PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- They've seen him around town lately. Glimpses, really. Just the other day he was spotted picking up a bag of ice just like a tourist. Someone saw him at a diner near the beach.
If it wasn't for the two national championship rings and distinctive drawl, Bobby Bowden could be just another 80-year-old snowbird.
"I've already missed him," said Jimmy Williams, a 70-year-old local resident and Florida State loyalist, nursing a drink inside a Majestic Beach Resort ballroom. "You talk to him for 10 minutes, you feel like you know him forever."
|2010–pres.||Florida State||Head Coach|
|2007–2009||Florida State||Offensive Coordinator/QBs|
They are used to Florida State's legendary coach being around this Gulf Coast resort region -- Bowden is a substantial property owner in the area. The thing is, he's not their coach anymore. Folks like Williams, then, are the new challenge for new Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.
Bowden could sell some of that property to the fawning populace during a speaking engagement. Fisher has to sell himself. It's at Seminole Booster Tour stops like this one that the new guy is beginning the process.
These golf/autograph/grip/grin-and-bear-it sessions are beyond the usual schmoozing. No longer is it about letting the faithful know that the dynasty is nicked but still plowing along. The dynasty is, in fact, gone, along with Papa Bowden after 34 years. Some Seminoles are calling the last agonizing 10 years "The Lost Decade." No matter how much they know the team and the plays now, they want to know more about what's next.
Oh sure, they are halfway used to Fisher. The 44-year-old has been Florida State's coach-in-waiting for two years, but they don't really know him. That's what the tour is about, as much as an institution as Bowden himself.
"I miss him personally," said Charlie Barnes who, like Williams, is killing time during a social hour prior to Fisher's appearance at the Majestic.
Barnes is executive director of the Seminole Boosters and introduced Bowden at these offseason events for 32 years. For more than three decades, Bowden would fly into a starting point somewhere in the South on Sunday night and Barnes would meet him there with a van. By day, Bobby would play golf, pose for pictures, grab a quick nap then do his speech at night. The next Saturday, Bowden would fly home.
Jimbo cut down on the schedule -- doing a mere 17 stops in 31 days -- and he doesn't play golf. Not because he can't, but because it allows him to spend a few more hours in the office.
"I don't know how to slow down," Williams said. "I don't think Bobby wanted to slow down. I think he hated it and I hated it for him. If it was up to me I would have given him one more year, but the choice that we made we couldn't do any better."
And so John James Fisher is on the road this spring talking about a loaded recruiting class, the blessings of the old coach and, he hopes, an unlimited future.
For only the second time in the Jimbo Fisher era, Barnes is introducing the new guy at a stop on this annual offseason booster tour. With that, a new era starts for the 200 or so boosters in a ballroom a few hundred yards from the Gulf of Mexico.
"I don't know what it is about Panama City," Fisher begins, "when I come here, it feels like home."
There is applause. It's clear Jimbo has them. Now all he has to do is reel them in. Forty-five minutes and two "dad-gums" later, they are hooked.
The Saban Way
In a lot of ways, Fisher is a Nick Saban clone. Well, Saban with a personality. Why not? He was Saban's offensive coordinator in 2003 when LSU won a national championship. Fisher can't get enough credit for winning that national championship with a former minor league catcher named Matt Mauck at quarterback. And for developing another quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, into the top overall draft choice. Hey, it's not his fault the kid was a monumental bust in the NFL -- all Fisher did was get him there.
|Jimbo Fisher will try to replicate Nick Saban as he takes over the Seminoles. (US Presswire)|
FSU has also hired sports psychologists and nutritionists while quadrupling the size of the strength and conditioning staff from two to eight. Some of the stuff is a given -- an emphasis on the academic side, especially given the NCAA/academic fraud scandal. Fisher says in the last two years of the 48 guys "I've had my fingerprints on," one is below a 2.0 GPA. The freshman class at the end of the first semester had a cumulative 3.06 GPA, he says.
"There is mandatory class attendance now," Fisher added.
