Let’s start with the Christmas tree, which everyone assumed was the proof that Jimbo Fisher was gone. Yes, an old artificial tree did get tossed to the curb on Shoal Creek Drive in Tallahassee, Fla., on the morning of Dec. 1. Photos of said tree began circulating on social media within hours of its disposal. This, along with a proclamation during a SiriusXM interview the previous day that he’d choose brisket over pulled pork, served in the absence of any official word as proof that Fisher had decided to leave Florida State to coach at Texas A&M.
But it wasn’t true. Not yet, at least. Fisher was in Tallahassee. He was at Doak Campbell Stadium, still thinking he was going to coach the Seminoles the next day in a game against Louisiana-Monroe that had been rescheduled because of Hurricane Irma. After that, he would decide what to do next. Meanwhile, Aggies athletic director Scott Woodward waited. Whether it happened Friday or Saturday or Sunday, Woodward needed Fisher to get on a plane and fly to College Station. The offer had been delivered to Fisher’s agent. Ten years. $75 million. Fully guaranteed. What would happen back in Aggieland if Fisher didn’t get on that plane? Woodward had a list of candidates that would completely underwhelm a fan base desperate for a national title contender. He needed what he called a Rare Air coach—someone who already knew how it felt to hoist a national championship trophy. But Nick Saban wasn’t leaving Alabama. And Urban Meyer wasn’t leaving Ohio State. And Dabo Swinney wasn’t leaving Clemson. Only one other working head coach had breathed that air, and on this Friday morning that guy was dealing with a busted Christmas tree.
Fisher and his wife Candi had bought the artificial evergreen when Fisher was the offensive coordinator at LSU. Damn thing weighed a ton, Fisher recalls. It had come with them to Tallahassee when Fisher was named Bobby Bowden’s offensive coordinator in 2007. Jimbo and Candi’s marriage had ended in 2015, but the tree survived. Until last December. The people Fisher hired to decorate it came, and as they tried to erect it, they realized it was broken beyond repair. They informed Fisher, who instructed them to put up a new tree and throw out the old one. So out went the yuletide beast to become an ever-so-brief Twitter celebrity and eventual souvenir for the ultra-completist Florida State fan who came along and swiped it before the garbage collector arrived. In came a brand spanking new tree.
“That thing stayed up until February,” Fisher says.
Because he had gotten on that plane.
This is all about money, but probably not in the way you think.
At Florida State, Fisher made $5.5 million a year, and that figure was guaranteed through the end of the 2024 season. The son of a coal miner father and a schoolteacher mother from West Virginia was rich by any objective measure. This fact still astounds Fisher, because he never expected to get wealthy coaching football as he transitioned from Samford University quarterback to Samford University student assistant in 1988. He could stay at Florida State for the rest of his career, stay rich and compete for ACC and national titles. So the amount Texas A&M offered mattered less to him than the message it sent. And what was that message?
“BAM!” Fisher says. When he heard the offer, he thought of a line he frequently uses on his players. “Your actions speak so loud,” he says, “I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Fisher knew Woodward from their days at LSU at the turn of this century. Fisher was Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator. Woodward handled government relations for the chancellor (future NCAA president Mark Emmert). Fisher only entertained the possibility of leaving Florida State because he knew and trusted Woodward.
Woodward, meanwhile, had learned from his last football coaching search to aim high. His philosophy on football coaching searches changed when he made his second hire as Washington’s athletic director. His first time out in December 2008, not many people wanted the job. The Huskies had gone 0–11 in Tyrone Willingham’s final season, and Woodward considered it a victory to get USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. When USC poached Sarkisian following the firing of Lane Kiffin in 2013, Woodward had a list of standard candidates. There was Jim Mora Jr., a Washington alumnus who had gone 19–8 in his first two seasons at UCLA. There was Justin Wilcox, an up-and-comer who had served as Washington’s defensive coordinator under Sarkisian. But as Woodward considered these names, he got a call from Bennett Speyer, who represented Chris Petersen. Petersen had decided the timing was right to leave Boise State, and Washington fit what he sought in a Power 5 job.
