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LSU Head Coaching Search: Jimbo Fisher

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The presumed front-runner.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

For the last 13 months, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has been linked to the LSU job. Now that the position is open, what do his prospects actually look like?

The Resume

John James “Jimbo” Fisher, Jr., played quarterback at Samford University and was the Division III National Player of the Year in 1987, under then-head coach Terry Bowden. It was under Bowden, later at Auburn University, that Fisher began to build his reputation as a tutor of quarterbacks, working with players like Patrick Nix and Dameyune Craig from 1993-1998. After a year at Cincinnati, Fisher was hired by Nick Saban to be the offensive coordinator at LSU, where he would serve for the next seven seasons.

In that time, Fisher had a number of successes, with offenses and passing games that tied and broke records. He helped to recruit and/or develop a number of successful quarterbacks in that time: Rohan Davey, Matt Mauck, Jamarcus Russell – who went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft – and Matt Flynn. And while the 2003 National Championship LSU squad is most remembered for its defense, the offense did average 33.9 points per game, with Mauck tying the school season record for touchdowns with 28.

Following the 2006 season, Fisher was hired as the offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting at Florida State University, under legendary head coach Bobby Bowden. Three seasons later, he took over as head coach. In that time, he has compiled a 75-17 record, with three Atlantic Coast Conference championships. In 2013, the Seminoles ran the table under redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, who would win the Heisman Trophy in route to a national championship. Winston would also take FSU to the first ever College Football Playoff the next season, although they would lose in the semi-finals to Oregon.

Fisher’s reputation as an elite recruiter and developer of quarterbacks only continued to grow in his time at Tallahassee, where quarterbacks Christian Ponder, E.J. Manuel and Winston all went on to be first round picks. While Winston does look like a star in the making, the other two had very short-lived careers without much achievement of note.

But his time there was also not without some controversy. FSU was embroiled in an academic cheating scandal near the end of Bowden’s tenure, and under Fisher, the Noles have had 10 players arrested and charged with various crimes from 2013-2014. Most notable of them, Winston, who in addition to an infamous shoplifting arrest for crab legs, was involved in a rape investigation during his breakthrough Heisman season, although no charges were ever filed. Additionally, superstar tailback Dalvin Cook has found himself in trouble as well, while strength and conditioning coach Vic Viloria was charged with DUI earlier this year.

The Scheme

Fisher’s preferred style of offense is something that we’re all well familiar with, and he’s one of the handful of major program coaches still committed to a very typical pro-style offense. Fisher’s attacks tend to be fairly balanced and mix well between two-back and multiple wide receiver sets, with a heavy emphasis on zone blocking.

Fisher’s offenses at both LSU and Florida State were characterized by a fairly large and diverse playbook, but he’s always found a way to focus his gameplans in a narrow way that’s simplified things for college players. In fact, a big reason for his success with quarterbacks is less any tremendous fundamental improvement as opposed to the way Fisher can focus on what his passers do well. Here, big-armed pocket passers like Rohan Davey and Jamarcus Russell were given chances to spread the field and push the ball deep, while more athletically gifted players like Matt Mauck and Marcus Randall had opportunities to use their mobility. The classic example being the way Fisher pivoted the Tigers away from Davey to Mauck following an injury in the 2001 SEC Championship Game. LSU suddenly become a quarterback-run heavy offense, using QB draws, powers and some zone read plays to fit Mauck. It’s a style that can be limited with younger players, but can become very versatile with a quarterback that can process all of the information, as we all saw with Winston at Florida State. It can also help to hide a player’s flaws, which is a big reason why players like Manuel and Ponder wound up as first-round picks despite being relatively average players. It’s also allowed the Noles to incorporate a redshirt freshman quarterback without too many hiccups in DeAndre Francois.

That said, it’s an approach that still has its rigidity. Fisher hasn’t adopted any of the modern spread offensive concepts, despite using the formations. He eschews packaged concepts and RPOs, something that Tomahawk Nation Editor Bud Elliott has lamented at times. He’s even gone as far as to flat out call Auburn’s use of the packaged run/pass options illegal.

Not that I tend to be a believe that any coach has to embrace the spread offense, but it is a bit troubling to see Fisher so resistant to the concepts. For one, these plays are only going to become more prevalent in the game, and at the high school as well. That means quarterbacks are going to be coming to college much more used to the simple read style as composed to full-field and concept reads.

