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Sportsman of the Year: Jimbo Fisher

The young man holding the Heisman Memorial Trophy a few weeks ago was the third native of the Birmingham, Ala., area to win college football's most prized individual honor.

He was not representing from Auburn, as did Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson. He did not play for Alabama, whose only Heisman winner (Mark Ingram) played scholastically in Michigan.

No, Jameis Winston is a Florida State man, wrested away from a state that doesn't much like to export its top-flight football talent. And in recruiting Winston, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher wasn't settling for a prospect off Nick Saban's "B" board.

"People were talking when he [committed], 'Oh, he made a mistake,'" Fisher recalled. "People always told us, 'Why are you recruiting him? You're never going to get him.'"

Oh, Fisher got him all right. Two seasons later, the redshirt freshman has led the Seminoles to the national championship game against, as fate would have it, Auburn. It would have been Alabama, if not for a 109-yard field goal return in the Iron Bowl.

Whoever the opponent, FSU's 13-0 season is proof that, yes, Fisher was qualified to replace the legendary Bobby Bowden in Tallahassee. For his performance, the Clarksburg native is the 2013 Charleston Gazette Sportsman of the Year.

The award goes annually to the home-grown West Virginia product who made a positive impact on the state and/or national sports scene and who embodies the word "sportsman."

Fisher is the 13th such honoree in the award's 14-year history, with Marion County native Saban selected twice.

Passing the torch

At 48 years old, John James Fisher, Jr., has risen from Liberty High School and Salem College to become one of America's hottest football coaches, so much so that he has become strong candidate for the Texas job — that's what the speculation is, anyway.

"I think he would run to Texas," bombastic ESPN radio personality Paul Finebaum said last week. "Yes, he has the Heisman Trophy winner coming back. He may be a national champion. He's in a league where basically you have to win one or two games and beat Florida at the end of the year, which isn't that difficult anymore.

"But you know, and most reasonable college football fans know, that he hasn't been that happy there. They haven't been all that happy with him until recently. I think he remembers the awkward transition after Bobby [Bowden]. I think he remembers the president and athletic director down there in not a hurry to give him a raise and an extension a couple of years ago."

Fisher and Bowden would dispute much of that, if interviews with the Gazette are an indicator. And Fisher stands to get his money, as he reportedly has agreed to a contract extension with FSU worth $4.1 million per season.

As Bowden tells it, the December 2009/January 2010 handoff to his "coach in waiting" was awkward in that he really wanted to coach a 35th season and take a run at his 400th career victory. Otherwise, the two coaches are pleased about the transition, at least in retrospect.

"You know, I think it went pretty smoothly," Fisher said. "Because it allowed me to see where I needed to make adjustments, and who could help me within the program to make adjustments. We knew it would be a culture change because we wanted to do things totally different, and it would take a few years totally to get everybody here, and this is our first senior class.

"And our senior leadership, and the overall leadership on that team really helped the transition."

Bobby Bowden said, somewhat jokingly, "Now, we left him with some pretty good players. When I came down here, they were 0-11. So he had a good nucleus and then he recruited some great groups and put them all together, and he has a great instinct on keeping them focused on what they're doing.

"He's hired good coaches; that's the first thing. When he first took over, he hired three or four new coaches. They did an excellent job and then he lost about six of them last year. So he goes out and finds six more guys, and they're good or better than what he had."

Changing on the fly

Ah, yes, the lesser-known variation of recruiting. You've got to have players, but you also have to have good coaches. And they go hand in hand.

Fisher tabbed Alabama's secondary coach, Jeremy Pruitt, as his new defensive coordinator. He brought Tim Brewster from Mississippi State to coach tight ends and serve as recruiting coordinator. Charles Kelly was lured from Georgia Tech to coach linebackers and run the special teams. He brought running backs coach Jay Graham from Tennessee, hired former Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders to tutor Winston and the quarterbacks and hired former Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri to coach defensive ends.

He has his stamp on the staff, certainly, but he does have three holdovers from the Bowden era — including Masontown native and former West Virginia offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who also has the title of assistant head coach.

Liberty to prosperity

Fisher graduated from Liberty High and went to Clemson to play baseball but returned home. Salem coach Terry Bowden, one of Bobby's two football-coaching sons, brought him to Salem to play quarterback in 1985, and Fisher played there in 1986 after Terry Bowden took an assistant job at Akron.

When Terry Bowden returned to head coaching in 1987 at then-Division III Samford of Birmingham, Ala. — his father's alma mater — he brought Fisher southward as his quarterback. Fisher went despite losing a scholarship in the process, as Samford had not yet transitioned from Division III to I-AA. "I told him, 'I promise I'll hire you the day you're through,'" Terry Bowden recalled.

It wasn't a bad move, as Fisher threw for 34 touchdowns and was named the Division III player of the year. After a year with the Arena Football League's Chicago Bruisers, he did return to Samford as a graduate assistant for Terry Bowden.

That's the unglamorous, almost dark side of the profession — GAs work long, long hours for little or no pay, trying hard to impress coaches and eventually land their first full-time gig. Still, Fisher said he may have had his most fun as a GA.

"You were 23 years old and you didn't know you didn't know," he said. "We were just flying around and doing everything and just happy to have any kind of job. I look back and some of the most fun was in those early, early years — you were finding out if you had what it took to be a coach, and if you really loved the lifestyle of that whole profession."

