BOCA RATON – As Florida St. became a baseball national powerhouse in the 1990s and Florida Atlantic emerged as a regional player, few would have predicted that the two schools would take a two-decade hiatus from meeting on the diamond.
Yet that’s exactly what happened.
FAU and FSU met nine times from 1995-98, with the Seminoles winning eight times. All of those games were played in Tallahassee.
“The idea was, we’re going to play the best people we can play,” then-coach Kevin Cooney said. “That was the attractive part of our recruiting pitch.”
The Owls’ were a Division I newbie when, in 1995, they made their first trip to Tallahassee. FAU dropped all three early February games that year by a combined score of 40-15. Florida Atlantic lost both games in 1996, though they did take one game to extra innings.
Two more losses followed the next year, but the Owls broke through in the series finale, pounding the Seminoles 13-5.
Around that point Cooney decided the Owls had proven they were opponents worthy of having Florida St. come to Boca Raton.
“We always had to play them at their place and so we’d always schlep up there, and I’d felt that we had built our program to the point where they needed to play us at our place,” Cooney said. “(FSU coach Mike Martin) would always say, Well I can’t do this because of this and that. He wound up playing St. Leo at St. Leo. He played Stetson at Stetson. He was playing UCF at UCF.”
When Martin refused to schedule a series in Boca Raton, Cooney says he proposed playing two games in Tallahassee and one on FAU’s campus. Martin, Cooney asserts, wouldn’t do that either.
“That’s when we stopped playing,” Cooney said. “Florida played us at home. Miami eventually played us at home. There was no reason Florida St. shouldn’t.”
Florida St. won both of the 1998 games played in Tallahassee. In 1999, the first year with FSU off the schedule, FAU tied an NCAA record by winning 34 consecutive games, posted a 54-9 overall record and claimed the Owls first NCAA tournament bid.
The Owls earned 11 more NCAA tournament bids since then. That total doesn’t isn’t in the same league with what FSU has accomplished under Martin, college baseball’s all-time winninest coach, but anyone who follows NCAA baseball recognizes that Cooney and current coach John McCormack have built FAU into a national player. The Owls no-longer needed to play the Seminoles as a recruiting tool. FAU didn’t need games against FSU to validate the program.
“It was my decision – probably not the best interest of Florida Atlantic,” Cooney said. “We probably should have kept playing them, especially as we, in ’99, we kind of exploded and never really looked back as a program. I wish we had, but we didn’t.”
More than 20 years after the Owls and Seminoles last met, current FAU coach John McCormack knew better than most that the rivalry, if it could be called that, was about to be revived. An assistant under Cooney when the Owls made those trips to Tallahassee, McCormack scheduled a three-game weekend series with Florida St. for next season. All three games will be played in Tallahassee. At the moment, there still isn’t an agreement for the Seminoles to play in Boca Raton.
But the NCAA sped up the clock on the rivalry’s rejuvenation. No. 2-seed FAU (40-19) will face No. 3-seed FSU (36-21) Friday at noon in the first game of the Athens, Ga., regional.
The game pits McCormack, who won the 400th game of his coaching career during last week’s Conference USA tournament, against Martin, winner of more than 2,000 games.
Despite all those victories and their perpetual presence in the NCAA tournament Martin and the Seminoles have never won the national title. Friday begins the retiring Martin’s last chance, making the Seminoles the sentimental favorite to return to the College World Series. Sentimental for some, but not all.
“He certainly had a long career and I’ll be rooting against him,” Cooney said of Martin. “I hope he doesn’t continue his career at FAU’s expense.”