As diplomatic challenges go, Jimbo Fisher's mission to move Florida State football forward while still paying proper respect to Bobby Bowden and what he accomplished is as delicate as they come. We're talking Cold War delicate. Middle East peace process delicate. Nick Saban press conference delicate.
The final years of Bowden's reign in Tallahassee featured a slow atrophying of the Seminole brand. What was once robust and feared had become soft and vulnerable. FSU inspired dread in few opponents. A program that was expected to tear through the ACC was repeatedly knocked around by the "basketball schools" it was supposed to dominate. Over the past five seasons, FSU lost to all but two -- North Carolina and Duke -- of its conference rivals. The program that had achieved an unprecedented run of 14 straight seasons with 10 or more wins and rankings in the top 5 of the final AP poll had become a toothless power, losing 27 games in Bowden's final five years in Tallahassee. By comparison, the Noles dropped only 19 from 1987-2000.
The statistics spoke loudly about the need for a change, but those who understood what Bowden had accomplished were understandably loath to demand his ouster. His football success had helped define the institution, which had before Bowden's arrival in 1976 been an inferior brand to the University of Florida and was known more as the alma mater of Burt Reynolds than as a first-rate university. By winning big, Bowden legitimized FSU on the national stage and elevated it to a status it had never enjoyed. For all of that, many remained extremely loyal to him and believed he had earned the right to leave coaching on his terms. That didn't happen -- to the anger of many and the relief of others.
Fisher kept quiet throughout the tumultuous 2009 season, which featured calls from trustees for Bowden to retire, a 2-4 stagger out of the gate and a four-TD loss to the Gators in the regular-season finale that appeared almost too easy for UF. Fisher had been hired as FSU's offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting and was expected to take over for Bowden after the 2010 season, largely because he would be due a $5 million payday if he weren't elevated by then to the top spot.
Fisher finds himself following a legend -- one year earlier than first planned -- and it's a distinction that hasn't always brought glory. Just ask Ray Perkins, who struggled to keep Alabama rolling after taking over for Bear Bryant. Earle Bruce (Ohio State/Woody Hayes), Fred Akers (Texas/Darrell Royal) and Frank Solich (Nebraska/Tom Osborne) all won 70 percent or more of their games but were fired largely because they weren't the legendary men they replaced. Fisher understands the danger that comes from stepping in for someone as revered as Bowden, but he also knows he's not taking over after recent prosperity.
"I might be given a little more leeway as people adapt to new procedures," Fisher says. "We were winning games, but not as many as we had been."
Fisher is not going so far as to change FSU's uniforms -- "I'm not crazy," he says laughing -- but there will be differences in how the program operates. It began quickly after the Noles' Gator Bowl win over West Virginia and included a higher standard of accountability for players, a larger emphasis on nutrition and new strength and conditioning methods. For instance, there is a point system for various transgressions, ranging from one point for missing a class or tutoring session to a half-point for being late for a meeting or workout. Accumulate three points, and you see your position coach. Reach six, and you start running. At nine, it's time for a sitdown with the boss man.
"There's a higher standard, from everything we eat to our classroom performance to the workouts," senior quarterback Christian Ponder says. "There's a lot of change and enthusiasm, but the biggest thing is accountability."
It isn't surprising that Bruce is tired of talking about his nine years coaching at Ohio State and his removal from the position despite a 75 percent success rate. Now 79, Bruce would much rather enjoy his winters in Florida and watch his alma mater -- he graduated from OSU in 1953 -- continue to dominate the Big Ten. But he did provide what he considers the secret to any coach's survival when he succeeds a legend, as Bruce did in 1979.
"If Bobby Bowden supports (Fisher), he doesn't have a problem," Bruce says. "I had all the support from Coach Hayes that I could want, and I didn't have a problem.
"But if Bobby doesn't support him, he will have problems that he can't solve."
Fisher reports that Bowden has been extremely helpful. Perhaps the most beneficial move the old coach made was moving out of Tallahassee. He could have set up an office in the school's Moore Athletic Center and served as a reminder of things past, not to mention giving frustrated and angry players a sounding board for their gripes and complaints. Instead, Bowden has stepped away from the program's operations and is willing to let Fisher chart his own course.
"Coach Bowden has been great about things," Fisher says. "He told me, 'If you need me, call me.'"
Perkins didn't have to worry about whether his predecessor supported him or not when he took over at Alabama in 1983. Bryant died less than a month after retiring, so his presence was not a deterrent to Perkins' efforts. The Bear's mythic achievements and the Tide's reverence for the Bear were impossible to ignore, although Perkins asserts they were never distractions.
"I was so caught up in the job and trying to do as good a job as I possibly could that I didn't have time to worry about how hard it was to succeed him," he says. "(Coaching) is an all-consuming job, and that's the way I went about it.
"I think (following Bowden) is blown out of whack. It's a great honor for (Fisher). Following Coach Bryant was the biggest honor I ever had in my life. I always wanted to do it."
When FSU fans see Ponder throw a touchdown pass this season, they'll no doubt be thankful that the senior quarterback is on their side. The same goes for any of the other top Seminoles. Talent wins football games, and during Fisher's time as both an assistant and as the boss man, Florida State has accumulated a lot of it. More is coming. And that means more wins.
