Jimbo Fisher becomes a coaching idle
Texas A&M buys him out for $77.5 million and hastens college football's nonstop flight to hell.
Would you rather pay Jimbo Fisher $77.5 million to coach your football team, or $77.5 million not to?
Tough call. Texas A&M University couldn’t figure it out, so it voted for A and B.
Fisher was given the most controversial haircut since President Clinton delayed traffic by getting trimmed on Air Force One. Fisher was fired the day after the Aggies had taken apart Mississippi State, 51-10, in the first start by quarterback Jaylen Henderson, a Fresno State transfer.
It was a strange time to call off a particularly lusty affair. True, the Aggies were only 6-4 but were likely to finish at least 7-5 and go to some bowl somewhere. No recruiting violations or personal stumblings were involved, nothing nearly as serious as the academic negligence that Fisher had ignored at Florida State, his previous stop. That $77.5 million was apparently burning a hole in A&M’s pocket and had to be released.
As athletic director Ross Bjork said, “In my analysis I determined that, at this point for lots of reasons, we were stuck in neutral.” Calling the Auto Club would have been cheaper.
Bjork was once an associate AD at UCLA, the Petri dish for sudden firings without any logical succession plan. Getting rid of Fisher also means the probable end of the line for 11 assistant coaches, 12 “analysts,” three graduate assistants, six members of the recruiting and personnel department, five strength/conditioning coaches, and a partridge in a pear tree who’s just been granted his 11th year of eligibility due to bird flu. That’s a lot of moving vans, a lot of kids who will leave their schools and their friends, a lot of disruption when nothing in sports could have seemed more secure. Turns out, a $77.5 million check can’t even buy you tenure.
What happens to the executives who hired Fisher for $75 million over 10 years and then, after four years of 34-14 football with no trips to the SEC championship game, gave him a 10-year extension at $9 million per? The A&M Board of Regents made those calls. Someone must have told them that Fisher was as irreplaceable as the person who invented the “animal style” burger at In-N-Out. Or maybe he was the football equivalent of John Nash, he of the beautiful mind. In any case, the university convinced itself that the campus would be flattened and rebuilt as a strip mall if some other school hired away Fisher.
Now we learn that Fisher was both isolated and a meddler, a brutal combination. He insisted on making all the calls on everything, we’re told. The fact that he wanted the Aggies to travel to Saturday games on Thursday nights became a plausible explanation for their losses at Miami, Tennessee and Mississippi. If you really want to fire somebody, you’ll find a reason, and Fisher’s coarse personality deprived him of a crucial layer of good will.
Bjork was quick to mention that no tax dollars will be involved in settling up with Fisher. The money will come from private sources and the We Don’t Like Our Coach Club. Actually, that’s the 12th Man Foundation, a clearinghouse for the donors. Instead of supporting the athletes or helping pay for the training table, they now have the privilege of helping Fisher pay for his landscaping staff.
Bjork also stressed that Fisher will not actually get a check for $77.5 million. There will be payouts totaling $26.6 million by April of 2024, and then an annual payment of $7.2 million each year until 2031, by which time A&M will be paying someone else not to coach.
All of this is nuts, of course. It doesn’t make A&M the Lone Ranger, when it comes to college football bloat, but it’s the next dimension in wretched excess. How many mental health counselors could be hired by A&M for 0.5 million, let alone the 77 part? How many opioid treatment specialists? According to the university website, the on-campus infirmary closes at 5 p.m. every Friday and doesn’t reopen until 8 a.m. every Monday. So if you’re an A&M student, please don’t have a drug-related event on the weekend. The money just isn’t there for weekend health care.
What made Fisher so necessary? He did have a nice run at Florida State, with a win in the final BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl in 2013. That team had an average victory margin of 42 points until it beat Auburn 34-31 for the title. FSU won 10 or more games five consecutive times. But Fisher’s final team was 7-6, and he high-tailed it. Subsequent coaches discovered that Fisher had let the offensive line go to ruin, and there were four consecutive losing seasons until Mike Norvell got the ship upright in 2022.
Fisher was the beneficiary of the Great Man theory, the belief that only certain people, no matter the profession, can fix it. He had borrowed his cachet from his days as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU, when the Tigers won a BCS championship. At A&M, Fisher had a losing record against “Power Five” conference teams and did not win a game in an opponent’s home stadium in either 2022 or 2023.
The truth is that the supply of competent football coaches exceeds the demand. There are all kinds of smart guys out there, hiding in plain sight, coaches who served true apprenticeships and can win anywhere. But administrators have to open their eyes and find them. Few of them do such homeowrk, or resist the temptation to win the press conference.
Did anyone know Kalen DeBoer would get Washington into the nation’s top five within two years? Did anyone — does anyone — know how to pick Kalen DeBoer out of a lineup?
Is Eli Drinkwitz (A) a Harvard law professor (B) a prominent substance-abuse counselor or ( C) the coach who got the long-suffering Missouri Tigers into the Top Ten after he spent one year at Appalachian State?
Dan Campbell, the Detroit Lions coach who played at A&M, said that he “maybe” had been contacted by A&M but has no interest. Of course he doesn’t. He might be coaching the NFC champions for all we know and, in any event, won’t be available to coach a college team until mid-January at the earliest.
Paul Finebaum, the Sean Hannity of SEC football, theorized that Clemson’s Dabo Swinney would be a likely choice. He might well be right. Like Fisher, who had Jameis Winston, Swinney won national championships with first-round quarterbacks DeShaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. Also like Fisher, Swinney is paid insanely, with a 10-year, $115-million extension that he signed a year ago. And, again like Fisher, Swinney might be looking for an escape route before the hangman shows up. This Clemson team is 6-4 and has lagged far behind its competitors in dealing with transfers. Investing in Swinney would be like investing in a cable network.
Refreshingly, A&M is showing some common sense. There was a report that the Aggies conducted a Zoom interview with Jeff Traylor, the coach at Texas-San Antonio. The Roadrunners won back-to-back Conference USA titles, then moved up to the American Conference, where they are 7-0 after pounding South Florida on Friday.
Traylor would counteract one of Fisher’s failings, which was his reluctance to interact with the state’s legion of high school football coaches. Traylor won three state titles at Gilmer, where they eventually named the stadium after him. He also makes $2.5 million, which is pretty good coin at UTSA. Even if A&M were to double his salary, that would feel like fiscal responsibility.
You might be under the impression that A&M is accustomed to dominating college football and thus has little patience for mere winning seasons or Houston Bowl appearances. Actually the Aggies have won three national titles but none since 1939, when Homer Norton coached them to a perfect season.
Eight years later Norton had lost too many games to Texas and was fired with two years left on his contract. The buyout was $20,000. Norton voiced no complaints. So far, neither has Fisher.