"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, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.