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January 6, 2014

Fisher combines Saban and Bowden for wildly successful coaching run

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In his first coaches' meeting at Florida State, Jeremy Pruitt had to stop and check himself. The organization, the structure, everything about the meeting was a carbon copy of the first-year defensive coordinator's previous job - position coach under Nick Saban at Alabama.

"When I got here I thought I was sitting at Alabama, just the way things were starting out," Pruitt said. "But Jimbo, he puts his twist on it too."

Pruitt didn't know it, but he captured the strange combination of coaching influences that have shaped FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher and allowed him to construct a program capable of most dominant college football season in modern history.

Fisher's two biggest coaching influences, Saban and Bobby Bowden couldn't be more divergent in terms of coaching style: one is a robot, the other a backwoods storyteller. But Fisher has been able to mesh both styles and recreate a common theme: consistent winning and, now, trips to championship games.

The Machine

Is Florida State a copy of the great SEC teams, with a dominant, speed-heavy defense, a punishing offensive line and athletic skill players? Or are the Seminoles more similar to Florida State teams of the 1990s with a high-flying offense lead by a transcendent quarterback? For that matter, isn't much of the SEC just a copy of the dynasty Bobby Bowden built at Florida State?

It's almost impossible to pick apart the connections and find which came first. The two legacies are so closely intertwined, it makes figuring out who sparked what and who emulated what a circular question.

Fisher shrugs off assertions that he built Florida State as an emulation of the SEC powerhouses, saying instead he built a team he felt could win championships.

But Fisher's blueprint for winning is rooted in the SEC. He was part of its resurgence in the 1990s and 2000s as a quarterbacks coach at Auburn and then as an offensive coordinator at LSU.

It's clear that Saban's influence weighs heavy on Fisher. He uses many of the same catch phrases and talks about 'The Process' with the same reverence. There's a fitting poetry that Fisher is the man in position to end the SEC's streak of national titles and dethrone the SEC.

Fisher's on-the-field success at Florida State has been predicated by years of SEC-level recruiting. Since he took over as head coach at Florida State in 2010, Fisher's average recruiting class ranks 6.4 nationally, better than every SEC team except Alabama and Florida. The 2014 class is ranked the fourth-best by Rivals.com, and it isn't even complete yet.

"You get the best players, you win, it's as simple as that," Bobby Bowden told Warchant.com in the month leading to the national title game. "I can't believe how well he's recruited against the Southeastern Conference."

Bowden's praise is well-deserved. Florida State's 2013-2014 season certainly does have a machine-like efficiency to it: The Seminoles rank first in the country in scoring offense, offensive yards per play, scoring defense and defensive yards per play. That's the kind of dominance Nick Saban dreams about. Bowden said Fisher's organization and efficiency were obvious when Fisher was head-coach-in-waiting at FSU.

"Nick has his way of doing it," Bowden said. "I think Jimbo learned a whole lot from him in the time that he worked for him. I think his ability to organize and recruit and things like that. I think Nick was probably a little bit better than I was at that."

FSU's coaching staff came together in a hurry

When Fisher took over at FSU, he promised change and modernization. Quickly.

"My goal is to get the structure, the staff and the support resources in place to facilitate a winning plan and get players into the structure and start effecting change," Fisher said in ins introductory press conference in 2010. "Now."

In his early years, Fisher was a feared figure on the practice field. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Demonte McAllister was one of the few players on the current roster around for the initial transition.

"It was hard," McAllister said. "He would yell at anybody, the staff, anybody at all had him upset or said anything wrong he'd be on them. But he's kind of calmed down."

The Storyteller

But just like the tangled web of influences between the SEC, Florida State and Bobby Bowden, Fisher's coaching history is more complex.

True, Fisher spent much of coaching career in the SEC. But he was brought there by Terry Bowden, who coached Fisher at Salem College and later at Samford University, then brought Fisher with him to Auburn. The Bowden coaching tree runs strong through Fisher.

"The only person who's ever taught me was Bobby Bowden, that's all I knew," Terry Bowden said. "Then Jimbo came along and all I was doing was copying my dad. And he was just copying me. Florida State would run an offense and we'd put it in next week. We became a little bitty Florida State (at Samford)."

If Fisher's program is a reflection of the Nick Saban process, his personality is not. Fisher is fond of storytelling, and as Terry says, talking is a Bowden trait. Fisher's mind for sports trivia and good stories is remarkable, and he enjoys going into great detail about historic moments he's been a part of or players he watched growing up. It's a trait he's had all his life.

When Fisher used to work Bowden's quarterback and wide receivers camps in the summers, he would frequently be found holding court as the main storyteller. Whatever the craziest experience his team or coaching staff had, Fisher would be the one to narrate it. Terry, who saw Fisher as a high school player, said he has always been able to command a room. That fit in nicely with Bowden's laid-back demeanor.

"He always loved to tell stories and loved to rip on people from the time he was a player to a young coach," Terry said. "I'm sure he saw how easygoing my dad was and that kind of justified it. I think with Coach Saban sometimes you see a stiffer, more businesslike approach. I think Bowden lightened it up a bit."

The elder Bowden agreed.

"Mine was more human relations," Bobby Bowden said. "I think Jimbo learned a lot of that maybe from me."

Fisher spends as much time talking about 'The Process' as he does talking about the family aspect of his team. His refrain throughout the season has been that his players are better people than they are players. The team's oft-repeated catchphrase of "one team, one heartbeat" is taken from famously folksy former Texas coach Darrell Royal. Pruitt has noticed some marked differences from Tuscaloosa in Tallahassee.

"The program has got Jimbo's personality," Pruitt said. "Kids love him. They're up there all the time, they really enjoy being around him. You walk by and he's got kids up there playing Xbox or PlayStation, but of course his kids are around all the time."

The Coach

When asked about what he learned from his two most obvious mentors, Fisher said he's not a carbon copy of either.

"One thing both those guys taught me because people think they're two extremes, well how are they so successful?" Fisher said. "They're being themselves. I've got to be worried about Jimbo Fisher. I can't be worried about Nick Saban's personality and Bobby Bowden's personality.

"Now can I learn from them about things, how they handle situations, how they handle recruiting or whatever it may be? Yes. And those are the two guys that influenced me the most."

The results show that, especially as Fisher has grown more comfortable at Florida State. With a coaching staff he trusts and a program that's rolling, Fisher spent most of the national championship weekend taking about 'The Process,' how much his players have had faith in the system and how consistent the team is. He's said those Sabanisms so many times that by Sunday, his voice was hoarse - though talking is a Bowden trait. But the combination of the two is what makes Fisher the architect of FSU's return to the top of college football.

"If you could have a perfect head coach, wouldn't you put Nick Saban and Bobby Bowden together?" Terry Bowden said. "Jimbo was lucky enough to get both of those and probably smart enough to take the best of both."



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