Willie Taggart says he wasn’t surprised. He says all of this feels familiar.
These sentiments, coming from the mouth of a Florida State coach who went 5–7 and snapped the Seminoles’ streak of 36 consecutive bowl seasons, might ring a little hollow. The comparisons to the rebuilds Taggart took on at Western Kentucky and South Florida might even feel a little insulting to the fans of a proud program that won a national title less than six years ago.
But before we bury Taggart, before we assume this won’t work, would it be too big of a stretch to consider that he might be at least a little correct? “You found out why you were in there,” Taggart says of his first year on the job. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it was harder. There were just some issues that needed to be corrected and won’t get corrected overnight.”
The narrative from Tallahassee following Jimbo Fisher’s departure for Texas A&M was that Fisher had slacked in his final years, allowing dead weight assistants to drag down the program on the field and on the recruiting trail. That isn’t completely accurate, but an honest appraisal of the talent Taggart inherited plus the recently released APR scores—Florida State’s was the lowest in the Power 5, and that can’t be hung on the new guy—suggests that complaining by the Florida State faithful may have been more than sour grapes.
But also consider the possibility that some of Fisher’s chief complaints—that the Seminoles needed better football facilities* and the unusual structure of the athletic department administration made alignment difficult—also were true. It doesn’t excuse 5–7 at a place like Florida State, but when there was more than a kernel of truth in each constituency’s criticisms, it proves that Taggart walked into a more difficult situation than it seemed from the outside.
*Florida State and Florida are in similar places with regard to facilities. Each just built an indoor practice facility, but each needs to build a standalone football building to keep up with the programs they recruit against. Both currently are raising money to do this. Florida State hasn’t done it because the Seminoles have had to be careful with a limited amount of money. Florida hasn’t done it because success in the 1990s and in this century’s first decade created a hubris in the administration that the Gators didn’t need to do what everyone else did. Now both programs are trying to explain to recruits why they don’t have the toys that Daboland has at Clemson. The difference is that despite these issues, Florida’s Dan Mullen went 10–3 in his first year and whipped Taggart’s Florida State, snapping a five-game losing streak in the series.Mullen’s early on-field success only increased the pressure on Taggart.
Now mix into these circumstances a resetting of Florida State’s athletic department. It didn’t make national headlines, but the Seminoles lost athletic director Stan Wilcox to the NCAA last year. The job was open for eight months. A national search was conducted. In the end, Florida State president John Thrasher pulled the interim tag off interim AD David Coburn, who had previously served as Thrasher’s chief of staff. Coburn spent decades working behind the scenes in state politics, so he’s suited for the job. But he also understands that one of the main reasons he was hired is one of the main reasons established ADs wanted no part of a job that, to the untrained eye, seems as if it would be one of the best in the nation.
One of Coburn’s mandates is to repair the athletic department’s relationship with Seminole Boosters. Why wouldn’t the athletic department and the booster club be on the same page? Because for decades, the president of Seminole Boosters has been more powerful than the athletic director at Florida State. Boosters president Andy Miller, hired in 1975 at age 24 to run the club, was a driving force of Florida State’s success for decades. But he doesn’t have to answer to the AD. That’s unusual. At most other Power 5 schools, the athletic director directs the booster club to fund the projects the AD deems most necessary. It doesn’t work that way at Florida State. “We have a lot of folks we do business with who find that abnormal,” Coburn says. That’s why ADs weren’t jumping at the opening. And it’s why the current Florida State administration wants to make the Seminoles operate more like everyone else. “I understand that it is an outlier in terms of how everybody else is structured,” Coburn says. “And it’s no secret that we’re working on that relationship.”
Thrasher will retire in the next few years. So will Miller. When their replacements assume their posts, expect Florida State to be run like most other athletic departments. The athletic director will make the big decisions. Other than hiring the replacement for retiring baseball coach Mike Martin, the people currently in charge would rather not make any big decisions.
That’s where Taggart comes in. No one wants to have to make the big decision, so he needs to make the Seminoles better. Last year was an unmitigated disaster, and the reasons for that are legion. Last spring, everyone in Tallahassee seemed higher on James Blackman as Florida State’s starting quarterback than Deondre Francois. So it seemed odd when Francois was named the starter in camp. As the season went on, Taggart’s goal became clear. He wanted to redshirt Blackman. He didn’t want to play the 6'5", 182-pounder so slight he’s nicknamed “The Slim Reaper” behind an offensive line that started below average and then devolved into chaos as injuries mounted.
Unlike Scott Frost at Nebraska, who happily opened the door to leave for players who didn’t want to get on board, Taggart elected not to burn everything down. Nebraska was downright horrific early, but that was partly a byproduct of Frost finding the group he could ride with. The Cornhuskers got better as the season progressed. Florida State was still struggling to line up offensively in game 12. That’s why the perceived trajectory of those two programs is so different even though the Seminoles actually won one more game than Nebraska did last year.
