John Thrasher knew how the words would sound. He even warned his audience in advance that "I shouldn't talk much trash." But the Florida State University president was feeling good as he stood at the lectern in front of a room of Seminoles fans in August 2017.
The Orange Bowl trophy was at Thrasher's left, marking Florida State's victory against Michigan nine months earlier. Now, as a new season approached, the Seminoles were ranked third in the country and a date against No. 1 Alabama loomed.
"I think we're going to beat Alabama," Thrasher said. "Pretty bad."
The crowd roared with approval. The Seminoles were a college football powerhouse, fresh off their fifth straight New Year's Six bowl game and four years removed from a national title, with nearly four decades of unrivaled consistency in the sport. The Florida State football program feared no one.
Behind the success, however, the cracks in the program's foundation were obvious to anyone who cared to look deeper: A coach who flirted with a seemingly endless string of deep-pocketed suitors. A contentious power struggle among the program's leadership. Demands for bigger and better facilities stressing an already tight budget. A pervasive attitude of entitlement within the locker room. Declining academic performance. And a string of high-profile, off-field trouble that bruised the program's reputation.
The dysfunction could be overlooked in service of the common goal: victories on the field.
But, by the end of 2017, Jimbo Fisher, the head coach throughout Florida State's most recent run of success, was gone. A year after that, FSU's 36-season bowl streak ended. And, another year after that, the Seminoles were onto their third different head coach in four seasons.
Florida State's downturn is similar to those of other blue blood programs such as Michigan, Texas and Nebraska, but the details are unique to a place that prided itself on being the last successful mom-and-pop shop in the sport's new era, caught between the homespun success of Bobby Bowden's 34 years at the helm and the increasingly high-stakes demands of the big-money enterprise college football has become. It was a program defined by history with no clear vision for the future.
"I really do think moving forward we have in place what we need to be a great program," athletic director David Coburn said. "We have a great young head coach [in Mike Norvell]. We have a top-20 public university to sell. We are in a wonderful recruiting area, and we still have a great brand. With those kinds of pieces in place, I'm very optimistic that we will get back to the upper echelon."
But how did a program that won 29 straight games just six years ago fall apart so quickly, and what obstacles remain as first-year coach Norvell works to rebuild an iconic brand?
ESPN spoke with more than 50 people, including former coaches, players, athletic department employees and Seminole Boosters members, to explore what went wrong. While many key people spoke on the record, numerous sources asked for anonymity in order to be able to speak more candidly about the program. Sources close to Fisher and Willie Taggart wanted to "correct the narrative" they believed the school created to shift blame, while other longtime administrators and boosters said they simply wanted to see changes made to get the program back to where they believe it belongs.
With wounds still fresh, feelings still hurt and blame pointed in multiple directions, one common belief surfaced: Before Florida State's football program can move forward, it must reckon with its past.
The 2014 season: Beginning of the end
Antonor Winston's phone pinged around dinnertime on a Friday in September 2014. It was Fisher. Winston's son Jameis had been at the center of another controversy. After previously being investigated for sexual assault and suspended by the baseball team for shoplifting, the superstar QB had recently stood atop a dining hall table and shouted a derogatory joke that underscored what many outside of Tallahassee believed: Fisher turned a blind eye to bad behavior in favor of on-field victories.
Florida State had already announced that Winston would be suspended for the first half of the Seminoles' showdown against Clemson, a game that would likely determine which team would win the ACC. Fisher agreed to the suspension, but many outsiders believed it was a slap on the wrist. That's why Fisher was calling.
"The son of a bitch caved to the media," Fisher said, according to Winston's father.
Fisher was talking about then-athletic director Stan Wilcox, who changed his mind just over 24 hours before kickoff and suspended Winston for the full game. Fisher, who found out as he and the players boarded the team bus to their hotel, had already designed his game plan around Winston's expected return.
Fisher lambasted the unilateral decision-making so close to kickoff, and sources said he floated the idea he might quit.
"He had other [job] offers at the time," one source close to Fisher said. "It was a f---ing zoo."
Said another source: "He was never going to quit, but he was extremely frustrated."
The Winston debacle was the latest in a string of battles Fisher waged with the athletic department. The coach viewed Wilcox as "a basketball guy," hired from Duke in 2013, without the experience needed to lead an elite football program. Fisher also volleyed with Andy Miller, then-president of Seminole Boosters -- an external entity that had significant control over FSU's spending -- about money he wanted for staff and facilities. (Miller retired in 2020 after 45 years with the Boosters.)
"[Fisher] was demanding and emotional, and there was always something more," one longtime booster told ESPN. "Donors would say, 'Man, we can't satisfy this guy.'"
Fisher believed the football program deserved nearly unilateral support but often found pushback from Wilcox and Miller, who understood FSU's unique donor pool. Florida State's alumni base is comparatively young, and its football success didn't begin in earnest until the 1980s, one Seminole Boosters board member said. That makes for an often shallow pool of big-dollar donors, combined with what is among the most geographically dispersed fan bases of any major school in the country.
