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August 24, 2007

Where toughness is born - The Jimbo Fisher Story

How Jimbo Fisher brings a coal miner's toughness to a team that went soft

Photos courtesy of Gloria Fisher and family

Too feisty to follow every rule, but too scared to break many, Jimbo Fisher was not unlike many of the boys raised in the hills of West Virginia during the 1960s and '70s.

Father was a coal miner. Mother was a school teacher. The family owned a farm.

Life was simpler then, for sure, but not easier. Not for the Fisher boys, Jimbo and younger brother Bryan.

The only children of Gloria and John James Fisher Sr. learned right from wrong, good from bad, honesty from deceit as early as they could pronounce the words. There were few shades of gray in the Fisher household.

"Be dependable and accountable," Jimbo remembers his father saying all these years later. "Do what you tell people you're going to do. Being sick isn't a reason to miss work. Being tired isn't a reason for not doing something. If you're getting a day's salary, put in a good day's work. Don't lie, don't steal, and don't be lazy. Be dependable and accountable."

Many parents have shared those sentiments with their children. Many parents have wanted their kids to heed that advice.

Jimbo and Bryan Fisher were given no choice in the matter.

Of mines and men

This is where toughness is born. Deep below the earth's surface, in the filthy, steamy belly of a West Virginia coal mine, a young boy stares up at his father. The boy has stepped out of line. It is not the first time.

The frightened boy doesn't realize that his father is more worried than mad.

If his son is breaking these little rules now, what will become of him in the future? How will he make it to college? How will he carve out a better life for himself and his family than the rest of this community has endured?

"If you don't do what's right and go to school, this is what you're looking at," John James Fisher Sr. tells his oldest son.

A life in the mines.

Just like his father, his father's father, and almost every other adult male in Clarksburg, W.Va.

Coal mining was a lucrative life, especially for a family man like John Fisher, who dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to fight in the Korean War.

But it was a brutal life.

Jimbo knew that better than most. Before he had even gotten to know his old man, just a few weeks after Jimbo's second birthday, the family nearly lost him.

It was the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, 1967. A violent explosion had ripped through a mine he was working. His face and hands were charred. His leg was broken so badly that a segment pierced through his skin. It would be four months before he could leave the hospital.

"For two weeks, they weren't sure if he was going to make it or not," remembers Gloria Fisher, now 70, and still a school teacher in Clarksburg. "They said he wouldn't have made it if he wasn't as strong as he was. He was out of work for three years. He had a compound fracture in his leg, but they set it crooked. So they had to break it and reset it. That leg ended up being an inch shorter than the other one."

While the elder Fisher was recovering, a more horrific accident occurred at a mine in Farmington, W.Va. Seventy-eight miners were killed there. The bodies of 19 were never recovered; they remain entombed. But John James Fisher Sr., or "Jim" as his friends called him, couldn't wait to get back. He wanted to be productive again. He wanted to be with his men. He was their foreman. It was his job to lead them, the way he had led in the military, as a 19-year-old master sergeant.

"When he got healthy enough, he went right back in the mines," Jimbo says from his air-conditioned office overlooking Bobby Bowden Field. "He worked for another 15 years after that."

"It wasn't even a decision for him," Gloria recalls. "He loved working in the mines. He was a very strong individual, in personality and physically."

Gloria insists he never would have gone back if it had been up to her. She had seen the physical toll that miners paid for their careers. If an explosion didn't get them, the Black Lung would.

But she didn't fight him on the subject. She understood his desires as well as anyone could.

After all, Gloria had her own calling. She started her teaching career in the fall of 1960 and has been going strong for 48 years. She could have called it a career years ago, and she admits that her retirement benefits would probably pay more than her job teaching chemistry and physics at Robert C. Byrd High School, but she reports back every year.

"I still enjoy it," she says. "As long as I enjoy what I'm doing, why not continue?" Truth be told, that's only part of her motivation. The rest of the story is she knows that it's almost impossible for schools in rural areas such as Clarksburg to attract and retain high-quality chemistry and physics teachers.

These students deserve a good education. And if she can give it to them, she will.

"Mom is the toughest one out of all of us," Jimbo says.

THE BLUEPRINT

When he was tabbed by Bobby Bowden to resuscitate the Seminoles' shockingly anemic offense this past January, Jimbo Fisher's name brought instant hope to legions of Florida State fans.

They knew he had ties to the Bowden family. They knew he was Louisiana State's offensive coordinator for the past seven years, including the 2003 national championship season. And they believed that he would bring in a slew of new offensive plays that would take the Atlantic Coast Conference by storm.

Those fans were wrong at least about that last part.

While Fisher has a flair for playcalling and is aggressive by nature, he is not this generation's Steve Spurrier or Norm Chow.

He is more interested in tenacity than trick plays. He values execution over excitement.

"That's the thing I love about football," Fisher says in his trademark rapid-fire delivery, which is indicative of his passion for the game. "No matter how much technology changes, when you walk on that field, there's pads and there's a helmet. There's a line. There's a defender. Just like it was in 1950. It's a physical, demanding game, and there's no shortcuts around it."

