OCALA, Fla. -- The cover of the program for Jimbo Fisher's speech last week to the Marion County chapter of Seminole Boosters looked familiar. It featured a photo of the coach altered to look like a drawing and bathed in garnet and gold. Beneath the picture was the word JIMBO.
As soon as Fisher opened his mouth and began listing all the changes he has in store for the Florida State program he inherited after Bobby Bowden was forced out a year ahead of schedule, the program cover made perfect sense. The organizers of the event had Obamaiconed the Seminoles' new head coach.
Given the demographics of the average southern college football booster, this probably wasn't a political statement. (And if you want to argue about how much you like or dislike the president, please retreat to your respective cable news outlet. We're not talking politics here.)
Political context aside, Obama's campaign bombarded us with the word "Change" in 2008. In 2010, the Seminoles will get an even heavier dose. Fisher wants to change almost everything about a program that once dominated college football and now languishes in the middle of the ACC. He wants to change the way his team eats. He wants to change where his players live. He wants to change how they think. He wants to change how they play defense. He even wants to change the date on which they face their arch nemeses from Gainesville.
Fisher already has pushed some changes through. Others will require more coaching, more money or both. That's OK. It's a process.
There's that word again.
Though Fisher talks a lot faster and though his West Virginia twang remains more intact, his approach to running a program follows the same basic blueprint as his mentor's, Alabama coach Nick Saban. Fisher was Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000-04, and he hasn't forgotten the lessons he learned.
How faithful is Fisher to the Saban Doctorine? Gentry Estes of the Mobile (Ala.) Register invented a fun exercise: Try to determine which of these quotes came from Saban and which came from Fisher or fellow Saban disciple Derek Dooley of Tennessee. I got four out of 10 correct, and I see quotes from these guys all the time.
Fisher said Saban isn't his only influence, though. He also draws upon the wisdom of the ultimate coach's coach, and that's why Fisher rarely mentions conference or national championships in front of his players. "Who is the greatest college coach, period? John Wooden," Fisher said. "John Wooden never talked about outcome in his pyramid of success."
Still, most aspects of Fisher's overhaul of FSU's program bear Saban's fingerprints. Fisher assigned 12 team leaders to a unity council that will handle minor disciplinary issues on the team. "Last semester, we had seven guys go before the board," Fisher said. "Last year, we would have had 25 in the first week." Fisher hired a nutritionist to ensure his players eat properly. When the Seminoles dine together -- usually three times a day, because Fisher considers them family meals -- weight gainers sit in one section, weight losers sit in another and weight maintainers sit in another. Fisher's hiring of the cutting-edge IMG Academy to mentally train his players is a direct nod to Saban, who utilized similar mental training as he took Alabama from 7-6 in 2007 to 14-0 and a BCS title in 2009. Fisher also has beefed up his ancillary staff. Saban took similar measures at LSU and Alabama.
"We had two full-time strength coaches other than our head strength coach," Fisher said. "We now have eight, and I'm about to hire the ninth guy."
To a fan of a perennial national title contender, this stuff probably doesn't sound revolutionary. It's not, which should help explain how far behind FSU had fallen in the 10 years since the Seminoles won their second national title by going wire-to-wire at No. 1.
Fisher tried to explain all this to the crowd without disrespecting Bowden, who won 304 games in 34 years at Florida State and who engineered possibly the most dominant run any program has ever enjoyed. From 1987 to 2000, the Seminoles never finished a season ranked lower than fourth in The Associated Press poll. To understand how extraordinary that feat is, consider the recent period of USC dominance that came to a halt in 2009. The Trojans never finished lower than No. 4 for seven consecutive years, yet they were only halfway to Bowden's mark.
But times change. Florida State won all those games because it had superior athletes and a great staff of Xs and Os men to make those athletes even better. Some of the better coaches left the program for head coaching jobs. Meanwhile, the remaining coaches lost their touch on the recruiting trail, and Bowden and the administration failed to keep up with the Joneses -- or in their case, the Meyers.
When he speaks to booster groups, Fisher is quick to call Bowden "my hero." He's also quick to remind donors that the football universe has shifted dramatically. "Do you do business the same way you did 10 years ago?" Fisher asked the crowd in Ocala. "Do you do business the same way you did five years ago?"
