Jimbo Fisher’s wild first year at Texas A&M

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Jimbo Fisher arrives at Kyle Field for his first Midnight Yell as Texas A&M coach at 11:40 p.m. on a humid Friday night. As he walks onto the field with his youngest son at his side, he looks up at the East side stands.

First deck: Filled.

Second deck: Filled.

Third deck: Filling.

Then the chant begins: “Jim-bo! Jim-bo! Jim-bo!”

“Wow,” Fisher says, shaking his head.

Fans flock to the stadium the Friday before every Texas A&M home game, but the one before the Clemson game felt different: Everyone knew the $75 million coach would be there, so they packed the stands a little tighter and cheered a little louder. If Fisher ever needed a reason to validate his decision to leave Florida State, he got a resounding answer from the 35,000 people screaming his name.

Fisher waves to the crowd and takes his place on the sideline. The yell leaders begin their hand motions, and the crowd responds with deafening yells. As they whoop, Fisher stares in awe. Not once in his coaching career has Fisher experienced a night quite like this one, a relative stranger in a completely new world.

“This just shows again what an amazing place this is, why I chose to be here,” Fisher says in between yells.

After a short time, one yell leader grabs the microphone, offering words of encouragement before the game against No. 2 Clemson. “At the end of the day,” he says, “Clemson is just another shade of burnt orange.” Fisher laughs.

Now it’s his turn to address the crowd.

“Howdy!” he says, already well-versed in the official Texas A&M greeting.

“Howdy!” the crowd responds.

“It’s a great honor tonight to stand here before you as your head football coach. I had no idea. This is amazing. Everything is bigger and better in Texas!”

The crowd roars.

“I don’t know the outcome of the game, but I promise you this,” Fisher continues. “The way we play on the field, the heart, the toughness, the effort, the discipline, the Aggie way: You’ll be proud of the team you watch.”

Fisher waves to the crowd again, before leaving the stadium to head back to the team hotel.

“That,” he says, “was unbelievable.”

So, too, is the way Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward pulled off the coaching hire of 2017, signing Fisher to a record 10-year, $75 million deal, all guaranteed. Fisher arrived off the airplane in College Station to a maroon welcome carpet and the Fighting Texas Aggie band playing for him, the expectation crystal clear. Coaches do not get paid that much money, nor do they get that type of welcome, to be average.

But being better than average is not going to do, either. During his introductory media conference, Fisher was asked whether he felt he had to win a national championship to justify his contract. “I don’t know if I have to but that’s my goal, and that’s the object and the mission,” Fisher said. “Our whole goal is to win a national championship every year, and always will be.”

When Jimbo Fisher arrived in College Station, he got a $75 million contract and a new pair of boots. Morgan Engel/USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp was less subtle, presenting Fisher with an NCAA Division I football national championship plaque in March, with the year left blank. The message was clear: Championship or bust, at a school that has never met its own lofty expectations in the modern era.

But the team Fisher inherited from Kevin Sumlin went 7-6 a year ago and looked far from championship worthy. Fisher knew he had to lay the groundwork for change in Year 1, while getting to know a new program, convincing players to buy-in to an entirely new scheme while instituting a tougher mindset, navigating big-money boosters and mapping his way across Texas high school football.

For the first time in 11 years, Fisher had to start all over. Though he followed a Hall of Fame coach in Bobby Bowden at Florida State, you could argue this first year at Texas A&M would present a bigger, more pressure-packed test. And what a test it turned out to be, from facing the nation’s top two teams in the first four weeks all the way through a seven-overtime classic in the regular-season finale.

ESPN followed Fisher’s winding path during his first season in Aggieland, from training camp to Tuscaloosa to local barbecue joints to get an up-close look at how things unfolded for one of the nation’s most notable coaches.

To get one glimpse into what Fisher found so appealing about Texas A&M, follow the money — and not just his $75 million contract. Any program that wants to make a jump to serious contender needs financial resources, support and commitment. One of Fisher’s biggest frustrations in his final years at Florida State was an inability to build a standalone football facility.

Texas A&M already is among the wealthiest programs in the country, with modern facilities and suites the envy of all, save for a select few. In September, Forbes magazine declared Texas A&M as college football’s most valuable program, with $148 million in revenue and $107 million in profit. According to Forbes, Texas A&M received $260 million in contributions between 2014 and the 2016-17 season — more than double anyone else.

