TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Defining Dennis Nobles’ career by the numbers would be both staggering and a disservice to the man who arrived here in the fall of 1977 as a freshman walk-on pole vaulter and decathlete and walks away after 31 full-time seasons as an assistant track & field coach.
Among current Florida State coaches, only baseball head coach Mike Martin, who just completed his 38th season after five as an assistant, has served the Noles longer in a full-time capacity. And among all-time Seminole assistants only 37-year football assistant Bob Harbison served longer.
Officially, Nobles’ final day as Director of Field Events is August 7, though a recent trip to his second floor office in the McIntosh Building, overlooking Mike Long Track, revealed barren walls. Much of what adorned those walls has already made the short trek across Chieftan Way, to his new office in Tully Gymnasium.
There he will take up residence, in a full-time capacity, as the undergraduate advisor in the sport management program, while maintaining the teaching load – two classes a semester – which he has held down since returning to Florida State on a teaching fellowship in 1985 after two years on the coaching staff at Wayland Baptist.
About the only reminders that the office belongs to the most decorated assistant coach in FSU history is Nobles’ off-white Bora Bora hat perched atop a file cabinet and a table with a collection of awards belonging to Kimberly Williams.
Williams, a five-time NCAA champion, 12-time All-American and two-time Olympic triple jump finalist from Jamaica, still makes regular pilgrimages to Nobles’ office – more than six years after her last appearance in an FSU uniform.
“One part of my job that really stinks is that every four years somebody leaves,” Nobles said. “You spend three-four-five years and in some cases – Kimmi’s case and Lacy’s [Janson-Harper] case – seven, eight, 13 years, getting to know somebody and being a part of their life; and they’re a part of your life, too.
“I’ve learned as much from the kids I coach as they’ve ever learned from me…As a parent you raise your kids to leave home. You don’t raise your kids to stay home. As a coach, you coach these people to move on and be productive members of society. Still, you spend all that time, energy and effort in that relationship and that’s hard. Now I’m the one moving on. It’s a little bit different and it’s hard.”
After much deliberation, Nobles came to his decision months ago, but waited shortly before the NCAA Championships meet to share the news with his athletes. Entering the state’s DROP program in October, Nobles began a five-year clock until his mandatory retirement. He was also offered a full-time position in the sport management program. Those weren’t the only reasons.
“Since 2001 I’ve had 65 surgeries to take care of some form of skin cancer or another,” Nobles said. “That doesn’t include the liquid nitrogen and lasers. So it was well past time for me to get out of the sun.”
Nobles’ current and former athletes use similar words – positive, patient, poised, open, understanding, selfless, mentor, father-figure – to describe the man who has produced 15 NCAA champions, 130 All-Americans, 131 conference champions and sent seven Seminoles to the Olympic Games.
Those individual successes have contributed mightily to the success of both the men’s and women’s programs. Since 1987, the Seminole men have won a combined 28 conference championships – indoor and outdoor, between the Metro and ACC. Between 2005-2014 the men carried three NCAA Outdoor Championship trophies back to Tallahassee and finished on the podium [in the top four] 12 times, including four narrow runner-up finishes at the indoor or outdoor championships.
Meanwhile, the women won three Metro and four ACC outdoor conference titles, and two more indoors. They twice claimed the ACC Triple Crown (2009, 2014), winning cross country, indoor and outdoor titles in the same school year. On the national stage they authored four consecutive top-four finishes indoors from 2008-2011, as well as a pair of top-six performances outdoors.
“Dennis has been the centerpiece of our track & field program over the last several decades,” Florida State head coach Bob Braman said. “There is simply no way to replace a talent like Coach Nobles. His calm demeanor and sharp mind has always made the difference for his jumpers when dealing with the stress of the national stage. He’s by far the most successful event coach in the history of Florida State track & field.”
The 2017 seasons were merely an extension of that success as Nobles-coached athletes collected six more ACC titles and eight All-American titles.
A glance at the FSU record book provides additional validation. Not only do Nobles-coached men and women hold 23 school records between the indoor and outdoor events, they make up virtually every spot in the all-time top 10 in those events.
