‘We believe in the vision that he has’: Why assistants joined Norvell at FSU

Mike Novell’s willingness to establish relationships is one reason most of his assistants decided to join his staff.
Photo special to the Outlook

By Tim Linafelt

Senior writer/Seminoles.com

Chris Thomsen was born in Texas.

He played high school and college football in Texas, and has spent 20 years of his 26-year coaching career in the Lone Star State.

Few natives love their state the way Texans do, and, as of a few weeks ago, the 51-year-old Thomsen seemed to have the perfect gig as the offensive line coach at his alma mater, Texas Christian.

But it was the detours in Thomsen’s career that led him to Tallahassee, where he’s set to be Mike Norvell’s deputy head coach and tight ends coach at Florida State.

He first met Norvell in the early 2000s at Central Arkansas – about 500 miles east of Thomsen’s hometown of Vernon, Texas – back when he was the Bears’ offensive line coach and Norvell was a young wide receiver.

Their paths crossed again a decade later at Arizona State, this time with Norvell as an up-and-coming offensive coordinator.

Whether their relationship was as a coach to a player or a coach to a coach, Norvell always seemed to leave a lasting impression on Thomsen.

For one thing, he was a fellow Texan, having grown up in Irving, Texas, near Dallas.

More than that, though, Thomsen, 13 years Norvell’s senior, was impressed by the way Norvell carried himself as a coach, the way he built relationships with his players and his fellow coaches, and the way he formed his vision for success.

So much so that when Norvell came calling from a Tallahassee area code, not even the appeal of coaching at his alma mater and in his home state could sway him from joining.

“I think it says everything about him,” Thomsen said, “that I’m willing to leave TCU, Dallas-Fort Worth – a place I’m very comfortable with – to come out here and try to help him be successful.”

Indeed, Thomsen’s story is unique to him, but virtually everyone associated with Norvell’s first staff has one similar.

Norvell’s coordinators, Kenny Dillingham and Adam Fuller, raved about their backgrounds with him at their introductory press conferences last month.

And the rest of the Florida State staff, assembled together for the first time in front of local media last week, echoed those sentiments.

Running backs coach David Johnson first met Norvell in 2009, while serving as the coach at a high school in New Orleans. Seven years later, he joined Norvell’s staff at Memphis before jumping to Tennessee in 2018.

Johnson was admired and respected at Tennessee – media reports suggested that UT did all it could to keep him – but, like Thomsen, Johnson just couldn’t say no to his old friend.

“I trust him,” Johnson said. “I understand what he’s trying to build.”

Same goes for TJ Rushing, the defensive backs coach who worked with Norvell both at Arizona State and Memphis.

“Every single day he is the exact same,” Rushing said. “He’s going to bring it. That’s what you like. That’s why guys keep coming back to him and want to stay with him.

“He’s a brilliant mind, and he’s doing it for the right reasons.”

A few of FSU’s new assistants took longer roads to Norvell’s company, but have found them no less rewarding.

Offensive line coach Alex Atkins, for example, first worked with Fuller at Tennessee-Chattanooga.

With Fuller’s endorsement, Norvell began diving into Atkins’ background, which includes stops at Marshall, Georgia Southern, Tulane and Chattanooga.

By the time Norvell called Atkins, he already knew he would offer him the job.

And after talking with Norvell and Dillingham, Atkins was thrilled. But before he could commit, Atkins first had a question.

“I said, ‘Does my wife have full access?’” Atkins recalled. “Because it’s just me and my wife. She loves football just as much as I do. And she wants to be in meeting rooms, she wants to be in practice. She loves to sit in there and watch film with us.

“He said when I asked that question, he knew I was the type of guy he was looking for. So that meant a lot to me, to tell me what kind of family man he was.”

Linebackers coach Chris Marve, meanwhile, had never coached with Norvell. But their roads seemed almost destined to meet.

Marve was born in Fort Worth, Texas, played high school football in Memphis and later starred across the state at Vanderbilt.

He got his first full-time coaching job with the Commodores in 2016 – the same year Norvell took over in Memphis.

“He pursues excellence in everything,” Marve said of Norvell. “Whether it’s football related, whether it’s his personal life or how he goes about developing young men.

“That was something that was really attractive to me, because those are the values that I stand for personally. And what I espouse to do in my personal life as well.”

After Marve, the only other new addition to Florida State’s staff without a clear tie to Norvell might be John Papuchis, the defensive ends and special teams coordinator who joined FSU on Christmas Eve.

(Assistants Odell Haggins and Ron Dugans had never worked with Norvell before he retained them last month either.)

But a look at Papuchis’ resume makes it easy to see how he landed on Norvell’s radar.

A 20-year coaching veteran with defensive coordinator experience at Nebraska and North Carolina, Papuchis also has an extensive background with special teams.

Norvell made clear in his introductory press conference that FSU’s special teams would be among the best in the nation. And Papuchis’ most recent group, at Maryland, fit that bill, having finished 12th nationally in ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings.

Hearing Norvell’s commitment to special teams attracted Papuchis to Florida State. But doing his own homework on the man himself – checking up with friends and contacts who either knew Norvell or had been in his orbit – sealed the deal.

“That was a big part of why I decided to come,” Papuchis said, “talking to the people around him and that knew him, even though I didn’t have a personal relationship.

“I haven’t heard anybody say a bad word about (him). And that’s hard to find in this day and age. Usually somebody has something to say that’s some kind of negative. And I haven’t heard one and I haven’t seen one.”

Norvell’s appeal extends far beyond the on-field staff, too.

Strength coaches Josh Storms and Nick Dowdy worked with Norvell at Memphis, as did operations director Jeff Kupper and high school relations director Carlos Locklyn.

Kupper had spent 10 years at Memphis and served under three different head coaches.

But, like so many others in the Florida State football offices these days, Norvell called and offered an irresistible reason to leave.

“It just says that we believe in the vision that he has,” Thomsen said. “Relationships are the number one thing with him. … He has a genuine passion and care for young people, and not only young people, but coaches.

“I think everybody that has come here, he’s touched in some way.”