Beyond the money: Why Jimbo Fisher ultimately stiff-armed FSU for Texas A&M
It wasn't only the massive $75 million contract that got Fisher to depart for College Station
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The biggest hire of the offseason has its roots near the back row of meeting room at LSU.
In the early 2000s, Jimbo Fisher was the offensive coordinator for the legend that was becoming Nick Saban. Scott Woodward was LSU's external relations guy. They were similar ages with similar interests.
The primary one they had in common: developing the secret sauce that catapults a program from wanting to win to absolutely having to win.
"Jimbo used to let me sit in his offensive meetings," Woodward said. "I was interested. I was curious. I'd come at the end of the day. I knew all those [assistant coaches]: Mike Haywood, Derek Dooley and Stan Hixon. I'd go in there and watch him do it. Jimbo was very open and loved having us in there. They were grinding."
Now Texas A&M's athletic director, Woodward reflected on those formative times 15 or so years ago, contemplating how he made Fisher the biggest hire of this offseason.
"If Kevin [Sumlin] would have run the table, it would have been a non-issue."Scott Woodward
Fisher left a successful, lucrative job at Florida State in early December. The game's collective head is still spinning because, well, FSU is a place you retire. Texas A&M has more or less wallowed in mediocrity for the last 20 years.
Fisher had not only tired of FSU, he was willing to listen to an offer from a place that immediately begged the obvious question: Why is Texas A&M a better job than FSU?
"My thought was [that] we wouldn't be able to get him," said David Coolidge, a prominent Houston-based Aggies booster. "He's been successful. He's well established. Why would he leave Florida State?"
Woodward recently provided part of the answer: "I'm not going to put words in Jimbo's mouth, but there are resource issues in the ACC versus the SEC."
The lucrative contract helped fill in the other blanks. Fisher is getting a record $75 million over 10 years, all of it guaranteed. At the top of his game at age 52, he now has to earn it.
To say the Aggies will demand a return on their investment is an understatement.
In what might stand as the leading indicator of where Texas A&M's collective head is at these days, outspoken president John Sharp said in a press release, "Gone are the days when we settle for a good football team. We expect to compete soon for championships. Our Board of Regents and 12th Man fans are to be commended for devoting resources to facilities and now to the coaching staff to do just that.
"Beat the Hell Out of Everybody!"
That sound you hear is Texas A&M pushing its chips to the middle of the table and going all-in on a national championship as soon as damn possible. Woodward and Fisher have essentially staked at least part of their legacies on it.
"Hey, do you really want me to get a big-time coach?" Woodward asked his superiors in the Texas A&M administration. "That's a rare world up there, guys that win national championships and do things Jimbo has done. It is by chance [that] he and I had a relationship."
Jimbo has hit the ground with the force of, well, Jimbo. The man can jam more syllables into a second of time than Twista. He has already.
"The Aggie network is like a cult," Fisher said. "They take care of Aggies. … We want to recruit the state of Texas. Texas football doesn't take a back seat to anybody. We're going to saturate this state from one end to another."
The Fisher-to-A&M had buzz hung in the air for months. By the time it became a reality, the surprise had almost worn off. The deal was finalized the week of conference championship games. The school had already decided to pay Kevin Sumlin his $10 million buyout.
"If Kevin would have run the table, it would have been a non-issue," said Woodward, who famously.
That's another leading indicator of the Texas A&M psyche. Patience is not necessary a virtue. Since 1996, its best back-to-back seasons were a combined 20-6 in 2012-13 under Sumlin. Let's just say A&M isn't spending $75 million to average 10-3 each season.
Add in the compensation for the new assistants, and we're talking about a $90 million investment to change coaches. They hardly blinked in College Station where Texas A&M has the richest athletic department in the country, according to USA Today.
"This can be everything you want here," Fisher said.
And Fisher has been everything you'd want in a coach. He left LSU in 2006 for Florida State to be Bobby Bowden's offensive coordinator. It was one of those rare coach-in-waiting situations that actually worked.
Four years into his head coaching career, Fisher won a national championship in 2013. His 83-23 record ranks him among the top five winningest active coaches.
Woodward first became a first-time AD in 2008 at Washington. At UW, he hired both Steve Sarkisian and Chris Petersen (combined college winning percentage .732).
Fisher and Woodward left LSU a year apart with that secret sauce in hand and that 2003 national championship on their resumes.
"You're always nervous until [a new coach] gets on the plane," Woodward said. "We knew each other so well. It's like, 'We're not going to screw each other around.'"
Simmer, stir, just add Jimbo?
The timing was right. So was the market. With Fisher being one of only four active national championship head coaches, $7.5 million per year may soon be the going rate for top guys.
"Who's to say a few years from now the salaries aren't $9 million to $10 million?" said Coolidge, a former hedge fund manager.
But who's to say Texas A&M didn't overpay, especially with a rare 10-year commitment? Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently called out the salaries of Fisher -- and Saban at Alabama -- as "ridiculous."
"It's a reactionary type of management," Smith said.
It's also increasingly the way of the world: Multi-year, multi-million deals for top coordinators are becoming the norm. There has never been more money in college sports. The unanswered question is how that influx of cash in the NCAA's beloved amateur model can co-exist.
"The industry is generating so much revenue," said Warren Zola, professor and sports law expert at Boston College. "Since you don't have to pay the labor, the salaries are one way to [spend it]. When you have excess money, this is a byproduct."
This story doesn't get told without recognizing the impact of Jimmy Sexton, who represents 11 of the 14 SEC coaches. College sports' most impactful agent basically oversaw this SEC round of coaching changes.
Six new full-time coaches in the league set a conference record. Sexton represents five of them at Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss, Tennessee and TAMU. And that's not counting a new seven-year, $49 million deal he negotiated for client Gus Malzahn at Auburn.
So why is Texas A&M a better job for Florida State for Jimbo? Part of the answer is in the hires themselves. A&M got itself a national championship coach. FSU replaced Fisher with Willie Taggart, career record 47-50. The fan interest and level of commitment are basically the same at both places. Texas A&M is largely perceived to have the best of everything in terms of resources.
In the industry, there is no doubt about that: A renovation of Kyle Field -- not a new stadium, mind you -- cost $500 million. Part of that investment is pure hubris, of course. Since 2015, the Aggies have boasted the biggest stadium in the Lone Star State by 2,600 seats over the hated rival Texas Longhorns.
That also begins to explain Fisher's salary and A&M's desire to be relevant again. The Aggies suffered the fourth-highest attendance drop among SEC schools in 2017 (down 3,115 per game). Multiply that downturn by Kyle Field's average ticket price of $90.
If Jimbo starts selling the stadium out, that's an extra $2 million per year Woodward didn't have under Sumlin. The difference between Sumlin's $5 million contract and Fisher's $7.5 million is $2.5 million per year. A hot coach who can goose a sold out stadium basically makes up for the difference.
Or you can forget the amateur accounting and remember college football's simple economics.
"Where do the kids want to play?" Woodward said. "They want to play with the big-money guys."
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