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Guest column: Arsenal, Florida State, and the problem with loyalty

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Comparing Arsenal to another program with a longtime manager/coach.

Arsenal v Chelsea - Carabao Cup Semi-Final: Second Leg Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

EDITOR’S NOTE: After Jocelyn wrote her piece comparing her Arsenal fandom to Met fandom a couple weeks ago, reader and frequent commenter 06NOLE, otherwise known as Tony DelMonego, wrote in and asked if he could write a thing about similar thoughts he had, as a Florida State alumni who also comes from a long line of Florida State alumni. His column is below.

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Iconic coaches and managers are tethered to their teams and clubs with mystical and mythical tendrils that become harder to sever the longer they remain in charge. One of the hardest thing an organization can do is move on from a coach that altered the course of their history and brought heretofore unseen levels of success, even if that success has long since occurred. Like two partners in a failing marriage, they convince themselves that it is just easier to stay with what they have always known than to face the uncertainty of a world without them. Fans complicate it further. Divides between the fanbase create an auxiliary distraction that often overshadows the results on the field. Ownership is left with the worst type of custody battle: do we keep the manager at the risk of disenfranchising one faction of fans, or do we move on and disenfranchise the other?

From the coaching perspective, things are more contentious. Legendary coaches cast enormous shadows in which every coach that follows must live. Every victory and loss is cast in direct juxtaposition to the legend that came before them. It is often a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t endeavor – sure, you won, but so did the coach before you, and they won a lot. Lose a game, and the same measuring stick is brought out to flog you. Every decision is subject to an unfair level of scrutiny, simply because you are not them. As the new coach, you will be reminded of this often, no matter how well your intentions are.

I grew up with a father that was from a family of diehard Florida State Seminoles fans. Although we lived in Virginia in the 90s, my family’s Florida roots were strong. Despite being surrounded by neighbors who rooted for Virginia Tech or UVA, we were, and have always been, a Seminole family. Eventually, as many sons so often do, I followed in my father’s footsteps and ended up a Florida State fan as well. Even when my family relocated to Guam before I started high school in 1998, my dad still made sure to catch as many FSU games as possible, time zones be damned. Entering my senior year of at Guam High School in 2002, I had my heart set on attending Florida State University. I still remember the excitement my parents and I felt when I received the letter of acceptance during my senior year. It was a crowning achievement for myself and my family – I was the first of my parents’ three children to go college. Not only would I be furthering my education, I would also get to witness FSU football first hand.

By then, Bobby Bowden, a fast-talking Alabama boy with a thick country drawl and a knack for “trickeration”, had cemented himself as one of college football’s premier coaches. Taking over for beleaguered coach Darrell Mudra in 1976, Bobby Bowden’s entertaining brand of football transformed FSU into a powerhouse. After his first season, a middling 5-6 campaign, FSU never had another losing season in the following 33 seasons under his leadership. His success as both an innovative coach and master recruiter in the 80s set the stage for a run of success in the 90s that established Florida State University as one of college football’s elites. Between 1987 and 2000, FSU football won two national championships, eight straight ACC championships, finished 14 straight seasons in the top 5 of the AP poll, and became the first school to go wire-to-wire as the AP #1 team en route to their first title in 1993.

As my college career began, FSU’s success began to wane. By my senior year in 2006, FSU had gone from perennial title contenders to a mercurial mess of poorly-coached talent, finishing 7-6 and unranked for the first time in 20 years. The drop-off was slow, and each season started with promise and ended in ignominy. Between seasons, losses were forgotten and hope was reborn. Player scandals compounded the poor product on the field and called into question Bowden’s ability to discipline his players. By 2006, people began to wonder if Bowden still had what it took to be a college football coach. Those questions became louder and more frequent as FSU’s rivals, the University of Florida Gators, quickly ascended to the top of the college football landscape under a young coach named Urban Meyer.

While his modernized spread offense attack was lighting up score boards and he was stockpiling future NFL talent, FSU stayed the course, trusting that Bobby’s wisdom and experience would keep the ship steady. Bobby could still pull in talented players, but his aged and ineffective staff couldn’t develop the players like they used to. Fewer and fewer players were making their way to the NFL. The product on the field did not match the caliber of recruits. Meyer was stepping on the gas while Bowden was putting along, slowly and steadily shrinking into Meyer’s, and college football’s, rearview mirror.

In 2006, the gears of change began to turn when FSU lost to Wake Forest 30-0 at home. That embarrassing defeat and accompanying fan outrage finally forced Bowden’s hand. After coming under heavy scrutiny for hiring his son Jeff as the offensive coordinator following Mark Richt’s departure for the University of Georgia in 2001, Bowden finally fired his incompetent son and brought in his own young, up-and-coming coordinator, a coach from LSU named Jimbo Fisher. Not only was Fisher brought in to take over the play calling duties, but he was brought in as the “Head-Coach-in-Waiting,” guaranteed to become the new head coach once Bowden finally stepped down. This promissory act quelled some of the discontentment among the fanbase; finally, Bowden was making a change and preparing the team for a life without him.

