TALLAHASSEE — Between offensive series, Jimbo Fisher frantically grabbed a headset so he could ask the coaches in the press box what was going on.
Not with the game he was playing in for Samford, mind you. He and his teammates were comfortably ahead.
He wanted updates from the game Florida State was playing that day in 1987 against Miami. Fisher had persuaded one of his coaches to keep a radio tuned into that game.
"I've always been a Florida State fan," he said excitedly.
Fisher, a quarterback and Division III national player of the year for Terry Bowden's team, is even pictured in his school yearbook beaming and wearing an FSU cap.
He now has the whole wardrobe.
And the keys to the program.
Legendary coach Bobby Bowden's era ended Tuesday with his retirement, paving the way for Fisher, 44, the Seminoles' offensive coordinator since 2007 and Bowden's designated heir, to take full control. The school had to offer him the job by January 2011 and is bound to negotiate a contract financially in line with "comparably experienced head football coaches at similar institutions."
"There's a number of reasons it's picked up popularity," FSU president T.K. Wetherell said of the succession plan he put together and, with the help of Terry Bowden, sold to the elder Bowden, who initially said longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews should succeed him. "No. 1, we knew we were going to lose Bobby at some point.
"As we watched Jimbo that first year, it became pretty obvious that he's the real deal. Not only does he know athletics, but you watch him go out to booster things, he's probably better in the smaller groups than the bigger groups, but he can recruit, he can work donors. That's kind of how we used to do it — bring in hot-shot young coaches and let them do it. We went back to our roots."
Fisher is very much a reimagining of Bobby Bowden circa 1976 — Bowden's first year as the Seminoles' coach — at least in his philosophical approach to moving the football. He's not into the spread, preferring to line up in the I-formation and rely on a balanced attack.
That's old school.
That's Bowden ball.
"I like his foundation, which is blocking and tackling, very fundamental, very basic, and then he has the ability to attack all areas on the football field," Bobby Bowden once said, adding that Fisher can "tell you more about Florida State than I can." "He really studies the game and knows where to attack. He's not afraid of trying anything. He's got confidence."
Bowden, of course, made his bones as college football's "Riverboat Gambler," someone who would call a fake punt from deep in his own territory, for instance.
"I grew up in this offense," Fisher said.
He played for Terry Bowden at Salem College then at Samford and began his coaching career working for him at Samford (1989-92) and Auburn (1993-98). Long before that, the native of Clarksburg, W.Va., grew up watching Bobby Bowden's West Virginia Mountaineers play.
"When I was young, 7 or 8 years old, I saw quite a few games," he said. "My father, every now and then, was able to get a ticket. That was the biggest thrill of my life."
He met the elder Bowden while attending the summer camp Bowden ran with his sons in 1987, right before his final collegiate season.
"It made a huge impression," Fisher said. "The first time I met him, I was in awe. But within two minutes, he made me feel at ease. He made me feel like I'd known him forever, like he does everyone. He talks to you like you're the most special person on earth, and he gives you that comfort zone."
Even then, Bobby Bowden saw something special in Fisher — a competitive fire that was fueled, in part, by being an undersized player (about 5 feet 9), as Bowden himself was back in the day.
"It was how I had to play to be successful," Fisher said. "That's the way I was raised, that's the way it was ingrained in me, that's the way I looked at it. If we played marbles, if we played tic-tac-toe, I hated to lose. … I always tried to find a way to win. With my size, I had to overcome some things, think of ways to win. But it was about competing; that's what I loved about it."
"He's the best quarterback I ever had," Terry Bowden said. "And he's the most competitive daggum guy I've ever known. … He has a passion."
Those traits come through loud and clear from the sideline.
He's a demanding perfectionist who doesn't let a teaching moment pass, getting in the face of his quarterbacks, the receivers, the running backs, the offensive linemen and letting them know precisely what they may have done poorly.
His language isn't G-rated like that of Bobby Bowden, who always has exuded a Southern gentility; he could charm people with his folksy humor, whether in a ballroom or on a golf course. Fisher, a coal miner's son, is a bit more unrefined. His escape is hunting, often alone.
But that's not his only difference from his legendary predecessor.
Fisher has been shaped by another former boss, Nick Saban.
He's organized and likes things organized like the Alabama coach, for whom he worked at LSU. Fisher's approach to building a winner is lifted from Saban's playbook. Right down to the terminology such as becoming more "process oriented" as opposed to "results oriented."
"I have great admiration for Nick; Nick and I are friends," he said. "That guy is one of the best football coaches I've ever been around. God knows he's brilliant. He's a heck of a football coach, a great motivator. … A lot of the things he believes are a lot of things I believe. We're very similar."
But when Saban took over at Alabama, Fisher turned down the opportunity to join him. And he rejected an overture to be the head coach at West Virginia in late 2007.
"It's because I wanted to be here," he said. "I love being here."
In a way, he's had that love even when he wasn't here.