There is Magic in Believing...Tom Nugent
By Jim Joanos
Over my lifetime, I have heard a lot of speeches. I have forgotten most. There is one that I will never forget.
Shortly after Tom Nugent became the head football coach at Florida State in 1953, he gave a talk to the FSU student body. It was held one evening in the outdoor theatre of the Music Building. Its purpose was to rally support for the football program. As charismatic as they come, Coach Nugent was a talented speaker. He told us that in order to be successful, it was necessary to first believe that you could be. He emphasized that while it was most important for his players to so believe, it was also important to the rest of us, the students, the fans, everybody. "There is magic in believing". Those of us who attended went there that night for information about the team and the new coach, we left with a lesson for life.
The philosophy worked for Tom Nugent at FSU. He was quite successful. As head coach from 1953 through 1958, his overall record at FSU was 34 wins, 28 losses, 1 tie. While he did not have an overwhelming won-loss record, it was excellent, considering that those were the days when FSU was first starting to compete with the older, more established programs. Nugent led FSU into the big time. In his second season, 1954, the team made it to the Sun Bowl. In 1958, his FSU team beat the University of Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, 10-0. It was the first victory in the modern era over a Southeastern Conference Team and remains as one of the biggest wins in FSU football history. Also that year, FSU beat the University of Miami for the first time, and played the University of Florida for the first time since 1904. Following the 1958 regular season, FSU played in the first (and last) Bluegrass Bowl in Louisville, Kentucky. After the 1958 season, Nugent left FSU to go to a more established program that offered him huge inducements including guarantees of financial help in the education of his children. The Nugents had nine children, five boys and four girls. Ironically, the school that lured him away was the University of Maryland, an ACC team, which is now on FSU's annual schedule.
Nugent, was flamboyant. One of the jobs that he had during college at Ithaca in New York, was in show business as a singer. An all round athlete, he also participated in numerous college sports and won a total of ten varsity letters. In his youth, he was also a pretty good boxer and fought a few "club fights". After his college years, he became a very successful high school coach in several sports at the high school in his hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts. His early coaching career was interrupted by a letter from Uncle Sam. Nugent's name was one of the first in the country to be selected by the lottery type draft in early 1941. He served in the field artillery and by the time of the attack at Pearl Harbor, had risen to the rank of staff sergeant in a tank destroyer batallion. Soon, he was chosen for Officers' Training School and eventually rose to the rank of Captain. Despite his desire and repeated attempts to be in "a fighting unit", because of his experience as a coach, he spent most of the war years in the Army Air Corps designing and implementing physical training programs for cadets and aviators. Perhaps, the extremely tough practices that he was later known for at FSU were the result of his wartime experiences and knowledge gained in his post of director of physical training for the Air Corps.
After the war, Nugent went back to high school coaching, this time in Virginia. He first coached in Williamsburg and then in Hopewell. After both his football and track teams won the state championship, the Virginia Military Institute ( VMI) came calling and he became their head football coach. At VMI, his teams beat Virginia Polytechnic Institute (now Virginia Tech) three years in a row. He also coached against the famous Harold "Red" Blaik at Army and even upset one of Bobby Dodd's Georgia Tech teams. His team also defeated FSU in 1952, when he apparently caught the eye of President Doak Campbell. After that season, when Coach Veller gave up coaching football, and FSU had a vacancy, Campbell and Athletic Director Howard Danforth went after Nugent and persuaded him to become the new FSU head coach. Incidentally, in his first year at FSU, Nugent's team defeated VMI, which still retained most of the players that he had coached the year before when VMI had beaten FSU.
Pat Hogan, served as Sports Information Director, during some of Nugent's years at FSU. Hogan describes Nugent as being extremely innovative and creative in both coming up with ideas to inspire his players and in the techniques he employed in coaching. Others echo that description of Nugent. Nugent is given credit by many for the creation and development of the "I" formation, which is still used by a number of football teams. He sometimes used double quarterbacks. He had his players stand at 'parade rest' all facing the other team while huddling. It was called the "typewriter huddle". Units that looked good in the huddle were praised. He also occasionally used something called the "befuddle huddle" according to Hogan. On receiving a kickoff, Nugent would have the player receiving the ball take it up the field where the rest of the team was gathered in a huddle. The ball would be handed to another player and then they would all break the huddle and go in different directions so as to "befuddle" the opposing team.