Woodward’s response: “WHAT?” His next thought? “Let’s get it done,” Woodward says. “It literally went down that fast.”
That experience taught Woodward a valuable lesson. Don’t assume any coach is off the table.
Woodward didn’t know how the offer to Fisher would land. He only knew he had to go huge. “In contractual negotiations, you have leverage or you don’t,” Woodward says. “I had zero leverage.” Fisher said yes in large part because a school that would offer that much with only minor haggling and with the blessing of everyone from the president to the system chancellor to the board of regents was a place where he could get what he wanted without a fight.
Fisher had grown tired of fighting over money at Florida State, and the people in charge at Florida State had grown tired of Fisher fighting over money. The relationship had begun happily enough. A year after he was hired as Bobby Bowden’s offensive coordinator, he was named Bowden’s eventual successor. When another blowout loss to Florida in 2009 pushed then-president T.K. Wetherell to shove the legend out the door, Fisher took over. Fisher, who had seen the kind of resources necessary to build a national title contender in this era while at LSU, immediately went to work trying to beef up the roster and raising money for projects he considered vital.
While he signed future stars Telvin Smith, Lamarcus Joyner and Jameis Winston, Fisher also spent those early years trying to cajole boosters into donating money to pay for infrastructure he believed Florida State needed to compete on the field and on the recruiting trail against the likes of Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Clemson. He wanted to hire a dietician. He wanted to beef up the weight room staff. He wanted to build an indoor practice facility so lightning didn’t wreak havoc on the Seminoles’ practice schedule. At a booster function in Ocala, Fla., in Fisher’s first spring as head coach, he stressed the urgency of funding his projects lest the Seminoles fall further behind. “Do you do business the same way you did 10 years ago?” Fisher asked the crowd. “Do you do business the same way you did five years ago?”
Fisher got what he wanted early. He did beef up the weight room staff. Florida State spent $13 million to build an indoor practice facility that opened in 2013. The results on the field arrived as well. Florida State won the ACC title in 2012. Winston won the Heisman Trophy and the Seminoles won the national title in 2013. Florida State won the ACC again in 2014 and made the first College Football Playoff.
Fisher wanted more upgrades, and Florida State’s odd organizational structure had begun causing friction. At most schools, the booster club is under the control of the athletic department. Even if the club is a limited liability corporation separate from the school or the athletic department, the athletic director ultimately decides how funds raised by the booster club are used. That isn’t the case at Florida State, where Seminole Boosters, Inc. CEO Andy Miller wields more power than athletic director Stan Wilcox. Fisher’s priority was a dedicated football operations building that would move the Seminoles’ day-to-day operations out of Doak Campbell Stadium, where student classrooms and player meeting rooms share hallways. That wasn’t Seminole Boosters’ priority, though. Fisher wanted to make his operation more efficient, while the booster club wanted to address the gameday experience for the fans who fund the booster club. So instead of starting work on a football building—something new Seminoles coach Willie Taggart likely will get in the coming years—$80 million went toward renovating the stadium. By the start of the 2016 season, Florida State had added a huge new video board, ripped out bleacher seats and replaced them with chairbacks and added premium areas in the south end zone.
This difference of opinion coincided with a downturn on the field. Florida State went 20–6 in 2015 and 2016, but Atlantic Division rival Clemson ascended to the top of the ACC and played for the national title in both seasons, winning the second time. In 2017, the Seminoles looked poised to reclaim their throne. But they lost starting quarterback Deondre Francois to a knee injury in a season-opening loss to Alabama. Disciplinary issues in recent years had cost the Seminoles the two quarterbacks (De’Andre Johnson and Malik Henry) who should have been ready to replace Francois. Instead, true freshman James Blackman had to take over one of the nation’s most complex offenses after spending two months on campus. And before Blackman could make his first start, the Seminoles would have two games postponed by Hurricane Irma. Florida State stumbled to a 2–5 start. The conflict between Fisher and the booster club combined with a lost season to create an opportunity for Woodward and Texas A&M.
