Lessons of History Encourage Optimism for Seminoles
By Charlie Barnes, Executive Director - Seminole Boosters
There's a wonderful book by historians Will and Ariel Durant called "The Lessons of History." It's a small book, barely 100 pages, but it is the summary of the basic mechanics of human civilization. Married for 68 years, the Durants spent their lifetime together studying and writing about the world's great civilizations in exhaustive detail. Their work was published in 11 massive volumes across four decades, 1935 to 1975. Both died in 1981.
"The Lessons of History" was published in 1968, the same year the Durants were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. They are unsmiling in their book jacket photo; perhaps not inappropriate considering the general tone of this work. I have the sense that they heaved a great sigh and threw up their hands at the unending follies of mankind. The Durants seemed to be resigned to the truth that innate forces of biology are what drive civilizations.
After this column is published I may set it aside and revisit it in two years, or three or four, as our football program regains its former exalted status and fulfills our fondest hopes. The message that the Durants seem to offer us is that people really haven't changed in two-and-a-half millennia, and much of what has already happened among humans is a fair predictor of what will happen in the future. We'll see if that applies to our Seminoles.
If the Durants are right, then we Seminoles can benefit from lessons we find inherent in the realities of big time college athletics. Even if some of us are uncomfortable with those realities, 2010 is an opportunity for us to begin to apply the lessons we have learned and to strengthen our entire athletic program.
LESSON #1 is that Florida State is a football school.
I was astonished and immensely pleased when Florida State finished 5th in the Directors' Cup, which evaluates all college athletic programs on a point basis. This achievement is even more amazing than you think. The standings are based on points awarded for high national finishes in 20 sports - 10 men's and 10 women's - and you get to choose which sports you want to count.
The finishers ahead of us were Stanford, Florida, Virginia and UCLA.
The reason Florida State's rank is so astonishing is that we only have 19 sports in total! Stanford University, the nation's No. 1 ranked program, has a $200 million athletic endowment fund. Florida State has a $40.7 million athletic endowment fund. Stanford's 31 varsity sports include women's lightweight rowing. A national championship is any sport is given as much weight as a national championship in football.
The time from 1981 through 1986 was a sort of upscale purgatory for Seminole football. We had winning seasons and did not lose a single bowl game. But for six straight years we failed to beat Florida or Auburn, and beat Miami only twice.
During that run, Seminole Boosters appealed to our fans and donors by aggressively promoting the achievements of our overall athletic program, and there was much to praise - we won five National Championships during a four-year span in the early 1980's; our basketball team did well in Metro League play and our baseball team was a featured regular in the College World Series.
But a mounting series of losses to our nearest and most bitter football rivals could not be offset by extolling the achievements of our other sports programs. Our Booster contributions and our ticket sales depended on the emotional infrastructure of football. Winning in any sport is good, but football is where our fans' identities lie.
At a football school, the damage from just a few mediocre seasons in a row can be extensive. Alumni, fans and donors who want to win look to the athletics leadership for a willingness to right the ship.
The truth is that all sports at Florida State depend not just on excellent coaching and steady Athletic Department leadership, they also depend very much on the funding necessary to sustain excellence. The primary sources of that money involve football, and when football is in decline all other sports suffer in proportion.
LESSON #2 is that winning matters.
There are only a handful of schools with the realistic chance to win a BCS national championship. Florida State is one of those few. We have the weather, we have the means to compete and we have access to numbers of the best high school players in the country.
Most head coaches are hired with the expectation that they will have winning seasons, go to an occasional bowl and perhaps challenge for a conference title. At Florida State, our goal is to win a national championship. Every year. Coach Bowden stated it clearly in the 1990s. Jimbo Fisher's constant goal is to go all the way, to challenge for the BCS title; he has no illusions about the expectations of the fans and administration.
If we intend to compete successfully at the Division I level, then Florida State has to do better than almost anyone else. Why? Because Miami is on its way back and Florida is already there. And because last year South Florida beat us in our own house. Our recent experience is stark reminder that even with non-losing seasons, tens of thousands of season tickets and contributions to support the entire athletic programs evaporate when the fans feel that winning is no longer the first priority of coaches or administrators. Average isn't acceptable to our fans, alumni and donors who have to live with Hurricanes and Gators and other ambitious programs also nearby.
LESSON #3 is the knowledge that, to professional coaches this is just business.
At schools where winning is the priority, coaches are hired to win. Where excellence is demanded, the smart head coach or athletics director knows that other considerations are best kept at arm's length until winning is established.
It's apparent that we have a great coaching staff at FSU, but don't expect the assistant coaches to stick around. Ambitious, aggressive assistants want to get better jobs as coordinators, and coordinators want to become head coaches. Evidence of the quality of our coaching staff will be found in the jobs they take after they leave Florida State. It's the business they're in; the color of their shirts may change many times.
I think Jimbo is a bona-fide big-time winner and nothing would please me more than for him to finish his career at Florida State, but it's unrealistic to expect that he will be here for 34 years. Coaching is his profession, and it will take him where it will.
Coach Bowden was candid over the course of his career about his own designs on leaving. He has said that he originally intended to stay at FSU only a few seasons. He said he probably would have taken the job at LSU in 1979 had his team not beaten the Tigers in Baton Rouge. He made no secret of seeking the Alabama job in 1986. Also, during his FSU tenure he was actively recruited by several NFL teams.
Some coaches do come to love their universities; Coach Bowden certainly came to love FSU and still does. Joe Paterno, Steve Spurrier, Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley, Tom Osborne, Mack Brown...all developed emotional ties to the programs with which they are most closely identified.
But in the end, coaches come and go. There's too much at stake; too much money on the table, too many fans and alumni who depend on responsible leadership for Florida State to allow sentiment to overwhelm decisions.
LESSON #4 is that winning is expensive.
You've got to pay to play, as the saying goes. It's no accident that the National Champions of recent years have been football programs with huge budgets. The best players gravitate toward the best coaches with the best facilities and the widest national exposure. Florida State has a tremendous advantage because we are located close to large numbers of great players. We have a great history and still enjoy a substantial national reputation.
Jimbo Fisher has been very straightforward about what it takes to produce a championship program. He has hired nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and more. With permission from the athletics director he says he has financed it with the difference between his salary and Coach Bowden's.
As we move forward and Florida State continues to win, that formula will become unworkable. We are trying to raise funds now to build a $15 million covered practice facility, and even more money will be needed to keep pace with our rivals. For excellence to be sustained indefinitely, a high quality number of recruits must be maintained and proven, professional position coaches must be in place to evaluate and develop the talent.
Never underestimate the importance of your contributions to Seminole Boosters and your involvement as volunteers and participation in Booster activities. Support from the Seminole Boosters organization is one of the enduring constants that makes winning possible. Your membership in Seminole Boosters, at any level of giving, is a substantial gain for Florida State and the Seminoles.
Despite their misgivings about human nature, Will and Ariel Durant do offer us an optimistic conclusion. While human nature hasn't changed, the fabric of civilization has been enriched by layer upon layer of philosophers and accumulated wisdom across the centuries. They write, "History is not merely a warning reminder of man's follies, but is also an encouraging remembrance of generative souls. Be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy..."
As for us Seminoles, if we are unhappy about the state into which our program fell in the final years of the last decade, we can take heart in knowing that all of the wonderful achievements of the dynasty years, all of Coach Bowden's good works on the field and off, as well as the great coaches before him are permanently woven into our history, and those strengthening fibers allow us to welcome these best of times to come with optimism. Let us, as they say, be grateful for our inexhaustible legacy.
There is much to be learned from all that.