TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A few moments after Florida State’s 42-10 victory over Louisiana-Monroe, after the Powerade shower and the T.V. interviews and after walking by the fans chanting his name, Odell Haggins made his way toward the Florida State locker room and found one of his most cherished players waiting for him.
Haggins pulled FSU senior Derrick Nnadi in for a hug and, fighting back tears, said, “Florida State ain’t going nowhere.”
No, it’s not. Not if Haggins has anything to say about it.
After more than 24 years in the program, as both a player and an assistant, Haggins got the call of his professional life Friday afternoon, when FSU athletics director Stan Wilcox relayed the news that he and FSU president John Thrasher had chosen Haggins to serve as the Seminoles’ interim coach in the wake of Jimbo Fisher’s departure.
Fisher left for Texas A&M after 11 years in Tallahassee, eight as the Seminoles’ head coach. When Fisher took the reins from Bobby Bowden in 2010, he helped smooth the transition by retaining Haggins on his new staff.
“I never thought I would be in this situation,” Haggins said. “I never thought that.”
Which is ironic, because, given the way both Wilcox and FSU’s players talked about Haggins after the game, it’s hard to imagine anyone else fulfilling that role.
Even Fisher, who spoke with Haggins before Saturday’s game, said that Haggins was the perfect man to help the Seminoles move forward.
“He said, ‘Odell, you’re the man for it,’” Haggins recalled. “I said, ‘Coach, I got you. I appreciate you for it, and I love you.’”
The Seminoles, meanwhile, showed their love and appreciation for their new leader with a strong performance against ULM that never left the outcome in doubt.
Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers each ran for two touchdowns and James Blackman threw for another as the Seminoles closed out the regular season with a victory in front of 58,750 fans at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Which means that, when Haggins says Florida State isn’t going anywhere, that’s not quite accurate:
The Seminoles are going bowling for an NCAA 36th straight season. They’ll learn their destination and opponent on Sunday.
“When things are going the way that you want them to and you’re finishing off strong, that’s fun to do,” center Alec Eberle said. “That was a big thing for us – let’s go out here and have fun, play for each other, win this game, go to a bowl game and finish this season the way it needs to be finished.”
For the Seminoles, playing for each other meant playing for Haggins, too.
A former FSU All-American defensive tackle who spent five years in the NFL before returning to work for Bowden in 1994, there may not be a more beloved member of FSU’s football staff.
When news of Haggins’ appointment broke on Friday afternoon, a wave of support from his former players spread across social media.
Former FSU defensive tackle Everett Dawkins told of how Haggins refused to drink Gatorade, lest he be seen as supporting the Seminoles’ rivals in Gainesville.
Another Haggins protégé, Travis Johnson, was scanning for last-minute flights that could get him from his home in Houston, Texas, to Tallahassee in time for the game.
Perhaps former fullback James Coleman said it best when he wrote, “Nobody is more FSU than Odell.”
“He means a lot to this team,” junior safety Derwin James said. “When people say he really bleeds garnet and gold, he really bleeds garnet and gold.”
Added Eberle: “Coach Odell, you could pay that guy minimum wage and he’d still come here and coach football. He loves this program so much.”
The program returned the favor throughout Saturday’s game, with several Haggins-themed touches before and during the game.
When Haggins was introduced as FSU’s head coach at the end of starting lineup announcements – a spot typically reserved for Fisher – fans gave a loud ovation, players stood and raised their helmets in solidarity, and two of Haggins’ former charges who are now on staff, Jerry Johnson and Mario Edwards, stood beside their former coach and applauded with broad grins on their faces.
Near the end of the first half, the north end zone videoboard asked fans to text their vote for first-half MVP. In a usual week, the choice is between one offensive and defensive player, usually one who scores a touchdown or forces a turnover.
This time, the two choices were Odell Haggins and … Odell Haggins.
Haggins won, with 100 percent of the vote.
Finally, with the game well in hand late in the fourth quarter, the videoboards dusted off Haggins’ star turn in the “Seminole Rap,” the infamous music video that the No. 1-ranked Seminoles of 1988 – Haggins’ junior year – used as a springboard into the season.
Haggins’ verse starts: “Hey QBs, what’s up my friends? I’m Odell Haggins, I’m back again. You can double me up on every play, it won’t matter, can’t keep me away.”
Nearly 30 years later, Haggins laughs about his brush with rock-stardom.
“Did y’all realize I have a twin brother?” Haggins said with a smile. “To end the game that way, with the kids getting to see that, that was great. I can be the joke.
“I wish I never did it, because that’s going to last me the rest of my life.”
So, too, will everything that happened here Saturday.
Haggins’ turn on the headset came at the end of a trying week that culminated with Fisher’s departure on Friday afternoon.
The Seminoles tried to block out the rumors surrounding their previous head coach, but as the storyline dragged on, that task became harder and harder.
Not exactly ideal circumstances for the days leading up to a game that the Seminoles had to have.
“Man, to recap this week, that’d be hard to do,” Eberle said.
But Haggins, in his usual fashion, didn’t see it that way.
Rather than a hurdle to be overcome, Haggins saw the build-up to this game as an opportunity to teach a life lesson.
“Everyone said we went through turmoil,” Haggins said. “No. God puts us through certain things for a reason. You learn from them, and they make you stronger as a man or make you stronger as a woman.
“I am not going to say, ‘Florida State is 6-6, they had a subpar season.’ I’m going to say our kids learned a lot this year about life.”
With a 1-0 record and perhaps head-coaching duties in the bowl game on the horizon, too, Haggins fielded a question about his own future when a reporter asked if he’d like to be considered a candidate to become the Seminoles’ full-time coach.
After first declining the question, Haggins doubled back and gave a clear, concise answer:
“I want Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Thrasher to hire the best person for it,” he said. “Take me out of it. I’m not trying to get this job. The reason why I say that, as a coach at Florida State, a former player at Florida State, I can impact lives.
“I hope the next coach keeps me.”
He’s not the only one.