Inducted into the State of Florida Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2012, Nobles earned National Assistant Coach of the Year honors in 2003 and has been the South Region Women’s Indoor Assistant of the Year in 2011 and 2012.
“With all that success, what often gets overlooked is the impact he’s had on the lives of so many young men and women,” Braman said. “He’s as good a role model as you’ll find and many times he’s been a father figure for athletes in their most impressionable and formative years.”
A Builder of Relationships and People
Nobles’ personal touch and investment in those he coached was never connected to talent or scoring potential.
Lacy Janson-Harper won two NCAA and eight ACC pole vault titles in her career, which culminated post-collegiately with representing the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“He is like a father,” said Janson-Harper, who also met her husband, former Noles pole vaulter Warren Harper, on the runway under Nobles’ watch. “It’s such a personal relationship. It’s not just an on-the-track type deal. He does genuinely take an interest in you and your life…He became one of those people you just didn’t want to disappoint.”
Janson-Harper also had three younger siblings compete in the pole vault for the Noles with varying levels of accomplishment; an opportunity she cherishes almost as much as her own.
“He sees pole vault and track & field as relationships and building people up,” she said. “No matter the talent level, he gave a lot of people who were not going to score an opportunity to be a part of this track & field family…What a blessing. He took my siblings and let them be a part of this awesome group.”
Kayla Maczuga, a walk-on high jumper who just completed her redshirt freshman season, is one of many success stories to come from Nobles stable of athletes.
“Whether you’re the best athlete in the nation or someone just walking on in practice, he treats you the same,” said Maczuga. “That’s one of the reasons I respect him more than anything.”
Maczuga rewarded Nobles’ patience and tutelage by breaking through a two-year barrier with a high jump clearance at the ACC Championships which netted a fourth-place finish behind her title-winning teammate Eleonora Omoregie. “He knew I had it in me,” Maczuga said.
Instilling confidence in athletes and seeing them succeed is one of the greatest rewards for a coach.
“Anytime you see somebody accomplish something they haven’t done before, it’s a great feeling,” Nobles said. “The level of expectation may be higher for Kimmi (Williams), Ngoni (Makusha) or somebody like that, but watching people improve and do things they’ve never been able to do before, and perform and contribute, is gratifying on any level.”
Nobles’ track record for drawing the best from his athletes on competition day is rooted in his calming influence, which belies the competitive fire that burns quietly within him.
Former head coach Terry Long, who hired Nobles to replace Jeff Ward in 1987, has seen that fire burn a little more brilliantly on the golf course. Half-kiddingly, Long said Nobles’ “pop-off valve” was almost always ready to burst, noting several occasions when he might test the aerodynamics or swimming ability of a club when a swing did not produce his intended result.
That wasn’t entirely lost on the athletes he coached. Janson-Harper was walking along the Bradenton Riverwalk recently when a boat passed with the name “Quiet Storm” across its stern. She snapped a photo and texted it to her former pole vault teammate, Matt Hurley.
“That was our nickname for him,” said Janson-Harper, before launching into its genesis. “Matt Hurley was supposed to pick up the poles at a meet and bring them to the car. He didn’t and it started to pour, torrentially. The poles were left out and Nobles had to get them. He was so mad, so his nickname became “Quiet Storm” because he was just fuming. You could tell he was so mad, but he never said a thing.”
And yet, Nobles remains the picture of calm and the source of confidence when his athletes were in the heat of battle.
“As my dad was so fond of saying when I was young, ‘If you can keep your head when those about you are losing theirs, you have a much better chance of surviving and even thriving,’” Nobles said. “I’ve always felt that it’s important for me, no matter how much I’m screaming, yelling and panicking on the inside, to present, ‘It’s OK. This is under control and we’re going to get through this.’
“A lot of it is acting, to be perfectly honest, but a lot of it is just the fact that track is important. It’s important to them, it’s important to me, but really at the end of the day it’s a really small part of who we are and what we do. I think the perspective that there’s something bigger, stronger, more powerful, more important than winning a race or jumping further than somebody else gives me that perspective, too.”
