TAMPA — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is feeling the love these days as he meets and greets folks during his inaugural barnstorming tour of booster clubs.
Seminole fans are that enthused, that optimistic.
"It's not a knock on Coach (Bobby) Bowden, but everybody knew we had issues; everybody knew it was a team in decline," said Barry Smith, an FSU standout receiver in the early 1970s and a local prominent contributor. "Everybody is excited now. We have something exciting to look forward to."
It's the promise of a new beginning with Fisher, 44, the effusive and energetic former coach-in-waiting who has taken over for the 80-year-old Bowden a year earlier than some — including himself and Bowden — expected.
The Seminoles, a dominant football team from 1987-2000, have struggled to reach .500 the past five years. But fans believe Fisher's arrival could signal a return to yesteryear and they're showing it.
"Their interest, their excitement, is huge," said Fisher, in town today to mingle with fans at a golf outing and then at a dinner in the first of two bay area stops; he's in Pinellas County on May 14.
"Everybody talks about the 'team.' I talk about the 'program.' The program is everything that affects the team. Your fan base, your ticket sales, booster contributions, all those different things are the lifeline for us to be able to do the things we need to do to develop our program and get it back to the top."
• The number of donors, which has decreased slightly each of the past two years (by 2 percent and 7 percent) to about 15,000 nationally, is trending upward by more than 20 percent compared to this time a year ago, Seminole Boosters president Andy Miller said.
"At the end of the day, I think we'll find ourselves significantly up," he said. "We've had a legend running our program for a long time and now he's retired, and we've got a young buck who we think is going to lead us in a big way, so we're fired up."
• Although the deadline for season-ticket sales was about three weeks earlier this year, the numbers already look good. Ben Zierden, the new assistant athletic director for ticket sales and operations, is "cautiously optimistic." He said there's already about 37,000 season tickets sold, about 3,000 fewer than last year, with four months to go. After a few years of declines, that's encouraging to say the least.
"We're definitely seeing a stronger response," he said.
• Responding to Fisher's challenge for a turnout rivaling what you see at SEC schools (such as Florida), FSU drew an announced 51,300 for its spring game this month. Even if the actual attendance had been lower, the stands looked as packed as they did for last year's home finale against Maryland.
• Similarly, attendance at the tour stops is up, officials say. In Miami, about 125 fans came out for the dinner on April 24 compared with about 100 last year, local club president Eric Munoz said. In Tampa, which drew a strong crowd of about 240 last year, club president Matt Borasch is expecting more.
"We didn't think we could get that much higher, but we expect a sellout (250-plus)," he said. "New sponsors have jumped on. We've seen (more) local donations. Obviously, I was a big Bobby Bowden fan, but this is certainly new and different. And exciting."
Fisher, himself a big Bowden fan, isn't trying to generate excitement the same way the iconic coach did. He's doing it his way. So, on the tour, he isn't golfing. Instead, he's riding around and meeting the foursomes and posing for pictures and signing autographs. During a social hour before dinner that is, in another major change from Bowden's tour, for members of the national booster organization only (a way to increase membership), Fisher works the room with the same fervor he brings to recruiting.
"I've always liked going out and meeting the people," he said. "I'm enjoying the tour."
The feeling is mutual.
"He wants to take FSU back to a national championship game," Smith said. "As a fan, alumni, booster, if we're going to do that, we all have to be on the same side of the rope, all pulling in the same direction. Over the last few years, our alumni base has been on both sides. Now that's history. … There is absolutely a new excitement."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.