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Jimbo Fisher waits in the wings as a legend closes his career at FSU

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher sits on the horns of a dilemma. It's early April, and after spring practice, he will hit the road to recruit. During that recruiting period, the Florida State offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting occasionally will join his boss, Bobby Bowden, as Bowden greets the faithful.

"You know what's bad?" Fisher asks, a smile curling his lips. "Coach Bowden is one of the best speakers in history. You'd think at least if the guy was a great coach, he'd be a bad speaker. But he's the greatest speaker in the world. He's the greatest coach in the world. I have nowhere to turn."

A month later, Fisher reports in from the road. At tour stops in Panama City and Tampa, his "A" material drew chuckles from the garnet-and-gold masses. Not as many laughs as Bowden, mind you. "I get a few," Fisher says, "but I don't speak as long."

Baby steps.

Actually, those who love the Seminoles are keenly interested in what Fisher has to say. FSU president -- and former FSU football player -- T.K. Wetherell cooked up this succession plan to quiet some of the grumbling that the legendary Bowden had lost his edge. Even after back-to-back 7-6 seasons, no amount of grumbling could force out the winningest coach in Division I-A history, especially when his president is a former player. Besides, Bowden has more than earned the right to go out on his own terms. After all, he did lead the Seminoles to a top-five finish every year from 1987-2000. Wait a second. Let that stat sink in. FSU finished in the top five for 14 consecutive seasons.

Of course, that success makes it easy to understand why fans and boosters won't accept mediocrity. Also, assurances had to be made to recruits who were understandably nervous about signing to play for a 78-year-old. So Wetherell handed Fisher, who came to Tallahassee from LSU last January, a fat salary ($625,000) and a promise that if he doesn't ascend to the big chair in three years, FSU owes him $2.5 million.

Fisher, who turned down West Virginia's head coaching job in December, says he didn't feel any different when he stepped on the field for his first spring practice as the heir apparent. Sure, he sells the idea of a stable handoff of power to recruits, but it doesn't change the way he lights up his quarterbacks when they don't make the proper reads. It won't change him, says someone who should know.

"This year," Gloria Fisher says, "if the weather stays good, he'll be in the hayfield."

Gloria is Fisher's mother, and like his boss, she's a septuagenarian. She still teaches chemistry and physics at Robert C. Byrd High in Clarksburg, W.Va., and during the two-week stretch when Jimbo visits each June, she'll send him out to work on the family's 300-acre farm. Not that Jimbo minds. The work reminds him of more innocent days when he would tend cows in the morning and then head off to school. His late father, John James Fisher, worked as a foreman at a nearby coal mine. He would watch Jimbo and his brother, Bryan, play sports in the evening; then he would head off to work the graveyard shift at the mine and get home in time to run the family's small beef cattle operation.

"It gives me a quiet calm. ... You remember where you came from and where you're at," Fisher says of his time in his hometown. "It makes me appreciate where I'm at."

Fisher has a theory about why so many excellent coaches -- Nick Saban, Rich Rodriguez and Jim Grobe, to name a few -- hail from West Virginia. It was either college or the coal mine. Gloria never gave her boys a choice. They were going to college.

Fisher went to tiny Salem College, where he played quarterback for Bowden's son, Terry. When Terry moved to Samford, Jimbo transferred there. Not long after graduation, Fisher returned to Samford as a graduate assistant and ultimately rose to offensive coordinator. He then followed Terry to Auburn. By then, the elder Bowden could tell Fisher was a rising star. "I've watched him grow to where he really knows his stuff," Bowden says. "He really knows his football."

That's why Bowden accepted the succession plan. "It's a pretty wise thing," he says. "Here I am, 78 years of age. My years are limited. So what are you going to do? Instead of leaving a question mark out there, you've already got it settled."

So when will Bowden pass the baton? He isn't sure. "I've always signed five-year contracts at Florida State, and this year I did not," he says. "Anyone knows I'm not going to coach until I'm 83. I'm on a one-year basis now, and every year I'll let them know if I'm going to coach another year."

Fisher is already stocking the cupboard so that when he becomes FSU's executive chef, he'll be cooking haute cuisine. When Fisher arrived last year, he brought the 'Noles' recruiting practices into this century. In the '90s, FSU coaches were masters at scooping up the nation's top talent close to signing day. Now, the best players commit in May and June. So far, FSU has nine commitments for the class of 2009. Of those, Fisher recruited five.

For his part, Fisher says he won't trouble himself worrying about when he'll take over. Someday, Bowden will retire, and he'll have to "take the training wheels off and go."

If anyone can hope to fill Bowden's shoes, it's Fisher. Some schools can get away with hiring the latest version of Coachbot 9000. (Sample quotes: "It-is-what-it-is. My-oil-is-low.") But at FSU, they've been spoiled. Bowden drew up the puntrooskie, and he can spin a yarn with the best of them. Fisher, meanwhile, can work a room as well as he can a dry-erase board. He's one of those guys who in two minutes can make you feel as if you've known him a lifetime. When he says, "YouknowwhatImean," and he says that a lot, you do know what he means.

Most important, Fisher isn't afraid to follow a legend. He knows who he is, and in case he forgets, he'll get a reminder next month as he bales hay beneath the West Virginia sky. "I'll never be Bobby Bowden," Fisher says. "All I can do is learn from Bobby Bowden, but I can't be Bobby Bowden. I have to be Jimbo Fisher, no matter if I was following Bobby or not."