Nobles credits three of his coaches – Coconut Creek High School’s Fred Pinkston, FSU assistant Jim Long and Wayland Baptist coach John Creer – for teaching him the value of maintaining his calm under pressure.
And that value is not lost on those he has mentored over the past three decades.
“I was one of those athletes who would never get something right on the first attempt,” said Gonzalo Barroilhet, who won an NCAA heptathlon title, holds the FSU record in the decathlon and represented his native Chile in two Olympic Games. “His poise was so important to me because I knew when I looked at him, even if I was on my third attempt, he would translate that calm to me. I had so many third-attempt clearances that I knew I was in the right hands.
“At the London Olympics on the second day, I fouled the first two discus throws, so I only had one left and I was able to pull it off. In the pole vault, on the first height, I fouled my first two attempts and I only had one last attempt and I ended up clearing it. He might explode later, but when you were competing he was always so poised you would feel that and it would definitely help.”
Williams made a quick connection with Nobles as a precocious freshman with great aspirations.
“It took a couple of practice sessions for me to understand his cues and for him to understand my Jamaican accent,” said the five-time NCAA champion jumper. “Once those were out of the way we were good to go.”
That doesn’t mean things always went according to plan.
“Nobles and I set smart goals and of course plenty of times we were forced to take different approaches to reach them because I was always injured,” she said. “It’s not his fault, but if you ask him he’ll take the blame. Let’s just say I’m very fragile. Coach is very positive, patient, understanding and selfless. He always sees the good in everything and constantly reminds me that no matter what I’m going through I should never lose hope.”
Special Qualities Identified Early On
Terry Long had a pretty good idea what he was getting when he chose Nobles to replace Ward in ‘87.
“A young guy with FSU roots, highly motivated, a willing worker and a very high character guy,” Long said, assessing what he had seen from Nobles in two seasons as a volunteer assistant. “The other thing was we had a very small staff, with very limited computer skills. Computers were just coming into the administrative part of what we were doing, and Dennis was very motivated in that area and was willing to do home meet management tasks. He had a lot of different, unique skills
“That was the package that we anticipated we would get, taking all of the other bits and pieces of information. It was just one of those cases where it all fell together.”
Nobles’ coaching education began as an undergraduate walk-on pole vaulter and decathlete for then-FSU coach Dick Roberts’ squad. He arrived in the fall of 1977 in a freshman class which included future All-Americans, Olympians, school record-holders and NFL standouts like Walter McCoy, Ron Nelson, Hank Langee, Ken Lanier and Rohn Stark.
In addition to scoring contributions to a pair of Metro Conference championships, Nobles excelled in the classroom, graduating cum laude with a degree in physical education and later completing his master’s in exercise physiology. Beyond his appetite for learning, Nobles developed a keen eye for analyzing mechanics of virtually every track & field event, which have served him and those he has coached and influenced well.
Fifth-year FSU throws coach Dorian Scott, an All-American shot putter for the Noles, has had a front row seat to what Nobles has brought to the program.
“What I learned most from Coach Nobles is to trust my knowledge, always keep researching my events and keep my instructions simple,” said Scott, who is making his own mark as an outstanding assistant. “Coach Nobles was always in his office trying to learn more. He went into every meet looking for something specific out of his kids and not just looking for big results every time.”
Scott said Nobles earned the respect of his athletes over the years because, “they always had their best results at the right time. His periodization was always on point. And it never looked like he was over-coaching. He gave everyone confidence in a very quiet, subtle way.”
Rising junior decathlete Dante Newberg holds his coach over the past two seasons in the highest regard.
“He knows everything about every event and his eye for technique in every event is probably better than any coach in the country,” said Newberg, who ranks fifth all-time at FSU in the decathlon after his season-best 7,113-point performance at the ACC Championships. “You feel like you have a little advantage over the competition when you have such a good coach on your side.”
Despite all the accolades, accomplishments and adulation he’s received, Nobles defers credit when asked if he’s taken the time to enjoy the fruits of his career.