For more context, look no further than the Founders Suites, which required at least an eight-figure commitment. They sold out in 12 hours. That’s where the biggest money boosters get their own exclusive concierge, an entry with a grand staircase and piano, a lobby with two giant crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, their suite, seats in the lower bowl close to the 50-yard line and a specially commissioned oil painting hanging outside the door. Tickets to the game cost extra. So do food and parking.

But it’s not just the big-money boosters that give the Texas A&M 12th man its sterling reputation. At nearly each visit to A&M clubs across Texas, near-record crowds greeted Fisher with wild applause and long lines for pictures and autographs. At NRG Center in Houston in July, more than 800 fans came to see him. In Dallas, so many people showed up they had to set up a satellite room to make space for everyone.

“All places love their university, but there is a true genuineness to it. Not that there wasn’t at any other place, but it is a true passion for A&M that’s a true giving back,” Fisher says in August, a week before the opener. “What can we do to help? What can we do here? Coach, can we do this, can we do that? Do you have what you need to be successful? We want to be good, we want to do things right. It’s just a tremendous genuineness that people truly live the cultures of the university and the traditions and the history of it. It’s very intriguing to me.”

The next day, Fisher sits in his newly remodeled office, looking much more at home than he did in March. On a visit back then, just as the Aggies opened spring football, Fisher sat at Sumlin’s old desk, pointed to his Texas A&M hat and said, “Strange to see me wearing this hat, isn’t it?” as if he was still trying to get used to his new surroundings.

Any new coach has to adjust to their myriad moves, but Fisher spent 11 years in Tallahassee wearing garnet and gold — nearly twice as long as any other place he lived during his long career. It would take some getting used to, for both Fisher and his family. His sons, Trey and Ethan, chose to stay in Tallahassee, the place they consider home, though they planned to visit and attend every game during the season.

The team Fisher promised to deliver that September night at yell practice shows up vs. the No. 2 Tigers, and never quits.

Not after going down two scores in the third quarter. Not after a controversial call late in the fourth quarter that sends Fisher into a profanity-laced tirade at the officials after replay upheld the ruling that Quartney Davis fumbled through the back of the end zone.

Texas A&M gets the ball back one final drive, and Kellen Mond coolly leads the Aggies down the field, throwing a 24-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Rogers with 46 seconds remaining. Rogers shouts toward the Aggies’ sideline, “Not in our house!”

You could sense what the A&M fans felt at that moment: The Aggies were going to win, and Fisher’s legend would grow even larger just two games in.

But the 2-point conversion fails, and Clemson recovers the ensuing onside kick, dashing any hopes for an upset. But the culture appears to have shifted dramatically. After Fisher shakes hands with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, he stalks off the field, the competitor in him disappointed his team fell a few points short. Still, fans lining the tunnel toward the locker room shout, “Jim-bo! Jim-bo!”

Fisher tells his players: “This is gonna be a hell of a program, guys. You guys are laying the foundation for it and it can be one hell of a year right now. It’s the start of something. You see what you’re capable of. You just played with the best in America, as good as anybody in America. You stood right there toe-to-toe. And when you look at it, we had our opportunities. I’ll coach you better. We’ll coach you better to make sure you understand those situations, but don’t you hang your heads. I’d go to battle with every one of you again and again and again.”

No coach ever really believes in moral victories. But Fisher sounds about as upbeat as possible after losing a gut-wrenching game. He has a resilient, tough group, adopting the mantras that are now everywhere in the Texas A&M facilities: Toughness. Effort. Discipline. Pride.

“Today is a building day,” Fisher says. “It’s not a going back day.”

The Aggies held their own against No. 2. Two weeks later, No. 1 awaited.

The team arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, on a Thursday night, two days before its big game against Alabama. Fisher always has his team arrive for road games two days in advance. On Friday morning, they hold a walk-through inside the team hotel.

The Clemson game felt like a major step for the Aggies, but the only way to truly tell whether Fisher was, in fact, changing a program known for starting fast but fading faster was against SEC behemoth Alabama. Ultimately, Fisher’s tenure was going to be judged by how it measured up to Nick Saban’s dynasty.

With three minutes left in the second quarter, Texas A&M trailed 21-13. If the Aggies could get into halftime down just one score, that would be a small victory. After all, the Tide had outscored opponents 117-7 in the first half in their first three games.

Then disaster struck.

Tua Tagovailoa marched the Crimson Tide down the field for a touchdown, and on the following Texas A&M possession, Kellen Mond threw an interception. Alabama turned that into a field goal. In three minutes, Texas A&M went from down eight to trailing 31-13. It got worse. Alabama outscored Texas A&M 14-3 in the third quarter, and ended up winning 45-23.

