TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There are wins over rivals, wins that clinched championships and wins that redefined programs. Some of them all in the same game. Every member of Mike Norvell’s coaching staff at Florida State has at least one game from his football career that stands above the dozens or hundreds of others.
For some, those memories are from playing days – like when receivers coach Ron Dugans lit up Virginia Tech for two touchdowns in the 2000 Sugar Bowl – and others came while wearing a headset and holding a play sheet.
No matter the circumstance, each game helped shape the man as both a person and as a coach, and those experiences will help to inform the current Seminoles every time they step into a meeting room or onto the field. These are their stories from those games:
Part 1: Offense
Offensive coordinator/Quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham: A record-setting day on the Plains
Throughout the 2019 season, Kenny Dillingham – then the offensive coordinator at Auburn – guided freshman quarterback Bo Nix into games against some of the country’s best defenses. All along, Nix kept making improvements and showing signs that he could not only be the Tigers’ quarterback of the future – he could be the Tigers’ quarterback of the here and now.
That all culminated in Auburn’s regular-season finale, in a game that’s no stranger to college football fans: The Iron Bowl against Alabama.
The 15th-ranked Tigers were an underdog against No. 5 Alabama, but Auburn had two things going for it – the game was at AU’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the Crimson Tide were without injured starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Dillingham and the rest of Auburn’s staff couldn’t help but feel confident.
“That was a game where going into it, it was the first big-time game of the year where we felt like we had a quarterback advantage,” Dillingham said. “Our freshman quarterback had gotten better and better every week, so we felt really good.”
Matched up against an Alabama team that finished the season ranked 21st in total defense, Nix accounted for 217 total yards and two touchdowns and, perhaps most crucially, didn’t turn the ball over.
He also completed the two-point pass that helped seal a 48-45 victory – and set a new record for the most points scored against the Crimson Tide during coach Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama.
“(Nix) got comfortable being back there,” Dillingham said. “He got comfortable with the speed. … At the end of the game, we kind of let him become who he is. He was a gunslinger. And he was a repetition guy, he needed to throw the ball a lot. And if he threw the ball a lot, he would create explosive plays. I think we opened it up for him and we played to his strengths by letting him be the gunslinger that he is.”
Dillingham has one other lasting memory from that game – one that will leave a mark on all of college football.
At the end of the second quarter, the Tigers kicked a field goal after replay review put one second back on the clock. Under new NCAA rules, there must now have been at least three seconds on the clock for additional time to be restored.
Playing within the new rules, the Tigers would not have been able to kick that field goal, and they might not have gone on to win the game.
“We changed the rules of college football in that game,” Dillingham said.
Running backs coach David Johnson: Putting Memphis on the map
In 2017, Norvell’s second year at Memphis, the Tigers hosted No. 25 UCLA in Week 2 for a game that most expected the visitors to win.
But Memphis had a few things working in its favor. For one, the Tigers were really good. The nation just didn’t know it yet. And for another, the game was played at 11 a.m. central time – the equivalent of 9 a.m. in Los Angeles.
Memphis QB Riley Ferguson threw six touchdown passes and the Tigers led by as many as 10 points in the second half before holding off the Bruins – and quarterback Josh Rosen, a future No. 10 overall draft pick – for a momentous 48-45 win.
“It was important,” said Johnson, who at the time was the Tigers’ receivers coach and passing game coordinator. “Obviously being at Memphis, a lot of people aren’t noticing you. You don’t play on a big stage all the time, and, when you do, you’ve got to take advantage of it. … To me, that kind of put us on the map, like, ‘OK, we can play with anyone at this point.’”
Johnson walked away from the game particularly proud of one of his proteges – receiver Anthony Miller.
Miller, a fifth-year senior and a former walk-on, was due to line up across from UCLA star Darnay Holmes, a former five-star prospect and prep All-American.
Throughout the week leading up to the game, Johnson wasn’t shy about letting Miller know what he was up against.
“I’m kind of all week just giving it to Anthony Miller about how this kid is a five-star, he started as a freshman, (and you’re) just a walk-on,” Johnson recalled with a laugh. “‘You’ve got to make sure youre doing everything right.’
“By the time we got to the game, Anthony Miller explained to me, ‘Coach, I’m going to make him quit. I promise you.’”
Walk-Ons vs the 5-stars 😈
— Anthony Miller (@AnthonyMiller_3) September 11, 2017
Miller more than backed up his big words – he torched the Bruins’ secondary for nine catches, 185 yards and two scores.