Woodward explained that Fisher wouldn’t have to fight for what he wanted. Texas A&M had already built all of it. And if Fisher needed something else, he only needed to ask. To understand the difference in giving power between Texas A&M’s donors and Florida State’s donors, consider the two schools’ endowments. Florida State’s is $731 million. Texas A&M’s is $11.6 billion. Fisher won many of those fights at Florida State, but they took a toll on him and university leaders. “Even though you may get things done,” he says, “the friction and the amount of time it takes you daily to fight the battles when you should be doing something else is tough.”
History matters, especially in the case of a program trying to shed a reputation as a perennial also-ran. So we should point out that this isn’t the first time Texas A&M has tendered a massive contract for a Rare Air coach.
After an Independence Bowl win against Oklahoma State capped Texas A&M’s 1981 season, Alan Cannon drove west on Interstate 20 from Shreveport to his hometown of Dallas. Cannon, an A&M junior who assisted in the school’s sports information department, planned to spend a few days of January 1982 unwinding before he headed back to College Station. That changed when Cannon got a call from Spec Gammon, the Aggies’ sports information director.
Get back to campus, Gammon told him. We’re hiring Bo Schembechler.
Cannon drove south to Gammon’s house. When he arrived, Gammon had more news. Schembechler said no. Now the Aggies were hiring Jackie Sherrill.
In 2017, Texas A&M’s courtship of Fisher was rumored weeks before it came to fruition. Predecessor Kevin Sumlin’s job status had been hotly debated for more than a year before Sumlin was fired on Nov. 26. In January 1982, only a few knew coach Tom Wilson was about to get canned in favor of a bigger name. That knowledge did not extend to student assistants in the sports information department. Otherwise Cannon wouldn’t have gone home. The athletic director didn’t fire Wilson or run the search that landed Sherrill. Texas A&M had no athletic director at the time; Marvin Tate had been fired the previous November. The man who hired Sherrill—who would serve dual roles as the Aggies’ coach and AD—was an oil and gas man from Dallas named Harvey “Bum” Bright.
Bright, Texas A&M class of 1943, was named chairman of Texas A&M’s board of regents in 1981. (He would be the face of the group that bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1984 and sold the franchise to Jerry Jones in 1989.) Bright wasted little time trying to remake his alma mater’s football program. After Schembechler said no, Bright moved on to the 38-year-old Sherrill, who had replaced Johnny Majors at Pittsburgh in 1977 and who had gone 33–3 from 1979–81 with help from stars Dan Marino and Hugh Green. Bright and Sherrill agreed to a six-year deal worth almost $1.7 million in salary and perks. Sherrill’s buyout if fired would be $1.2 million. Sherrill’s $280,000 annual take (about $744,000 in today’s dollars) rankled the higher education establishment. Newspaper and magazine stories proclaimed Sherrill the highest paid person on any college campus. (This wasn’t true. The Miami Herald would report later in 1982 that Alabama paid Bear Bryant $450,000 a year.) “When I was at a meeting in Texas last week, the dean of engineering at Texas A&M was complaining that his department didn’t have enough money,” Georgia Tech dean of engineering William Sangster groused to United Press International a few days after Sherrill was hired. “You have to question priorities. It’s a damn poor reflection on the state of affairs in the United States.”
The bigger issue on Texas A&M’s campus was the handling of the search. President Frank Vandiver told Newsweek he felt “superflous” during the search. Newsweek also reported that Vandiver tendered his resignation twice over the handling of Wilson’s firing and Sherrill’s hiring, but Vandiver ultimately was persuaded to stay on the job. The headline of that particular Newsweek story was this: Can The Aggies Buy Respect?
Spoiler alert: The Aggies didn’t buy respect.
