tampabay.com

Fisher commitment fraught with risks

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published December 6, 2007


The folks at Florida State have not hired a head football coach since 1976. Perhaps they've forgotten how it's done.

Because, typically, it calls for a search that goes beyond the third-floor vending machines. It usually requires the interviewing of at least several candidates. And, in most cases, it involves something called a vacancy.

FSU seems willing to skip all of those details for the university is expected to announce next week that Jimbo Fisher will succeed Bobby Bowden as the head coach.

Trust me, I know there are legitimate reasons for doing it this way.

For instance, it keeps Fisher from taking a job as a head coach at a school such as Arkansas. It answers the questions of recruits who wonder what happens when the 78-year-old Bowden retires. And it provides a certain continuity in a program that has seen very little change in the past 30 years.

Those are all very sound reasons.

But do they outweigh the simple truth that FSU is preparing to make the most important hire in the athletic department in the past three decades, and it has already decided to close the door on a world of candidates?

I'm not saying it's a mistake to hire Jimbo Fisher.

I'm saying it's a mistake to limit yourself to Jimbo Fisher.

Maybe I just think more of the program than FSU officials do, but I tend to believe a job opening in Tallahassee would attract some of the finest coaches in the nation.

I think West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez would be interested. I think Georgia's Mark Richt might be willing to talk. I think the next Urban Meyer - whoever that might be - is just now beginning to make his mark at a smaller school, and will be a hot commodity when the time is right for Bowden to step down.

I think FSU is taking a risk committing to Fisher so soon.

Look, I know the guy has a great track record, and was considered an offensive Svengali at LSU. It is not a stretch to say he may be the most highly regarded assistant coach in the nation right now.

Just remember he has never been a head coach, and he did not perform miracles in his first season at FSU.

If you want to keep him, give him a contract extension. If that's not enough, give him a fat raise. If he still wants more, give him custody of Gene Deckerhoff.

But promising him the keys to the program several years ahead of schedule seems a bit extreme.

Look at it this way:

A year ago, Jeff Bowden was supposedly so wretched as an offensive coordinator that the university and boosters were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get rid of him. Fisher is supposedly so valuable as an offensive coordinator that the university is committing more than $1-million to keep him.

So how come the Seminoles scored more points when the other guy was in charge? How come FSU had 36 offensive touchdowns with Jeff Bowden, and is on pace to score 26 with Fisher?

They sound like snarky questions, but don't you think they have some validity? Even if there were extenuating circumstances, even if the offense showed progress later in the season, shouldn't there have been a more obvious sign of Fisher's genius?

A few years ago, LSU was looking for a head coach to replace Nick Saban. Fisher had been in Baton Rouge for five seasons, including the 2003 national championship season. And, yet, the Tigers hired Les Miles.

Last season, Fisher was a candidate to be the head coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham but supposedly priced himself out of the job. The point is, how does he go from being a candidate at UAB to the head-coach-in-waiting at FSU after one season as offensive coordinator?

Again, this is not meant to be a slam against Fisher. Obviously, he is a very charming and astute man to have so quickly won the confidence of Florida State officials. And others around the country also think highly of him.

But this seems to be a drastic step to take for a coach who has all kinds of potential and absolutely no experience when it comes to being a head coach of a college football program. Would it have been the worst thing in the world to let Fisher go to another program as a head coach, and then try to rehire him down the line?

What happens if Bowden decides he wants to continue coaching five or more years, as he told Times columnist Gary Shelton last month? Will FSU officials begin nudging Bobby toward the door because Jimbo is tapping his feet?

And what happens if Fisher's offense struggles in the next couple of years? Does FSU pay him an obscene amount of money to buy him out of this contract?

And what if someone else emerges as the perfect candidate?

I'm sure FSU officials have contemplated all of these possibilities, and have decided Fisher's talent warrants this rare accommodation for an assistant coach.

Heck, maybe I'm too worrisome and Fisher will turn out to be a great head coach. Maybe he is absolutely the right man for the job in Tallahassee.

I just wish FSU would have waited a few years before making that decision.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.