During his three-year stint as the sorcerer's apprentice, Fisher spent as much time investigating the back channels at the university as he did concocting gameplans, cajoling recruits or tutoring his charges on the field. In Fisher's world, plenty of programs fill their arsenals on the recruiting trails and know how to put those weapons to use on the field. What separates the top teams are the smaller, less noticeable things that can have a huge impact on success. Forging good relationships with the Office of Student Services and the Bursar's Office can be as vital to a coach as making sure the local constables are willing to play ball at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning. "I learned where to go to get things done," Fisher says. "I know there are going to be problems, and I have to know how to get them solved quickly.
"If you recruit good players, you can win. The difference between that and winning big is the support system you build around your players. Different people control different things in the university, and the big thing is knowing how to organize the whole university to help you."
Fisher's concept of accountability extends beyond encouraging his players to stay out of trouble. He has also let everyone within the program know that when something has to be done, it must be completed promptly and accurately. Time management and organization are huge on his list of priorities. That means when a meeting is scheduled, it starts on schedule, runs crisply and ends when it's supposed to, the better to facilitate a smooth transition to the next task.
"It's about other people knowing exactly what you want to do, so it's already set up for you. You come in, and it's bang, bang, bang."
This is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it's certainly a change at Florida State. For years, Bowden was classified as a CEO, rather than direct manager. While he made most major judgments that affected the program, he had less and less influence on the day-to-day operations. As far back as the late 1990s, when asked about whether the decision to block a punt or not during a game was Bowden's, a former assistant scoffed. "Heck, no," he said. "(Bowden) will say, 'Y'all are going after this one, aren't you?' But the decision is the special teams coach's to make."
Fisher's approach to his position as head coach is a radical departure for Florida State, one that was necessary, no matter how much Bowden meant to the school. Bowden's final years were hardly characterized by stern, charismatic leadership, and it's not out of line to wonder whether the academic scandal that rocked the athletic department and cost Bowden 14 wins would have happened had a more hands-on person been at the helm.
Fisher is careful to respect Bowden and his accomplishments, but he understands the need for change. He also knows how to accomplish it without angering the True Believers. "You have to appreciate the history and explain why the change is necessary," he says. "If the core values of what you're actually doing don't change, then the tradition doesn't change."
What has to change is the Seminoles' performance on the field. The 2009 season began with a thrilling loss to Miami that nevertheless established the Noles as a dangerous offensive force. Two weeks later, FSU throttled BYU, 54-28, in Provo and was 2-1 heading into a tune-up against a staggering South Florida team. The Bulls would be starting a redshirt freshman quarterback, B.J. Daniels, who grew up dreaming of playing for the Seminoles but instead settled for shocking them in Tallahassee. Two ACC losses later, the trouble started, and Bowden was put on a sad path toward The End.
To hear Fisher talk, '09 might as well have taken place during the Bush Administration -- the first Bush Administration. To him, the past, no matter how recent, has no bearing on 2010 and beyond. He's not foolish enough to discount what Bowden's success has meant to Florida State's program; you don't fill the stadium with 83,000 every Saturday and practice in first-class facilities without a little bit of prior success. Otherwise, Sun Belt teams would have their own TV network. When it comes to winning and building a championship contender, Fisher has no time to review what went wrong in the past.
"He is very high energy," senior center Ryan McMahon says. "He's always getting the best out of you at practice. He preaches creating good habits. His motto is 'toughness, effort, discipline and pride.'"
The one asset Fisher has on his ledger sheet is the resilience of youth. Florida State players once pledged their loyalty to Bowden. Now, they devote themselves to pleasing Fisher. "When (Coach Bowden) was here, everybody bought into what he was trying to do," McMahon says. "Now that he's left, we're buying into what Coach Fisher is doing."
Try making that happen in a boardroom.
Despite the fact that he has never been a head coach, Fisher could have more early success than some might believe possible. The Seminoles had some big problems last year -- they allowed 30 points per game, couldn't stop the run and allowed opponents to complete 59.8 percent of their passe. But their offense was dynamic, and just about all the key components from that unit return, most notably Ponder, McMahon and all his O-line mates, leading rusher Jermaine Thomas (832 yards, nine TDs) and three of the top four receivers. It's fun to joke that the defense should be better, thanks to the departure of several senior starters, but the real improvement should come from the arrival of new coordinator Mark Stoops and his lieutenant, Greg Hudson, whose East Carolina defenses consistently stuffed high-powered attacks.
The guys wearing the headsets will do fine, but you still need talent to win at the highest levels. Even the most organized, committed, talented coaching staff can't win with B-movie actors. So, FSU fans had to be thrilled with a consensus top-10 class signed in February that was heavy on blue-chip help and a crop of eight 2011 commitments that could be the kick-start of a top-5 class.
"We're reestablishing our recruiting boundaries and winning some wars," Fisher says.
Although the 2010 schedule includes games with Florida, Oklahoma and BYU -- "That's an athletic director's schedule, not a coach's," Fisher says -- and ought to preclude an undefeated run, the Seminoles continue to have some built-in advantages not enjoyed by SEC or Big 12 brethren. Fisher is too smart to say it, but playing in the ACC gives Florida State an advantage. Although the conference is stronger than it was when the Seminoles joined in 1992, it lacks the week-in, week-out brutality of the two leagues consistently at the top of the conference rankings. The annual games with Miami and Florida will always be challenging, but should FSU return to its previous levels of football size, speed and skill, its path to a national title is easier than that of other contenders.
For now, Fisher must concentrate on continuing the transition from Bowden's era to a successful future. Being the man to follow a legend has never been easy, in any walk of life. If Florida State is to move back to the top of the college football world, Fisher must create an identity that embraces what has come before while understanding how to handle what happens next.
He's off to a good start. But there is a long way to go.