For Jimbo Fisher, the road to Florida State leads through Samford

TALLAHASSEE — For Jimbo Fisher, Florida State's season-opening football game against Samford on Sept. 4 represents nothing short of a karmic confluence of events.

His first collegiate football game as a player came against the school in 1984. His last game as a player came for it in 1987. His first game as a coach came for Samford in 1988, and now his first game as a head coach after taking over for the legendary Bobby Bowden comes against the Division I-AA Samford Bulldogs.

Fisher admitted the surreal linkage between him and one small school in Birmingham, Ala., hadn't registered with him until his mother, Gloria, pointed it out.

But he's amazed by the quirkiness, as are others.

"He just can't get away from Samford, can he?" said Scotty King, a former Samford teammate.

Changing places

Fisher, 44, would never have competed against Samford as a player had he maintained his initial course. He began his college career at Clemson, where he was set to play second base for the Tigers' baseball team.

But he didn't remain in South Carolina.

Or in baseball.

"I played fall ball and left," said Fisher, who gave up baseball as a freshman but remains a huge fan; he fervently supports Mike Martin at FSU and traveled to Omaha this year for the College World Series. "Where I came from, the hills of West Virginia, to go there, Lord oh mighty. You talk about culture shock."

So he transferred to Salem (W.Va.) College, which was just a short drive west on state highway 50 from his hometown of Clarksburg, and played quarterback for the NAIA program led by an up-and-coming young coach, Terry Bowden.

The 5-foot-9, strong-armed, competitive Fisher, recruited by Bowden out of high school, perfectly fit Bowden's pro-style offense and led Salem to an 8-3 record in 1984. That after it was 3-7 the year before.

That breakout season began Sept. 1 in Birmingham against Samford, then a Division III program with a rich tradition — Bobby Bowden was a star quarterback there in the early 1950s when it was called Howard College and later was his alma mater's coach — that was restarting football after a decade of dormancy.

It was a mismatch on paper.

Salem featured several big-time prospects looking for a new start such as one-time FSU tight end Orson Mobley as well as Fisher, while Samford didn't have scholarship players.

It was a mismatch on the scoreboard.

Salem 82, Samford 9.

"I don't remember a whole lot about the game," said Mobley, who often played pickup basketball with Fisher in their days at Salem and went on to a stellar NFL career in Denver. "I know Jimbo had a big day. He was short on stature and wasn't the fastest guy, but he was competitive and was just a born leader."

"Oh, I remember it," said King, a freshman quarterback for Samford in 1984. "I remember watching Jimbo leading them up and down the field. We were embarrassed to say the least, but we had to start somewhere … and it was kind of funny the way it came full circle with Coach (Terry) Bowden and Jimbo coming to Samford, and we ended up beating people as badly as they beat us."

Following Bowden I

Terry Bowden was hired by Samford in 1987, and though he had been away from Salem for a year to work for Gerry Faust at Akron, some of his former players from the West Virginia school followed him south.

Including his old quarterback.

"I was ready to leave home; I was more mature," Fisher said. "They went bananas when I left. I was an All-American, the conference player of the year, but I knew if I wanted to have a career after ball coaching, I had to get back with Terry."

His new teammates understood what kind of player was coming their way.

"There was a presence there," said Gerald Neaves, then a senior receiver who was part of the 1984 team that lost so badly to Salem. "We just had a confidence in him."

That feeling permeated both sides of the ball. From Day 1. Even from a player who, after three years of playing quarterback, lost his starting job — Scotty King.

"Over that summer, we just hit it off," said King, who went to Bowden to suggest he move to cornerback, where he did quite well. "He's a great guy. He was definitely the right person to have at quarterback, and I was definitely willing to make the move to help the team."

"We had a (great) camaraderie," said Fisher, who remains close with King. "All they wanted to do was win. Terry did a good job of managing that. It was just a unique year."

With an unforgettable finish Nov. 21.

Destiny

The Bulldogs, 8-1 and looking to match the program's record for wins, trailed host Wingate (N.C.) College 38-27 late in the third quarter that fall day. But Fisher punctuated his senior season in spectacular fashion.

He directed four touchdown drives in the fourth quarter for a 54-46 win. The quarter's fireworks included two touchdown passes, a 75-yarder to John Harper and a 6-yarder to Steve Miles, to give Fisher 34 on the year, a Division III record.

"We were all about the team and winning, but we all felt that was a major accomplishment," said Neaves, who had two catches for 33 yards to make him the school's career leader at the time with 1,817 receiving yards.

Fisher was 22-of-40 for 451 yards and four touchdowns (with no interceptions) and one rushing touchdown. That pushed his season totals to 2,394 passing yards, 237 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns. He was named the Division III player of the year.

"A lot of us had aspirations of doing something sports-related after we got out of school," said Neaves, now a longtime high school coach in the Birmingham area. "Jimbo went on to play in the arena league for a while, but I knew he was heading toward a coaching career. It was just his destiny."

Following Bowden II

Fisher began to fulfill that destiny, predictably enough, at Samford in 1988 by working with the quarterbacks for his old coach. But he really began earlier than that.

"Jimbo always spent a lot of extra time in the film room with Coach Bowden," King said. "Even as a player, he lived and breathed football."

The son of a coal miner and school teacher (his mother is entering her 51st year teaching high school chemistry), Fisher had a tireless, blue-collar work ethic imprinted on him from the womb.

He carried that into his new profession and worked to absorb as much as he could from Terry and his famous father, Bobby, who literally opened his home to the youngster as if he were part of the extended family. At bowl games, Fisher was allowed to don a headset so he could listen in to the playcalling. But Papa Bowden also became a mentor off the field.

"My core values are his core values — God, family, ball. In that order," Fisher said. "He was a hero of mine. He was a guy you looked up to and said, 'One day, I want to be where he's at.' "

After working his way through the ranks, Fisher found himself precisely where his hero was — in Tallahassee. Hired in 2007 as the offensive coordinator, he became the head coach in waiting after one season. Though he wasn't contractually required to be offered the top job until January 2011 and Bowden had planned and deeply desired to coach one final year in 2010, outgoing president T.K. Wetherell decided not to renew Bowden's contract after last season.

That paved the way for a new era with an intriguing start, an opponent specifically picked in 2008 with Bowden in mind; an opponent that also was an ideal match for his successor as karma would have it.

"The first game I'll coach as head coach, at a time it wasn't supposed to happen, is against them," Fisher said, shaking his head in disbelief, of yet another rendezvous with Samford as a partner. "It's really ironic."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

For Jimbo Fisher, the road to Florida State leads through Samford 08/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 9:31pm]

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