“I reminisce, but that’s a group effort,” he said. “I can’t take credit, if that’s the right word, for it. I’m involved, the student-athlete is involved, the other coaches on staff are involved. Most of those people wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for (assistant coaches) Ken Harnden, Dorian Scott or Harlis Meaders. Because of my teaching duties for 31 years, they did most all of the recruiting. It’s been very much a group effort and a team effort for my whole career, and while I may have been assigned to coach that particular event area, I would not have had near the resume or success that it looks like I’ve had were it not for them…
“I feel a little bit guilty sometimes for getting credit for those numbers when I had very little to do with those numbers.”
What gives Nobles great pleasure, however, is having been a part of the program as both a student-athlete and coach, during Florida State’s rise to prominence in track & field and across all sports.
“As a coach you aspire to win national titles and it’s a hard thing to do,” Nobles said. “To have been able to put together three in a row, and more than that, on either side of those three in a row there were a couple of fourths, and a couple of really close seconds. For a stretch from 2005 through 2011, we were one of the best two track programs in the country. There was very little doubt about it. To be a part of that was pretty darn exciting.”
Nobles also feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the head coaches he’s served.
“I worked for Terry Long for a long time and he was a great boss and a great mentor,” he said. “He understood the sport so very well, knew all the event areas so very well, but would let you do your job. If I ever had any questions, issues or problems, he was somebody I could go to and he’d have a very good answer.
“Bob (Braman) inherited the job, became the head coach and was a great boss. There’s a tendency to want to micromanage, especially early in a tenure, but he never did. He just kind of stepped into the head coaching position and said, ‘You’re doing this, now go do it.’”
And he got to do that with a front row seat as his FSU coaching colleagues – Bobby Bowden, Mike Martin, Cecile Reynaud and JoAnne Graf – were transforming the athletic program.
“I’m one of the rare people probably who got to do exactly what he wanted to do, exactly where he wanted to do it,” Nobles said. “I think Kenny Chesney said, ‘I never wanted nothing more.’ I really didn’t. I wanted to come to work every day, work with the kids that I had, help them get better and if they were talented enough to achieve to that level, yeah, it was great to go to nationals, it was great to go to World Championships, it was great to go to the Olympics. But those were almost byproducts of just coming to work every day and getting to work with people and watching them get better.
“Work is work. Some days are going to be bad and some days are going to be good. I got to come to work every day and watch the best athletes in the world do their thing. I got to watch a great athletic history at Florida State, from Deion Sanders playing football, J.D. Drew playing baseball and Brooks Koepka playing golf. Those are people who have gone on and been pretty good. To have been a part of this university during that era has been really exciting and a lot of fun.”
Though Nobles will be moving on to a new position, his office in Tully Gym will only be a good javelin throw from the place he’s made a home for more than three decades.
“With a two-year exception when I was at Wayland Baptist, I’ve been involved in FSU track & field since the fall of 1977,” Nobles said. “That’s a long time to be involved in something to just walk away from it. I would like to stay involved but I want to give my successor…I don’t want to overly involve myself in what he or she wants to do.
“If they are amenable to having me volunteer as my new schedule will permit that’s something I’d definitely be interested in doing. They may want me to sever those ties and I can understand that. It’s their job now and they are the one responsible and don’t need an old curmudgeon like me hanging around. I want to support whoever takes this job because there are some really, really special student-athletes that can continue to develop – Eleonora, Armani (Wallace), Montel (Nevers) and Carlos (Becker); people that went to nationals. They need to establish that relationship with a new coach and build from there.”
Braman endorses that idea.
“Coach Long has been an invaluable mentor to us all and he’s continued to volunteer coach over a decade after his retirement,” Braman said. “I know our program would benefit greatly if we could convince Dennis to do the same.”
Nobles said he will miss the “the daily on-the-field interaction with the student-athletes” the most; seeing them improve and grow as athletes and students.
“That’s always very rewarding,” Nobles said. “I enjoy the interaction with the kids. It’s kind of twisted me a little bit over the years because I don’t really have a peer group. I’m almost 60 and I hang around 20 year olds.”
The truth is, Nobles doesn’t have a peer group because of his three-decade body of work.