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Miami vs. Florida State Football: How Two Driven Coaches are Rebuilding a Rivalry

Miami vs. Florida State Football: How Two Driven Coaches are Rebuilding a Rivalry

Miami vs. Florida State Football: How Two Driven Coaches are Rebuilding a Rivalry

Younger college football fans may not believe this, but there was a time when a game played on national television was truly significant. If the big cameras were in town, it was an important game. Period.

So it was on Oct. 7, 2000, when top-ranked Florida State took on No. 7 Miami in front of the third-largest crowd in Hurricanes history at the cauldron-like Orange Bowl. It was a wild game, punctuated by yet another field-goal attempt that sailed wide right at the end of a 27–24 Canes triumph. The field was filled with future NFL players, and the nation was transfixed by the latest installment of the sport's most dynamic rivalry.

Nineteen years later, a different version of the Sunshine State conflict played out at FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium. The ABC cameras were there, but amidst the weekly tsunami of televised football, the game hardly stood out. More noteworthy were 15,000-plus empty seats, a condition that would never have occurred during the rivalry's glory days. The Hurricanes won a 27–10 decision that took almost three-and-a-half hours to complete and barely impacted the ACC universe.

By season's end, FSU coach Willie Taggart was gone, Miami's offense had stalled epically in a 14–0 bowl loss to Conference USA's Louisiana Tech, and the teams had posted identical, unacceptable 6–7 records. What had happened to the most raucous, star-filled gridiron battle around?

"If you went and looked at who finished in the top 10 last year and looked at them over the last 20 or 30 years, they all had down periods," Miami AD Blake James says. "It's something that happens, and we're all combating it at different times, and we're all putting resources toward it."

In Coral Gables and Tallahassee, fans hope that is enough.

• • •

When second-year Miami coach Manny Diaz first heard Ed Reed speak, it was at an alumni weekend in 2019, and he couldn't believe what — and whom — Reed chose to mention.

"Here's a person with every opportunity to talk about himself," Diaz says. "Instead, he mentions, by name, 25 guys on his team. Not the guys who went on to the NFL, but the guys who made a difference in the locker room."    

During the offseason, Diaz hired the Hall of Fame safety as his chief of staff, a somewhat nebulous title on the football org chart but one that will make significant use of Reed's ability to motivate and relate to players and coaches.

"He is off-the-charts elite in understanding team connection and locker room dynamics," Diaz says. "He's so authentic."

While Diaz would probably prefer to have the same Reed who led the Canes to a 2001 national title with an All-America performance that featured nine interceptions, he'll have to settle for the elder Hurricane statesman with the all-world NFL resume and the credibility to let today's Miami players know what it takes to be worthy of "The U" and its legacy.

"'The U' has a brand, and that makes us unique," Diaz says.

Revitalizing that reputation will require more than bringing aboard an old stalwart. Diaz knows that there must be a new culture within the program, one he started building last year when he took over as head coach. He is aware of what helped build Miami's success and popularity — "It comes down to work ethic, competitiveness and toughness," he says — but he knows that the 21st century athlete is not all that aware of the championship days, except for what he sees on "30 for 30" films.

So, he has to craft the updated version that includes a variety of new components. One of the first things he did was increase the program's recruiting staff to make it more competitive against the Hurricanes' counterparts. Diaz understands the value of culture, but it must include players with elite ability. This year's class of recruits was ranked in the top 20 and was highlighted by Avantae Williams, thought by some to be the nation's top safety, along with OT Jalen Rivers and quarterback Tyler Van Dyke. "We have to up the talent level and keep going from there," he says. "Look at the way Clemson did it with Dabo [Swinney]."

After last year's offensive slowdown, which resulted in a 12th-place ACC finish in total yards, change was inevitable. Diaz fired offensive coordinator Dan Enos after the bowl loss and replaced him with Rhett Lashlee, who has worked with spread savants Gus Malzahn and Sonny Dykes and should enjoy employing the considerable talents of Houston grad transfer QB D'Eriq King.

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Staff and personnel matter, but Diaz is more concerned about making sure the team acts as a cohesive unit in all areas. Although last year's season-opening near-miss against Florida was hardly aesthetically pleasing, the Hurricanes looked like they belonged on the field with the Gators. As the season wore on, dissension and a collection of dissatisfied players drained the energy from the squad. Some have left. Others are being encouraged to adopt a more team-centered attitude.

"A year ago, we laid out the culture, and the guys saw the advantage of that on the field for a while and what it can be," Diaz says. "But that can be sabotaged by the actions of a few. Unless we are all together, it doesn't matter."

• • •

When FSU athletic director David Coburn sees new Noles head coach Mike Norvell moving swiftly through the football building halls, coffee mug in hand, he knows what's going on.

"Every time he runs into an impediment or an obstacle, his answer is to work harder," Coburn says. "He doubles down."

Coburn hired Norvell in December, shortly after ending Taggart's two-year run, which was highlighted by a lack of discipline, fourth-quarter folds, and a lack of connection with the boosters. Norvell, who went 38–15 in four years at Memphis, wasted no time making changes large and small to the program's personality.

Out were earrings, hats and headphones in the football building. In were structure, detail, focus and commitment to doing the little things correctly. "It's something I believe in," Norvell says. "When you look at successful businesses and successful organizations there are usually similar values they are built upon."

Those connected with Florida State are quick to remind people that the school won the national title in 2013, so it's not as if this is a complete teardown. But it doesn't mean Norvell, his staff and FSU administrators don't have some changes to make — beyond the removal of headphones. And in today's world, where "tradition" for players is what happened three years ago, and coaches get fired after two seasons, 2013 seems like a long time ago.

When Jimbo Fisher bolted Tallahassee for a pot of gold at Texas A&M, he left behind a program whose players had developed a sense of entitlement and whose academic personality was decidedly cavalier. The goal was to keep players eligible, not help them succeed in the classroom. Fisher intimated that A&M had a stronger commitment to football from the top down, and that the school's facilities were more conducive to big-time success. Norvell reports that Florida State has been able to "enhance different things," like meeting rooms, but FSU lags behind conference rival Clemson in that area.

"I'm not going back to Jimbo," Coburn says. "Our facilities are fine. Jimbo won with our facilities. We all agree we have to continually move forward with facilities. We are in the middle of a fundraising drive, and in the near future we will do some things that need to be done."

Norvell's presence is expected to help the Seminoles in that area. One of the complaints people had with Taggart was that he was unable to connect with boosters and convince them to write big checks. Coburn says Norvell is "very sensitive to that" and expects more generosity from the wealthy supporters.

Smiles and personal relationships are important, but winning really opens the wallets. After several years of great, and often top-five, recruiting classes, FSU has sagged. It's unfair to judge this year's class — ranked 19th by ESPN and 22nd by 247Sports — because Norvell got a late start and last year was such a debacle. Norvell and his staff hope the discipline and energy surrounding the program now can help attract top talent again.

"The brand and excitement that surround Florida State are truly unique," Norvell says. "As kids grew up, they knew about the standard of excellence here."

That sounds a lot like the talk that's coming about 500 miles to the south in Coral Gables. Both Miami and FSU have great traditions and résumés, but today's versions are not at the levels their predecessors reached. Diaz and Norvell expect to return to those days and once again make their annual meeting an appointment college football fans must keep.

"The Miami rivalry is one of the best," Norvell says. "We need to get back to where that rivalry has national significance.

"That would be great for college football."

— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports' 2020 SEC Football Magazine.