There’s a moment every morning when it all kind of hits me, when I really appreciate that this is actually happening.
It occurs during my morning commute. On my drive in to the facility, I usually have a million thoughts racing through my mind about what I want to accomplish that day. But there’s one brief moment when all of that fades away: It’s when I first see Doak Campbell Stadium appear on the horizon. On a clear, sunny day there really isn’t any view better than that. I still get chills every time.
One of my greatest life goals has been to represent Florida State. And even though the decision to take this opportunity was more difficult than I could have imagined, whenever I see that stadium come into view … I know I’m right where I belong.
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I grew up as the youngest in a family of diehard Noles fans, so it’s only natural that I followed suit.
It wasn’t just my family that followed the team. Growing up in Palmetto, Florida, I was always surrounded by Noles fans. I still remember watching FSU play Miami on a tiny portable TV after one of my Little League games when I was just a kid. This was in the late 1980s when that rivalry was really elevated to a different level. It was truly an amazing time to be a Noles fan living in Florida. I couldn’t even begin to describe it properly if I tried, you just had to be there.
I was always wearing the gear, doing the cheers, watching the games — it was always an event for my family. It didn’t matter that none of us had ever attended FSU or even set foot on campus, much less inside Doak Campbell — that program still meant something to us. Florida State was our team.
Thing is, initially the admiration wasn’t exactly mutual.
I played high school football at Manatee High, where I was coached by Joe Kinnan, who played at Florida State. I was a pretty good player — from a young age, football was the only thing I ever wanted to do — and throughout my high school career I dreamed that Coach Bowden might one day call me into his office and offer me a scholarship to play at FSU. Seriously, that’s where my mind would wander when I daydreamed as a teenager. But unfortunately that moment never came for me (although I like to tell Coach that we’d have won a couple more national championships if it had). So early on it was clear that if I wanted to fulfill my dream of being Nole, I’d need to find another way in.
It was around my junior year at Western Kentucky that I concluded I wanted to pursue a career in coaching.
A big inspiration for that was Jack Harbaugh, who some might know as Jim and John’s dad. When I was first recruited by Western Kentucky — actually by Jim, who I would later work for at Stanford — I was far from a choir boy. I had a passion for football and what it could provide for me and my family, but I lacked the focus and direction I needed to accomplish those goals.
Jack Harbaugh helped change that.
I was a four-year starter at quarterback, and throughout my time there, Jack changed my entire approach to football. He opened my eyes to so many facets of the game I’d never been exposed to. I’m not just talking in terms of the position I played, but also the intricacies of how things worked at every other position on the field. He developed me as a quarterback and as an overall football mind. And I gave everything I had to him because I could tell that he cared about me. He showed that in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes (a decent amount of the time) that meant tough love. You didn’t want to disappoint Jack, because he would absolutely lay into you. You might think Jim is intense, but let me tell you, if Jack really got on you, he could make you melt. I’ll always remember my freshman year when I missed a tutoring appointment — not even a class, just a meeting with a tutor — and Jack screamed at me as if I’d blown the biggest game of the season.
And guess what, I never missed another tutoring appointment.
The biggest thing I learned from being around the Harbaughs was that while there’s a lot of thought and strategy that goes into leading a football team, the most important aspect of the job is understanding how to motivate young men. You need to have a sincerity and forcefulness that engenders respect and makes your players want to sacrifice for you and each other. That’s how you mold a great athlete into a great football player. That was the kind of coach I wanted to be.
After pursuing a few assistant coaching jobs and internships around the country, my first opportunity as a head coach ended up being at Western Kentucky in 2010. When I returned to the program, a lot had changed. The discipline and attitude that had won us championships was gone, and the team was on a 20-game losing streak. Twenty games. Getting to coach at my alma mater, a school i truly loved, was an amazing opportunity. But at the same time, just thinking about the challenge I was walking into led to a lot of sleepless nights. What I learned that first year was something that would be true of every other program I’ve taken over since: There are no shortcuts. There’s no magic formula that results in winning. It’s about building a foundation by knowing when to speak, but especially when to listen.
Our 20-game losing streak stretched to 26 before we finally won a game. But we won a game. That wasn’t our overall goal, but it was a start — a foundation. The following year, we had a winning record. And in the years since I left, as a proud former player and coach, I’m happy to say that the Hilltoppers have had many more winning seasons.
When I got into coaching, the goal was to take it as far as a could and be the kind of mentor that I needed as a young man.
The dream though?
The dream was to coach at Florida State.
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The night before I made the decision to take the Florida State job, I was torn over whether to go through with it.
