January 6, 2003
TALLAHASSEE There are times when you wonder just what kind of feel Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden has for his program, both where it is and where it's headed.
The post-Sugar Bowl press conference was one of those times. With quarterback Fabian Walker and receiver Anquan Boldin flanked to his right and left, respectively, Bowden began answering questions about the Seminoles' 26-13 loss to Georgia and the immediate future. Surprisingly, Bowden made it a point to mention that the Seminoles should be fine, with quarterback Chris Rix set to return next season.
It was hard to imagine just how that comment sat with Walker and Boldin, who spent most of Jan. 1 absorbing a licking from Georgia's defense because they were thrust into shared quarterback duties in a big game, and without the desired preparation. Meanwhile, Rix was at home in California, suspended for failing to take a final exam in religious ethics.
With his continued defense of Rix, Bowden runs the risk of further driving a wedge between various segments of his players.
Even prior to his bowl game suspension, Rix likely ranked as the least popular quarterback among teammates in Bowden's 27 years in Tallahassee. And whatever he gained back by directing the Seminoles to a 31-14 win over Florida in the regular-season finale, ultimately was lost by his bone-headed decision to skip a class he had shown little interest in all season. Sources said the quarterback not only skipped 24 of 36 classes in the ethics course, but he didn't show up for the final despite a phone call from a classmate while it was in progress.
In defense of Rix, he was dealing with a family situation involving his father's health back in California. It was a crisis that led to many long nights on the phone and undoubtedly some serious distractions on the football field and the academic arena.
Nevertheless, more than a few school administrators made it clear that Rix had received one free-pass too many, that he had too seldom been forced to take responsibility for his own actions. It was hard enough for teammates to like a player who at times was arrogant, aloof and already had suffered more losses (seven) than the program's last three starting quarterbacks combined.
Bowden, however, said Rix would open spring practice as the starter, as the Seminoles try to recover from their losingest season (9-5) in 21 years.
Right now, it looks like Chris is No. 1 and you start there, Bowden said. If we'd have won that ballgame, I'd have had to put Fabian up at No. 1. I'd have had to say, ëChris, you'll have to come back and try to take the job from him, because he's the No. 1 quarterback.'
When asked if he thought it was possible for Rix to win back his teammates, Bowden said: Oh, yeah. I've already heard the players talk. They'd have liked to have him back (in the Sugar Bowl). He's just got to do what he's supposed to do. He let the team down. That upsets them.
Just how upset and willing to accept Rix back into the fold remains open for some debate. Fellow Californian and wide receiver Dominic Robinson, who visited Rix at home over the Christmas break, believes teammates will be understanding. Graduating senior All America tackle Brett Williams, a staunch Rix supporter throughout the season, isn't so sure.
It's just going to come down to whether or not the guys want him, Williams said. That's something I won't be able to tell, because I'm not going to be in a position.
Bowden clearly doesn't have any easy answers for the quarterback issue. With Walker likely facing minor shoulder surgery that could keep him on the shelf for the spring, the only other full-time quarterback in the program is freshman Wyatt Sexton, who redshirted in 2002. Freshman Lorne Sam, a high school quarterback who worked out at receiver in the fall, recently asked to get a look at QB in the spring, and the staff agreed to give him an opportunity.
Nevertheless, with Boldin moving back to receiver full-time, and with converted quarterback Matt Henshaw staying at tight end, Rix seemingly has a clear path to secure the job outright in the spring. Few close to the program expect Walker to beat Rix out, and Sexton and Sam still are considered at least a year away.
One question remains, though: Has Rix learned from this experience? Perhaps, but the lesson may not be a positive one for a player whose feet rarely have been held to the fire when it comes to accountability.
Hamilton Setting Lofty Standards
FSU's second-half collapse against North Carolina in the ACC opener for both teams sent first-year coach Leonard Hamilton into orbit. Privately, Hamilton accused his players of quitting after playing the Tar Heels to a 30-30 tie at halftime. The coach publicly promised that his team would never falter in that manner again.
Unfortunately, he had to send a similar message the following week, after a loss to middling Boston University at the Fiesta Bowl Classic. The defeat denied the Seminoles an opportunity to square off against top-10 Arizona in the final, although FSU did save face by knocking off a decent Davidson team in the consolation game.
Hamilton attributed the two-game losing streak to his team losing focus after showing improvement each time out through the first five games of the season. The Davidson win, coupled with a 76-69 triumph at Virginia Tech, could be a sign that the Seminoles are catching on to their new coach's ways. The victory over the Hokies, a Big East bottom-feeder, equaled last season's road win total (one).
Virginia Tech hardly is worthy of measuring-stick status, even for a team that was 1-10 on the road last season. Still, it was an encouraging triumph, considering that the Seminoles bounced back after nearly squandering a 15-point halftime lead. Hamilton said the win should help his team understand how you need to finish games.
Joiner Flourishing In New Role
A starter through the first eight games of the season, junior forward Michael Joiner began coming off the bench for the Seminoles in late December. When Steve Robinson took a similar approach with Joiner last season, it only deepened a season-long funk. Hamilton's move, however, has proved bountiful for the Seminoles.
Over his last three games in early January, Joiner averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. Those figures were significantly better than his season averages of 11.3 points and 4.7 rebounds.
More importantly, Joiner's entry into the game doesn't bring the offense to a standstill the way it did when Hamilton was bringing in either Adam Waleskowski or Mike Mathews. Waleskowski is now starting alongside Trevor Harvey at the power forward position, while Mathews' minutes continue to be limited.