"He'd been in the SEC, and maybe he'd seen that when Nick [Saban] wants something, he gets it really quick," the booster said of Fisher, who'd been an assistant under Saban at LSU. "Florida State, there was a delay where we had to go raise the money for a project that doesn't generate revenue."
When Fisher's son was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia in 2011, the coach was eager to kickstart a fundraising program called Kidz First, but Miller worried the foundation would serve as competition for the already scarce amount of donations from the same market of fans. According to several of the coach's close associates, Fisher viewed Miller's pushback as personal, and the relationship became poisoned beyond repair.
Miller's power over the purse strings, according to numerous athletic department officials, also prevented Florida State from hiring more established candidates for the athletic director job. Many officials said Wilcox was ill-equipped to maneuver the entrenched network of local power brokers unique to Florida State and lost support when the man who hired him, FSU president Eric Barron, left for Penn State within a year.
"You could tell when the three of them [Fisher, Miller and Wilcox] were in the room there was something going on," one prominent FSU booster said. "Kind of like when your parents were upset at each other, you knew it but they never said anything. It was that obvious."
Fisher declined to be interviewed for this story, but he issued a statement through Texas A&M saying, "Florida State was great to me and my family and I have many fond memories and lifelong friends in Tallahassee, but my focus is on Texas A&M." Wilcox, who is now the NCAA's executive vice president of regulatory affairs, also declined to be interviewed, saying his current role would make it inappropriate to comment on a member institution.
The dispute was a far cry from Florida State's golden era under Bowden, who turned the Seminoles into a football powerhouse, winning two national titles and more than 300 games during his tenure. One who never publicly discussed finances or feuded with the administration, Bowden had a down-home affability and willingness to win with less that shaped an ecosystem that remains ensconced in the fabric of Florida State.
"It was just very hard to make that adjustment to a guy who really never was collaborative, was rarely appreciative and almost never respectful," one high-ranking official said. "Maybe it was [like] 'Welcome to the real world,' but I'm not sure our folks were prepared for it."
If Fisher was brusque, however, those close to him believed it was out of necessity. Bowden's tenure also ended poorly, as a contingent of boosters ushered the aging coach out the door after many years of mediocrity. As one source said, many at FSU wanted Fisher's record with Bowden's budget. But Fisher saw Clemson's program expanding, including plans for a $55 million football facility that opened in 2017, and he believed Florida State needed to keep pace.
"He knew if Florida State didn't jump on top of it right away, Clemson would eventually overtake everyone," one Fisher staffer said. "Their administration on down, everyone was in alignment with the vision of the program and totally committed to doing what it takes to make football successful."
Fisher's frustration with the administration was mirrored on the field, where many of the same players who had helped him win a national championship in 2013 had turned their attention toward the NFL rather than a repeat performance. Several veterans routinely faked injuries to get out of practice, according to sources on the team and on the staff, while others went through the motions without the same intensity that defined the title team.
"That 2014 team was more talented than the 2013 team," former FSU fullback Freddie Stevenson said. "But a lot of guys' minds weren't in the same place."
Said another member of the 2013 title team: "I took it for granted, winning a national championship. I was like, 'We did it once, we can do it again. It's going to be easy.'"
FSU kept winning, but the season was defined by close calls, including an overtime thriller against Clemson played with Winston sequestered to the sideline. The Seminoles entered the 2014 College Football Playoff riding a 29-game winning streak, but the last four of those wins came by a total of just 14 points.
The lackadaisical approach came to a head on the practice field in December 2014, when Fisher ripped into his team in advance of a Rose Bowl showdown against Oregon. "They're going to blow y'all out if you all come to play how you've played all year," he screamed.
The game was indeed a disaster. Florida State turned the ball over on five of its first six possessions in the second half, and the Seminoles' winning streak ended with a 59-20 blowout.
As one former member of the athletic staff remembered upon watching that game, "[I was] thinking, this is the football gods saying, 'No more.'"
Cultural decline in the Seminoles' program
The air of invincibility evaporated over the seasons that followed the Rose Bowl loss on New Year's Day 2015. The Florida State roster drifted further from the intensely competitive forces of Winston, Nick O'Leary and Lamarcus Joyner to a cast of highly touted recruits who often struggled to adapt to Fisher's demanding practices and Tallahassee's nightlife.
Stevenson said altercations were common between veterans of FSU's best years and younger players who lacked the focus and drive to win at a high level, and he worried what would become of the team after those veterans left.
"We were banking on the success of the past," said one former player. "Everybody lost their way. It was almost like we expected to be good because we were at Florida State."
Nowhere was this more obvious than at quarterback. Fisher's latter years amounted to a patchwork of bad options, while Clemson signed two generational talents in Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, has won the ACC every year since 2015, and played for four of the past five national championships.
Fisher still landed a handful of big-name quarterbacks on the recruiting trail, but none panned out. By 2020, every high school QB he signed from 2013 through 2017 had left the program before completing his eligibility.