Holmes was drafted in the fourth round a few weeks ago, and, nearly three years later credited his game against Miller – who is now with the Chicago Bears – for helping him to grow and mature.
.@UCLAFootball CB Darnay Holmes said he became different player after facing @AnthonyMiller_3 (Bears 2nd-round pick) vs. Memphis in 2017. Miller went 9-185-2 against him. "That was humbling. I learned a lot about myself that day." Sees some @Mathieu_Era in himself. pic.twitter.com/IgDHLH9pel
— NFL Draft (@NFLDraft) February 28, 2020
Offensive line coach Alex Atkins: Guts and glory lead to a big win
Going into their contest against Conference USA rival Marshall late last season, the six-year-old Charlotte 49ers football program had never won four consecutive games, had never won five games at home and had never been bowl eligible.
But, with Atkins calling plays, that all changed on November 23, 2019.
Despite heavy rain throughout the afternoon, the 49ers had built a four-point lead midway through the fourth quarter and, still clinging to it with less than a minute to play, needed one more big moment to ensure their victory.
Facing a fourth-and-10 from the Marshall 25-yard line, Atkins – in his first year as Charlotte’s offensive coordinator – eschewed the field goal team and instead followed one of the first rules of football coaching: Get the ball to your best player.
He called a deep fade to star receiver Victor Tucker, and Tucker made a leaping catch at the goal line. A Marshall defender ripped Tucker’s helmet off as he stumbled across the goal line for a score that gave the 49ers a 24-13 win.
“We basically just max-protected and threw a fade to the best receiver,” Atkins said. “I’ve learned that you can come up with some creative stuff, but usually it’s just get the ball to the best players.”
The 49ers would go on to enjoy a winning season and participate in the Bahamas Bowl against Buffalo.
But that rain-soaked win over Marshall might have been the highlight of the year.
“That probably was the most fun I’ve had, the most memorable moment,” Atkins said. “Just seeing those kids’ faces and the sigh of relief. Sometimes bowl games are taken for granted, but you go to a program that had never been to one – to see those kids’ faces, in a game you’re picked to lose by two scores, it was real fun.”
Wide receivers coach Ron Dugans: Wire-to-Wire brilliance
The 1999 Seminoles will always hold legend status as the first team in college football history to go wire to wire as the No. 1 team in the country.
FSU entered the 2000 Sugar Bowl looking to polish off a perfect season and earn coach Bobby Bowden’s second national title. Having been the best all year long, the team naturally felt good about its chances to knock off No. 2 Virginia Tech – even though the Hokies had electrifying quarterback Michael Vick.
“I just feel like the game was won before we even played the game,” said Dugans, a fifth-year senior in 1999 who had been a part of title games in 1996 and 1998 as well. “…We’d been so close so many times, let’s get the job done.”
Dugans also remembers a promise that he and star receiver Peter Warrick made to each other.
“Peter Warrick said he was going to score three,” Dugans said. Dugans didn’t waste a breath when replying: “Then I’m getting two.”
Call them pigskin prophets: Warrick caught six passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, and he returned a punt for a TD on the way to game MVP honors. Dugans grabbed another five balls for 99 yards and two scores. And the Seminoles won, 46-29.
“He scored three touchdowns, and I got two. So it was amazing,” Dugans said. “It was amazing because you felt the electricity from our fans when we were at the hotel, in front of the hotel, getting off the bus at the stadium. It was just wild, man. We got to do it for our fans.”
Tight ends coach Chris Thomsen: A basketball score and a playoff win
Even as he watched from the sideline, Chris Thomsen could hardly believe his eyes.
Then the head coach at Division II Abilene Christian in 2008, Thomsen’s Wildcats were locked into a playoff game with rival West Texas A&M, and both teams just kept scoring and scoring and scoring.
By the time it was finished Thomsen’s program had earned its first ever playoff win in record-setting fashion with a 93-68 triumph. Ninety-three to sixty-eight.
“It’s just kind of bizarre,” said Thomsen, whose offense racked up 810 yards in the game. “You’re really just asking yourself how is this happening.”
It happened in large part once the opposing coach realized his defense wasn’t going to be of much use. Midway through the game, West Texas A&M opted to kick onsides after every score in hopes of maintaining possession and keeping Abilene’s offense on the sideline.
Thomsen’s Wildcats recovered every single kick.
“So we got outstanding field position. It just kind of snowballed,” Thomsen said. “Just watching that, there was a lot of talented players on both offenses that ended up playing in the NFL and those guys put on a show that day. Both sides did. It was an impressive game.”
Indeed: just last month, ESPN included it on its list of the 25 most important games in college football’s spread offense revolution.