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FSU has found its wallet is as important as talent.
Jimbo Fisher was only kidding, but the image he conjured during a press conference before Florida State’s spring practices commenced was colorful and plenty accurate.
When asked about the challenges of moving forward with a program that has aspirations of national contention every year, Fisher likened himself to his children, who seem to spend the majority of their time around him looking for something other than fatherly advice.
“They go to mom a lot, but they come to me for money,” Fisher said to big laughs.
Fisher plays that role when he speaks with FSU athletic director Stan Wilcox. It takes more than fine athletes to satisfy the appetite of big winners. There have to be facilities fit for the most exclusive country club — Oregon has a barbershop in its football building — donors willing to wield platinum checkbooks, and a support system capable of helping players with their classwork and the normal rigors of college life. The list doesn’t end. And neither do Fisher’s requests.
“I always have something for them, I promise you,” Fisher says.
It’s hard to believe Fisher would have to draw up a wish list at Florida State, but the Seminole program is not yet on a par with some of college football’s aristocracy, despite last year’s national championship and the Bowden heyday, which included 14 straight years of double-digit wins and top-five finishes, and two national titles. FSU is just now reaching parity with the best of the best in terms of facilities and has finally begun to mobilize its donor base to fund the program on a level that’s in line with its competitors.
Despite its huge success during the late ’80s and ’90s, Florida State is not found on the rolls of college football’s most tradition-bound programs. It didn’t start playing ball until 1947 and wasn’t even thought about beyond the state lines until Bowden took over in ’76. Without generations of alumni and donors to draw upon, and with a location that makes it hard for fans to come for games and stay, FSU has had to move quickly to create an infrastructure congruent with that of its competition. Doing that leads to wins, but it also convinces Fisher that Tallahassee is the place to stay long-term and end annual rumors that he is a candidate for whatever top job (say, Texas) happens to open.
“I think we have been behind,” says senior associate AD Monk Bonasorte, who was a standout defensive player for Bowden from 1977-80. “The facilities we’ve added have helped us.”
Last year, the Noles opened an indoor practice facility. By the start of this season, they will have new locker, meeting and office space. It all matters, even the ability to practice inside, which doesn’t seem to mean much in Florida. Snow and cold aren’t the issues in Tallahassee, but freak late summer and fall rainstorms are. So are hours of lightning that can prevent outdoor work. The new team amenities need no explanation, other than to say that premium high school recruits are savvy enough to know whether lockers are made of cherry or mahogany. There’s no barbershop planned, but it isn’t 78 degrees in mid-March in Eugene, Ore., either.
“Every day, other institutions are continually improving their facilities,” Wilcox says. “That’s what we have to work at on an annual basis.”
When Fisher approaches Wilcox or any other administrator with his wish list, he does so knowing that everything he wants is necessary. Remember that he fell out of the Nick Saban coaching tree, so his requests are made to create a climate that will allow him to compete with the Alabama sideline cyclone, and not just for esoteric reasons. Saban has set the template, and Fisher is following it. “If you’re sitting still, someone is going past you,” Fisher says.
One of the keys to the fundraising efforts that have supported the facility growth is the re-engagement of Bowden, who remains a living legend in the state, despite the program’s struggles during his final four seasons. Bowden’s decision to step out of the limelight during Fisher’s first few years was generous, but Bowden has moved back into the public consciousness and has been helpful in the school’s identifying some previously untapped resources and enticing them to endow the program.
The one thing that even Bowden can’t overcome is Tallahassee. Nestled in Northwest Florida, about 20 miles from the Georgia border, the state capital isn’t easily reached by most of the state. Further, because it isn’t home to much industry or many business headquarters, there isn’t a hospitality infrastructure that can accommodate thousands of fans who want to stay for home football weekends. It may sound ridiculous, but this is the first year in several that the Noles sold out their season ticket allotment. And that’s as much due to the arrivals of Clemson, Florida and Notre Dame as it is to the residual excitement of last year’s national title or to the growing affection for the program.
It is a testament to Bowden’s charisma that the Seminoles were able to sustain such overwhelming success for so long without the same tradition or facilities as the schools against which they competed for recruits. Personality went a long way at the end of last century. These days, brick and mortar — not to mention funky uniforms — are what draw top talent, and Florida State has taken the necessary steps to make sure that big-time recruits have no reason to look elsewhere. That also goes for Fisher, whose new contract, announced right before the title game win over Auburn, is worth $4.015 million annually and makes him one of the top 10-15 highest-paid coaches in the country. As long as he has the ability to mine the fertile Florida talent vein with the same facilities as do his rivals — and gets paid like a CEO — he will stick around. And Florida State will continue to win big.
“Different people take different jobs for different reasons, and you would hope the success Jimbo has here and the opportunities he has to win are enough,” Bonasorte says. “Coaches want to win. At Florida State, with the availability of recruiting and the kids you can bring in, you should be able to win.”
Even with all of that, Fisher’s going to keep asking for more. And Wilcox had better have his wallet at the ready.
This is going to get pretty expensive.
Written by Michael Bradley (@DailyHombre) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.