Florida State's offensive line was another concern. Under position coach Rick Trickett -- an old-school, hard-nosed coach who routinely lambasted players with salty language and ferocious bluster -- the unit became an annual underachiever, with fans casting Trickett as the villain. Many recruits struggled with Trickett's approach; among the 19 offensive linemen signed between 2013 and 2017, just one went on to be drafted in the NFL, while nearly half didn't finish their careers at Florida State. There was a similar path at receiver, with blue-chip recruits such as George Campbell and Ermon Lane failing to develop into stars, while the defense, despite stars such as Jalen Ramsey and Derwin James, often failed to match the lofty expectations set during Fisher's best seasons.
Fisher signed the ACC's top-ranked class every year from 2013 through 2017, but the pedigree rarely translated to on-field success. His final five classes included 69 blue-chip recruits, and only 12 have been drafted so far (about half the national average). Of the 115 high school players he signed in total from 2013 to 2017, less than half became full-time starters. Meanwhile, 44 of them failed to finish their careers with Florida State by virtue of dismissal, transfer or medical disqualification. The failures were heaviest at QB, linebacker, receiver and offensive line, leaving FSU's roster top-heavy at some positions and bereft of talent at others.
While every Fisher-era player we spoke to agreed the culture within the locker room deteriorated after 2013, none pointed the finger at Fisher and most believed his frustrations with administration were the larger issue.
"A lot of guys who were supposed to step up never lived up to who they were supposed to be. I even put myself under that," said Chad Mavety, a prized juco prospect on the offensive line whose career was marred by injuries. "It's tough to rely on guys who aren't showing up and doing what they're supposed to do."
In the aftermath of Fisher's departure, Florida State boosters and administration suggested Fisher ignored recruiting toward the end of his tenure as he eyed other jobs, but every Fisher staff member we spoke with insisted this was not true and noted the staff met daily for two-and-a-half hours to discuss recruiting targets.
"Recruiting goes on Jimbo's ego," one staff member said. "He wants to be known as the baddest motherf---er in the world, whether he's recruiting to Florida State or wherever. That's in Jimbo's DNA."
Talent wasn't the only concern. By 2017, Florida State football's academic progress rate was the worst of any Power 5 institution and fifth-worst in the FBS. Several Fisher staff members said the coach begged the administration for more academic support, including an academic center for players, but was told by Miller that funding would be difficult to come by for a project deemed "not sexy."
Florida State pushed back on the assertion that Fisher didn't have enough resources in this area, saying it added numerous staff members to its academic support unit that were specific to football. "Academic support is a really important resource, but they've got no teeth if they don't have support from the coaching staff and namely the head coach," one administration source said.
Some players also got into trouble off the field, including multiple allegations of assault against women and a credit card theft scam that ended in the shooting death of one player's half-brother. Just weeks after Fisher left, a series of break-ins occurred in the football housing complex. Police reports said the suspects were former FSU players who had robbed their own teammates of jewelry, cash and even an Orange Bowl championship ring.
Fisher's final blue-chip QB recruit, Deondre Francois, was an example of the tenuous grasp coaches had on the culture. Francois was critical to FSU's success, but he was often unengaged with teammates, one Fisher era coach said, and after a season-ending injury in 2017, he stopped showing up to team activities, including the Seminoles' game against Delaware State. A month after Fisher's departure, police responded to an alleged domestic violence situation involving Francois and his girlfriend. No one was charged, and the case was closed after the responding officer determined there was not enough probable cause to make an arrest for battery. Three months later, police raided Francois' apartment after an anonymous tip that suggested Francois had accounting ledgers, firearms and more than 2 pounds of marijuana in his home. Surveillance revealed assorted drug paraphernalia, along with a hand grinder and zip bags containing marijuana residue that an officer said was typical of a sales operation, according to an affidavit from police. The subsequent police raid, however, found less than an ounce of marijuana, and Francois was cited for misdemeanor possession.
"What we inherited may have been one of the roughest, hardest to deal with groups of kids I've ever been around," one Willie Taggart-era assistant said.
From 2015 on, Fisher struggled to regain command of the locker room, often with embarrassing results. It started with the "Yellow Brick Road," a yellow mat painted to look like the yellow brick road from "The Wizard of Oz" that ran along the path to the practice field. Fisher explained at the time that it was to remind players what their purpose was and "what we have to attain." For a program two years removed from a national championship, it was seen as a bizarre tactic.
A year later, Fisher followed a humiliating loss against Louisville with a pledge, set in each player's locker, that opened, "As of Oct. 4, 2016, I promise to give Florida State football my all." It backfired, with many players finding the pledge beneath them -- "clown stuff," as one former player said.
"Some guys fooled us, and some guys, we took a chance on thinking we could change them," one former Fisher staff member said. "A lot of that is on the coaches."
Fisher saw the deteriorating performance at key positions, one source said, but he was loyal to his own staff, and he refused to fire assistants without guarantees he could hire a top-dollar replacement.
According to sources close to Fisher, he approached administration about a budget increase for assistant coaches in 2016, with an eye toward making changes to his staff. His defensive coordinator, Charles Kelly, made $583,000 in 2015 and earned a $250,000 raise the following year, while Clemson paid its defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, $1.5 million in 2016. The school declined Fisher's request.