But perhaps we’re underrating how much Florida State’s roster churn will change the dynamics within the program. SB Nation’s Bud Elliott and Ingram Smith released a great episode of The Nolecast last month. (If you’re a Florida State fan and you aren’t already subscribed on iTunes, what are you waiting for?) In it, Elliott and Smith review every single signee from the Jimbo Fisher era and look for trends. One they found? Leadership—but in the wrong direction. Some of Florida State’s most influential recent leaders set some of the worst examples. Think of all the good linebacker Telvin Smith brought out in his teammates on those great Florida State teams earlier this decade. Now imagine the opposite. The other interesting trend Elliott and Smith noticed was something called cluster luck. Elliott explains the phrase using baseball. If you allow nine hits over nine innings, you probably win the game. If you only allow nine hits but they all came in one inning, you probably lost the game. The cluster luck of injuries at linebacker and on the offensive line in the past three years was unusual. More standard luck—especially on the offensive line—might have changed the complexion of last season. Maybe it might have meant a lower-tier bowl game instead of staying home for the holidays, but that still would have been better.
Coburn says Taggart knows what he needs to do and has taken steps to fix the issues that arose last season. “He’s got a goal in mind, and he’s been through this before,” Coburn says. “He knows how it works. He knows the pressures that happen initially and how to deal with it.”
Offensive coordinator Walt Bell left in December to become the head coach at Massachusetts, and offensive line coach Greg Frey was fired. Taggart hired Kendal Briles away from Houston to run the offense and also brought longtime Briles family offensive line coach Randy Clements to work with the Seminoles’ most critical/most fragile position group. This was met with protest from those who believe the coaches who worked with Kendal Briles’s father Art at Baylor should never work again because of the sexual assault scandal that led to the firing of Art Briles in 2016. The law firm that conducted the review recommended firing Art Briles, and its findings led to the ousters of president Ken Starr and athletic director Ian McCaw, but it did not recommend firing any assistants. Kendal Briles and Clements remained steadfast in their support of Art Briles following his firing, possibly to their professional detriment. Or maybe not. Florida State is the third school—after Florida Atlantic—to hire Kendal Briles since he left Baylor.
The younger Briles keeps getting hired because he runs an offense that works. His mandate will be to make the offense look the way it was supposed to look last season and never did. When Taggart and his staff saved their jobs at USF in 2015 and set up an 11–2 season in ’16, they did it by installing an offense that borrowed liberally from the offense Baylor ran under the elder Briles. Taggart was one of the few outsiders the Baylor staff let in, so there aren’t many people in college football who truly know that offense. Kendal Briles is one of them. Whether that offense will look any better with a revamped line and Blackman pulling the trigger—or maybe it’ll be Wisconsin graduate transfer Alex Hornibrook, who will join the fray in camp—is anyone’s guess. If the offense is better, it will provide a boost for a defense that was slightly above average in 2018 despite being young and playing opposite a pathetic offense that put it in terrible field position most of the time.
It’s easy to look back at last season and assume Taggart’s tenure will be a short one. But popping the hood on the Seminoles reveals a more complex picture. Everyone in the administration wants Taggart to succeed because they want Florida State to succeed—and because no one wants to have to hire a coach before the athletic department is reconfigured. The Seminoles never should have been this big of a project. But they are, and it’s still entirely possible that the guy Florida State hired still may be capable of getting the job done.
A Random Ranking
If you haven’t watched the Game of Thrones finale, skip this section.
You’ve been warned.
O.K., now that those guys are gone, let’s power rank the top 15 Game of Thrones characters following the events of the finale. (If you just want to complain with me, skip to What’s Eating Andy.)
1. Bran Stark
2. Sansa Stark
3. Arya Stark (Living her best life west of Westeros)
4. Tyrion Lannister
5. Grey Worm
6. Brienne of Tarth
7. Davos Seaworth
8. Asha Greyjoy
10. Samwell Tarly (The great-great-great-great-great grandfather of Democracy)
11. Drogon (Hey, he’s still a freaking dragon)
12. Jon Snow
13. Tormund Giantsbane
14. Gendry Baratheon
15. (Ser!) Podrick Payne
Three And Out
1. The NCAA has created a working group to examine the possibility of allowing athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness rights. That last sentence sounds super boring, but it’s actually a very big deal. While we don’t know what this discussion will bring, we do know that this is a discussion the leaders of college sports never would have initiated 10 years ago. Perhaps the pressure from Congress will speed up progress.
2. SI’s Ross Dellenger checked in on the two recently fired Power 5 head coaches serving as coordinators at Ole Miss.
3. SI’s Tim Rohan took a deep dive into Professor Mike Leach’s final exam at Washington State. Can you answer these two essay questions?
A. Can the British strategy for the Malaya Insurgency be used today?
B. Is the Wishbone a viable offense for the NFL? Why or why not?
What’s Eating Andy?
This is also about Game of Thrones, but no spoilers here.
Last year, I was foolish enough to tweet that I thought the Game of Thrones showrunners had improved upon where George R.R. Martin left off in the books. And I meant it at the time. Though some consider the books to be holy texts, GRRM had bogged down in some places and had some disparate plot strings that it felt difficult to tie together in the span of the two books he planned to write.
