PINEHURST, N.C. — Jimbo Fisher is a football coach, so it’s difficult for him to avoid using coaching metaphors when discussing fixes for Florida State’s off-field problems.
“It’s just like a game plan,” Fisher said Tuesday at ACC media days. “You have a game plan, you do things, and as people adjust or different problems occur, you add to your game plan. So we’re stepping up our process now with domestic violence and with different programs that we have to keep educating our kids.”
The Seminoles have been forced to step up that process due to recent off-field incidents. A video released by prosecutors earlier this month showed freshman quarterback De’Andre Johnson punching a woman at a Tallahassee bar on June 24. Florida State dismissed Johnson on July 7, and he was charged with misdemeanor battery by state attorney Willie Meggs.
Three days later, starting running back Dalvin Cook turned himself into the Leon County jail after being charged with misdemeanor battery. Cook allegedly punched a 21-year-old woman in the face outside of a bar the night before Johnson's incident took place. Florida State suspended Cook indefinitely, and Fisher released a statement that said, in part, “We will do better. I will not tolerate anything less.”
Fisher faced the media Tuesday at ACC media days for the first time since the two incidents. It took 20 minutes for anyone to ask Fisher a question unrelated to domestic violence or team culture. That’s in part because this team is not unfamiliar with uncomfortable headlines. Former quarterback Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner, was infamously accused of—though never charged with—sexual assault after an alleged incident that took place in December 2012.
The latest allegations have the ‘Noles facing more questions regarding team culture. Until Fisher and Florida State find a way to turn the focus back to the field, they will continue fighting an uphill battle to change their national perception.
Fisher spent little time Tuesday discussing Cook’s status, saying only that the sophomore remains suspended and the program awaits the facts of the case. Fisher also said he never considered dismissing Cook, a 1,000-yard rusher a year ago who should be a key part of the Seminoles’ upcoming offense if he’s eligible. “No,” he said. “I make decisions based on facts of what goes on and wait until the case plays itself out.”
The Florida State coach answered a number of questions about Johnson, whose incident was caught on video, leaving little doubt about his guilt. At ACC media days, Fisher condemned his former player’s actions but not before defending Johnson’s character.
“De’Andre Johnson was a 3.5 [GPA] student,” Fisher said. “He had never been in trouble in his life. You saw him on Good Morning America with his mother; he was not raised that way. He was not coached that way. He was a good guy who made a bad choice. He made a poor decision, and it was very critical in a critical moment.”
Fisher continued: “We research and background our guys tremendously, as much as we possibly can. I say this all the time: We are a very talented football team, but I think we have better kids on our team than we have players. I say that, but we’ve had a few guys make a mistake.”
Fisher hit on a key point in Florida State’s perception problem: The majority of the Seminoles—like those on other college football teams—aren’t getting into trouble. And thus, it’s not always fair to define a program by its bad apples. But the Johnson video and the charges against Cook revived a perception problem that’s lingered since Winston’s days in Tallahassee. And much of the blame seems to fall at Fisher’s feet.
The coach said Tuesday that a head coach should accept responsibility for players’ actions, and he defended the players his staff recruits. But Fisher also said Florida State has taken a number of steps to educate players and prevent similar incidents. The staff brought in Navy Seals to discuss how the Navy deals with issues pertaining to sexual assault. Fisher sold his players on Russell Wilson’s “Pass the Peace” initiative, a program that channels donations to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Florida State scheduled a seminar in August with former NBA referee Bob Delaney, who was an undercover cop before he turned to sports. Fisher said his players are being inundated with examples of how to act off the field.
“It’s just addressing issues and problems,” Fisher said. “We’re disappointed that we had an instance, with what goes on. But you have to continue to educate your kids. We’d had a very extensive program in all the different phases. We go over 40 days a year of bringing in character-building people, developmental conditioning, issues with drugs, alcohol, the opposite sex, domestic violence. We’ve done those things. We’ve done them from the very first day I’ve been there.”
Schools can educate players, but no coach can keep tabs on every student-athlete at all times. The Seminoles’ recent success only makes the spotlight brighter on their off-field transgressions.
But Fisher also appears to understand that the constant questions about team culture soon begin to affect a program’s brand. Domestic violence is a societal problem, not just a college football one, but the manner in which Fisher and others like him deal with such incidents gets national attention and has the power to overshadow any on-field successes. Until Florida State can prove that all of its players can avoid confrontations with the law, the perception of the Seminoles isn’t going to change.
“I don’t think what’s happened at Florida State is relative to Florida State,” Fisher said. “It’s happening all over this country. We get more attention of it because of the success of our program. And I understand that. That’s part of winning. That’s part of being one of the top programs in America. We accept that responsibility, and the players have to accept that responsibility.”