If there was a Football by Jimbo creed, you just read it.

From the moment he left Baton Rouge for Tallahassee, Fisher has been nearly hell-bent on changing mindsets as much as mechanics. Both were in disrepair.

Almost immediately upon arrival, Fisher realized this was not the same Florida State team he had fallen in love with as a teenager. This team was soft. It was undisciplined.

There was still a fair amount of talent spread throughout the locker room, but not enough to overcome the lack of toughness and conditioning.

"I know everyone's amazed at how much weight we've lost, but it was easy," Fisher says, in reference to media reports that several offensive linemen lost 20 or more pounds in the off-season. "That's like saying a team that wins five games is a heck of an improvement from winning zero. We were very overweight, and we weren't very strong. And that wasn't just the offensive line. It was a lot of positions. And we're still in the process of getting there."

John James Fisher Jr. inherited many fine traits from his father, but this is perhaps the most unique: He can be brutally honest without losing his players' trust. He can call his team soft; he can scold a player in front of the whole squad; he can bench a quarterback for most of a practice; and yet he never comes across as mean or hateful.

"My father had this personality where you always knew where you stood," Jimbo says. "He could tell somebody they were stupid. He could say things to you that most people would get into a fight over. But he could tell you, and you would just listen."

"He told it like it was," Gloria says. "And no one ever got mad at him. In the mines, all the men liked him. He was known as a mediator between the men and the company."

There may be other methods of communication, but like his father, Jimbo Fisher prefers the direct and honest approach. On the practice fields at Florida State, where Fisher and his staff are trying to eliminate a culture of mediocrity, it's rare for a play to be completed without Fisher finding fault somewhere.

"If you don't know the play, get out of the drill," he'll yell at a tight end who blocks the wrong defender.

"Why would you do that?" he'll scream at a quarterback who throws to a covered receiver.

"That's your fault," he'll wail at a receiver who runs an imprecise route.

It's a brand of coaching that few current Seminoles have ever experienced. Quarterback Drew Weatherford admits that Fisher's approach rattled him at first. Quarterback Xavier Lee jokes that he definitely would have transferred "if I knew he yelled this much."

Under FSU's previous offensive coaching staff, corrections were made in softer tones. They often came inside a film room, without the whole world listening.

But Fisher has no time for diplomacy. Florida State's first game under this new staff is less than two weeks away.

"We're in a prison-guard mentality right now," Fisher says. "We're the wardens and we're cracking the whip. We're trying to develop accountability and dependability, and when they don't accept it, I'm not going to tolerate it. I just feel that right now, these guys that have never been put under a microscope and have to be pushed."

Says Lee: "Everyone was kind of lax and in a way, kind of soft mentally. These coaches are more demanding. In a way, we knew we weren't tough and didn't have the [right] mindset, and they came in and pointed that out."

COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE

The Fishers never steered their children toward athletics. They never really pushed them toward anything, except school.

"When they were born, they could be anything they wanted as long as they went to college," Gloria remembers. "And that was more him than me. He regretted never going."

It might have sounded odd coming from a high school dropout, but education was always most important to John James Fisher Sr. He and Gloria had met during her first year at West Virginia University, where she was on an academic scholarship.

After they married, he worked in the mines to put her through school. She eventually finished up at nearby Fairmont State.

"Education was his priority," Gloria says. "When I got out, I was going to put him through school. But by that time, he already was a mine foreman. He was making three times what I was making as a teacher."

With his own dreams on hold, the patriarch turned his attention to his sons. Jimbo was born in 1965, and it was obvious from the beginning that he would be an athlete.

He could dribble a basketball by the age of 2. He wasn't strong enough to hoist his jump shots to the rim, but older kids "would catch the ball and throw it into the hoop for him," Gloria remembers.

By the time he was 5 or 6, he was stealing the show in church softball games. And when Bryan came along, the sports never stopped.

"There was always a ballgame in our field," Gloria says. "We had several broken windows."

When the Fisher boys were old enough to play in organized leagues and later school ball, their father was always there. He requested to work the overnight shift in the mines so that he could work the farm during the day and tote the boys to practice after school.

He'd leave for his shift around 10 p.m., make the 30-minute commute, work through the night, and get home around 10 a.m.

"It wouldn't be anything for him to come in from work and go cut hay in the field," Gloria says. The boys worked the farm too, but not during sports seasons. John James Sr. never pushed Jimbo or Bryan into athletics. But if they were going to play, they were going to give it their all.

He took them to nearly every practice and never missed a game. And when the games were over, he critiqued everything they did.

Jimbo vividly remembers riding home from Little League baseball games, where he would rack up four hits, and hearing only about a ground ball he bobbled. He was so fed up one day that Jimbo told his father he would rather walk home than listen to everything he did wrong.

"Fine," the father said, pulling over to the side of the road.