“We were in the game,” offensive lineman Eric McCoy said. “We just let it slip out of our hands.”

As the season approached the halfway point and the Texas A&M sported a 3-2 record, there were no signs of a fading honeymoon. The Aggies still loved them some Jimbo.

This was evident the night of Oct. 3, four days after a too-close-for-comfort win over SEC West cellar-dweller Arkansas and three days ahead of the Aggies hosting then-No. 13 Kentucky.

At 7 p.m. sharp, Fisher is on the mic. It’s the night of his weekly radio show at the local Rudy’s BBQ. The place is packed and many an Aggie whoop and clap regularly. Fisher speaks at his customary lightning speed about the game that was and the game coming up.

During commercial breaks, fans form a line, bringing posters that were given away at the door for Fisher to sign. He shakes hands, smiles and wields a black sharpie to sign autographs.

“He’ll sign all day,” said Matt Simon, Texas A&M’s manager of digital strategy.

Fisher poses for photos and gives the Gig ’em thumbs up for every one. A toddler approaches him, but appears shy. Fisher disarms him with a “Hi buddy, how you doing? Can you give me a gig ’em?”

The child puts his thumbs up and bumps Fisher’s.

“Hey, that’s what I’m talking about,” Fisher says with a smile. “I love it!”

As soon as the show ends, Fisher begins his Wednesday night routine: calling recruits.

This is the lifeblood of any college football program and it’s a key reason why Fisher was so highly sought after by Texas A&M. At Florida State, each of Fisher’s final four recruiting classes ranked in the top four nationally. So far this season, his first full cycle recruiting as A&M’s coach has resulted in the nation’s second-ranked class — and they held the No. 1 spot for months until they were recently displaced by Alabama.

Fisher will make a dozen recruiting calls, some of them right there in the parking lot and some on his drive home. Then, once he’s home, he’ll watch video of that day’s practice. The game plan is mostly in at this point, so it’s one of the few nights he won’t be back at the office late.

Three days later, Texas A&M does something it rarely has in the past six years — beat a ranked team at Kyle Field — outlasting Kentucky 20-14 in overtime.

After back-to-back wins over Kentucky and South Carolina, Fisher’s A&M team is up to No. 16 in the AP Top 25, with its only two losses to the top two teams in the nation. But what happens the next two weeks reminded many about just how much work Fisher has left to do.

On the road against Mississippi State and Auburn, Texas A&M falters in the fourth quarter, with turnovers, missed assignments and dropped passes costing the Aggies in both games. Those losses prompted many to wonder whether this was the usual swoon that plagues Texas A&M at this point in the season, the one Fisher was supposed to fix.

Now at 5-4 and unranked, Texas A&M prepares for Ole Miss at home with a third opportunity to clinch a bowl berth. In the team meeting room before Thursday’s practice, Fisher asks his players, “Are you ready to have a good practice?”

“Let’s start fast, and have your mind set when you get out there,” Fisher says before dismissing his players to position meetings.

Fisher takes his spot upstairs with the quarterbacks, talking a mile a minute with Mond and backup Nick Starkel about the plays they prefer to run against Ole Miss. Fisher alternates between the video screen and the white board behind him to show exactly what he is thinking and why he is thinking it. When he’s done, the players go down to get changed for practice.

“A couple plays here and there, and we could be 8-1,” Fisher laments.

“It’s why I use that Jordan analogy,” Fisher continues, referring to Michael Jordan. “There’s a mentality that we have to learn. Michael didn’t want to just beat you. He wanted to destroy you.”

It’s what the elite teams, like Alabama, do, but only a handful even figure that part out. His 2013 national championship team at Florida State had exactly that, never letting up during the regular season. “Those guys? They wanted to obliterate you,” Fisher says.

It took four years for Fisher’s team at Florida State to play that way.

That’s why Woodward remains as steadfast today as he was last December about his decision to hire Fisher. The two became fast friends when they worked together at LSU in the early 2000s, Fisher as an assistant coach and Woodward as an assistant athletic director. After they moved on to different opportunities, they stayed in contact. Fisher would regularly call Woodward for advice during his time at Florida State.

It was a no-brainer for Woodward to go after Fisher, and the up-and-down start is something that has not set off any alarm bells. “I’ve lived this before. Our first year at LSU we were 8-4,” he says. “My first year at Washington, we went 7-6. It takes a little while to get everything in place. We’re not after fools’ gold, but want to make sure everything here is foundationally sound.”