Team meals will be separated between a fat man's table (those gaining weight), a maintain table and a skinny man's table. While it's certainly not a new idea, a unity council made up of players has been created to deal with team discipline. The IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Fla. is providing training support.
"The whole infrastructure of everything, we were behind," Fisher said.
"A lot of this stuff was introduced to me when I went to the NFL," said Tay Cody, a former FSU star cornerback who came out in the draft in 2001. "I knew first-hand what he was talking about. The game is a science. The more you are able to adapt to this new stuff and new technology, that stuff is vital."
The crowd leaned in and strained to listen when Fisher started to make that direct connection to Saban. If there is a gold standard in football today, it's Alabama and what the Sabanator has done in three years in Tuscaloosa. It took all of four years to win that national championship at LSU after Fisher left Cincinnati to join Saban in 2000.
"That was the largest reason we were able to take LSU and flip it ...," Fisher said. "In two years win the SEC and in four years win the national championship. It was what we did between the ears ...
"Everybody's got a different button. Everybody comes from a different background. We're in a four-year window. I don't want to spend a year and a half thinking [player] is a knucklehead and him thinking I'm dumb. I want to know about those kids from the day they get here."
While all this renovation is not a direct slight toward Bowden, it does begin to reveal how and why Florida State was in this slump. The program was in a general malaise. It was either not recruiting well enough or not developing players when it did. Sometimes both.
There was a bit of internal turmoil, too, that never quite rose to public consumption. Whether he expected it or not, Fisher says he was not No. 2 in command when he became coach-in-waiting in December of 2007. At best he was No. 4 with three other staffers: "Associate head coach" (Mickey Andrews), "executive head coach" (Chuck Amato) and "assistant head coach" (Rick Trickett).
"When the coach-in-waiting thing comes, I think it is better if you are the No. 2, but that wasn't the case," Fisher said. "That's where people thought I had control of certain things but I never did. I had control over the offense."
Fisher had a plan this whole time -- all it needed was to be unleashed. Consider Fisher's meet-and-greets comparable to Beyonce or U2 or Jay-Z dropping a new record. The Jimbo Over America Tour is an event. Long regarded as one of the game's best assistants, Fisher turned down a chance to join Saban at Alabama in 2007. After one season at Florida State, he became one of the coach-in-waiting vanguard.
The problem at that point was that no one really knew what it meant. Bowden's departure was more or less open ended. The offense that had been so clunky under former offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden carried the team in 2009 with Fisher in control.
The defense will take some work. So will the faithful in and beyond the ballroom at the Majestic.
"Me, personally, I think he's got to get more players," said Cody. "I can't say offense or defense. Two years to compete for a national championship, to get their name back in the ACC."
There was no question about Fisher's loyalty. He played quarterback at two colleges for Terry Bowden, including Samford, Bobby's alma mater. Later as Auburn's coach, Terry hired Jimbo as his quarterbacks coach.
But on this night, Fisher wants to make a point about his love for Florida State. During one blowout in October 1987, Fisher, the Samford quarterback, regularly communicated with a grad assistant up in the press box who had a miniature TV.
"The whole time he was giving me a report on the Florida State-Miami game," Fisher said.
On the way back from the game, Jimbo was listening to the game on the radio. When FSU finally lost 26-25, Fisher made one more throw that day, breaking the radio after hurling against the inside of the bus.
Paying proper respect
All of them that night want to make sure this new guy understands. They want Fisher to know that Bowden is still one of them. He made them feel special, because he won in the fall and then he came in the spring to look them in the eye. He called them "buddy" and "pal" and "dear." He told stories that would make Johnny Carson look like an amateur.
Fisher makes sure he pays proper respect as he wraps another Seminole Booster Tour stop.
"No one ever did it with the class and dignity he did it with," Jimbo says of Bobby, "ever."
Now comes the money shot. It's the headline of the night. It's the reason he's here. It's the promise that "The Lose Decade" is over.
"We'll be back," Fisher says, "I guarantee you that."
Once again, there is applause. This time, it rises and carries on into the night.