He never doubted he wanted to coach. Apparently, the Bowdens had no doubt he would be a good coach, perhaps rising to where he is now.

"Terry told me that years ago," Bobby Bowden said. "Terry had coached with him and worked with him, and he told me he thought he was going to be a super coach when he got his chance. And everywhere he's been, that's what he's done."

Terry Bowden saw Fisher's potential way back in his Liberty High days.

"The first thing you noticed about Jimbo, Jimbo was a born leader," Terry Bowden said. "He was the shortstop on the baseball team and the point guard on the basketball team. He was the best on every team he played.

"And he was the most competitive guy I ever worked with. He hated to lose; he's a fighter. Even if he's playing cards he wants to win. And really, those are the two qualities that make a good coach."

Fisher was Terry Bowden's quarterback coach for the full six-year tenure at Auburn, then spent 1999 as QB coach at Cincinnati under Rick Minter. From there, he was offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Louisiana State, serving under Saban and Les Miles. After the 2006 season, his career came to an upwardly mobile crossroads.

Fisher was offered the head coaching job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a move that was spiked by the University of Alabama System's Board of Trustees for "financial considerations." According to reports of the day, Fisher was offered a $600,000 a year package, with UAB boosters covering a large part.

That was a piddling amount compared to fired coach Mike Shula's $4 million buyout, or to the contract offered to WVU's Rich Rodriguez, which was at least as lucrative. Accordingly, UAB partisans are bitter to this day over what they see as the Tuscaloosa campus' continuous suppression of their football aspirations.

Whatever the case, Fisher had alternatives. He chose the job at FSU, running Bobby Bowden's offense.

"It was interesting, because at that time I had five other choices," he said. "It was an easy choice, and it was a tough choice. I had some other opportunities that were tremendous, but I wanted to be around him and coach with him, the winningest coach of all-time, see how he does things. I thought it would be the last thing I needed before I became a head coach."

On Dec. 10, 2007, FSU announced the agreement that named Fisher the "head coach in waiting." Bobby Bowden wanted to offer that to his long-time assistant, defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, but school administrators preferred a younger prospect. At that point, the head coach recommended Fisher.

Three years later, the handoff took place.

Fisher's first Seminoles team in 2010 won the Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, but lost 44-33 to Virginia Tech in the championship game. The combined 19-8 record for 2010 and 2011 wasn't bad by any stretch, but not good enough for spoiled, grumpy Seminole fans.

A special premonition

The Seminoles returned to their championship pedigree in 2012, winning the ACC title and spanking Northern Illinois 31-10 in the Orange Bowl. Not long after that season concluded, Fisher had a feeling about his 2013 squad.

"Last spring, I thought we had something special," he said. "They practiced with a purpose, great attitude and everything, and I was just pleased with the way they handled their business. I thought if we could keep things in perspective and win a couple of good road games, we'd have a chance to be where we're at."

As it turned out, the Seminoles blew through their road schedule, including a prime-time contest at third-ranked Clemson. Winston shushed the rowdy nighttime crowd in Death Valley by throwing for 445 yards with three touchdowns, and running for another one.

That put him on the fast track to the Heisman, but the campaign was nearly derailed by sexual assault allegations in connection with an incident late last year. Suddenly, this highly confident, business-like team faced a potentially crippling distraction, as the questions over Winston's case dragged into December.

The Seminoles didn't have a tough schedule the last two weeks, as they faced Idaho and visited a shell-of-its-former-self Florida team. The results came out about the same as expected, though, routs of 80-14 and 37-7. After the prosecutor's decision not to charge Winston, the Seminoles bounced Duke 45-7 to win the ACC championship and a spot in the BCS title game.

Fisher is considered one of the most confident men in an industry filled with bravado, genuine and false. He used that confidence to steer through the Winston situation, much like he used it to get Winston to Tallahassee in the first place.

Fisher called it one of his most difficult, rewarding recruiting missions.

"It was a very tough process," he said. "I mean, leaving the state of Alabama, it's maybe the hardest thing to do in sports when you leave your home state. And I don't think there's another state that attracts you more than that state does. And for him to see what he thought was best for him is to come here, he's a very mature and very courageous young guy to be able to do that.

"The recruiting was fun, it really was," he said. "Building the relationships, it was an extremely fun time to me. I loved that part of it."

There are tangible mementos of that process, which Winston needed help carting around during practice Saturday. Not just the Heisman, but the ACC player of the year, freshman of the year and other trophies.

But the most important honor, for Winston, Fisher and all the Seminoles, is the crystal football that will lie waiting in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6. If the Seminoles defeat Auburn, that trophy will be the ultimate validation of Fisher's life in coaching.

"He's smart. He knows his football," Bobby Bowden said. "And he's got a charming personality. He's an excellent recruiter. Now, I've always felt that the key to coaching is whoever gets the best players is going to win. And therefore, recruiting is the name of the game.

"He has recruited equally with the Southeastern Conference down here. They claim to be the strongest conference in the country, which they are, but Jimbo has been bringing in that caliber of player.

"Anybody who can go up to Alabama and grab that quarterback underneath Saban and Auburn has got to be a great recruiter, and that's what Jimbo is."

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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