North Carolina State v Florida State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

But this goodwill would be short-lived. The 2007 campaign ended with the same 7-6 record as the year before. 2008 saw improvement, as the season finished 9-4, earning Bowden a year-long extension, having done just enough to keep fans and board members content. But any hope fostered by the previous season was quickly erased as the Seminoles limped toward another poor 7-6 season in 2009. Three consecutive losses in the middle of the season once again fanned the flames of discontent. There were rumblings that Bowden was going to finally be fired. Bowden’s right-hand man, long-time defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, had finally had enough and announced his intentions to retire at season’s end. FSU’s last home game celebrated Andrews at halftime. Sitting in the half-empty stadium, my heart sank as Mickey, ever dutiful and loyal, received a truck and a pitiful ovation as thanks for his years of dedication. The team managed a last-gasp win over Maryland to keep their bowl eligibility alive. Little did we know that this was also going to be Bobby’s last home game as the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles as well.

What was once a bright coaching mind had deteriorated into a stale, outmoded approach to college football. No longer could he out-athlete the other schools like he could in the 80s and 90s. Parity had become the norm as other schools finally caught up by way of player development and coaching. His hubris and obstinacy had handcuffed the university and its football program, effectively halting any meaningful progress. While other schools were ascending to prominence, FSU tumbled down the mountain, held hostage by a man too afraid to acknowledge that he was no longer the right coach for the job. Bowden took umbrage with the university naming the field after him while he was still the coach, accusing them of trying to push him out the door before he was ready. The board of trustees were too afraid or too reverent of Bobby, depending on how you looked at it, to take meaningful action before then. But, following sixth straight defeat to their arch-rival Gators, enough was finally, mercifully enough.

When it was announced that the 2009 Gator Bowl would be Bobby’s final game as head coach of Florida State, it was met with relief by most. But a few diehard Bowden loyalists were upset by the way his career was ending. Many of them believed that, as the coach that brought FSU so much success, he should be the one to decide when he would step down. They believed that the university owed him their loyalty for his contributions, because without him, they would never have known the success that they experienced under him. Their protestations were too little, too late, as the decision had been finalized. They watched mournfully as a Bowden-led Seminole football team defeated West Virginia, sending off into the sunset the man who forever altered the football program.

For the first time in three decades, Florida State football was going to be under the direction of someone besides Bobby Bowden. Jimbo Fisher, a fast-talking West Virginia boy from the Nick Saban coaching tree who had patiently waited his turn, was rewarded with a chance to become the head coach. Out of the gate, his every move was under scrutiny by the Bowden loyalists. They waited on bated breath for him to make his first mistake. My dad, having recently retired back to his home town of Panama City with my mom, bought season tickets for him and me. We were excited about this new era of FSU football and were willing to give Fisher a chance. Beside us was a young man who, for the entire season, was vocal about his disdain for how Bowden was treated. He used the losses as fire for his rage, and looked for reasons to dismiss the victories. He became a manifestation of those who clung to a bygone era and felt personally hurt by what they perceived to be an egregious and undeserved firing. But he quickly ran out of excuses when Fisher did what Bowden could not in his last six seasons: defeat FSU’s rivals, the Florida Gators.

From there, many of us know how the story went. Fisher salvaged the program from the pits of mediocrity and brought it back to the upper echelon of college football, leading FSU to a national championship in 2013. He not only escaped from Bobby’s shadow, but forged his own legacy as the man who saved the storied program from a lost decade, ushering the program into the modern era of college football. Despite the recent ugly season and Fisher’s unceremonious departure, you would be hard pressed to find a single Seminole fan that laments his hiring. The only regret is the way it all ended.

When I moved to Tallahassee for college, he and my mother were reassigned from Guam to England. He had first fallen in love with Arsenal when he was stationed in England in the 70s while in the Air Force. He continued to follow them, despite the sparse coverage of English soccer while we lived in the states. While in college, I visited my parents during winter breaks. Living an hour from London, my dad decided to take him and me to an Arsenal match on Boxing Day in 2003. Sitting under the overhang of a crowded Highbury stadium, I watched as Theirry Henry effortlessly led Arsenal to a victory over Wolverhampton, halfway through an undefeated league campaign that would go down in history as one of the greatest seasons by any club in Premier League history. Arsene Wenger, the brilliant French footballing tactician, had cemented his place in footballing lore with his club’s invincible campaign.

And now, more than a decade removed from Arsenal’s last league title, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming déjà vu. I have seen this all before. The doddering figurehead, living off of his former glory, refusing to acknowledge that the game has passed him by and running out of excuses? Check. A divided fanbase that is becoming increasingly unified over their team’s perpetual failings? Yep. Woefully mismanaged talent? In abundance. Watching rivals modernize and rise to prominence? Sad but true. The list goes on, and it doesn’t get any prettier.

While longevity and loyalty are excellent traits for a marriage, they are becoming scarcer in the coaching world. But that is the way the game has evolved. Wenger is the last of a dying breed. Like Bowden in his final years, Wenger’s name and legacy are continuing to buy him time that many do not believe he deserves anymore. Arsenal find themselves at an impasse now because of their unwavering loyalty to a coach whose longevity has started to harm the club, and the choices are becoming increasingly more difficult the longer it takes to make them.

But if there is a lesson to be learned from Florida State’s experience, is this: when something is broken, you have to own that it is broken. That’s the only way that change can take place. It’s never easy, nor is it often pretty, but if you want to continue to grow as a club, change is an inevitability. If Arsene and the ownership truly love Arsenal, they need to own up to the fact that Arsenal is broken, and the fix begins at the top. FSU was fortunate to find itself back on its feet sooner rather than later, and there is no guarantee that Arsenal’s next manager will be even half as successful as Arsene has been. But until Arsenal as a club is willing to find out, it will continue to find itself in the same position at this time each year: watching from the outside looking in.