ZEPHYRHILLS — The walls of Tom Fisher's congested, cluttered office are sparsely adorned save for a few player photos, plaques and a white board. A brown-and-orange blanket bearing the insignia of Bowling Green University — his alma mater — covers a chair. A small desk is littered with paperwork. In a way, the room, where Fisher has spent the better part of his two-decade tenure as Zephyrhills football coach, reflects its occupant: unassuming and bereft of flair. But since 1989, that understated approach has mostly worked. The winningest coach in school history, Fisher (124-80) is widely considered one of the area's best football minds, annually maximizing the potential of a minimal roster. Case in point: his current team, from which he has squeezed four victories despite losing no fewer than 11 players to injury for some (or all) of the season. As he prepared to wrap up his 20th season with Friday's home game against Ridgewood, the Times sat down with Fisher, 56, for a brief reflection of his career.
A 36-6 win at rival Pasco on Sept. 8, 1989. Fisher had inherited a talent-rich team from predecessor Barry Gardner, and watched his defense intercept Pasco quarterback Dee Reed five times. "They had a new coach (Perry Brown) too, so they were getting used to a new coach," Fisher said. "It was just hard because the year before a lot of those kids hadn't played both sides of the ball and I was making them go both ways."
First significant injury
A broken leg sustained at practice by junior backup Frank Sampson, less than a week after that season-opening win over Pasco. We bring this up only because Sampson is the father of current Bulldogs two-way star Alex Sampson (53 catches, 766 yards), who has three 100-yard receiving games this year.
The '89 team, which finished 9-2 and captured the program's first district title, gets the nod over the '95 squad (10-1) that posted an undefeated regular season. The '89 defense, led by linebackers Rubin Pickett and Reggie Roberts and nose guard Jay Johnson, posted five shutouts and allowed only 50 points. "I guess the main reason why I think that team was the best was … our defense for the year outscored all the other opponents' offense," Fisher said. "Our defense accounted for 70-something points."
Most snakebitten team
Though Fisher had a winless team in 1992, this year's club may be his unluckiest. The 11 injured players Fisher named Tuesday represent nearly one-third of his preseason roster. "There was one time we had at least five starters not suit up," he said.
Most prominent player
Clearly, that would be agile two-way behemoth Ryan Pickett, a 1998 graduate who signed with Ohio State as a defensive tackle, was a St. Louis Rams first-round draft pick in 2001 and currently is with Green Bay.
Most underrated player
Fisher quickly cites 1991 graduate Jay Johnson, who earned first-team all-state honors at two defensive positions but couldn't get a sniff of a Division I scholarship offer. He signed with tiny Benedictine College in Kansas, transferred to Troy (then a Division I-AA program) his final two seasons and, according to Fisher, landed a pro tryout or two.
"My philosophy of what a coach is is someone who gets kids to do what they don't want to do so they can achieve what they want to achieve," Fisher said. "Everybody wants to be a winner, but it's the coach's job to get them to do what it takes to be a winner."
Did you know?
Fisher doesn't know how much longer he'll coach. He says he reassesses things each year and will do so again this offseason. … Before arriving at Zephyrhills, Fisher spent two seasons as Pasco boys basketball coach in the early 1980s. … How many coaches can make this claim: Fisher has sent players to FSU (Brett Cimorelli), Florida (Bryan Thomas) and Miami (Booker Pickett).