"Jimbo is a tough guy but at the end of the day he's a real guy and if he loves you, he loves you," a Fisher staff member said. "And he loved those guys. He probably should've parted ways with them a couple years earlier but he didn't."
At the same time, Fisher was managing his own personal issues. His son's condition, which could be terminal, was a constant source of stress. In October 2015, Fisher's closest ally within Florida State's administration, associate AD for football Monk Bonasorte, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. That same year, Fisher and wife, Candi, separated with the highly publicized divorce finalized in January 2016.
"You don't have all the energy, all the focus of what you can put into coaching us when you have that going on, turmoil at the house," one former player said.
Yet, despite the off-field drama and cultural erosion in the locker room, Florida State kept winning, landing bids to New Year's Six bowls in 2015 and 2016.
But a year later, after Thrasher took the stage to predict a blowout win against Alabama, Florida State's luck ran out.
Fisher's end at FSU, start at Texas A&M
Seminoles fans will say the end of the dynasty came with 5:41 left in the 2017 opener versus Alabama. With the Tide up by 17, safety Ronnie Harrison came on a backside blitz, colliding with Francois, who crumpled to the ground and grabbed his knee. Francois was lost for the year. Florida State was forced to turn to a rail-thin freshman named James Blackman, who wrestled through a disastrous season. The losses mounted, and when Texas A&M called with a $75 million contract offer, Fisher took it.
People behind the scenes, however, believe Florida State's downward spiral started two years earlier, when Bonasorte announced he had brain cancer.
"We were just dysfunction junction," one former administrator said. "And it became more dysfunctional when Monk got sick."
In November 2016, Bonasorte died, and 2017 was Fisher's first season without him.
In a place numerous sources said was defined by "good old boy" politics, Bonasorte was universally loved at Florida State. More importantly, people trusted him. Nearly every source we spoke with, from Seminole Boosters to FSU administration to Fisher's camp, pointed to Bonasorte's illness as a turning point.
"People would call him the mayor," said Bonasorte's wife, Beverly. "I would go to FSU banquets and booster meetings, and he would kind of plant me in a chair next to somebody while he worked the whole room like he was a politician."
Monk grew up near Pittsburgh but he played college ball at Florida State. He fell in love with the place. From the mid-1990s, he was an ever-present figure in sports around Tallahassee, but his first love was always Florida State football. In 2008, he was hired as an associate AD, serving as the go-between among warring factions, acting as the de facto athletic director for football and serving as Fisher's fixer in difficult situations.
Without Bonasorte, tensions over spending escalated to a breaking point. Wilcox focused on several of his goals, including funding an underserved basketball program on the brink of bigger success and promoting a pursuit of comprehensive excellence across all sports. Fisher and Seminole Boosters, meanwhile, often viewed the agenda as counterproductive and siphoning off scarce resources from donors that they believed should have been put toward football.
In June 2016, Fisher had had enough. According to one source privy to the conversation, the coach phoned Thrasher before leaving for a brief summer vacation with an ultimatum: Get FSU a new AD or Fisher would look for work elsewhere. Thrasher, however, was a bigger advocate for Wilcox than Fisher had imagined. Wilcox's push for "comprehensive excellence" dovetailed with Thrasher's vision for the school, even if it stood in stark contrast to how things worked at other football powers. In the 2016-17 Learfield Directors' Cup standings, which measure a school's success across all sports, Florida State ranked 12th, and every public university ahead of the Seminoles either generated significantly more revenue or didn't focus resources on football. Meanwhile, Fisher's archetype for how to invest in football, Alabama, ranked 25th. Rivals such as Miami (56th) and Clemson (52nd) were further behind.
When Fisher returned from his vacation two weeks later, he found that not only had Wilcox not been fired, but Thrasher had offered him a promotion to vice president, along with a nice raise. Meanwhile, Miller fumed over Fisher's constant entreaties for money at Booster Club meetings, which many Bowden-era donors found off-putting.
"Jimbo was adamant that he wasn't going to shake hands and kiss babies," one influential booster said. "And Tallahassee don't work both ways. You can't be the kingpin and get the money."
Eventually, Thrasher instructed Fisher, Wilcox and Miller to communicate exclusively through the president's office, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation.
"When Monk got sick, it became this huge vacuum that [Thrasher] injected himself into, to try to calm the waters, and it just made it worse," one athletic department official said. "Because by then, Jimbo was never going to follow a chain of command. Everything went right to the president."
When ESPN contacted Thrasher to comment on the relationship, he downplayed hostilities but declined to elaborate on the relationships between Wilcox, Miller and Fisher.
"I do not subscribe to the narrative that our recent struggles on the football field are a result of the lack of relationships between some leaders at FSU," Thrasher said in a statement to ESPN released by the school. "I think that is a convenient excuse that is easy to grab hold of for some people."
Miller also suggested the perception of personal animosity was overblown.
"We never turned down a priority request from athletics, not ever even under Jimbo," Miller said. "There were times when we couldn't just instantly produce it. ... Sometimes I think it might have been thought of as being personal, but it really wasn't. It was really more professional, and maybe it was misunderstood at times."
