July 28, 2003 TALLAHASSEE For two hours one evening in February, a handful of rising Florida State senior football players engaged enigmatic defensive tackle Darnell Dockett in a candid and sometimes very loud conversation in a parking lot outside the team's training facility.
In some respects, it was a last-ditch effort to help Dockett realize what he means to a program desperate to rebound from a two-season rut that culminated with nine losses and a myriad of off-the-field problems.
Dockett, a lone wolf among teammates since his celebrated arrival as a prep All-American from Maryland, initially wanted no part of the meeting. He had become even more distanced from his teammates since his suspension for the Sugar Bowl, after he was charged with grand theft for arranging an illegal discount on sporting goods merchandise from a local store. That ill-advised move came at the end of an injury-filled season that saw the two-time All-ACC standout make more noise in the locker room than on the field.
We battled back and forth with him about some issues, senior linebacker Michael Boulware said. By the end of the discussion, Boulware said, we established a unity with him.
Dockett's personal history suggests that's quite a task. Although FSU's recruiting philosophy has placed increased importance on character issues in recent years assistant coaches say they ask more background-type questions of prospects' coaches, teammates, teachers and fellow students than ever before Dockett admittedly was an exception to the rule. The Seminoles were aware of some troubling issues in his past, but they (like dozens of other programs) offered a scholarship anyway, hoping that a supportive environment and some good ol' maturity would help him realize his considerable potential.
Even in high school, Dockett showed multiple warning signs. He didn't get along with many of his teammates. He wasn't regarded as a leader. He regularly clashed with authority figures. Even some of his prep coaches not exactly models of objectivity at most schools warned that Dockett would need to be monitored closely. On the recruiting trail, assistants on several college staffs argued back and forth about whether the prospect's extraordinary talent was worth the potential risk. Almost every school that asked the question ultimately said yes.
Whether the recent meeting with his teammates will have a profound impact on Dockett over the course of his senior season remains to be seen, but the fact that it took place can be construed as nothing less than a positive sign for the Seminoles.
Chemistry issues were at the root of FSU's problems last season, and coach Bobby Bowden has made it clear that it will be a point of emphasis this year. Boulware said poor off-the-field choices by players last season eventually caught up with the Seminoles. He believes the lack of success on the field has hurt in many ways, including the falling NFL draft stock of players over the last two years. That won't change, according to Boulware, unless we're good as a team.
There is little doubt how good the Seminoles can be with a healthy Dockett in the middle of the defensive line raising havoc. Dockett cleared the first hurdle for his return by pleading to a lesser offense in late spring. He since has been reinstated to the team for the start of two-a-day drills.
If (Dockett) stays healthy, Bowden said at the ACC Football Kickoff in mid-July, he should be one of the best defensive tackles in the country.
Bowden said Dockett played all of last season at no more than 70 percent, after undergoing knee and ankle surgeries following the 2002 Gator Bowl win over Virginia Tech.
As players, we know (Dockett) is the key, especially on defense, for us to be successful, Boulware said.
During his freshman All-American season (2000), Dockett earned second-team All-ACC honors, piling up 19 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He earned first-team honors in 2001 with a career-best 22 tackles for loss. Though he started all 13 regular-season games last year, he had a career-low 57 tackles only seven for loss though he became the school's all-time leader in tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
After being suspended from spring practice, Dockett has been a regular participant in the offseason sessions leading to the start of two-a-days. His performance and behavior have been exemplary, according to teammates.
You can see a difference in him, Boulware said. You see a new attitude. He doesn't joke around as much. He still knows how to have fun, but he's more serious.
Still, it's amazing that Dockett hasn't matured more quickly, given the amount of time a number of former FSU stars including NFL standouts Corey Simon and Derrick Brooks have invested in an attempt to get him to realize his potential.
Nobody knows why it hasn't, but you can only hope that it has sunk in, Boulware said. I think it has. He has done a lot of things to help us out. We're really in dire need of his leadership.
Of course, Dockett isn't the only FSU player who has the full attention of his teammates. Quarterback Chris Rix also has spent the past seven months attempting to rebuild the trust and faith of his teammates following his Sugar Bowl suspension.
Boulware said he can only imagine how good the Seminoles might be if the offseason changes in attitude take hold for the entire 2003 season.
Between (Dockett) and Rix, Boulware said, if you can get those two stable those two stones it's unimaginable what we can do.
Bowden-Media Union Suspended
Bowden isn't the same lovable, grandfatherly coach his image projects, at least not with the same consistency as in the past. Nine losses in two seasons, off-field incidents and charges from the media that he has lost control of his program have worn on the legendary coach, who will celebrate his 74th birthday in November.
That was evident at the ACC Football Kickoff, when Bowden often offered short and sometimes pointed answers to questions. Historically speaking, that's not the coach's style.
The biggest change, however, won't go into effect until the start of the 2003 season, when the Seminoles likely will close their locker room to the media for the first time. That's quite a contrast, given that FSU has been one of the most media-accessible programs in the country during Bowden's long tenure in Tallahassee.
I've gotten very upset, said Bowden, who declined interview requests all summer, in part because he was afraid he might say something he shouldn't. No. 1, we definitely don't have control problems. We are definitely not out of control. I don't know who thinks that stuff up. Just like everybody else, we have problems. We're not perfect. I'm just glad we don't have the kind of problems Kobe Bryant has right now.
Well, not exactly. Junior defensive tackle Travis Johnson is facing an Aug. 11 court date for a sexual assault charge. That, however, appears to be the last tangible remnant of a forgettable 2002 season.
With gambling and theft charges against former quarterback Adrian McPherson finally settled in the courts, Dockett cleared to return and Rix diligently attempting to repair his reputation with teammates, Bowden said he's ready to move on.
I'm trying to straighten it out, because every season is a new season, Bowden added, referring to his attitude. But there's little doubt that the negative atmosphere the Seminoles have been operating in has changed things in Tallahassee, possibly for the remainder of the coach's career.
I was tested pretty good last year, he said. I was tested pretty good the last two years. For the first time in a long time, I've had to face the reality of losing games again, and I'm fixing to change it.
Summer Basketball: News, Notes
It appears that senior forward Mike Mathews will be back with the program for a fifth season following his Aug. 2 graduation. A partial qualifier upon his arrival, Mathews earned his fourth year of eligibility by picking up his diploma within four years of enrollment. The athletic 6-10 forward, who scored a career-high 18 points late last season at Duke, should help fortify the Seminoles' frontcourt depth. Still, he probably will have to return to the team as a walk-on, since coach Leonard Hamilton has handed out a full complement of 13 scholarships (assuming no surprise attrition) for the 2003-04 season.
Meanwhile, FSU hoops fans will be keeping a close eye on the team over at Chipola Community College in nearby Marianna, Fla. That's where a pair of troubled former Kentucky standouts forward Jason Parker and shooting guard Rashaad Carruth have surfaced for this season. Both players, who have had a number of off-court problems, have expressed an interest in Hamilton's program as their next stop.