How Jimbo Fisher became the most disliked coach in America


These are, or should be, some of the finest days of Jimbo Fisher’s professional life, a man standing firmly atop the college football world.

His Florida State Seminoles are defending national champions. They’ve won 23 consecutive games heading into Thursday’s trip to Louisville, perhaps the last major hurdle in the way of a playoff bid. His roster is loaded. Recruits are rolling in. He’s making $4.1 million a year.

After decades climbing the coaching ladder in anonymity, powered by an old West Virginia belief that work wins out over all, he’s now rich and famous and enjoying … not a second of this?

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher's over-the-top defense of Jameis Winston has rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. (AP)
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher's over-the-top defense of Jameis Winston has rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. (AP)

Fisher, 49, looks stressed, sounds, at times, unhinged and carries himself a bit like a nervous woodland creature, head always darting around watching for whatever attack – or player antic – is coming that he couldn’t otherwise anticipate.

He’s known as someone who prepares for everything, but it doesn’t appear he was ready for this: life as America’s most despised coach, leader of what many consider a program that’s become a bad parody of everything wrong with the sport.

Loyalty, especially to his players, is a bedrock principle of his life, but he’s been so clumsy in expressing it, he’s opened himself up for mocking.

“A tremendous kid,” Fisher said last week of his starting running back, Karlos Williams, dismissing as absurd and reckless any media speculation that Williams might be suspended. “A tremendous ambassador.”

Turns out, Williams had been named as an associate of a man convicted in a summer drug deal turned robbery, where the victim identified Williams as the guy who would set up marijuana purchases. The Tallahassee Police Department politely (as is its way, apparently) requested a meeting with Williams, but he didn’t show and lawyered up.

Then hours after Fisher’s testimonial, the TPD was given a potential case of alleged domestic assault by Williams against a pregnant ex-girlfriend. He’s refusing to speak to police about that, too. Florida State has opened a Title IX investigation into it.

Williams will play against Louisville.

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These things, unfortunately, happen. Every coach on every campus – every campus – sleeps lightly in fear of misbehaving players, everything ranging from felonies to frivolity. Yet most are capable of supporting their guy while not crossing the line into absurdity, being an authority figure, not an apologist; caring but not coddling.

Williams has been charged with no crimes, which should be repeated. Calling him a “tremendous kid” and a “tremendous ambassador” is, however, ridiculous to all but the most frenzied of FSU fans.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the only people Fisher is speaking to, perhaps so engulfed in the Tallahassee bubble he’s misreading the image he’s projecting to the public at large about his program and the university attached to it.

This follows a litany of over-the-top comments backing Jameis Winston. It ranges from the tone-deaf declaration that “there is no victim” in an alleged sexual assault that while legally true was just unnecessary and unbecoming. There was his claim that Winston’s never given him a reason to believe he’d ever lie, which made him sound like a naïve parent of a toddler.

Fisher has had a tough time dealing with media scrutiny. (AP)
Fisher has had a tough time dealing with media scrutiny. (AP)

There was the defense of how thousands of items of Winston-autographed memorabilia wound up for sale on the Internet that was an assault on common sense. Fisher noted that Jameis signs a lot of stuff after baseball games, as if 10-year-olds all over town raced home on their bikes to immediately call an autograph authenticator in Atlanta. That isn’t how that business works, and everyone with a brain knows that.

Again, it’s not that Fisher shouldn’t stand behind his guys, it’s that he assumes everyone else is either dumb as a rock or as hopeful for a silver lining as sycophant fans.

There’s being a coach and being a defense attorney. They aren’t the same jobs.

Fisher even seems consumed over the idea that he and his team are being unfairly singled out, sounding like some message-board conspiracy theorist. Perhaps that’s what powers his disbelief at the backlash. Why all on him? What about the other schools?

As a coach, he certainly knows FSU’s problems aren’t unique and that he didn’t sign these supposed bad kids without having to fend off all of his rivals.

