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November 30, 2010

Q-and-A: FSU coach Jimbo Fisher

Jimbo Fisher's debut season as coach at Florida State couldn't have gone much better.

After serving as coach-in-waiting in Tallahassee for three seasons, Fisher finally ascended to the throne after Bobby Bowden "stepped aside" after the 2009 season. Fisher has guided the Seminoles to a 9-3 record, the ACC Atlantic Division crown and a spot in this weekend's league title game against Virginia Tech. It will be Florida State's first trip to the conference championship game since the inaugural event in 2005, when it beat the Hokies 27-22.

Few expected the Seminoles to pull off this ACC title game feat this quickly under Fisher, but he has done it with an efficient offense, a strong defense and a new attitude.

It's the defense that has been the biggest surprise. Fisher overhauled the staff, luring Mark Stoops from Arizona to serve as coordinator. Fisher also grabbed highly regarded East Carolina defensive coordinator Greg Hudson to serve as linebacker coach.

The result? FSU's defense ranked last in the ACC and 108th (434.6 ypg) in the nation in 2009; this season, the defense ranks sixth in the ACC and 39th (341.3 ypg) in the country. The defense has been especially strong at rushing the passer, ranking second in the nation in sacks (3.58 per game).

Fisher, 45, played quarterback at Salem (W.Va.) for Terry Bowden, earning 1987 Division III national player of the year honors. Fisher later served as Bowden's offensive coordinator at Samford in 1991-92, then was Bowden's quarterback coach at Auburn (1993-98).

After a year coaching quarterbacks at Cincinnati in 1999, Fisher joined Nick Saban's staff at LSU in 2000 as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach until coming to FSU in 2007 as Bobby Bowden's offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting.

Rivals.com caught up with Fisher as he prepped for the ACC title game.

Was Florida State a fractured program when you took over as coach after last season?

"I wouldn't say it was fractured. What happened in the past is in the past. I don't think anything was wrong. There are just some things that I thought were important to us, and our kids have really bought into what our staff is trying to do.

"They are hungry to win. They have been great. And even when we had those tough losses, they never flinched. They came right back, did the same thing and never finger-pointed, worked their tails off, and we were able to pull some things out."

At what point did you know this team had a chance to be good?

"I knew we were going to be competitive. I said this all along and everyone thought it was a cliché, but I really liked this team because of their practice habits and their work habits. And their ability not to get too high or too low and fight through some of the things they go through. I don't know if there is any one point I knew we could be good, but I liked the character of this team all year."

Is there any one part of the team that has stood out?

"All of it. That's the thing. This is a team. Our kids are extremely close. They hang out together, they run together, they understand how important the other group is to them. This team hangs out together as much as any I have been a part of."

What did you say to the players after the 47-17 loss at Oklahoma in September?

" 'Things never are as good as they seem or as bad as they seem. We are going back to work the same way. We know how to work and we know how to practice. We will fix the problems, get everything corrected and put you in position to make plays and we'll expect you to make them. We aren't going to change our approach on things. The secret to this thing is there is no secret. You just have to work and believe in each other.' "

'"Virginia Tech is one of the great programs and Frank [Beamer] is one of the great coaches in college football. Virginia Tech has done a great job. Hopefully, we are getting back to making ourselves relevant again.'
- FSU's Jimbo Fisher

Talk about how you overhauled the defensive staff with longtime assistants Mickey Andrews and Chuck Amato stepping aside.

"Mark [Stoops] is very multiple in his looks. He's a zone guy who mixes man looks and zone pressures. And he's a secondary guy. We needed work back there. He's a strong secondary coach. I knew we were going to have a lot of young talent back there. We needed someone who could develop them as players. I think it's important to coordinate from the backend.

"I have known Mark for a long time. I have seen him coach great players at Miami [2001-03] and do well, and I have seen him do well coaching players who were great his first few years at Arizona [2004-09]. I also knew he was a great position coach."

How has he made the defense different?

"We are trying to do it as a staff. We are competing with each other, but we also are being supportive of each other. He built confidence in them. He has installed a lot more zone looks and has been very positive with them, putting them in position and explaining why mistakes happen and done a great job motivating them.

"[Greg] Hudson is like having another coordinator. Those two have very similar philosophies. But they have little differences. It works perfect. [D.J.] Eliot has done a great job with the ends. Odell [Haggins] always has done a great job with the tackles. It has been a really good fit."

You play Virginia Tech this Saturday in Charlotte. What impresses you about the Hokies?

"Virginia Tech is one of the great programs and Frank [Beamer] is one of the great coaches in college football. Virginia Tech has done a great job. Hopefully, we are getting back to making ourselves relevant again.

"They have been the standard in this league for a while. We will have to battle, scratch and claw to get up there. Virginia Tech always has been known for defense and special teams. But they now have some playmakers on offense, at quarterback and running back, and speedy guys outside.

Christian Ponder's season began with Heisman aspirations. How would you judge his performance?

"I think he played better than he did last season. We won more games. He understood winning. The guys around him didn't play as well. And he has battled through injury and adversity. We have guys banged up on the offensive line and young receivers; he really had to perform. He really has performed. When we protect him, he really can pick you apart. I still think he's one of the great quarterbacks in the country. We were draining 100 to 200 CCs of fluid a week off that elbow, and he played every day and didn't miss a practice."

What did the 31-7 win over Florida mean? This is the first season since 1999 that the program has beaten the Gators and Miami in the same season.

"One of the things you are measured by is the Miami and Florida game. Winning rivalry games is huge. It helps you re-establish recruiting boundaries. Urban [Meyer] has done a great job, and they have had one of the top programs in the country. They weren't quite as good this year. They lost some heart-breaking games. But Florida has as many good players as anyone. And for our players to have the confidence to know they can compete with anybody, it helps. And it will make the country stand up and say they beat a pretty good Florida team. And how we won the game at least sends a message that we are headed in the right direction."

Can Florida State be the top program in the Sunshine State again?

"Without a doubt. But Miami, USF, UCF, Florida all are going to have a say in that. But there is no doubt we can do that. We have a lot of hard work in front of us."

Where do you think the ACC ranks in the pecking order of conferences?

"I don't pay attention to that. I think there's a lot of parity. Look at the draft and we usually are second or third in the number of players drafted. No teams have won the national championship from the ACC, but maybe it's because of great parity. I think we have a great conference and have done a great job and there are some good players in this league."

If you had to do it over again, would you be a coach-in-waiting?

"Yes. I would have to be in the right situation. I would tweak some things, like you learn in every situation. I still think to be able to come in here and know what's going on, I think it has been a great thing."

What was the most difficult part?

"The decisions you make on the future of the program. You still had Coach Andrews and Coach Amato here and Coach Bowden, so they still were in the pecking order. I was just running the offense. The future decision of things sometimes, you wish you could do what you wanted to do, but I knew that going in, so you just keep your mouth shut. It was Coach Bowden's program. I was going to respect that."

Have you talked to Bowden recently?

"I haven't talked to him in a while, since the season started. Our relationship is good and I'm going to want him back. He always says to call when I need something and I will definitely give him a call soon."

Do you like league title games?

"I wish every league had to play one. We talk about the BCS, but there are so many unfair things going on out there from different academic rules, conference rules. ... I wish it was in an indoor facility. I hope it won't be bad whether. I hate to play any championship game in bad weather. Everyone says that's football, but not everyone does it. What hurt attendance in Florida [Jacksonville and Tampa] was there weren't any Florida teams in it. I would like to keep it in one place with an indoor facility."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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