With Florida State nearing the end of a horrific (and thoroughly unexpected) down year, head coach Jimbo Fisher has some tough questions to ask himself in the coming months.
Is his offensive playbook too complex? Has he become too much of a micromanager who doesn’t trust his coordinators to do their jobs? How many games has he cost his team with uber-conservative decision making?
A bigger question than any of these, though, is one that many FSU fans are wondering right now: Can Fisher reinvent himself or has his message grown old in Tallahassee?
The problem for the Seminoles is that a coach reinventing himself is one of the hardest things to pull off in college football.
There’s a reason why only three coaches since 2000 (Mack Brown, Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney) have been able to win a national title in their sixth year or later at a school. Of those three, only Saban has won a title both before and after that all-important five-year mark.
As the initial honeymoon phase in a coach’s time at a school winds down with rituals and tendencies created, the next step, an incredibly difficult one, is never to get comfortable and settle in. That’s how seasons such as FSU’s this year occur. Putting a season such as this one behind themselves will be no easy task for Fisher and the Seminoles.
However, Fisher will have a recent example to look to of someone who, over the course of one offseason, flipped his entire routine and saw the results change overnight as well in a situation that has some unique similarities to the one occurring in Tallahassee.
Here’s a bit on the transformation of Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly from Sports Illustrated writer Pete Thamel’s offseason story:
He’s divorced himself from the day-to-day running of the offensive staff—no small adjustment for an offensive guru—and gotten back into the daily lives of his players. He’s there encouraging them in the weight room every morning at 6 a.m., eating breakfast with them daily and hanging around the locker room to chide them to put their cell phones away.
After the 2016 season, Kelly was facing many of the same questions Fisher is now.
The Fighting Irish followed up a 10-3 record and a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2015 with a travesty of a 4-8 season in 2016, despite being pegged by some as strong national championship contenders in the preseason.
Like Notre Dame, FSU went from a New Years’ Six bowl at the end of the 2016 season paired with a realistic College Football Playoff possibility ahead of the 2017 season to now staring down the likely outcome of missing the program’s first bowl since 1981.
One sure thing for both of these teams is that the similar stubbornness of their head coaches played a significant role in the season’s results. Fisher’s awful fourth down math has hindered his offense. So has his unwillingness to fully delegate his playcalling duties to co-offensive coordinators Randy Sanders and Lawrence Dawsey, leaving him too involved in the day-to-day minutiae of the offense.
Kelly, also an offensive guru who has called plays for the offense his entire head coaching career, cost his team with a commitment to the pass on numerous occasions, most notably in a 10-3 loss to NC State, which was played during a hurricane but still saw Notre Dame rack up 26 pass attempts, nine of which were completed.
Kelly, though, saw the error of his ways and made drastic changes this offseason. Starting with his midseason firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Kelly replaced 17 staff members after the 2016 season, including five new position coaches, new offensive and defensive coordinators, a new special teams coach, and a new director of strength and conditioning. Three of the staff members Kelly fired, associate head coach Mike Denbrock, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, and director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo, had been on Kelly’s staffs for a combined 35 years.
As is important in situations such as these, Kelly’s coaching hires were slam dunks. Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator, Mike Elko, had never worked with Kelly, but had coached top-40 defenses in each of his last five seasons as a defensive coordinator at Bowling Green and, most recently, Wake Forest.
His new offensive coordinator, Chip Long, is just 34 but had established himself as an extraordinary coordinator and play-caller in one season under Mike Norvell at Memphis.
Both of these hires led the charge of a staff shift that saw Kelly go away from established veteran coaches, some of whom have been with him for a long time, to young upstarts, a move that has paid off in a major way this season.
All the comparisons above being considered, it is not completely a cookie-cutter comparison to the current situation in Tallahassee. The ways in which these two teams reached these low points were quite different.
Notre Dame was a victim of poor luck in close games, losing seven of its eight games by eight or less points and still finishing the year 26th in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings despite not making a bowl.
FSU, meanwhile, is not regarded so well in the S&P+, currently ranked at No. 74, but has been a victim of very poor injury luck, losing its starting quarterback for the year in the season opener and having its starting running back, three of its top four wide receivers, and its best offensive lineman (out for year) miss time as well this season.
Another interesting similarity between the two programs’ situations is that both of these trying seasons came directly after the players and coaches were profiled in-depth over the course of an entire season by A Season With.
Could the cameras following the teams over an entire year have hurt the culture created by the coaches? Did players exposed to a level of notoriety they normally don’t encounter while still in college cause them to look past their collegiate careers and to the next level?
The bigger questions here are these:
- Is Fisher capable of making a similar shift? The blueprint is laid out for him in many ways, but, for every success story like Kelly’s, there are countless stories of failed coaching reincarnations, even from the likes of Urban Meyer at Florida.
- Is Fisher willing to make a similar shift? A season like this one has to alert him to major problems in his program, but will Fisher be willing to step back from the day-to-day duties of his offense and allow his new hires to perform in the way they were hired to? Time will tell.
- Is anyone capable of making such a drastic change so suddenly permanent? It’s possible that as Notre Dame returns to its norm going forward (the Irish are 8-1 and in the midst of the College Football Playoff picture), Kelly will as well.
The bottom line is that the odds are not in Fisher’s favor. Sure, he has an example to look to, but nothing in Fisher’s coaching history shows a likelihood to make such drastic changes and, even if he does, there’s no guarantee that it is anywhere near as successful as Kelly’s.
With $39 million remaining on Fisher’s buyout, FSU can only hope that he is able to right the ship.