For another, a coach that is considered an offensive guru shouldn’t be resistant to any new ideas, or think he he has all the answers. That’s the kind of mindset that prevents a coach from evolving.

The Recruiting

This has always been a strength for Fisher. At LSU he helped give the Tigers a presence in the Mobile, Ala., area, from which he pulled Russell. At Florida State he presently helped assemble one of the five most talented rosters in the country, according to 247 sports.

Since taking over as the head coach of Florida State, all but one of his recruiting classes has finished in the composite top 10, and his last three classes have been ranked second, third and fourth, nationally.

FSU’s 2017 class is currently rated eighth, although with only 14 commitments there’s lots of room to improve. He’s also competing with the Tigers for two very key prospects in the class, star running back Cam Akers and defensive tackle Marvin Wilson. In fact, Akers has even referenced Fisher getting the LSU job.

Fisher has his concerns and question marks for this job, but recruiting would almost certainly not be one of them.

Why Fisher?

To put it simply, there isn’t a coach LSU can hire that will match Fisher’s resume. He’s one of just four sitting head coaches with a national title on his resume. While Florida State was an established program when Fisher arrived there, the Seminoles went 9-4 and 7-6 in the last two seasons before Fisher took over, and are 76-17 since, with three ACC titles, a 12-win season that ended in the Orange Bowl, an undefeated regular season that ended in the College Football Playoff, and of course, the 14-0 2013 national champions.

Fisher has ties to Louisiana and Baton Rouge, understands recruiting in this region and has shown he can build a successful staff to bring in and deploy top talent. His list of defensive coordinators also includes Mark Stoops and Jeremy Pruitt, both of whom had tremendous success in Tallahassee.

And obviously, after so many struggles with quarterback play over the last nine seasons, the idea of a head coach with a proven track record of quarterback development obviously has some special attraction of its own. In the last 10 years, Fisher has produced four first-round draft picks at the position, including two quarterbacks who went No. 1 overall. And of course, there was the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner.

Why Not Fisher?

A great resume doesn’t guarantee a great candidate, and Fisher’s resume, alone, doesn’t make him the best candidate for LSU, for a number of reasons

First of all, there’s the very real concern that Fisher’s interest in the LSU job may be overstated, and that this may come down to a simple bidding war between the university and Florida State, which could drive Fisher’s price tag north of the $6-million-dollar mark. As it is, Fisher is making about $5.2 million, so it’s not inconceivable to think it will take $7 million or more to get him out of Tallahassee. That would put him in league with the likes of Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh in terms of salary. Is Fisher worth that much? It’s more debatable than you think.

A number of the arguments that I’ve seen in favor of Fisher focus on his abilities as a quarterback, as if that quality, and LSU’s issues at the position, exist in two separate spaces that will just magically fit together like legos.

But that’s not how coaching works. Being a successful head coach involves a number of other responsibilities beyond just working with quarterbacks. And there are real questions marks for Fisher regarding those responsibilities.

The 2016 season has been an incredible disappointment for Florida State, with an 8-3 record that includes miracle wins over Miami and North Carolina State.

“Based on his preseason comments (and choices like allowing Showtime in for an in-season documentary), Fisher wildly overestimated what he had in his team,” said Elliott. “He had to make them sign a promise to play hard, and it's clear there is a disconnect between the players and staff. And this is on the heels of a rebuilding year in 2015.”

On closer examination of his record, a three-loss season is more the norm than the exception for Fisher. He’s lost at least that many in four of his eight seasons, with another two-loss season mixed in. The Winston years — during which FSU went 27-1 over 2013 and ‘14 — are more of an outlier. Without them, Fisher sits at 55-16; or an average record of 9-3.

Defense has been a problem for the Noles this season, with a unit that allows 26 points per game and ranks 31st in S&P+. Coordinator Charles Kelly has been an unpopular figure with FSU fans, and Fisher fought to keep him over the past offseason when Auburn came calling, and gave him a raise.

Issues with keeping players motivated on a consistent basis, and hiring effective assistants are issues that LSU fans have some familiarity with. And going back to what he had to say about RPOs and the like, does anybody want to hear about another head coach that’s resistant to change?

