Saturday, December 16, 2017

Closing Winston case allows Fisher to focus on game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Moments before Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher took the lectern Friday for his pre-ACC Championship Game news conference, it was announced — twice, in fact — that he would only answer questions about tonight's game against Duke.

But that announcement really had nothing to do with what he was willing to talk about. It was more about what he did not want to talk about: the controversy surrounding his prized quarterback Jameis Winston, who was not charged with sexual assault in an investigation closed Thursday.

And this, in a nutshell, is the story of the 2013 Florida State football team — an otherwise glorious season scarred by an ugly chapter that no one wants to talk about, but one that cannot be ignored.

That's not fair, supporters of Florida State and Winston will say. Winston wasn't charged. He did nothing wrong, according to the law.

But it isn't that simple.

While Fisher, his team and, most of all, Winston are looking forward to moving past the unseemliness and uneasiness of the past several weeks, we can't act as if nothing happened.

The damage to Winston's reputation, rightly or wrongly, might last years. So it certainly wasn't going to be repaired and restored in one day.

Questions remain. Doubts linger.

Yet there was Fisher on Friday, in the midst of perhaps the finest and most dominant season in the history of the already legendary FSU program, trying his best to get back to the business of winning a national title.

It started with praising the player most responsible for this undefeated season and the one most important to FSU's championship hopes:

Jameis Winston.

"He's been the same guy," Fisher said. "He believed in the process, and he believed in himself, and he's been the same guy. It has been a remarkable maturity level presented by him to be able to compartmentalize and handle things he can control."

This hasn't been easy for Fisher. He wants to throw full support behind Winston but never wants to seem insensitive to the seriousness of the allegations. He wants to talk football but realizes there is an elephant in the room.

He needs to watch every word that comes out of his mouth so as not to come off as cavalier.

Several times Friday, Fisher made sure to say that Winston took nothing lightly.

But Fisher also was quick to point out that Winston's off-field situation did not affect his role as a football player, teammate or student, calling the 19-year-old's actions "remarkable.

"I told him the other day, I think he handled things extremely well," Fisher said. "I think it's a true landmark to him because he did not let his individual situation affect his team, and to me that's what a man does."

A man. That's how Fisher thinks of Winston, partly because of how Winston reacted during the controversy.

"Let the boy inside you die if you let the man come out," Fisher said. "I think he understands that he had a responsibility to his team, that they worked very hard, and that it was his responsibility to be their quarterback and be their leader. He handled his individual situation on his own time."

The more Fisher talked, the more he gushed about Winston.

He talked about how Winston's talent might be surpassed only by his drive to be great.

"He kept having success, but his preparation never changed," Fisher said. "What really reveals a player, in my opinion, is when they have success and everyone is patting you on the back. … How do you react?"

The better Winston has played, Fisher said, the harder he has worked.

Winston plays brilliantly on Saturday afternoons, watches film Sunday night and is knocking on Fisher's door early Monday morning, hungry for improvement.

Winston, Fisher claims, hasn't mentioned the Heisman Trophy once even though he is the overwhelming favorite to be named next week as college football's best player.

"There's a difference in wanting to have the individual awards and playing well," Fisher said. "You want to play well so your team has success and I think he truly embraces that and understands the responsibility of the quarterback position."

Pretty much overlooked because of the Winston controversy is that the Seminoles are ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in 13 years. They're predicted to win by more than four touchdowns today. A victory almost assuredly puts them into the national championship game.

Now that is something Fisher would love to talk about.

And Winston — the entire story from off the field to on — is certainly a big part of that conversation.


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