The final whistle had blown. Florida State's players had carried Bobby Bowden off the field after the comeback in the Gator Bowl. And after what had been a cold and rainy morning, the sun was out. Tomahawk Chopping, FSU fans didn't want to leave the stadium as they cheered their coach one last time. It didn't matter that the 'Noles had played bad football for almost an entire decade, or that Florida had drubbed the 'Noles six straight times. Florida State fans just wanted to enjoy their moment.
But that moment wouldn't last forever. Florida State had its new coach, Jimbo Fisher. And many 'Nole fans didn't know what to think. Sure, Fisher had a national championship ring with LSU in 2003. Yes, he had somehow turned JaMarcus Russel into the number one overall draft choice. And after inheriting an offensive wasteland from Jeff Bowden in 2007, Fisher had turned the 'Noles offense into one of the best in the nation. Great quarterback coach. Very good offensive coordinator. Those qualities were not in dispute.
But when it came to running a program, many Florida State fans took a wait and see approach. Fans wondered how much control over the program Fisher had as head coach in waiting. "What will be different?," was the popular refrain. As it turns out, Fisher didn't have much control over anything but his offense. His efforts to bring Florida State into the 21st century were often dismissed as unnecessary or taken as an affront by those who wielded more power than Jimbo. Most fans didn't realize that despite being the Head-Coach-In-Waiting, Fisher was 4th in command on the coaching staff behind two long-time defensive assistants, and Bowden.
Just three months later, however, those casual fans realize just how little influence Fisher had over the program. They have to ask themselves why the changes Fisher and his staff are currently implementing weren't made before. From coaches working 90-hour weeks, to changing the times of the off-season conditioning program so that players wouldn't be tired in class, to almost tripling the available support staff to players, to evaluating potential recruits earlier and earlier, the list goes on an on. Every fan can see it. The differences are noticeable and real. Florida State had more than 51,000 fans at its Garnet & Gold Spring Game last weekend, more than doubling last year's turnout. I caught up with Sean Farrell, a Florida State alumnus of the 2006 to get his thoughts on Jimbo Fisher.
"Florida State is now relevant again without even having played a single game," Farrell said. "Fisher took over the most underachieving offense in the country and thanks to him, Florida State now has one of the best and most diverse offenses in the country. That he achieved those results under the umbrella of a dysfunctional leadership structure and with players that had not been properly developed under the previous offensive staff gives me hope that he and the staff he hired can help turn around the other side of the ball is well," Farrell said.
But the changes aren't only taking place on the field and around the football facility. The year's crop of recruits were born in 1993. They never saw Charlie Ward play a down for Florida State. They were only 5 or 6 years old when Chris Weinke bombed Mike Vick and Virginia Tech in the '99 Sugar Bowl. Their memories of Florida State are largely of a program getting trounced by Miami in the early part of the decade and by Florida in the latter. Coach Fisher has had to sell his own vision of Florida State to these kids. The Florida State of old can serve as an example of what the program is capable of at its peak, and Fisher has done an excellent job getting recruits to buy in. But as Fisher recently said on TV, he respects the past, but must do things his own way. One aspect of the change that can't be oversold is Fisher's masterful handling of the media during an obviously awkward situation. Fisher refused to discuss Bowden's situation with the media, though the way he was handcuffed had to have been frustrating. By repeating his admiration for coach Bowden, Fisher helped to win over the older crowd of Florida State fans and assured that they didn't look upon him as the man who drove Bowden out. Because of his media savvy, older 'Nole fans can view him solely as the coach brought in to help Florida State play to its potential as a program.
"As a 'Nole, all I wanted was a coach who had the ability and the drive to get Florida State back to where it should be," Farrell said. Judging by the response of the fans and the media, it seems FSU is on the right track. And with that perception comes renewed support. "Seeing the recruiting job Fisher and his staff did in the few short weeks following Coach Bowden's retirement [a top 6 recruiting class after the 'Noles were not in the top 40 before Bowden retired] inspired me and many of my fellow young alumni to become boosters. Many of the people I graduated with had not been motivated to give back to the program because we experienced our Florida State football during the 'lost decade' and weren't willing to support a program that wasn't willing to put forth a championship-caliber effort," said Farrell.
The changes Fisher has already made are certainly rubbing off on 'Nole fans. "Coach Fisher has brought the energy and the passion back to Florida State," Farrell said. There seems to be something new in Tallahassee: confidence. Farrell explained, "As fans, we're not sitting around waiting to see what will next go wrong with a dysfunctional, leaderless program. Instead, we're anxiously waiting to see what other new changes Fisher will bring. And with that renewed energy, many younger 'Noles who never saw good football during their time in Tallahassee have come rushing back to the program because they realize Florida State is again committed to winning and is is coached with the requisite ability and drive to put the fear back into the spear."
With a schedule that is sure to again be among the nation's most difficult, the season will have its own set of challenges for Fisher and the 'Noles. But as of now, FSU fans seem to be overwhelmingly appreciative of Jimbo Fisher and their confidence in him is growing by the day.