After all, the school that finished second in recruiting Jameis Winston (and admitted him academically prior to signing day)?


Yet here’s Fisher handling everything publicly in the wrong way. You could say that he’s trying to deflect attention away from the players and onto himself, but if so, he's doing a poor job.

“Why does Florida State have so many doubters?” Fisher was asked recently by Mike Raita of Birmingham’s (Ala.) WABM-TV.

“Because, one, ESPN has money in the SEC and, two, because we were so dominant last year,” Fisher said.

In one fell swoop, Fisher donned an embarrassingly dumb tin-foil hat – what, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel and Reggie Bush were treated with kid’s gloves? It’s the modern media, where audience drives everything. Jameis Winston is the reigning Heisman winner involved in an alleged sex crime that threatens his eligibility and thus the national title chase. People are interested. This isn’t rocket science.

Meanwhile, he’s playing the victim card while expressing massive arrogance … a not easy to pull off daily double.

Yes, poor FSU – the martyr Seminoles – trying to deal with critics who aren’t actually aghast at investigations into sexual or domestic violence, or troubled by botched police work, but actually just jealous of FSU’s red-zone defense. Sure, that’s it.

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How Fisher got here, flailing about with a championship ring on his finger is anyone’s guess. Coaching peers and administrators who know him best swear by the man. It’s clear his players adore him. Recruits and parents trust him. He’s known as a loving and devoted family man. He's a humble, regular guy gone big-time.

Fisher and the Seminoles face Louisville on Thursday night. (AP)
Fisher and the Seminoles face Louisville on Thursday night. (AP)

This isn’t the full him. Even friends are stunned at this turn.

One mentioned the scene of Fisher seeing Jameis Winston in full pads warming up for a game in which he was suspended, the coach rolling his eyes in disbelief at another humiliating, authority-draining headache coming his way. "That's life in the spotlight," the friend said.

The job is a pressure cooker, and the wins sometime serve to turn up the heat.

The last coach down in Florida to lead a powerhouse like this was Urban Meyer, who won a pair of national titles for the Gators in Gainesville, went on a 25-1 run, yet after a loss to Alabama wound up in the hospital with chest pains and emotional emptiness. He later revealed he’d lost 37 pounds due to stress and could only sleep by washing down an Ambien with a beer or two.

Fisher has always lived his life by a simple axiom: keep working, keep being true to the job and it will all work out.

He was raised on a 300-acre farm in West Virginia, the son of a school-teacher mom and a coal-miner father.

“Big Jim” they called his dad, who was a guy who’d farm all day before heading into the mountain at 10 p.m. for the graveyard shift. He was famous back in Clarksburg for surviving a mine explosion when Jimbo was just 2. Despite severe burns, he returned to work because he didn’t believe in handouts and besides, that’s what the Fishers do … they work.

His mother, Gloria, is still teaching at Liberty High School in Clarksburg, her 54th year on the job despite her son’s wealth.

Big Jim died 20 years ago, at age 62, like so many coal miners, suffering from lung and heart problems, basically laboring to death.

Fisher was climbing the coaching ranks by then, having gone from Division III quarterback to small college assistant to a slow grind up the profession. Eventually he wound up as Bobby Bowden’s named successor despite never being a full-time head coach, given the keys to the Seminole Ferrari and promptly getting it back up to speed.

The victories, the championships, the glory, the adoring home crowds … all of that Jimbo Fisher no doubt dreamed. That had to be the plan. This – the scorn, the jokes, the derision, the character assaults – isn’t.

He enters Thursday’s game as the most disliked coach in America, his inability to calmly and rationally articulate his points is his undoing, his reliance on conspiracies and victimhood making him a national joke.

Almost none of it was necessary. Almost all of it was self-inflicted. The man can coach and recruit and motivate and lead; he's a mess when it comes to public relations and life under the microscope and being aware of the ramifications of what he says and how he says it.

That’s where he is though. Jimbo Fisher climbed college football’s cutthroat mountain and found himself all alone.

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