I didn’t move my family away from Florida to stay in Oregon for only one season. That doesn’t make sense. But I also never, in my wildest dreams, figured the opportunity to become the head coach at Florida State — a job only two other people had occupied in the past 40 years — would pop up when it did.
Truly, there was nothing more I could have asked of Oregon or its fanbase. Everyone had been great. They’d been in my corner since I’d arrived, and right when the Florida State job was offered to me, we were just starting to get rolling in Eugene. The program was in a good place, we had good players and there was more talent on the way. I don’t need to heap platitudes on what kind of program Oregon is — that’s self-evident to anyone who knows anything about this game — but walking away from what we had put in motion there was a decision anyone would struggle with.
Ultimately, it took some help from the people closest to me to find some clarity.
The night before I made my decision, I was with my wife in our room going through all of the pros and cons of staying or leaving.
Kind of out of nowhere, my 16-year-old son came into the room and interrupted us. It caught me off guard because he’d never really weighed in on my previous coaching opportunities. He’d always let me make the decision I felt was best for our family. What I knew for sure was that he didn’t want to leave Oregon. In our short time there he’d made friends, got himself a girlfriend and was generally enjoying life.
But on that night, he offered some much needed insight. He said, “Dad, I know you’re struggling with this decision. ” I told him I was, and the way he responded is something I’ll always remember.
“FSU is your dream job,” he told me. “You’ve had me doing the war chant since I was three, and you’ve always told me to chase my dreams. I know it’s going to be hard, but it wouldn’t be right for me or anyone else to get in the way of you chasing your dream. If going to Florida State is what you wanna do, then I’m gonna ride with you.”
That brought on some tears from me, and we hugged. And that sealed it for me. I knew I was going to disappoint a lot of people. There would backlash and a lot of hurt feelings. But in the long term, I took comfort in knowing this was for the best. My heart belonged to Florida State, and if I let my opportunity to coach there pass me by, I would have ultimately felt a sense a regret that wouldn’t have been fair to Oregon.
This was about the only thing that could have pulled me out of the Pacific Northwest, but of my short time in Eugene, I’m still thankful for all the wonderful people I met and feel confident that the program is in a position to win a lot of games. I certainly hope they do.
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Not long after arriving at FSU, I brought the players together in small groups with myself so they could share their backgrounds. The point of these conversations wasn’t to talk about stats or accomplishments. I just wanted everyone to be able to express what they went through in order to get to where they were sitting.
I did this because it became clear to me not long after I got here that this program didn’t have a talent issue. Sure, we have a lot of young players who need more experience, but there’s no question the talent is in the building.
But from watching this team play games from afar, what I felt was missing was that sense of brotherhood that exists within winning programs, that bond that shows through when players are playing for one another rather than themselves. Our players might have been on the same team, but it struck me that they weren’t as close as I’d like them to be away from the field. It didn’t seem like they were spending extra time at the facility after practice or generally hanging out with each other. That was a problem because the most effective person to hold a player accountable for his performance is another player. But to get to the place where players do that, first they need to know each other, so accountability isn’t interpreted as criticism.
So that’s why I had the players gather together to share where they’re from as well as their trials and tribulations. I did the same with my coaches, some of whom I’d never worked with before. Each session, I started off by telling my story, the good of course, but especially the bad. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of drugs and plenty of crime. I had close friends who ended up in prison as a result of making a couple of bad choices. There are kids who play for me who came from much worse conditions, and some who came from much better, but what I’ve found is that by opening up a bit, they all feel more comfortable sharing a little more of themselves.
I understand why that’s a difficult thing to ask someone to do. This is a sport where so much is said about how tough you are, so asking someone to be vulnerable can be scary. But when everyone does it, teammates gain a certain familiarity and empathy for one another that maybe wasn’t there previously. Before you can accomplish anything else, you need to have that.
I can already see how our players are relating to one another a little better. We, the players and the coaches, all have dinner together three times a week at the facility. You see a lot of laughing and joking, which is good. But it’s also just a start. There is so much more I want to do here.
My vision for this program isn’t complicated. The standard has already been set by those before me. When Florida State is where it’s supposed to be, everyone knows what to expect.
We expect to be ranked in the Top 5. We expect to win the ACC. And we expect to win every game.
Every single year.
What I want to make clear is that we aren’t running from those expectations. We’re embracing them. Every time Florida State takes the field, we expect to be dominant.
We expect the national championship discussion to always run through Tallahassee.
That’s how it was when I was watching us play on a portable TV in the parking lot of Palmetto Little League as a kid.
And that’s how I expect it to be once again.