To do business the way he wants, Fisher needs those boosters to open their wallets. Florida's higher education system has many financial needs. A football dorm and an indoor practice facility aren't among them. So Florida State, which recently became one of a few self-sustaining athletic departments, needs more private donations. Fisher will have to coax those donations from donors who want to see progress before they commit.
Fisher wants to house most of his scholarship players in the same place while still obeying NCAA rules that require an on-campus dorm to contain at least 51 percent non-athletes. He also wants to ensure that Florida's frequent lightning doesn't keep them off the practice field. Unlike Bowden, Fisher doesn't typically play golf at booster functions. Last week in Ocala, Fisher happily took to the links because one of his playing partners was a whale of a booster who might make one of the dreams described above come true.
That's part of the process, too.
All that stuff helps, but the Seminoles will succeed or fail because of their players and their schemes. Fisher has upgraded the talent. Though Fisher didn't hold any official title other than offensive coordinator despite being Florida State's coach-in-waiting since late 2007, the now-departed coaches were more than happy to let Fisher do the heavy lifting on the recruiting trail. When Fisher finally ascended to the head job and put together his own staff, he brought in aggressive recruiters such as running backs coach Eddie Gran, who tag-teams South Florida with tight ends coach/offensive coordinator James Coley, the author of one of the most consistently entertaining feeds on Twitter.
Even as head coach, Fisher will remain the primary playcaller on offense. "If I had to sit up there and just watch, I'd go crazy," he said. "I've got to do something." The offense should be fine. The five returning starters on the line have combined for 142 career starts, and senior quarterback Christian Ponder, who already holds an MBA, may be in the Heisman hunt by season's end.
FSU's problem is on defense. In legendary coordinator Mickey Andrews' final season, the Seminoles finished 94th in the nation in scoring defense and 108th in total defense. Andrews' dogged reliance on man-to-man coverage hearkened back to a day when FSU had the fastest players on the field. Now everyone has fast players, and many of the popular spread offenses were designed as a response to the defense FSU used to dominate the '90s. Even worse, the old staff used FSU's best athlete, cornerback Greg Reid, as a nickelback instead of playing him full-time.
Enter first-year coordinator Mark Stoops, who brought zone coverages with him from Arizona. Now, if a cornerback gets beat deep, he has help. Now that lost gambles won't always result in touchdowns, defensive backs can be more hawkish. Reid, who also was the nation's top punt returner as a freshman in 2009, earned the defensive MVP award in spring practice because the zone enhanced Reid's preternatural knack for snagging passes.
Unlike Saban, who set an entire fan base salivating when he joked that Alabama receiver Julio Jones might play some defense, Fisher is serious about getting Reid the ball on offense. "Some guys move chains, some guys change numbers on the scoreboard," Fisher said. "It seems like every two or three times he touches [the ball], some number changes on the scoreboard in our favor."
In Ocala, each of Fisher's pronouncements drew wild applause. It's been the same everywhere. Seminole Boosters executive Charlie Barnes, who accompanied Bowden for about 800 such speeches, said the excitement is palpable. And Barnes believes Fisher is capable of bringing the Seminoles back to a national championship level. "I was joking the other day that any decent coach in the state of Florida could win a national title," Barnes said. "That's when I realized that every decent coach in the state of Florida in the past 25 years has at least one."
Now, the king of Sunshine State coaches is Florida's Urban Meyer, winner of two national titles in the past four seasons. Meyer should be concerned, though. Because as much as Fisher talks like Saban, the vision for the future Fisher has outlined in his travels throughout the state sounds an awful lot like the one Meyer laid out when he barnstormed as the new shepherd of Florida's program in 2005. The response, from everyday fans and boosters alike, is similar as well.
Florida fans won't like this, either, but Fisher also has a bit of Steve Spurrier in him. One of Spurrier's pet causes was moving the Florida-Florida State game to the beginning of the season. Fisher now champions that cause, though he doubts the folks in Gainesville -- winners of six in a row in the rivalry -- will acquiesce unless FSU proves to be an elite program again. "If we get back to the level where we're playing for those national championships, once we get there, they may want to do that, too," Fisher said.
Fisher is knee-deep in a process that should allow FSU to get back to that level. And he believes the Seminoles might get there sooner than you'd think.
"I don't know when we got into this predicament," Fisher said. "We didn't get into it overnight. We're not going to fix it overnight. But I don't think it's going to take long."