in a new conference in a new state. If nothing else, the youth clinics have finally given coaches a chance to get to see all of Florida as they crossed it in a garnet and gold Astro Travel bus.

The I-4 corridor (stops in Tampa, Orlando, Kissimmee and Lakeland). The East Coast (Jacksonville, Melbourne) and the West Coast (Fort Myers). Three days in the southern Miami-Broward-Palm Beach hotbed with the Panhandle (Pensacola and Tallahassee) on deck.

“That’s also been a great opportunity for me, for the staff, to see the state, to be able to show the investment into the state of us trying to get back,” Norvell said.

Norvell promised to show that investment to high school coaches during his introductory news conference. He said he’d “extend my arms and open our doors for every high school coach in the state of Florida to come be a part of getting this program back to where it deserves to be.”

The pandemic made that promise much harder to keep. Norvell and his assistants have done what they could through phone calls and Zooms, but those tools can’t replace face-to-face interaction.

Related: Florida State’s future hasn’t looked this bright in years

The limitations certainly haven’t helped in-state recruiting; only six of FSU’s 16 high school signees were from Florida (excluding Bradenton’s IMG Academy), and none were among the state’s top 35 prospects.

That has to change, if Norvell is going to lead FSU back to national relevance. The state’s championship teams have historically been built through maximizing in-state talent. Signing three blue-chip Floridians a year won’t get it done.

One way to fix that problem? Get out of the office to let the entire state get a glimpse of what Norvell calls the Seminole Way.

“Any coach that takes a job in the state of Florida is going to talk about the importance of the state,” Norvell said. “But who’s really willing to invest in it? And that’s what this is about…

“Even though we can’t see any high school coaches, we can’t see any prospects, we’re here for the youth. We’re here to help lift up the communities. I think it’s been pretty special.”

Judging by the high fives and smiles at the sportsplex last week, FSU’s 3,000 campers agree.

We’ll find out whether Florida’s prep coaches and prospects feel that way, too.

Related: McKenzie Milton isn’t just back. He’s a serious contender to start at FSU.

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