The Aggies are banking on Fisher elevating the program into SEC West title contention
If Texas A&M overcomes decades of underachievement and wins an SEC or even national championship, devoted Aggies should point their beloved class rings skyward as a tribute to Big Jim Fisher.
The Clarksburg, West Virginia, native didn’t bleed A&M maroon and probably never spent a minute in College Station, but his son is hoping to be there for a long time and to imbue a program that has no peer in terms of tradition but plenty of frustration on the field with the same standards by which Big Jim lived his life.
The word “process” is used across the college football landscape by Nick Saban acolytes, and Fisher is closely tied to the Alabama head coach through his five years as an LSU assistant under the six-time national champion. But ask Fisher about his approach to coaching and the “process” by which he builds programs, and he quickly redirects discussion away from the Crimson Tide boss and to his father.
“That’s my dad’s line,” Fisher says. “Successful people follow a process. If you do the right thing again and again, you’re going to be successful.”
Fisher has brought his disciplined approach to a school known for adhering closely to its traditions and maxims off the field and in the stands at Kyle Field but which hasn’t had the same relationship with the practices necessary to win big on it. Texas A&M has not captured a conference title in 20 years. Since 2000, it has reached double-figure wins once, in 2012. Its combined conference record in six years of SEC play is a lackluster 25-23. Over the past 30 years, it has a 7-16 bowl mark and has won just one postseason game of note, the 2012 Cotton Bowl.
It’s not for a lack of financial commitment. In 2015, A&M completed a $485 million overhaul of Kyle Field that boosted capacity to 102,512, tops in the SEC and the fourth largest in the country. The $20.8 million Bright Complex houses the football program and is one of the nation’s most impressive. There is a desire to win big from the highest level of the university on down. But the Aggies haven’t done it. They are still the butt of jokes from University of Texas fans -- who haven’t exactly had a lot to cheer about this decade -- and are looked at by many around the country as second best in the state, despite the gaudy facilities and impressive loyalty of grads and fans.
“I don’t know why they haven’t won,” Fisher says. “I know what is needed to be successful, and that’s what we’re putting in here. You can’t snap your fingers and have it happen overnight.”
Forgive A&M fans for expecting something like that to happen. Fisher will make $75 million over 10 years, a contract that has drawn criticism from others in the college athletics community. Ohio State AD Gene Smith called the deal “ridiculous,” probably because he didn’t want to take a call from representatives of his coach, Urban Meyer, who made $6.4 million in 2017. During Fisher’s eight years at Florida State, he won 83 games, three ACC titles and the 2013 national championship. Yet, he left Tallahassee for a job that some don’t consider comparable, given FSU’s success (256 wins, 15 ACC titles, three national championships since 1992) and A&M’s relative struggles.
The money helps, although Fisher wasn’t exactly eating beans every night at FSU, thanks to a contract extension in 2016 that paid him $5.5 mil last year. So does his relationship with A&M AD Scott Woodward, which the two men forged while both were at LSU early last decade. “We’ve used each other for sounding boards through the years,” Woodward says. Finally, there is the institutional desire to win, which is as strong as, if not stronger than, that at any other university.
“Football matters here,” says Woodward, who came to A&M from Washington in 2016. “We want to be excellent in everything we do, and there is a sense of pride here. I took the job here coming from a great institution, but the commitment is unprecedented here. The resources and commitment are so strong.”
Not long after Fisher took over in College Station, school administrators presented him with a plaque that read, “Jimbo Fisher, Head Football Coach, Texas A&M University, 20-- Division I Football National Championship”. The aspirational trophy was part show of confidence and part reminder that second place isn’t the goal, particularly at a school that has spent time on the runner-up step of the podium within its own state.
Fisher’s coaching record suggests he has a good chance of satisfying the expectations. And his early returns in Aggieland are encouraging. He was able to fill the 2018 recruiting class with several top prospects, earn a No. 17 national ranking from the 247Sports Composite and get a quick start on 2019. He blended quickly with the A&M community. “Jimbo does a lot of things Aggies do,” Woodward says. “He’s a hunter and fisherman and loves this type of lifestyle.” Fisher is a great storyteller and can relate to big donors and rank-and-file A&M fans, but most important, he has the same no-compromise qualities of the game’s most successful coaches.
“Jimbo is a very competitive, passionate and energetic guy,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who was on Nick Saban’s LSU staff with Fisher in 2004. “He hates losing. He’s very demanding and does a very good job leading a program. You saw that at Florida State. He’s had a lot of success wherever he has been, because of his work ethic and the fact that he’s a good recruiter.”
The question many still ask is why Fisher would leave Florida State for the deep, difficult waters of the SEC, even for a lot more money. Although Florida State offered Fisher an environment that was extremely conducive to success, and he insists he had no plans to leave, Fisher has been clear that A&M is one of the nation’s best spots to run a program. “Chancellor [John] Sharp, President [Michael] Young, Scott Woodward and everybody understand that football is an extremely important part of the culture at A&M, and they want to get back to it,” Fisher says.