Fisher did get much of what he had demanded. During his time at Florida State, the school invested in locker room upgrades, coaches' office renovations, a new dorm and an indoor practice facility, among other things. The total price tag was in excess of $60 million to go along with a large-scale renovation to the stadium that cost more than $80 million.
The arguments, however, always underscored the difficult dynamic of a program hoping to create a level playing field with wealthier SEC schools. Fisher wanted more money for support staff. Miller begged for a marquee opponent to boost season-ticket sales. Both had valid requests, but neither trusted the other party's motivations.
Perhaps no project caused more internal strife than "College Town," an entertainment district near the stadium built using $45 million from the school's endowment that boosters believed would be a boon for local business, generate revenue for athletics and help sell season tickets. Miller, who was called "a visionary," even by critics, viewed it as his "swan song," according to one source. And since endowment funds could, by law, be spent only on revenue-generating projects, "College Town" was an appealing one for Miller. But Fisher saw it as a diversion of resources that should have been spent on a stand-alone football facility. Again, both points of view were valid.
Fisher argued for more money, which led to "donor fatigue," according to one booster. Miller invested in other projects in hopes of generating long-term revenue, but as a Fisher staffer said, "there was never a clear path for that money. It just kept rolling into the next project, and at the same time, Clemson is just soaring."
And then Texas A&M called.
Fisher held out some hope of salvaging a relationship at Florida State. His sons, Trey and Ethan, were constant figures within the football facilities, and they didn't want to leave. He was actively shopping for property around Tallahassee, looking for a ranch where he and his boys could hunt and fish. Fisher admired Bowden and wanted to create a similar legacy at Florida State. Despite his flirtations with other suitors like Texas, Auburn and LSU, which sources close to the coach said was often about gaining leverage over boosters and administration, those sources believe he always wanted to stay at FSU.
In Fisher's final week, key players within Seminole Boosters urged Miller and other leaders to broker peace. Miller, according to one source, was dubious of Fisher's intentions, noting the coach's previous threats, while also eager to rid himself of the constant haranguing over finances.
Fisher and his then-girlfriend (now wife), Courtney Harrison, had dinner with Thrasher and the president's wife to discuss a possible agreement. The dinner was cordial, and at one point, the women excused themselves to provide Thrasher and Fisher a chance to discuss the future. Fisher's primary objective was to get a blank check to hire new assistant coaches. Thrasher would not oblige, and the meeting ended without an agreement.
Fisher's tenure at Florida State ended on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.
While Fisher met with Thrasher to tender his resignation, news leaked he was leaving for Texas A&M before he had a chance to tell his players.
"I watched him walk to his truck," one athletic administrator said, "and he was crying."
Many of Fisher's staffers went to lunch afterward, and when they returned to the office to pack up his belongings, they found every image of Fisher in the building had been plastered over with hastily printed graphics. In Fisher's office was a suitcase, packed for a night at the team hotel, a shaving kit and toothbrush on the sink, and a roll of dirty socks on his bathroom floor.
"And that was it," the staffer said. "It was just ... done."
The 2018 season: Taggart era begins
In the aftermath of Fisher's departure, multiple sources close to the situation said Wilcox, who is Black, quickly determined he wanted to hire a minority coach. While several boosters wanted to reach out to Miami's Mark Richt, and Mack Brown had expressed interest, Wilcox's list was narrow: Vanderbilt's Derek Mason, recently fired Texas coach Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin, whom Fisher replaced at Texas A&M. When another administrator suggested Willie Taggart, Wilcox scoffed, believing Taggart wouldn't leave Oregon's lavish facilities after just a year on the job there.
But Taggart was a Florida native and a lifelong Seminoles fan.
"That was always Willie's dream job," one source familiar with Taggart's decision said. "He thought, 'If I don't take it now, they haven't had but two coaches in the last 40-something years -- that opportunity may never come again."
Told of Taggart's interest, Wilcox was determined to land what he saw as a home run hire, according to multiple sources close to the situation. Florida State flew a contingent out to interview Taggart in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he had been recruiting for the Ducks. Wilcox, Thrasher, Coburn, senior associate athletic director Jim Curry and board of trustees chair Ed Burr made the trip. Taggart won over those in the meeting with his passionate belief in Florida State, a marked contrast to Fisher's endless demands.
Wilcox pushed for the hire, which was, according to sources, enthusiastically approved by Thrasher and Burr. Negotiations moved quickly and Taggart's agent, Jimmy Sexton (who also represents Fisher and Norvell), secured a six-year contract with a hefty buyout of about $18 million. Wilcox also failed to properly account for Taggart's buyout with Oregon, according to two sources close to the situation, which also included paying off the remainder of his buyout from his previous stop at USF. The combined price tag to hire Taggart was $34.5 million.
Fisher resigned on Dec. 1. Taggart's hiring was announced Dec. 5, making him the first Black football coach in school history. The whirlwind courtship, sources said, meant there was little due diligence that might have clued Florida State's leadership in to problems with Taggart's style.
