Tallahassee, Fla.—For the first time in my professional life I walked into the office of the Florida State head coach and somebody other than Bobby Bowden was sitting behind the desk. Despite my personal admiration for Bowden and my disappointment at the way he was pushed out the door after 34 seasons, I have to admit that Jimbo Fisher looked comfortable and in charge of the Florida State program.
“A lot of people have asked me if it feels different sitting in this chair,” said Fisher, who was elevated to head coach after serving as head-coach-in-waiting to Bowden for three seasons. “I’m sure it will be different from time to time when some of these administrative things pop up. I don’t mean this is an arrogant way but I don’t feel overwhelmed. It’s not something I can’t do. I feel like I know where I want to go.”
There is evidence of Fisher’s vision in the office. To the left of Fisher’s desk are about 30 footballs and other stuff (hats, etc.) that needs to be signed. To his right are two architect’s renderings. One is of a much-needed indoor practice facility (at a cost of about $15 million) that Bowden wanted for years so that his team would not be at the mercy of the inevitable late afternoon thunderstorms in the Florida panhandle.
The other drawing is a proposed new dormitory on Tennessee Street that would house athletes and other students. (Note: The NCAA eliminated athletic dorms in 1996 but athletes can share a dorm with other students). The dorm, which would include a dining hall and the academic support system, will cost about $31 million. Fisher can’t say when the two structures will get built but he has heard from some donors who may get things rolling.
Fisher can’t say this but I can. Rightly or wrongly, there were some big money people at Florida State who sat on their cash waiting for the Bowden issue to be resolved. Now that it has, some of that money will start flowing again.
“When we get those two done I think we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Fisher said. “We’ll be on our way.”
Talking to people at Florida State, even those who still profess their affection for Bowden, the Seminoles are already on their way.
“This guy has got a plan,” said Eddie Gran, who spent 16 years as an assistant in the SEC before leaving Tennessee last December to join Fisher at Florida State. “I’m very excited about being here.”
Gran is one of five new coaches that Fisher brought on board after taking over. Gran, considered to be one of the South’s best recruiters, is the oldest at 44. New defensive coordinator Mark Stoops and linebackers coach Greg Hudson are both 42. Dameyune Craig, who played quarterback for Fisher at Auburn, has come on board as recruiting coordinator. He is 35. Defensive end coach D.J. Eliot, a former recruiting coordinator at Rice, is 33. The Florida State staff has suddenly gotten a lot younger.
“The staff is a good mix of people who can help our players get better,” said Fisher. “This is a high-energy bunch. And they can all recruit. We have good players here. We need to convince more to join us.”
From 1987-2000 Florida State had a run that most college football people believe will never be repeated. For 14 consecutive seasons the Seminoles won at least 10 games and finished in the final Associated Press Top Five. In those 14 seasons FSU won 152 games and two national championships.
After that run Bowden would be the head coach for nine more seasons but would get to 10 wins only one more time (2003). The best final ranking in that stretch was also in 2003 (11th).
Many reasons were given for the slippage in the program: Bowden’s age and the uncertainty of the future; the departure of offensive coordinator Mark Richt, who became head coach at Georgia in 2001, and Bowden’s decision to name his son, Jeff, to replace Richt.
But the simple fact is that in the late 80s and 90s Florida State was THE place that the elite football player wanted to at least visit. It was the sexy place to play football. It didn’t matter if a kind was from Walla Walla, Washington or Pensacola, Fla. Kids wanted to come to Florida State because Bowden was winning and turning out bunches of NFL players. At some point that changed and the program declined when fewer and fewer great players came to Tallahassee.
“The difference in the talent in Coach Bowden’s great run and in the final years was night and day,” an ACC assistant coach told me. “It wasn’t even close.”
Fisher has always shown Bobby Bowden the proper deference and will continue to do so. “All you have to do is look around to see what he built here,” said Fisher. “There is a reason there is a statue of him in front of this stadium. Every one of us who works here owes coach Bowden a lot.”
But Fisher also knows that now it is his job to take the legacy that Bowden created and to build on it. His job is to put Florida State back into the yearly discussion for the national championship.
“It’s not like we’re trying to do something here that hasn’t been done before,” Fisher said. “Coach Bowden and all those great coaches and players set the standard. Our job is to get Florida State back there.”
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