With an 11 a.m. kickoff against Ole Miss, and unseasonably cold, windy conditions, a sparse group of fans attended the team’s Spirit Walk off the buses and into the stadium. Once kickoff arrived, large patches of the upper deck remained unfilled. The vibe was markedly different from the one back in Week 2 against Clemson.

The performance on the field didn’t help matters. Texas A&M went into halftime tied with Ole Miss 14-14. Then Mond opened the second half with consecutive turnovers, and the Aggies trailed for the first time all game, starting a meltdown on the TexAgs fan message board. Was the honeymoon over?

One logical question emerged: How had Texas A&M paid Fisher $75 million for the same results as his predecessor?

If anything, the up-and-down season was proving once again how difficult it is for the Aggies to reach the upper echelon of the sport. Though Texas A&M rallied to win, Fisher admitted after the game he thought about benching Mond, a startling revelation considering he’d never toyed with that idea all season.

Still, the relief was palpable during postgame interviews. Texas A&M formally clinched a bowl berth and had possibly turned a corner on its reputation for no-win Novembers.

“We made our mind up that we weren’t going to let the late November slump happen,” said Williams, who carried the Aggies with 228 yards and a score. “We played together as brothers. We played off each other. We’re trying to make change happen, and build the foundation for this program, and the new direction that we’re going.”

Before the Aggies took the field for their regular-season finale, the players surrounded Jimbo in the team’s glitzy locker room. They readied for one of the games Jimbo was brought to Aggieland to win: LSU.

Since Texas A&M joined the SEC, they were oh-fer in their battles against the Tigers.

Fisher paced back and forth and ticked off the five pillars of his program along the way. Toughness. Effort. Discipline. Pride. Grit.

“There’s a group of seniors who are going to walk through that tunnel for the last time,” Fisher says, as captured by A&M’s 12th Man Productions. “Don’t get sentimental on me. We owe these seniors, the last time they walk off that field, they know what it feels like to beat LSU’s ass.”

Fisher raises his voice.

“This is our night, our time, our way. Put your foot down and go. Trust yourself! Be yourself! Be a damn team!”

What followed was one of the longest and most memorable games in recent memory. The Aggies, trailing by a touchdown with 20 seconds left and no timeouts remaining on their own 39-yard-line, faced a 4th and 18 and LSU’s win probability standing at 99.8%, according to ESPN. The 12-play drive ended with Mond throwing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Davis with no time remaining to make it 31-31 and force overtime.

Then came another OT. And another. And another. Seven overtimes, numerous oh-my-goodness Kendrick Rogers receptions and a field storming later, Jimbo was at midfield, surrounded by thousands, hugging those closest to him and celebrating A&M’s first win over LSU since 1995.

Moments later, Jimbo triumphantly walked toward the team tunnel at Kyle Field. Flanked by his girlfriend, Courtney Harrison, a pair of police officers and Aggie sports information director Alan Cannon, Fisher shared in handshakes and high-fives with supporters along the way as fans in the stands called his name. “Jimbo! Woooo!”

Postgame talk was dominated by an on-field fight between the two coaching staffs, involving Texas A&M receivers coach — and former LSU assistant — Dameyune Craig talking trash to the Tigers’ sideline, LSU special assistant Steve Kragthorpe saying he was punched in his pacemaker and LSU director of player development Kevin Faulk scuffling with a man reported to be Jimbo Fisher’s nephew.

But after the game, in the locker room, none of that mattered. The team celebrated, and the positive feelings were flowing. This team seemed different, even though the record (8-4) isn’t much different at all from those of the past four years.

They went 3-1 in November, instead of 1-3.

They were a physical team with one of the country’s top run defenses. Before Fisher, they were often called “soft” and were one of the SEC’s worst run defenses.

They were finally beating ranked teams in their own building, something they struggled to do before.

And for the first time since 2012, when Johnny Manziel was on campus, the Aggies finished second in the SEC West.

Fisher, for all his talk about grit, toughness and discipline, basked in the moment. As he addressed the team, he looked down toward Williams, a captain and one of the team’s leaders, who was kneeling.

“Hey,” he said before sticking his tongue out, mouth wide open in glee. “How about them Aggies?”

He thanked his team, particularly his seniors, for buying in when they didn’t have to do so. He emphasized the work and effort it took to win the game. He talked about the future. Before he wrapped up, he reminded them of the standard. When he noted they finished second in the division, the team cheered.

“Hey, I don’t like getting …” Fisher said loudly as he tried to calm the noise. “This is the only time we’re ever getting excited about second. From now on, it’s first.”

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