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Berry Tramel

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Jimbo Fisher: Coach-in-waiting worked out, but it wasn't smooth

by Berry Tramel Modified: August 29, 2014 at 2:55 pm •  Published: August 29, 2014
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Bobby Bowden (left) and Jimbo Fisher chat in the locker room after Florida State's Gator Bowl victory in January 2010, Bowden's last game as head coach. (AP Photo)
Bobby Bowden (left) and Jimbo Fisher chat in the locker room after Florida State's Gator Bowl victory in January 2010, Bowden's last game as head coach. (AP Photo)

Jimbo Fisher, who takes his Florida State Seminoles into JerryWorld on Saturday night to play OSU, is an example of the success of a head-coach-in-waiting, a concept that fanned across college football a few years ago but has virtually died out. Thank goodness.’

Because even Fisher’s path wasn’t smooth in being the anointed heir to Bobby Bowden’s throne.

Fisher spent seven years as the LSU offensive coordinator, for both Nick Saban and Les Miles. The Birmingham News has reported that Fisher, after the 2006 season, was ready to move and was prepared to become head coach at Alabama-Birmingham. But that deal fell through, and Fisher had to choose between joining Saban’s new staff at Alabama or joining the Bowden family at Florida State.

Fisher chose Florida State. A year later, FSU named Fisher coach-in-waiting. He was the designated successor for the iconic Bowden, who had arrived at Florida State in 1976.

In the last decade, several schools have used the coach-in-waiting concept. With not great success.

Things turned ugly at Maryland and West Virginia. At Maryland, where James Franklin was waiting to replace Ralph Fridgen, a new athletic director was hired and clearly wanted his own man. So Franklin jumped to Vanderbilt, Maryland eventually fired Fridgen and hired Randy Edsall, and now Franklin has gone to Penn State. At West Virginia, AD Oliver Luck hired OSU’s Dana Holgorsen to be offensive coordinator and take over a year later for Bill Stewart. Stewart clearly wasn’t on board with the idea and through the media painted Holgorsen in unflattering ways. That blew up on Stewart, who was fired as Holgorsen ascended to the head coaching job early.
Kentucky and Purdue tried it, too, and though their succession plans were seamless, primarily because of obvious retirement situations — Danny Hope replaced Joe Tiller at Purdue; Joker Phillips replaced Rich Brooks at Kentucky — neither coach was successful and already have been replaced.

Texas named defensive coordinator Will Muschamp coach-in-waiting, but Muschamp got antsy waiting for Mack Brown to retire and eventually took the Florida head coaching job. Now Mack Brown is finally out at Texas, and Muschamp has coached long enough at Florida to be in hot water himself.

Oregon had a success story with Chip Kelly the designated replacement for Mike Bellotti, and while that transition seemed smooth — Kelly was a phenomenal coach at Oregon and now is taking the NFL by storm with the Eagles — there have been undercurrents of reports that Bellotti wasn’t crazy about the idea.

The best example of coach-in-waiting success was at Wisconsin, where Barry Alvarez hand-picked Bret Bielema as his successor. Bielema was fully embraced at Wisconsin, complete with staff power responsibilities. Bielema took over when Alvarez retired and brought the Badgers to even greater heights, though he eventually heard the SEC’s siren song and took the Arkansas job.

The Bowden-to-Fisher transition wasn’t seamless, for a couple of reasons. Bowden clearly wasn’t ready to step down, even though he was 80 when he announced on Dec. 1, 2009, that he would finally let go of the reins.

Bowden’s final game was the Gator Bowl a month later, a 33-21 victory over West Virginia. He had been coaching since 1954.

There also had been friction between Bowden’s staff and Fisher. Bowden had some long-time assistants — Florida media reported that Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato, in particular, were not on board with Fisher’s status. When Fisher took over, he changed the staff extensively and eventually hired Mark Stoops as defensive coordinator.

Florida State in the 2000s had not been winning like Bowden won the ‘80s and ‘90s. Bowden’s final nine seasons produced records of 7-6, 9-4, 7-6, 7-6, 8-5, 9-3, 10-3, 9-5 and 8-4. That’s 52 defeats in nine years; Bowden the previous 14 seasons had 19 losses total.

Fisher went 10-4 and 9-4 his first two years but went 12-32 in 2012 with an Orange Bowl victory, then 14-0 last season to win the national championship.

Fisher and Bowden go way back. Fisher, who turns 49 in October, was born in Clarksburg, W.Va., where Bowden made his mark coaching the West Virginia Mountaineers. Fisher was a quarterback who went to Salem College in West Virginia, where his head coach was Terry Bowden, son of Bobby. When Terry Bowden took the Samford job, Fisher transferred with him and in 1987 was named Division III national player of the year.

Samford was Bobby Bowden’s alma mater (it was called Howard College then). Fisher joined Terry Bowden’s Samford staff and then moved with Terry Bowden to Auburn, coaching quarterbacks.

Fisher stayed at Auburn through 1998, including one year with Tommy Tuberville, and spent 1999 as offensive coordinator at Cincinnati before being hired by Saban at LSU.

So the Fisher/Bowden family ties go way back. That didn’t stop the coach-in-waiting plan from hitting roadbumps.

The practice largely has fallen out of favor, even when it produces national championships.

by Berry Tramel
Columnist
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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