"When we hired Willie, there was some vulnerability for us because it was so refreshing to have someone who felt like they really wanted to be here," said one FSU athletic official. "For a number of years, it felt like we were being used."
When Taggart walked onto the 50-yard line at Doak Campbell Stadium for the first time, he raised his arms and shouted, "I made it!"
Once settled, however, Taggart quickly found himself immersed in the same cultural and administrative issues that plagued Fisher. According to those close to Taggart, he butted heads with the administration on finances, including constraints on when he could hire his coaching staff and the pay scale for it. The dynamic resulted in a dysfunctional 2018 staff that often argued over roles and responsibilities and failed to coalesce around an organizational philosophy. (FSU denies Taggart's hires were delayed by administration and notes the salary pool for his staff matched Fisher's.) Meanwhile, the program's academic progress scores were so low, according to multiple assistants, that Taggart was forced to keep anyone on the roster who made grades, even if the person wasn't helping the team or undermined his efforts to create a new culture.
"We ran into a buzz saw," said one former Taggart staff member. "It's like a nice, shiny Lamborghini, and then you pop the hood, and it's a 1985 Ford motor. It was a very, very, very, very bad culture. The players didn't feel like the administration had their back, that they weren't trying to take care of them; a lot of the guys are pissed off that Jimbo's leaving."
Former Taggart staff members pointed to Francois' brushes with the law as indicative of the troubled culture they inherited, but the head coach chose to use it as a teaching moment, and Francois was later named starting quarterback for 2018.
Whatever frustrations Taggart had with Fisher's locker room management, he found common ground on the problems with the facilities and echoed Fisher's complaints that May by saying FSU can't "Band-Aid anything anymore."
Florida State had hired an architecture company, Populous, the previous year to develop different ideas for a new football facility, meeting with the company multiple times throughout 2017, including Nov. 28, days before Fisher resigned. Fisher did not attend the meeting. Florida State brought the firm back to campus to garner input from Taggart. Though officials said they had determined to move forward with a stand-alone facility at that time, Taggart's public comments ruffled feathers inside Seminole Boosters, who thought Fisher's departure meant they were done listening to complaints. In the end, Florida State proceeded with plans, and Taggart contributed $1 million toward the fundraising efforts.
In May, Wilcox surprised university leadership with an aggressive facilities plan that included a stand-alone football facility and other amenities with a price tag nearing $140 million. According to one source in the meeting, Wilcox believed his vision would showcase the shortcomings in the more austere plans from Seminole Boosters, tilting the balance of power back toward the athletic department and away from Miller. Instead, the budget line produced audible gasps from some in attendance.
Three months later, on the cusp of Taggart's first game, Wilcox abruptly resigned and went to the NCAA.
The Taggart era's quick ending
Taggart was a players-first coach, hellbent on fixing Florida State football's culture. But when it came to the details, Taggart was the antithesis of Fisher's authoritarian style. There were makeshift practices that occasionally meant assistants didn't know what they were doing until they arrived on the field. Taggart allowed music to blare over the speakers at practice, perhaps the most publicly tangible departure from Fisher. Fans latched onto the gesture as symbolic of a lackadaisical approach that defined the team's game-day performance. Players soon began to revolt.
"They kept saying, 'This is the championship way,' and eventually some of us were like, 'What do you mean this is the championship way? You never won a championship," one former player said. "It went from, with Jimbo, every rep, every practice, you had to do it 100% correctly. That accountability was out the window with Taggart. It was a free-for-all. I felt like I was at practice for a Little League team."
A Taggart staffer echoed the pushback from players but put the onus on them: "They didn't want to hear about this family stuff that we build our program on. They didn't care anything about that mess. It was, 'I've got to get mine.' That's why it was going to take time."
Add in what one coach called "a staggering amount of attrition" from Fisher's recruiting classes and Taggart's first team was a mess from the outset. When Florida State opened at home against Virginia Tech on Labor Day evening to an electric crowd, one person at the game recalled, "There was something visceral coming off this place that you could feel. That was everybody coming together trying to rally around Florida State."
The game ended in a 24-3 Virginia Tech victory, and Taggart's offense, dubbed "lethal simplicity," had already become a punchline.
"They wanted to run this playbook with freaking five plays in it," one former player said. "I'm sorry this isn't the MAC. They're going to catch on to it, and that's exactly what happened."
The up-tempo style never fit Fisher's personnel, former running back Jacques Patrick said, and the problems were obvious on game days.
"You can't put 18-wheeler tires on a Dodge Challenger," Patrick said. "The transition was rushed, but there's still no excuse."
Florida State then unveiled its "Turnover Backpack" the next week against Samford -- an inexplicable knock-off of rival Miami's "Turnover Chain" -- adding another embarrassment for fans who watched as social media skewered the gimmick and the team barely escaped an FCS opponent for Taggart's first win.
It got worse from there. In the regular-season finale against rival Florida -- a team the Seminoles had beaten five years in a row -- the Gators dominated 41-14. The year ended with a 5-7 record, FSU's first losing season since 1976, and no bowl appearance.