And that’s just on-field concerns. Now let’s get to the off-field ones.

Now in this area, I think some of the rap on Fisher is a little unfair.

“I think FSU's arrests and convictions under Jimbo Fisher compare favorably to most major schools,” said Elliott. I don't believe that's an issue. The vast majority of the negative image stems from an accusation against a star player that a state's attorney, who had taken some very flimsy cases against FSU players to trial before, found not credible enough to even merit a charge, much less trial or conviction.”

The Winston situation was an ugly mess, there’s no doubt about that. But I think it has to be mentioned that a lot of other coaches in that situation – with a superstar player accused of a crime but never formerly charged – would have reacted in a very similar way to Fisher; defending their player until the legal dyamics changed. Of course, Winston was also far from the only player with issues.

The Viloria arrest, however, is more concerning, especially since many believe that Fisher would have brought Viloria with him from Tallahassee last year, when LSU was originally rumored to be hiring Fisher. Trading Viloria for Tommy Moffett, a class act and arguably the godfather of strength and conditioning training in the 21st Century, is an extremely distasteful proposition.

Which brings us back to the other side of the money question. Not as to whether LSU should spend big money on a coach. But whether Fisher, with all of these concerns, is the right investment.

LSU hasn’t been shy about spending money, nor should it, because that’s the reality of major college football. But funds have their limits here – LSU isn’t Michigan or Alabama or Texas – and a big reason LSU has been able to maintain the highest-paid coaching staff is that Les Miles was something of a discount, at least compared to many of his peers. Fisher, at $7 or 8 million, would take up a substantial portion of that budget. And maybe he doesn’t need the best and the brightest at one of his coordinator spots, but he will at the other, and for position coaches. And the thought of LSU hamstringing itself at even one coordinator spot seems like a risk – as does having a head coach that thinks he has all the answers on that side of the ball.

Sometimes you can afford an expensive house or an expensive car, but not to live in it or drive it. The property taxes, insurance, upkeep, etc… that go with the purchase. Putting up the big money that Fisher will be able to command might be stretching LSU’s resources in a similar way.

There’s also the matter of staff members, and the potential opportunity cost. The chances of Ed Orgeron sticking around are very slim, and there would certainly be a chance that he could head on up I-59 to Tuscaloosa. And that’s a recruiting apparatus that any head coach would struggle with. Likewise, there is no guarantee that Fisher would be able to retain Dave Aranda as his defensive coordinator. Aranda has a contract that pays him well, but Fisher would want to build his own staff. No guarantee that a) Fisher wants Aranda or that b) Aranda would want to work for Fisher. I can say, however, from a source close to the program that Aranda enjoys working with Orgeron.

Summary

Fisher isn’t the first choice of a number of staff members on this site, but to be clear, we don’t believe Fisher will do a bad job at all. He’s more than shown that he understands recruiting and coaching at a high level and has been able to build a championship-caliber program. At LSU, there is every reason to believe he would continue to win at a very high level.

And yet…there’s just something missing for me.

For one, Fisher’s just not a terribly interesting guy. Although the story of his family struggles and his son’s Fanconi Anemia is a very compelling one, he just doesn’t show a ton of personality, and tends to coach a very straight-forward style. This is entirely just a personal feeling on my part, but that just doesn’t interest me very much.

But there are tangible concerns. Aside from the 2013-2014 stretch with Winston, many of his Florida State seasons have been marred by disappointing losses. This year, in particular, has been an embarrassment, given that the Noles were widely considered to be a playoff contender in the preseason.

The struggles this year have to be an indictment on Fisher’s ability to maintain a program moving forward – a concern Elliott expressed.

“His hit rate in recruiting has regressed to the mean, and he did not have his team ready to play this year, leading to them being out of the playoff race before Halloween,” he said. “Again, on the heels of a rebuilding 2015 season. It's not hard to go 9-3 in Tallahassee with all the resources of the job.”

Likewise, 9-3 isn’t what we’re looking for here at LSU, either. So sure, Fisher might maintain better and more consistent quarterback play here, but if he can’t maintain the other positions on the field, and manage his staff, the result will be just a different flavor of the disappointments we had with Les Miles over the years.

And that’s not what LSU or its fans are looking for out of this hire.