Hogan recalls that just before the Bluegrass Bowl game, Nugent's last at FSU, the Coach asked him to find the ABC television broadcasting team so that he could talk to them. Somehow, Hogan managed to find Harry Wismer and Howard Cosell and bring them to Nugent. Nugent then proceeded to tell them that for this game the FSU team was going to be using a specially designed procedure called the "Shifty I". The system called for the team, while on offense, to employ a nifty shift into or out of the I formation. It might have been a good idea but nothing much worked for FSU on that cold, frigid day as FSU lost its last game under Nugent to Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State) 15-6. It was so cold that day that the plastic nose guards the players wore on their helmets became brittle, broke, and created a hazardous situation.
Nugent loved to sing. Occasionally when they met, he made Hogan sing, "Rag Time Cowboy Joe", with him. His favorite song was "Peg of my Heart" that he would sing at parties in honor of his wife, Margaret, whose nickname was "Peg". Nugent players were taught the alma mater and he made them sing it in chorus style at the homecoming Pow Wow.
Nugent also conducted some very innovative coaches' clinics. One was titled, "Passing Fancy". On the program were Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Bobby Thomason, Bobby Layne, and Harry Gilmer. All had been great college or professional passing quarterbacks. Coaches from high schools and colleges in twenty-two states came to FSU for the clinic to learn from the masters. It was a big time event for a college with such a short football history. Nugent had other clinics that featured other big names such as Vince Lombardi, Pat Summerall, and Tom Landry.
Hogan remembers being called on a Fall Saturday of an open weekend by Nugent and summoned to Nugent's home on Lake Ella Drive. He did not know what to expect. Upon arrival, Nugent proudly displayed a new S-shaped dining room table that he had just installed. Then Nugent blew a whistle. Immediately the nine Nugent kids came scrambling from every direction and took their seats. The S-shaped design and seating assignments individually accommodated all of the kids comfortably as some were right-handed and others left-handed. He was definitely, innovative.
They say that a team emulates its coach. Well, Nugent is quite a character. And, it seems, that a lot of his players also fit that description. They certainly adopted his "magic in believing" philosophy as many of them overachieved as football players, in campus life, and later in the world of business and industry. But most of all, the "Nugent Boys", like Nugent, have become very interesting human beings. During the six years that Nugent was at FSU, he coached about three hundred players. To this day, they continue to be a close knit group and many of them keep up with each other regularly. They have annual reunions in Tallahassee. Groups of them party together on a more frequent basis. There are hundreds of stories to be told about the "Nugent Boys". Here are just a few of them.
Lee Corso, from Miami, was lured to play for Nugent with a promise that he would be the starting quarterback the first time that FSU played at the University of Miami. Nugent kept his promise. Corso, at age 17, started as freshman quarterback at Miami, although, the story goes, he was moved from that position a play or so later. Miami won the game, 27-0. Corso went on to become one of Nugent's best players. Mostly, he played running back and defensive back. Corso broke his leg in the Sun Bowl game. Following the game, Nugent and some of the staff went to check on Corso at the hospital. To their surprise, he was gone. He had checked himself out. They found him late that night at a night club across the border in Quarez, dancing and partying, broken leg and all. After college, Corso became an assistant coach to Nugent and later became a head coach, himself. There is a another story about Corso when he was the head coach at the University of Louisville. His team was getting beat pretty badly. The story goes that he got a white towel off the bench and started waving it at the other team in acknowledgement that he was surrendering. More recently, he "stars" on ESPN's "Gameday". His antics on TV are quite humorous.
Burt Reynolds is another "Nugent Boy". "Buddy", as he was then known, was recruited out of West Palm Beach as a running back. He had committed to attend the University of Miami. However, Nugent managed to get him to come to Tallahassee for a visit and after he got here, talked him into playing at FSU. Nugent, as a salesman, had no peers. As a football player, Reynolds had early success. As a freshman against Auburn, he had a 54-yard run on one play. However, early in the 1955 practices, Reynolds injured his knee, and soon, thereafter, left school. He tried again, to come back in 1957, and played some, but it did not go well. The injury had taken its toll. Following this, he left and headed to "Hollywood", where he eventually became a star. While his football dream had been shattered, he was soon living another one. For a long period of time he was the movie industry's top attraction. He remains a very popular actor and, very significantly, stays in close contact with the FSU football program and many of the other "Nugent Boys".