The show got the story moving again, and I appreciated that. But what I failed to notice is the show got the plot moving too fast, and that warp speed hurt the story badly in the final season. Whether because of budget constraints or contractual issues with the cast, everything had to be crammed into too small a space. Combine that with the showrunners’ apparent aversion to using the story’s fantasy elements and you get a series finale with no “Oh, snap” moments and a bunch of people talking at the end. What separated Game of Thrones from Succession or Billions was its ability to mix political intrigue and human drama with dragons, zombies and smoke baby assassins. The showrunners gave us the Night King because the books demanded they have a final battle between humans and White Walkers, but they didn’t have nearly as much fun with him as they could. Ditto for Bran, who was essentially sidelined for two seasons and used chiefly as a vehicle for exposition when he returned to the screen. All this led to moments that felt unearned and the abandoning of story elements that the show had spent years building up as important.
So please, GRRM, give us The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. I don’t care if the ending is the same. I just know you’ll get us there in a more satisfying way.
What’s Andy Eating Drinking?
When you start buying your beer in quantities fewer than six, you’ve officially crossed the threshold into snobbery. I had to accept this at some point in late 2017. When I gleefully grabbed a four-pack of Boulevard Brewing Company’s Bourbon Barrel Quad and placed it in my cart, I knew there was no turning back. Unless I had friends who preferred a certain brand coming over for a party, I wouldn’t be buying any 18- or 24-packs again*.
I hadn’t grown a beard or moved to Brooklyn or started blogging about HBO shows, but I still had become one of those people.
My evolution from whatever-is-cheap-and-cold to That Guy was gradual. I always liked the beers that did a little extra. I drank the But Light and Natty Light in college, but if I had a few extra bucks, I sprang for J.W. Dundee’s Honey Brown (which was still comparatively cheap). I met my wife at the one bar in town (circa 2000) that had a huge draft beer selection. On the night we met, ladies drank $3 Long Island Iced Teas and everyone could get $2 pints. This was good, because I started the night with $44 in my bank account and the cover charge ate $5 of that. Four more of those dollars purchased two pints of something called John Courage. It was not lost on me that I had the stones to speak to such a beautiful stranger while drinking literal liquid courage.
*The fine folks at Cigar City Brewing in Tampa sell their Jai Alai IPA in 12-packs of cans, so I occasionally can still break the six-beer buying barrier.
The one that put me over the edge was the aforementioned Bourbon Barrel Quad. At the time, Boulevard only made it as a limited edition and it only came in bombers (basically a 750-milliliter wine bottle filled with beer). Bourbon has long been my favorite spirit, so I figured I’d try a Belgian quadrupel aged in bourbon barrels. The first sip stunned me. It was strong and sweet and rich. It was everything I’d ever wanted in a beer, which explained why I’d had to pay $12 for the bomber. It disappeared quickly, and then another realization hit me.
I. Am. Drunk.
Well, of course I was. I’d just consumed 25.3 ounces of beer that contained 11.2% alcohol by volume. I hadn’t paid attention to the ABV number before, but I have with every beer I’ve purchased since. And I like the big numbers. Not because I want to get hammered. But because they usually come with heavy, barrel-aged beers that taste like drinking dessert. One (12-ounce) bottle is plenty. Two is a big night. Don’t drink more than that. You’ll embarrass yourself and your loved ones. Besides, these things usually run between $14 and $18 for a four-pack. Don’t waste the good stuff when you’ve passed the point of diminishing returns.
I’ve since found a few of these that I love. Dragon’s Milk is a barrel-aged stout from New Holland Brewing that can put the finishing touch on any meal. Founders, the excellent brewery in Grand Rapids, Mich., makes two fit-for-dessert beers. One is Backwoods Bastard, the barrel-aged version of the brewery’s Dirty Bastard Scotch ale (which is great in its own right). The other is Curmudgeon’s Better Half, which is an old ale brewed with molasses and aged in maple syrup bourbon barrels.
But the best I’ve found so far comes from the Sunshine State. Funky Buddha Brewery, located near Fort Lauderdale in Oakland Park, Fla., has pumped out some of the most imaginative brews to ever generate a buzz. No Crusts, a brown ale that tastes like peanut butter and jelly, is a classic. Funky Buddha’s Sweet Potato Casserole is a must at your Thanksgiving celebration.
But the one I keep putting in my fridge is the Manhattan Double Rye from the brewery’s Mixology Series. They mix double rye ale (aged in High West Distillery rye whiskey barrels) with a Belgian trippel aged in wine barrels. The result is a 12.7% ABV beer that’s supposed to taste like a fizzy Manhattan that actually tastes better than the best Manhattan—and you don’t need a cocktail shaker, a funny-shaped glass or those expensive dark cherries.
It’s the perfect nightcap, and if that makes me a beer snob, so be it. I’ll happily raise my pinky the next time I tip one back.