After three middling seasons, Sherrill reeled off three consecutive Southwest Conference titles before he resigned in the wake of an NCAA scandal in 1988. Texas A&M never finished higher than No. 6 in the final Associated Press poll under Sherrill. Sherrill’s successor, R.C. Slocum, won more than any Aggies coach before or since. He won the Southwest Conference three times, and, after the Aggies and their fellow SWC refugees united with the Big Eight members to form the Big 12, he won that league once. But none of Slocum’s Aggies teams ever finished higher than No. 7 in the final AP poll.
This inability to join the national title conversation continues to this day. The Aggies haven’t won a national championship since FDR was president, and this produces a massive inferiority complex in the fan base that might be America’s most passionate.
Texas A&M graduates do not say “I have a degree from Texas A&M.” They do not say “I went to school in College Station.” They say “I’m an Aggie.” They greet fellow Aggies by saying “Howdy” and by making a fist and extending their right thumb as high up and as far back as it will stretch. (The gig ’em.) They wear Aggie rings on the fourth finger of their right hands, and often that ring is as important as the one on the fourth finger of their left hands. A relatively new tradition—it started in the 1970s—is to celebrate the acquisition of an Aggie ring by “dunking” it, dropping it in a pitcher of beer and chugging until only the ring remains. The Yell Leaders, male cheerleaders who wear white coveralls and communicate in a series of chants and gesticulation only Aggies understand, can inspire more than 100,000 people to shake Kyle Field. The one-time all-male military school has evolved into a sprawling campus with more than 68,000 (coed) students, but it has retained so many of the old traditions that rivals—especially the hated “tea-sips” who attended the University of Texas in Austin—consider the Aggies more cult than alumni base.
That view changed a bit when Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012. Texas and Oklahoma fans—two famously wine-and-cheese groups—may have looked down their noses at Aggies, but other than the military theme, Aggies remind Alabama, Auburn and LSU fans of themselves. The difference is Auburn has won a national title and played for another since the turn of the century. LSU has won two national titles since 2003. Alabama, meanwhile, has thoroughly dominated the sport, winning five of the past nine national titles.
That Texas A&M has never truly been a national football power makes little sense. A huge public university in the football-mad Lone Star State—located an easy drive from some of the nation’s most fertile recruiting grounds—with a big stadium, a passionate fan base and nearly unlimited resources should have dominated in at least one segment of the modern era. But Texas A&M hasn’t. The Aggies haven’t even won a conference title since taking the Big 12 championship 20 years ago. They are reminded of this fact constantly by their rivals in Austin. Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played on the football field since the Aggies left the Big 12 for the SEC, but the hatred still flows 365 days a year between those in burnt orange who have seen a national title this century (2005) and those in maroon who would give just about anything to see one before they die.
Texas A&M fans and players still sing about Texas at every game. The Aggie War Hymn includes the phrase “So long to the orange and white,” and fans lock arms at the end of the song and sway to mimic “sawing” off the Longhorns’ long horns. But while the team in Austin may live inside the heads of older Aggies, those who arrived in College Station more recently tend to look a different direction. “They have a great role, but they do what they do what they do,” Woodward says of the Longhorns. “From an athletic standpoint, all my focus is east. I’ve got to worry about Auburn and Alabama and LSU. As you saw from the championship game last year, it was pretty dominated by the Southeastern Conference. I want to be in that rare air.”
The Aggies have tried almost everything to ascend to college football’s top caste. They have changed conferences. They have rebuilt their base of football operations—the building bears Bright’s name—with a fancy training table, state-of-the-art everything, slick graphics on the walls and a barber shop in the locker room. They built a weight room that looks like an Apple Store with squat racks. They have expanded Kyle Field so that even more towel-waving Aggies can yell about beating the hell out of whomever. Yet they still haven’t broken through.
That’s why Woodward needed Fisher to get on that damn plane.
