In 1984, Florida State hired Mickey Andrews as its defensive coordinator. For the next 26 seasons, he held the same role, only leaving after Bobby Bowden stepped aside as head coach following the 2009 season.
Four seasons later, Jimbo Fisher is about to hire his third defensive coordinator, and that’s a major concern for Florida State fans not used to such routine turnover. Jeremy Pruitt jumped for a job at Georgia just eight days after winning a national championship in his one and only season with the Seminoles. It leaves FSU in search of a new coordinator just weeks before signing day, and it leaves the Seminoles’ defense in a state of flux after Pruitt was so influential in revamping the scheme just a year ago.
But while the timing is certainly not ideal for Florida State, the loss isn’t necessarily devastating.
1. The move isn’t unprecedented
During the BCS era, five coordinators departed their schools immediately after winning a national championship. Granted, all left for better gigs (either the NFL or a head-coaching job), but in each case, the team didn’t suffer a dramatic decline after they waved goodbye.
While coordinators are crucial in running the daily routine of practice, the head coach is usually the one setting the philosophical tone, and the players generally determine how good it all looks on the field.
It’s distinctly possible Florida State can’t repeat its defensive dominance in 2014, but it’s far more likely that any decline will be due to the losses of Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Lamarcus Joyner -- not Pruitt.
2. Pruitt didn’t “turn around” FSU’s defense
This notion has been bandied about a bit since Pruitt left for Georgia, but it’s not entirely accurate.
Yes, Pruitt completely revamped the defensive scheme at Florida State, shifting heavily toward a 3-4 set and bringing a more aggressive approach that moved the onus from the front four under Mark Stoops to a dominant secondary in 2013. The results were stellar, and Pruitt certainly deserves some credit for the marked uptick in takeaways, but his job was hardly about rebuilding a unit from scratch.
Pruitt inherited a very good defensive unit from Stoops. So good, of course, that it landed Stoops a head-coaching job in the SEC (yes, Kentucky… but it’s still the SEC). Pruitt did an excellent job of covering for the losses of several key veterans from 2012 (Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine), but he also had the luxury of a veteran-laden unit that had already accomplished a lot at the college level.
3. Pruitt wasn’t a star in 2012
Fans are rightfully concerned about losing a rising star in the coaching ranks who had enjoyed so much success this season, but it’s worth remembering that Pruitt wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk hire when Fisher brought him on board.
Stoops’ departure after the 2012 regular season was widely anticipated. He’d become a hot commodity. The search for his replacement was followed closely, but few of the pundits prognosticating a hire had Pruitt on their radar. At the time, Pruitt was an assistant on a national-championship team, but he’d had just three years of sideline experience under his belt, he’d never been a coordinator at the college level, and he was coaching Nick Saban’s position group. The concern at the time was that he was simply a product of Saban’s genius, not a burgeoning star.
Of course, Pruitt proved those doubters wrong in 2013, but the point is worth remembering: Fisher saw his potential long before everyone else did. There’s little reason to think FSU’s head coach can't pry another rising star from the ranks of anonymity this time.
4. It wasn’t about the money
Yes, Pruitt is getting a nice raise at Georgia, but that’s not why he left. He admitted during his press conference in Athens that he didn’t give Florida State a chance to counter, and whatever his reasons for leaving -- and we’re not interested in speculating until Fisher or Pruitt or someone else associated with FSU wants to talk on the record -- it’s worth remembering that FSU is in a far better position financially today than it was when it hired Pruitt last year.
Would Florida State have matched Georgia’s offer? It’s impossible to say for sure now, but there’s every indication the school would have. [Ed. note: FSU associate AD Monk Bonasorte confirmed Thursday that FSU was prepared to match UGA's offer.] Fisher inked his new deal (even when deep-pocketed Texas was on the prowl) to stay, and he made bumps in salary for his assistants a key part of those negotiations. Fisher’s tenure has been built on understanding the importance of the support staff around him, and he’s made great strides to ensure the resources are there for Florida State to be competitive on the national stage -- both on the field and with the checkbook. Oh, and a national championship doesn’t hurt either.
5. Recruiting may be the key
Where Florida State should be concerned is in the area of recruiting. Not only is Pruitt’s departure coming at a tenuous time on the recruiting trail (signing day is Feb. 5), but he was also a key salesman for the Seminoles during his 13 months on the job.
Pruitt came on board full-time after last year’s national championship game and still helped FSU close on Jalen Ramsey, Nate Andrews and DeMarcus Walker -- three players who were only tangentially on FSU’s radar beforehand. He’s also adept at recruiting the state of Alabama, a crucial battleground for FSU that took a big hit after Dameyune Craig departed for Auburn following the 2012 season.
Both Pruitt and Craig had exceptional relationships with high school coaches and players in Alabama, and that may be the toughest thing for Fisher to replace. Pruitt’s replacement will have his work cut out for him replacing several departing stars, but that work begins with finishing strong before signing day.