The final year of Bobby Bowden's tenure at Florida State looks smooth now when you compare it to his only contemporary's exit late last year.
Joe Paterno's exit was brutal, filled with bizarre behavior and legacy-shattering revelations that will leave Happy Valley reeling for years to come.
Bowden just lost, or at least publicly that's what it was.
Fault the Seminoles for many things, but one thing that was done fairly well in Bowden's final days was the wagons were circled and the infighting amongst the players and coaches was largely hidden away from public consumption where it could truly damage the program.
To this day, it's difficult to ascertain all the politics that played out between regimes and incoming and outgoing coaches as the writing was ultimately scribbled on the wall midseason that 2009 would be the last year in a legendary coaching career.
Instead you're left with momentary glimpses, flashes between scenes where the curtains were pulled back and you could catch a fleeting glance of the inner-workings behind it all.
On Saturday September 26th, 2009, one of those moments occurred when USF handed Florida State an embarrassing 17-7 defeat at Doak Campbell Stadium. It was arguably the loss that got the wheels turning on Bowden's exit and it was indicative of the massive culture problem that Jimbo Fisher inherited when he took the reins of this Seminole team three years ago.
Problems Just Beneath the Surface
"It was so good," said Dustin Hopkins sarcastically when asked how the lockerroom felt after 2009's loss. "I remember we reported the next day and everyone was just kind of like in shock almost, like 'what happened?'"
"I remember they came out swinging for lack of better words, they were on fire, we came out flat and we never recovered."
That moment sent the Seminoles to 2-2, after an opening loss to Miami, Florida State had beaten Jacksonville State 19-9 and then unloaded on #7 BYU in Provo 54-28. The win had the Seminoles over-confident and they got socked in the mouth by a hungry Bulls team the following week.
"I feel like some guys took it to heart and other guys were like ‘I’m done’ kind of thing," said Hopkins. "Not like they quit or whatever, but that loss might not have given them more push whereas I think some guys took it to heart and just kind of stuck in their claw a little bit."
What the loss marked was a turning point in the culture of Florida State. The Seminoles would go on to lose their next two games and drop to 2-4. They spent the rest of the season climbing out of that hole and limped to a 7-6 finish thanks to then-freshman EJ Manuel going 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured Christian Ponder.
Inside the lockerroom, Jimbo Fisher inherited a mess.
"You can tell because a couple spring games that we had here in the past that I won’t talk about we had fights break out during them because we were so divided," said redshirt senior DE Toshmon Stevens.
“It was a little bit [divided], I felt throughout that year it was a little clique-y, we definitely didn’t have the team atmosphere like we do now," confirmed Hopkins. "It was more segmented, [Toshmon] was accurate in saying that."
How to Change a Culture
Jimbo Fisher had a problem that was systemic, held over from the last coaching staff. The team concept was secondary to position groups and competing sides of the ball. For years the defense had carried the offense, then with the arrival of Fisher as OC and the decline of the defense, the pendulum swung in the other direction.
"It was offense-defense, offense-defense and when it was even more divided it was O-line, D-line, linebackers and it got to a point where it became like little cliques and we didn’t talk to anyone else," said Stevens. "Offense? We didn’t care about them, wanted to beat them up, make them cry, have the coach yell at them. Same thing for them."
"Now we go out there, we do our job, we might beat you but we help each other up, we talk to each other, if I beat you on a certain play, I tell you ‘good job, you’ve got to concentrate, make sure you get your block, you’re stepping too much.’ That way we can win as a team. It’s not about yelling at each other and getting on each other’s nerves, which we all do because we’ve got a lot of testosterone, it’s about us coming together so we can have the season we’re having now."
So what changed? Pretty much everything.
As soon as the "In Waiting" was removed from Jimbo Fisher's title and he assumed full control of the team he brought in his own staff and went to work on revamping the fractured culture of Florida State football.
"It takes time," said Fisher. "You have to get to know somebody to build a relationship. We changed the lockerroom to where offensive and defensive players are besides each other at every locker, it’s offense-defense, big guy-little guy, we rotate it so [you're with] guys you’re never around as much. We eat all our meals together, it’s mandatory, you’re not eating off campus, you’re eating in here, so you’re in here sitting more. We try to do more functions, unity council, it’s just a lot of little things that you try to do."
That all seems to be paying dividends, the unity councils for instance are player-run and help the team self-police and maintain accountability without coach involvement. Those wouldn't have happened in 2009.
It's also the kinds of players the team is bringing in. Hopkins alluded to players losing interest (diplomatic wording by Hopkins), those kinds of guys don't end up at Florida State anymore.
"We have a bunch of [like-minded] guys, when you recruit a bunch of guys who have the same goals and aspirations, they kind of think alike they're similar type people, they like hanging around together," said Fisher.
"I think they are [more tightly knit], as a whole they are, because even my class when they came in they got into little groups too," said senior LB Nick Moody, when I asked him about the most recent classes Jimbo Fisher has recruited.
"I think as a class, that’s one thing I noticed, all these guys are kind of friends. That really helps when you start out like that because over the years they get even closer together. I think that’s part of it, because before [my class] started off already broken up into our groups now you start off mixed in, but I think part of it is just the team dynamic as a whole is just better."
It's About the Locker Room
As Fisher said, that dynamic took time to build. But one thing everyone continues to come back to is how much the lockerroom helped. Being immersed with teammates that aren't in the same position group has really lead to the kind of team concept that Fisher is looking for.
"I think part of it is how the lockerroom is now, before it was broken up into segments now it’s just everyone’s mixed in with each other," said Moody. "I think that helps a lot. Overall as a team we’re all like one and not broken up into little cliques and groups and stuff like before.
"There’s people I hang out with now, say offensive linemen, that two years ago I would have never hung out with offensive linemen."
A few things, the buzzword is cliques. I never used that word in any of my questions to Hopkins, Moody or Stevens and all three arrived at the same description of 2009 independently. That underscores the old culture of the Seminole lockerroom.
Now without fail they all mention the team-first dynamic, you notice it when the players pass you on the way to the dining hall, they are in random packs not grouped by sides of the ball or positon. This group seems to legitimately like one another.
And it's paying off on the field.
"Put it like this, there was one day we were practicing last week that we got rained out. Our coaches wanted to take us upstairs so we could watch film, so we watched film of us playing Clemson last year," said Stevens. "We were all in wow because of how sorry we were. We really didn’t notice how good we were or could be until we watched film of how we used to play and saw it side-by-side."