"Coach Taggart kept saying we had to rebuild, and we were all like what do you mean rebuild?" one player said. "There is no rebuilding. That's not a thing. We are Florida State. We didn't believe in Taggart. We didn't believe in what they were trying to have us do. How are you going to win games if the team doesn't believe in you?"
Hope for 2019 came from a revamped coaching staff, including new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, who promised to streamline the Seminoles' attack, but even that move had repercussions.
Taggart didn't sign a QB in the 2018 class, in part because the new December early signing date forced a mad scramble to find an uncommitted quarterback. When frustrated offensive coordinator Walt Bell left to take the head-coaching job at UMass, 2019's top recruit, Sam Howell, de-committed, opting to go to North Carolina. Meanwhile, Francois' problems reached a boiling point; Taggart finally dismissed him from the program, leaving Florida State with a massive void at a key position.
Season-ticket sales and attendance figures plummeted. The Seminoles sold 30,831 season tickets for 2019, down nearly 5,000 from Fisher's heyday in 2014. The initial optimism and excitement around Taggart's arrival also began to wane and take an ugly turn. After Taggart's tough first season, a fan posted a meme on social media showing the coach hanging in effigy. Thrasher called out the racist post as "ignorant and despicable," adding that Taggart had the school's "full support." The meme was yet another graphic example to illustrate how difficult it is for a Black coach to be seen simply as a coach in college football.
In the 2019 season opener, Florida State gave up a 31-13 lead against Boise State, allowing Broncos freshman QB Hank Bachmeier to throw for 407 yards. According to a source who was in the locker room after the 36-31 loss, one FSU veteran threw his helmet against the wall and yelled, "This s--- never would have happened with Jimbo." Taggart blamed the loss on hydration issues.
The donors were restless. Taggart's enormous buyout was a problem, but according to one source, donors raised the money and the entire board of trustees went to Charlottesville, Virginia, two weeks later with a plan to part ways with Taggart after the game. Days before, Taggart convinced Jim Leavitt to join the staff as a quality control analyst to help the struggling defense, and Florida State played better in a 31-24 loss to Virginia.
Taggart kept his job, but it hardly quieted the critics. One Florida State fan and his 4-year-old son drew headlines after setting up a "Free Willie" lemonade stand to raise funds for the buyout. The next Saturday against Louisville, Florida State's attendance was 46,530, the smallest home crowd since 1983.
"You could feel the tension," one source inside the program said. "You felt like every single Saturday, you're fighting to keep your job." Florida State hosted rival Miami on Nov. 2, and the offense struggled again amid a rash of penalties. The Seminoles lost their third straight to the Canes, 27-10, and fell to 4-5 on the season.
The next day, Taggart and his staff went into the office for film review and meetings. Players had a regular Sunday lift session. After a staff meeting ended, everyone prepared for the regular team meeting at 3 p.m. At 2:55, new AD David Coburn entered Taggart's office.
"We're going to have to let you go," Coburn said. Taggart left without addressing his team.
Inside the team meeting room, players and assistants began to stir, wondering why their coach was missing. Coburn then walked into the room, and the players immediately understood what had happened.
"We've decided to make a change in leadership," Coburn told the group, then left without taking questions.
Players were visibly upset, with groans of "not again," and "they can't do this." The Taggart era lasted 21 games, just nine of them wins, and Florida State was on the hook for $22.5 million in combined buyouts.
Though sources told ESPN that Taggart's race did play a role in the decision to hire him, it was unclear how big a role it played in the decision to fire him after only 21 games.
"You would be naive to think that didn't come into play in some people's minds," one former Taggart staff member said. "But again, was that the sole reason why Willie Taggart was let go? I don't know that."
Firing coaches before they have completed two full seasons is rare -- though it happened twice in 2019. Arkansas coach Chad Morris was fired the week after Taggart, having gone 4-18 through 22 games.
A month after Taggart was fired, he was hired to replace Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic. When reached for comment about his tenure at Florida State, Taggart said in a statement, "I'm grateful for my time at Florida State, but I've moved on and am blessed with the opportunity I have at Florida Atlantic. I wish Florida State, the players and Coach Norvell the best, and hope everybody gets behind him and the team."
Taggart's dismissal again exposed the key problem Florida State still faces in its quest to rebuild.
"The bottom line is you don't get rid of someone after a year and a half if everyone is in agreement that's the person for the job from the outset," one former Taggart staff member said. "Different factions that affect the bottom line of your program weren't in alignment with a consensus. There is not any one individual that's in control. That's the problem. Who is really in control of Florida State football?"
Where does Florida State go from here?
After the $22.5 million spent on the combined buyouts to hire and fire Taggart, coupled with losing seasons and decreased ticket sales, the financial toll on Florida State has been severe.
In August, Florida State announced a 20% budget cut across the board, laying off several employees in the process. Coburn said more cuts were inevitable due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on revenue.
Numerous administration and staff members point to smaller shortcomings as critical ways to begin rehabbing an image that Florida State simply isn't properly committed to football. Coburn, meanwhile, said the athletic department remains focused on "comprehensive excellence" in all sports.