One of Reynolds' closest friends, both at FSU and in later life, was Vic Prinzi. Prinzi, a quarterback, played for Nugent from 1955 through 1958. For many years, Prinzi teamed with Gene Deckerhoff, to do the radio broadcast of FSU games. An extrovert, like many of the other Nugent Boys, Prinzi was known by and loved by thousands of FSU fans. When he got excited, he would exclaim, "Oh My". The expression became one repeated over and over by FSU fans. It was a sad day when Prinzi died in 1998. There is a large portrait of Prinzi in uniform in the Varsity Club box at the stadium.
Two of Nugent's best backs at FSU were Bobby Renn and Fred Pickard. Both were excellent. Renn is best remembered for his run on the opening kickoff of the 1958 game at the University of Florida. He took a handoff from Jack Espenship and ran 78 yards to the Florida 15. Five plays later, Pickard scored the first touchdown in modern day FSU-UF football on a one yard run. Before the "puntrooskie", Renn's run was probably the best remembered play of FSU football. Pickard is better remembered for his running against Tennessee. In that game, his 122 yards on the ground exceeded Tennessee's total yardage for the day.
One of the most popular of the "Nugent Boys" is Ted Rodrique. Like Nugent, Rodrique, grew up in Massachusetts. After high school, he went into the military. In the military, he played on a base team that won some championships in Asia. He had an extremely strong passing arm that got a lot of attention. When his military tour was over, he came to Florida State. Although Nugent put more emphasis on passing than most other coaches of his time, passing was still only a relatively lesser part of the FSU offense. Consequently, Rodrique was relegated to duty on the field usually when Nugent put the team into a passing mode. Incidentally, most of those instances occurred late in the game when the team was well behind on the scoreboard. Rodrique became symbolic of a last ditch effort to get something going. The fans picked up on it. Soon, each time the team got behind by two or three touchdowns, the fans would begin to chant, "We Want Rodrique, We Want Rodrique". The fans liked the chant so much, that long after Rodrique had graduated and left FSU, the fans continued to use it when FSU got more than a touchdown or so behind late in a game. Even last year, in the last minutes of the National Championship Game, when it became apparent that FSU was in serious danger of losing the game, one old timer near me offered the suggestion to "put Rodrique in".
Leo Baggett was one of Nugent's best linemen. His memories of Nugent include long, strenuous workouts under the hot Florida sun. In those days, players were not allowed to drink water or any other liquids during the practices. That together with the physical contact made for some long, tough afternoons. Leo was the central figure in one of the great stories about Nugent's coaching techniques. It seems that Nugent liked to have players whom he determined to have great technique put on exhibitions for the other players. One day, Nugent became very impressed with Baggett's tackling ability. He called all of the players together in a big circle to watch Baggett demonstrate just how a tackle should be made. Nugent then instructed Baggett to tackle another player head on.The other player was then directed to run at Baggett with the football. Baggett showed great form. The only problem was that he was knocked unconscious in the process. So much for the demonstration of the perfect way to make a head on tackle!
Many of Nugent's players went into coaching. Corso and Vince Gibson went on to become head college football coaches. Dozens more became high school coaches. Many became very successful. Gene Cox holds the record for winning more games than any other high school football coach in the history of the State of Florida (313). Cox regards Nugent as one of the coaching professions' "great motivators". He openly credits Nugent as the source of many of the motivational techniques that he employed in his own coaching career. Further, he is quick to add that he also utilized a number of the offensive techniques, formations and schemes that he had learned from Nugent. In his estimation, Nugent was one of the great offensive minds in football.
After a full career that not only included coaching but serving as a Miami television station sports director, a football commentator, director of Florida's efforts to keep and develop professional and amateur sports in the state, and in public relations, Coach Nugent came back to to live in Tallahassee two years ago. He says that he could not get the city out of his system. Being coach at FSU was his favorite job. He is now 88, and, I suspect, still sings his favorite song, "Peg of My Heart", to his wife of 59 years. Thanks, Coach, for the "Magic" that you have given to a lot of people.