TALLAHASSEE — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is sure he knows what it takes to rebuild a program that has been mired in mediocrity for much of the past decade.
"You have to get the right guys," he said. "It's still about players."
Pretty basic stuff, right? Well …
Even more important than recruiting, which has gone well for the Seminoles, by all accounts, since Fisher took over in January, is that those young people must be developed on and off the football field. Fisher said that's an area in recent times that the Seminoles have "missed the boat a little bit on."
That's not meant as an indictment of any individual, especially Fisher's predecessor, Bobby Bowden. Rather, in this age — when more raw talent is spread across the country and those young players face new challenges in an Internet-driven, 24-7 world — Fisher said FSU has lacked the support systems to fully develop a player capable of performing consistently well.
"That's the key drill," he said. "Everybody's got great athletes. All right, what's going to separate us? Look at the top organizations. I know the Yankees go out and buy all those good players but they've still got to get them to play. The Lakers, the Celtics, the Colts, the Patriots, the Steelers. The guys who win consistently, there's something they do differently, and I think that's structure and organization."
It's a philosophy that focuses on the process and not specific results.
It's a philosophy he saw work while he was with one of his other mentors in the profession, Nick Saban. Fisher was Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU, and in four years he helped Saban transform the Tigers from an also-ran in the SEC to the 2003 Bowl Championship Series national champion.
"When I got exposed to it, I understood the importance of it," Fisher said of Saban's 21st century approach to building a consistent winner, which paid dividends again last season when Saban led Alabama to an undefeated season and a national title in his third season in Tuscaloosa.
"When we were successful at LSU, we won 14 or 15 games in the last two minutes," Fisher said. "What gives you that? Look at Alabama last year. South Carolina's got them right till the end (in a 20-6 regular-season Tide win). What gave them the edge? What gives good teams that edge? I truly believe it's the infrastructure."
That's why Fisher has boldly overhauled FSU by adding a nutritionist who has tailored individualized diets for the players; a speed guru to help each player get faster; more strength and conditioning staffers (from two full-timers to eight, though all don't work solely with football players); a noted mental conditioning expert from the IMG Academies in Bradenton (Trevor Moawad); and a sports psychologist.
"Jimbo has been around many different programs, and he's seen what's helped them be successful and has taken the best from each place he's been," FSU athletic director Randy Spetman said. "He had some distinct ideas about what he thought he could do to really jump-start the program again, and we talked about it, and we looked at the resources we had and moved forward."
Spetman estimates that the cost has been "maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars" and that has been offset by a decrease in the compensation for Fisher and his staff as compared with Bowden and his.
Another integral change has been intensified academic efforts, such as having players tested to ascertain how they learn so they can best be aided as they work toward degrees, and then more closely monitoring classroom progress. Fisher and his assistants meet at 11 a.m. every Thursday year-round to discuss each player's academic situation — every class, every grade, the reason for any absence from a class or study hall. He proudly pointed out that the team earned a solid 2.71 cumulative grade point average for the spring semester.
"There's been a big change," star senior quarterback Christian Ponder said. "A lot of small things have totally changed, and I think the whole attitude has changed."
Said Moawad, who also has been working with Saban's Alabama team, among others, "What I think is unique to Coach Fisher and some of the other coaches who are ahead of the game in this area is when you hear the statement, 'A player either has it or he doesn't have it.' That doesn't exist with Coach Fisher.
"With him it's a matter of, 'Wherever this guy is at, I can help him get better.' We at IMG are helping him on the mental conditioning side, but that infrastructure is on the athletic side, it's on the character side, it's on the career side."
Call it the Saban Way, for lack of a better term, and it has become part of Fisher's DNA. Fisher has even borrowed the four-step mission statement Saban had at LSU and outlined in his 2005 book, How Good Do You Want To Be? It reads:
1. To create an atmosphere and environment for all players to be successful as people; their involvement in the program will help them be more successful in life.
2. To provide academic support for each player to become a successful student and earn their degree.
3. To help each player reach their full athletic potential and to have the opportunity to win a championship.
4. To help each player launch their career so that when they leave LSU, they can use all the resources our institution has to get the best opportunities in life.
"That's what we have here (almost verbatim); it's the same mission statement," Fisher said, smiling coyly as he leafed through a copy of Saban's book. "You have to put those support systems around (the players) so they can understand what they're capable of achieving (on and off the field) … and I truly believe that the guy who can develop his players the best is the guy who's going to have the biggest advantage."
"That's what I love about Jimbo Fisher," Spetman said. "It's his vision and how to keep the program going and how to analyze what's out there in the athletic community to help energize your program. I think you'll continually see an evolution at Florida State with new ideas."
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.