Jimbo walked two miles back to the farm.

Bryan was the baby of the family, but he had it no easier.

"There was one basketball game where Bryan's team won 24 to something," Gloria recalls. "Bryan scored 22 of the points. But on the way home, Jim asked him, 'What did you do on defense?' I could see Jimbo laughing in the front seat. He went through the same thing. They didn't get the big head from him." That would be an understatement.

Jim lectured his boys the way he spoke to the men in the mines. Direct and to the point. The way Jimbo speaks to his players now.

BORN TO COACH

Jimbo Fisher's emergence as one of the nation's premier offensive coordinators was no accident. An honor roll student like his younger brother, who now is the head football coach at Byrd High School in Clarksburg, Jimbo probably could have pursued any academic field he desired.

He had his mom's ability in science. He was a wiz in math.

But nothing stirred his passion like sports. Even from an early age, he didn't play like his classmates. He was always thinking ahead. Thinking like a coach.

"I recruited him out of high school, so I've known him since he was 16 or 17 years old," says Terry Bowden, who then was the head coach at tiny Salem (W.Va.) College and later went on to Samford (Ala.) and then Auburn. "He was always the best leader I ever had. He was always the best at taking charge, at being confident and even cocky. When he was at quarterback, you knew that everything that could be done was going to be done at that position as far as getting the other players pumped up, doing everything he could to win, of motivating everybody in the huddle."

Jimbo signed to play for Terry Bowden after starring at Liberty High School, and the coach and player enjoyed an instant connection. Terry was trying to install his father's Florida State offense, and Jimbo wanted to learn every detail.

His thirst for knowledge was endless.

"When we were at Salem, the team would ride on the bus, but Jimbo would ride in the car with me everywhere I went," Terry recalls. "We went over every offensive play, we went over every play call. We drove everywhere together."

Before Jimbo's senior year, Terry accepted a job as head coach at Samford University, a school his father, Bobby, had coached three decades earlier. He was excited about the opportunity, but he hated the idea of leaving his star quarterback behind.

Jimbo, meanwhile, had no interest in staying at Salem. The problem was that Samford was an NCAA Division-III school, which meant it could offer no scholarships.

If Jimbo wanted to switch schools and follow his mentor, his parents would have to foot the bill.

"I said, 'Jimbo, if you do that, I'll make you a coach when you get through,'" Terry remembers. "'If you want to coach, I'll let you coach here.' Sure enough, he came down and played, paid his own way and played for me for one year. After he played one year of arena ball (with the Chicago Bruisers), he coached for me. We have just always been on the same page, and we've always been together -- every year at Salem, every year at Samford, and every year at Auburn. I always knew he would be an outstanding coach."

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Bobby Bowden began searching for a new offensive coordinator this past January that Terry pointed him in the direction of his protege.

In Terry's mind, Jimbo would be the perfect fit. He was well-versed in the Bowden school of offense, having played and coached in the system. He had a proven track record of success - he was on Terry's staff at Auburn, which won 20 straight games from 1993-94, and helped Nick Saban win a national championship at LSU 10 years later.

And he instilled in his players and fellow coaches the kind of toughness that Florida State had so desperately lacked the past few years.

"He was a guy that had the perfect personality and was the perfect leader," Terry says. "I could see that when he was in high school, and he got better and better."

ENDURING SPIRIT

In 1994, just a few days after his 62nd birthday, John James Fisher Sr. took a routine fishing trip with a good friend. He loved the outdoors as much as he loved watching the boys play sports.

Though his body had been betrayed by a long line of illnesses related to his years in the mines, Fisher refused to spend his retirement inside.

"He bought a little four-wheeler so he could get around on the farm," Gloria remembers. "He would stay out there for hours. He'd say, 'If I die on the four-wheeler, I'll die happy.'"

He didn't exactly get his wish.

As his fishing trip wound down, the big man with the giant spirit began to feel chest pains. "Get me home," he said.

He never made it there. Twenty-seven years after he escaped death in a mine, John James Fisher Sr. finally passed.

The explosion didn't get him. The Black Lung did.

When Florida State opens the 2007 season Sept. 3 at Clemson, John James Fisher Sr. won't be in the stands watching his son's Seminoles debut. He won't be there to greet Jimbo in the locker room to tell him all the things he did wrong.

But his spirit will remain.

It will add a little kick to Jimbo's voice when he chastises a receiver for not finishing a block. It will strengthen the players' resolve when they face some adversity.

Jimbo's father never officially coached any sport. If he had gone back to school, Gloria suspects he would have pursued a career in athletics.

He would have been good at it, too.

"He was so smart, he would have been great at anything he did," Jimbo says. "He always got results. He always found a way to get it done. And that's what we're trying to teach these guys. Whatever it takes. "And when it's over, no matter what happens, the guy in the mirror can look back at you with a smile on his face. If that guy in the mirror ain't happy with you, then we've got a problem. Because the guy in the mirror won't lie to you."

Neither will his coach upstairs.


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