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Florida State Seminoles' uneasy transition from coach Bobby Bowden to Jimbo Fisher

Though it was not official, Jimbo Fisher, front, was hired as Florida State offensive coordinator in January 2007 with the idea he would eventually replace Bobby Bowden as coach.

Associated Press

Though it was not official, Jimbo Fisher, front, was hired as Florida State offensive coordinator in January 2007 with the idea he would eventually replace Bobby Bowden as coach.

TALLAHASSEE — T.K. Wetherell realizes the decision to tab Jimbo Fisher as the designated successor to iconic coach Bobby Bowden will define him like no other he made as Florida State's president.

"If they win, it'll be good. And if they don't," he said with a laugh, "I'll be a goat."

Well, no one is fitting him for horns.

Fisher's debut season is nearing an end — his team plays rival Florida (7-4) in Saturday's regular-season finale — and his Seminoles (8-3) have taken unmistakable strides:

• They have re-established their significance in the ACC by winning six games and securing at least a share of the Atlantic Division; they reach the league championship game for the first time since 2005 if Maryland beats N.C. State on Saturday afternoon.

• They have begun to re-establish themselves nationally; they're ranked No. 22, can win 10 games for just the second time this decade and, if they end a six-game skid to the Gators, would sweep Miami and Florida for the first time since the 1999 national championship season.

"When they first made the announcement of Jimbo, I questioned it in the sense that when you make a move like that, you don't know what the environment will be like for that coach (a few years later). So it was a gamble," ESPN analyst Craig James said. "Now that we've seen the foundation of the season, it was a very solid investment in Jimbo.

"It worked for Florida State."

•••

Not that the implementation of the plan was simple.

Or even just two years in the making as it has been portrayed.

Wetherell, in a lengthy interview with the St. Petersburg Times, revealed he dangled the head-coach-in-waiting position in front of Fisher like a "carrot" when he was trying to hire him as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in January 2007.

"For about a year, we never made that commitment publicly," said Wetherell, who stepped down as president in January. "Jimbo knew it. I knew it. Bobby knew it. … We had those conversations. We went down that path."

Why? He saw it as the best option given FSU's situation. In November 2006, oft-criticized offensive coordinator/receivers coach Jeff Bowden resigned effective the end of what became a 7-6 season. Bobby Bowden also decided to replace offensive line coach Mark McHale.

"Recruiting was changing at that point in time," Wetherell said. "You were having to begin to recruit sophomores. The old days where you could take Bowden and run him in at the last minute and he would talk grits and gravy to them and all of a sudden they would change from whomever to Florida State, that era was over. The era of having a coach sitting in a tower watching everything was over. Kids wanted a coach on the field. So we knew we had an era coming to an end. Jeff was the most obvious thing you looked at, but it was deeper than that.

"So when we had those vacancies, we said, 'Okay, how are we going to prepare for the future?' It became obvious in our minds that we had to go with a young guy, bring him and hold a carrot in front of him."

The top two choices?

Fisher and Southern Cal offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Wetherell said, adding Fisher was the clear favorite. In addition to his pedigree of working at big-time Southern programs Auburn and LSU, he had a solid relationship with the Bowden family beginning with his playing days for Terry at Salem College and Samford.

"It was very exciting, and it was enticing," Fisher, then 41, said of the carrot. "But it wasn't the reason I came … because it wasn't concrete and my idea was I wanted to be here and be with Coach Bowden."

And folks soon wanted him here for the long run.

"The more we saw him and that he kind of fit the mold of a Bowden of 30 years earlier," Wetherell said, "the more we became impressed with him. And it really became pretty obvious that unless we formalized our handshake deal, somebody was going to steal him."

•••

Bowden, who initially suggested longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews be named the designated successor, and Fisher, who had flirtations with West Virginia in late 2007 and Auburn the following year, consistently said they worked exceptionally well together.

Bowden let Fisher address the team after practices to ease the transition for the players. Fisher said the biggest plus was he gained a familiarity with the players — he tried to interact a bit with those he didn't coach so they would know how he operated and what he expected — and could evaluate all aspects of the program over time instead of on the fly.

Still, the situation was tricky to navigate at times.

If there were aspects Fisher might have wanted to tweak or revamp, such as recruiting and how players dressed to and from games, he couldn't. Or wouldn't.

"This was not being molded into Jimbo's team," Fisher said. "I understood that when I took it. I wasn't going to step on toes out of respect for Coach Bowden. It was his football team, and that's the way it should have been."

Fisher, Bowden and Wetherell entered the 2009 season in agreement: Bowden, who wanted to restore the team's winning ways and hit a personal goal of 400 wins, would have two more seasons. Then, as his contract spelled out, Fisher would take over to start 2011.

But the timetable changed as the Seminoles struggled on the field.

"The wheels started to come off the wagon with (the loss to) USF," Wetherell said of the Sept. 26 home game.

After FSU lost the next week to Boston College, Jim Smith, an alumnus and the chairman of the school's board of trustees, publicly called for the Bowden era to end.

"At that point in time, the decision wasn't made," Wetherell said. "But maybe it was."

If not then, the tipping point came during the home finale against Maryland on Nov. 21.

"I went to five skyboxes," Wetherell said of the 29-26 victory. "The food was set up. The booze was there. Everything was ready. And not a single soul was there. I called each of those five box members and said, 'Why didn't you come to the game?' I got all kinds of stories. But the bottom line was, 'I'm not going to come and watch that crap.' I said, 'Why didn't you give the tickets to somebody?' They said, 'I couldn't give them away.' "

Wetherell said he knew then what had to happen — unless the Seminoles upset Florida the next week, which didn't happen. He gave Bowden, then 80, no real choice — be a powerless "ambassador coach" or leave.

"The only thing I wish would have happened is that he would have made the decision," Wetherell said. "He did that technically, but we all know he didn't do that.

"Bobby was a great coach, and there's no way FSU can repay what they owe him. But if you ignore the record — and it's good, I'm glad they're winning — but if you just look at the enthusiasm, if you look at the coaching, the recruiting, the changes to the nutrition program and the offseason program and the academic program, Jimbo has revamped the whole thing. You can just tell it's different.

"And I think it's better."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com.

Florida State Seminoles' uneasy transition from coach Bobby Bowden to Jimbo Fisher 11/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 25, 2010 9:37pm]

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