TALLAHASSEE – While the relationship between Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban represents one of the most modern and obvious connections between Florida State and Alabama, it’s far from the first. It might not even be the most significant.
Florida State’s 70-year-old football program is filled with ties to Tuscaloosa: From a legendary head coach to legendary assistants to legendary administrators.
About the only place that the two programs don’t have an extensive history is on the field itself, although that will be changing soon. The Seminoles and Crimson Tide have met just four times, but they’ll add a significant new chapter to that story on Saturday, when No. 3 FSU plays No. 1 Alabama at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta.
Perhaps it’s only appropriate that a game billed as the greatest opener of all time will take place between programs whose histories are so intertwined.
“It’s kind of unique,” said Billy Sexton, who played quarterback at Alabama and Florida State before serving as an FSU assistant from 1977-2006. “This is a great game. … These are two great universities.”
“I think it’s going to be an outstanding football game,” added Mickey Andrews, FSU’s stalwart defensive coordinator from 1984-2009 and a receiver and defensive back at Alabama from 1961-64. “I just really believe it’s going to be one of those games that’s not decided until the fourth quarter.”
Andrews and Sexton both played for the iconic Bear Bryant in Tuscaloosa before helping coach Bobby Bowden build Florida State into one of the nation’s premier programs.
Bowden, of course, had deep roots with the University of Alabama, too.
A Birmingham native, Bowden grew up in the shadow of the Crimson Tide, and he played quarterback at UA in 1948 before moving home to attend Howard College (now Samford University).
As a coach, Bowden idolized Bryant and often said he dreamt of one day following in Bryant’s footsteps at Alabama. He twice received strong overtures from UA – in 1986 and again in 1990 – but each time remained with what was then a rising program at Florida State.
“I always thought my calling would be to end up at the University of Alabama,” Bowden told radio host Paul Finebaum in 2015. “I just said that’s how things are going to work out.”
Instead, Alabama passed on Bowden for Bill Curry in 1986, and Bowden returned the favor and passed on the Tide four years later, a decision that forever changed the history of both programs and the sport itself.
Bowden would later say that staying at FSU was “the best thing I ever did.”
The situation does, however, lend itself to plenty of “what-ifs.”
Like what if Bowden had taken the Alabama job and taken Andrews or Sexton with him?
It might have been a tempting proposition for either, but especially for Andrews, a two-time All-American who won a pair of national titles with the Tide.
As it stands, Andrews’ name is etched into the history of both schools.
He said that much of what took place at FSU in the 1980s and 90s mirrored Alabama’s glory days under Bryant: Specifically, toughness, competition and a whole lot of talent.
“We (both) had more games where we practiced against better players than we played against on Saturday,” Andrews said. “And when you’ve got that kind of talent and you let them go against each other, they’re going to have an opportunity to get better every week. And that’s really the key to the whole thing.”
There’s no questioning Sexton’s Seminole credentials – he coached under Bowden for 30 years and continues advocating for FSU through Seminole Boosters – but he still has roots in Tuscaloosa.
His parents both went to Alabama, and his father played football there. When Sexton received a scholarship offer from Bryant during his junior year at Tallahassee’s Leon High, it was an easy decision.
Sexton arrived at Alabama in 1969. In 1971, Bryant made a decision that would alter Sexton’s life, as well as the futures of both FSU and Alabama football: He switched to a wishbone offense that relied on the quarterback to run.
“That wasn’t my cup of tea,” Sexton said with a laugh. “I was a thrower. I ran very little.”
So Sexton transferred home to FSU, where the Seminole football program was transitioning between coaches Bill Peterson and Larry Jones.
Sexton threw for 754 yards and four touchdowns as a senior in 1974, then joined Bowden’s staff as a graduate assistant three years later.
He went on to coach four first-round picks and six All-Americans before retiring from coaching in 2006. He also shared a sideline with his son, Wyatt, who quarterbacked the Seminoles in the early 2000s.
“That was the best move I ever made,” Sexton said, echoing Bowden. “It worked out for me.”
And no, Sexton most certainly will not be conflicted when the Crimson Tide and Seminoles meet on Saturday.
“Oh, heavens no,” he said. “I’m a Seminole.”
The connections don’t stop on the coaching staff.
Vaughn Mancha was an Alabama football legend in the 1940s, a four-year starter who earned multiple All-America honors before becoming the No. 5 overall pick of the 1948 NFL draft – one spot ahead of future Hall-of-Famer Y.A. Tittle.
After a brief coaching career, Mancha became the athletics director at Florida State in 1959 and served at that post until 1971.
His connections to Alabama and the college football world helped FSU to schedule games against marquee opponents like Georgia, Georgia Tech, Auburn and – of course – Alabama at a time when the football program was fighting for national recognition.
Mancha is a member of Alabama’s All-Century Team, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the FSU Athletics Hall of Fame, the National Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
He died in Tallahassee in 2011.
“Vaughn Mancha’s role in raising the profile of not only Florida State athletics but the entire university was very significant,” FSU associate athletic director Rob Wilson said. “The respect he commanded and the relationships he had with the college power programs at the time allowed him to move FSU into the fast lane much quicker than we might have expected, particularly in football.”
The same goes for Hootie Ingram, a Tuscaloosa native and Crimson Tide football player who led FSU’s athletics department from 1981 until 1989, when he left for – where else? – Alabama.
Ingram helped usher in modern upgrades to FSU’s athletics facilities and oversaw the beginning of Bowden’s dynasty era in the late 1980s.
He’ll turn 84 on Saturday and, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, plans to celebrate by attending the FSU-Alabama game in Atlanta.
“You think about it, I don’t know how we did all it – we didn’t have any money back then (at FSU),” Ingram told the Democrat. “But looking back, it was really a lot of fun.”
There are even more links between the two schools.
Dave Hart was an Alabama basketball player who later served as FSU’s athletics director from 1995-2007 before taking an athletics administration position at his alma mater in 2008.
And quarterback Jacob Coker won a national title with both FSU and Alabama – as Jameis Winston’s reserve in 2013 and the Crimson Tide’s starter in 2015.
Even Jeff Purinton, Alabama’s Associate AD for external affairs, is a Florida State graduate and was an associate sports information director at FSU from 1999-2006.
While FSU and Alabama share some of college football’s most historic figures, the spotlight this weekend is reserved for Fisher and Saban, two of the most successful coaches of their era.
Prior to their arrivals at their present schools, the two worked together for five years at LSU, where Saban the head coach and Fisher the offensive coordinator teamed up to win the 2003 national title. They’ve met once on opposite sidelines (a 21-14 FSU win over Alabama in 2007, when Fisher was FSU’s coordinator) but never as head coaches.
It’s a matchup worthy of all the hype that has built over the two years since the game was announced, a buzz that will finally reach a fever pitch come Saturday.
But as far as Fisher is concerned, it’s just the latest chapter of a deep history between two of college football’s heavyweight programs.
“It’s not me and Nick,” Fisher said.
“It’s Florida State and Alabama.”