It is a top-flight environment, but there is that small matter of playing in the SEC West, which boasts six other schools with big aspirations. Say what you want about Clemson and the ACC, but the conference is best known for its top-to-bottom basketball success, rather than its overall football prowess. The Big Ten East is pretty formidable, thanks to Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, but Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana haven’t exactly been vying for major bowls lately. As recently as 2014, Mississippi State and Ole Miss were ranked in the top five nationally. And Arkansas finished the 2011 season ranked fifth. All coaches like a challenge, but this one is quite formidable. The battle between A&M’s university-wide commitment and the West’s treacherous waters could come down to one factor: Fisher himself. How well does he sell A&M, and what can he do with the players he signs in the dangerous West Division?
“He’s a very intense coach who is committed to winning and doing it right,” says Brad Lawing, a 35-year coaching veteran who was on Fisher’s FSU staff for three seasons. “He really cares about the kids. He has a lot of programs set up to help the kids become more than football players.
“He’s a very good recruiter, and he’s very good with kids. He has a clear vision for what he wants from his players.”
When freshmen arrive at Texas A&M, the first thing they encounter is Fish Camp, a ritual designed to introduce them to the school and its many traditions. The newcomers are taken off campus, divided into groups and then taught how to be Aggies. It’s not hazing. It’s not survival stuff. It’s merely a way to learn the many different pieces of the school’s rituals and practices. A lot of colleges have unique customs, but there may not be a place more devoted to its history than A&M.
Erik Korem, who spent the first three years of Fisher’s tenure at Florida State as a strength and conditioning coach before moving to Kentucky and later the Houston Texans, is a Dallas native who walked on at A&M. He remembers his life as a “fish,” as freshmen are called, and though he uses terms like “indoctrinate” and “brainwash” to describe Fish Camp, he considers his time in College Station remarkable and continues to marvel at the bond enjoyed by A&M graduates. Midnight Yell Practice, pregame bonfires, monthly gun salutes to fallen Aggies and the immediate connection created by the school rings that graduates so proudly and persistently wear create an environment that is difficult for alumni of other schools to understand. Enveloping it all is football, the school’s serum of life.
“It’s a different kind of culture,” Korem says. “Football means a lot in Texas, and at that school, it means everything. There is an esprit de corps like nowhere else.”
Football sure is big at Florida State. Without the sport -- and Bobby Bowden’s success coaching it -- nobody outside of the Sunshine State would really care about the university. It’s a different level of big at A&M. When the football team struggles, the school’s identity suffers. All of the tremendous camaraderie built by things like the legend of the 12th Man feeds into the idea that Aggie pride and the student body’s support will help win games.
The institutional understanding of football’s value is vital, too. People who decry the “arms race” in college sports should take a look at A&M, which has gone to the nuclear option in an attempt to create an environment that is perfectly positioned for success.
“It’s a great place to be, but there are a lot of expectations,” Korem says. “The culture is amazing, and the support from the students is great. But now that the school has invested so much, I can understand why the expectations are so high.”
Texas A&M’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the SEC removed it from direct competition with UT, which, no matter how decrepit its facilities had become before Tom Herman took over before last season (he was tearing up carpet in the program’s offices himself), was still viewed by most in the state -- and beyond -- as the university of Texas.
The move to the SEC may have distanced the Aggies from Austin, but it brought them closer to the West Division powerhouses, which have won eight of the last 15 national championships. Fisher can sell the opportunity to play against the best, but he also has to beat the best. For him, Texas is a rival on the recruiting trails, but his real competition can be found in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge and other SEC locations.
“We worry about what we can worry about and sell what we can sell,” Fisher says. “Texas is a rivalry, but I’m worried about what’s to the east.
“We can’t worry about [the University of] Texas.”
That may not play so well with some Aggie faithful, who would rather give up barbecue than lose to the Longhorns. But Fisher is correct when he says A&M should focus on the games on its schedule, not the ghosts of football past. Winning big in the SEC will be the best antidote to Aggie jokes and any perceived arrogance that comes from Austin. And though some wonder whether it was a good idea to leave the Big 12 -- UT be damned -- A&M is committed to the SEC and finding success there.
“I was just discussing this with a major donor,” Woodward says. “This is probably, as far as college and conference realignment go, the best marriage I can remember.
“It’s a win-win at the highest grade of magnitude.”
Fisher’s job at Texas A&M is a big one, and some look at lifting the Aggies into the national title discussion as impossible, given the competition they face in their own neighborhood. And that doesn’t even include the battle with Texas on the recruiting trail. But try to imagine what might happen if the Aggies win it all. They could name the school after Fisher. Perhaps that’s why he took the job. The risk is high, but the opportunity for reward -- beyond his paycheck -- is almost unfathomable. For a school where football is identity, a national championship would provide the ultimate definition. That school ring wouldn’t just signify membership in a specific community. It would confer nationwide status.
“That’s why I’m here,” Fisher says. “It’s a great opportunity.”
And another chance to prove the benefits of Big Jim’s process.