"They don't have to spend like an SEC team," a former Fisher staff member said. "They just have to think like one. And if they did, they might win every national championship."
Per USA Today's assistant coach salary database for 2019, Clemson ranked second in total assistant salaries, with Texas A&M fourth and Florida State 17th.
One former staff member laughed recalling Fisher stretching to step over students studying in the hallway outside team meeting rooms, which were also used as classrooms for students. Patrick said he didn't think much about the run-down facilities; but after he got to the NFL and talked to players from other schools -- smaller and less successful than FSU -- he realized how far behind his alma mater was. Other former players said that, ultimately, FSU's brand mattered more. The question is whether FSU's brand can sustain more losing while Clemson and Florida are winning and building.
Still, bigger projects loom large amid a concerning financial backdrop.
Coburn said a new football facility remains in the works and that Norvell will be a critical decision-maker in the process. When the season ends, Coburn plans to meet with the coach to determine whether a stand-alone facility or renovations to the existing infrastructure would provide the best path forward. FSU confirmed pledges of $37.5 million toward a goal of $65 million for a football facility.
"Jimbo was pushing for this after the championship in 2013," one former administrator said. "Imagine if there was a Jimboland before there was Dabo World. Think of some of the kids they'd have been able to woo."
There has also been a massive restructuring of leadership that has helped turn the page on some of the long-standing conflicts. Last year, FSU and Seminole Boosters formed the Florida State University Athletics Association so the athletic department and booster organization fall under the same umbrella. The FSUAA oversees all athletic programs, including budgets, facilities and fundraising. Many have speculated how much better Florida State would be today if Fisher and the Boosters had found common ground.
"If they had given Jimbo what he wanted, Florida State would be 'it' right now," said former Seminoles linebacker Jacob Pugh, who played from 2014 to 2017. "The man was going to be the next Bobby Bowden. He was never supposed to leave Florida State. He doesn't even look right at Texas A&M, but I understand."
Michael Alford, the former athletic director at Central Michigan, was hired to replace Miller. One longtime Florida State staffer described Alford as "the best hire they've made in 30 years." Thrasher also announced in September that he would retire as president once a replacement was identified.
Alford said he is meeting with every Florida State head coach in a "listen and learn" tour and that he has a "great working relationship" with Norvell.
"We have 100 percent the right guy for the job," Alford said. "Our job is to provide [Norvell] the resources to be competitive and the opportunities for that program to grow."
Some wonder whether the small steps forward will be offset by another woeful season on the field. Florida State is 2-6 and enters this week's game against Clemson (12 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN App) as a five-touchdown underdog. If the Seminoles do not win another game, it will mark their worst season since 1974, two years before Bowden arrived.
"It's not about a coach," Stevenson said. "We only go as far as these players want us to go. The leaders have to decide what type of team they are. Do they want to be the laughingstock of the country, or do they want to be respected again?"
Norvell described the state of his locker room as "fragile" when he arrived in December 2019, acknowledging the toll the coaching turnover has taken. Seniors who signed in the class of 2017, sold on promises of national championships under Fisher, are now on their third head coach in four years. High-profile players, like Marvin Wilson and Tamorrion Terry, who opted to return to school for their senior seasons, called Norvell to account for a lack of transparency and communication. Thus far, 16 players have left the team since Norvell arrived, including Terry, who opted out in November. Blackman, who was benched after two games, announced his intention to transfer, and Wilson, the unquestioned team leader, had his season cut short because of injury.
"These guys didn't know who I was when I walked through the door," Norvell said. "I didn't ask them to trust me. I asked for the opportunity to show that I could be trustworthy, and that's a daily process. It's going to continue on in Year 3, 4, 5. When there's been so many faces these kids have had to try to build relationships with, there is a little bit of a guard that's put up: not knowing or not feeling comfortable with everything that is always changing. We're trying to stabilize that."
Norvell is still trying to figure out what he needs in order to win, but fans remain restless. He believes the administration understands what changes need to come. The important thing, he said, is to do it right, with an aligned vision, from the president all the way down to the players.
"We're going to build a foundation that's going to allow for sustained success moving forward," Norvell said. "That was something that was understood, and we're excited about the direction we're going to be going."
Patience is a scarce commodity at a place that spent four decades as a dominant force in college football.
"If you give Mike Norvell four years, I think he'll get that done," one former Taggart staffer said. "But the amount of pressure at a place like that, it's like, you've got to win tomorrow."
The 2020 campaign has shown this won't be a quick fix. Not only have chief rivals Clemson, Florida and Miami surpassed the Seminoles in the win column (all three are top-10 teams), but the latest ESPN recruiting class rankings have Florida State at No. 19, behind all three of its rivals.
Asked to estimate a timeline for Florida State's return to prominence, people we spoke to suggested three years, but perhaps longer given the financial setbacks induced by COVID-19 and catastrophic on-field performances. Some wondered whether an impatient fan base would give Norvell the time he needed to fix the crumbling foundation.
"While an Alabama fan can remember the years lost in the wilderness for perspective, most Florida State fans have never experienced that before," one source said. "They're in a deep, deep hole."