Twenty-six years and two months later, Cannon—now Texas A&M’s sports information director for football—tells the story of Sherrill’s hiring on the sideline of the Aggies’ practice field. About 100 feet away, a voice cuts through the symphony of popping pads and grunting 300-pounders. “I AIN’T CHANGIN’,” Fisher yells after dressing down a quarterback who failed to take the proper path before uncorking a 60-yard touchdown pass.
No one at Texas A&M wants Fisher to change. They want him to be exactly the coach he was at Florida State. On the surface, the parallels between Sherrill’s hire in 1982 and Fisher’s hire in 2017 seem uncanny. But the biggest difference is a huge reason Fisher said yes.
That difference is an organizational structure led by a 67-year-old former Texas comptroller who keeps peacocks at his College Station residence and who once declared to Texas Monthly that he kept goats alongside his cattle on his 1,600-acre ranch a half-hour away because “goats are the future.” “I’m out of the goat business,” Texas A&M system chancellor John Sharp says by way of update. “It turns out coyotes are the future.” Then he laughs. Sharp couldn’t shoot every coyote that wanted to bag one of his goats, but he may have tamed a more ornery beast.
Despite its growth in enrollment and in academic stature, Texas A&M has suffered from periods of discord where the system chancellor, the campus president and the regents didn’t all sing from the same hymnal. What happened in athletics in the summer of 2010 is a prime example. The Pac-10 had offered spots to six Big 12 schools, including Texas A&M. The SEC, meanwhile, had approached Texas A&M about joining. These competing interests produced three stubborn factions. One wanted to look west. One wanted to look east. One wanted to keep the Big 12 together. Ultimately, Texas A&M decided to stay in the Big 12, but that solution failed to satisfy every power broker. The uneasy peace lasted 13 months. As soon as the precise plans for Texas’s Longhorn Network became public knowledge, the get-the-hell-out-of-the-Big 12 faction of A&M’s leadership mobilized. By the time Sharp was named Chancellor in August 2011, the Aggies were headed to the SEC.
Sharp has reined in competing factions campus-wide. He has installed a campus president (Michael Young) who is on the same page. Woodward, who worked for Young when the men held similar positions at Washington, knew the history of the place and inserted a “key man” clause in his contract when he was hired in 2016 that allows him to walk away owing nothing if there comes a day when Young isn’t president. So far, everyone has worked in harmony.
Sharp wants Texas A&M to be the best at everything, and that includes football. Ask the man who earned bipartisan praise for his ability to slash government waste as comptroller why he doesn’t mind guaranteeing $7.5 million a year to a football coach for 10 years, and he trots out a line he’s used frequently since Fisher’s hiring. “Because we couldn’t get him to agree to 15 years,” Sharp says. (According to someone familiar with the negotiations, Texas A&M officials would have sweetened the deal even more if necessary.) Sharp then compares running a university to a goose hunt, which is confusing for a second but then makes perfect sense. “You have a bunch of birds flying over. You want them to come take a look at your university,” Sharp says. “The football program is the decoy. That’s what makes a lot of people first see what the university is about.”
To Sharp, the constant media exposure a school with a championship-caliber football program gets might introduce a National Academy of Sciences member to Texas A&M. Maybe that professor does a little more research and then joins the faculty. It might convince more National Merit Scholars to consider the school. To Sharp, a national championship team would be a rising tide that could lift up the entire university. Of course, the one-time state accountant also points out another economic reality. The Texas A&M football program makes more than it spends. According to data for the 2016–17 school year reported to the U.S. Department of Education, Texas A&M football made $70.4 million and spent $31.1 million. The amount the Aggies pay Fisher and his staff relative to what they paid Sumlin and his staff will barely put a dent in that ratio. Woodward also added another bit of math that matters as well. “We had a precipitous drop in revenue in our ticket sales from 2016 to 2017,” he says. The patience of Aggies only extends so far. Even Sumlin, who had a better winning percentage in College Station than Bear Bryant did in his four years there, couldn’t survive the overwhelming hunger for national relevance.
Sharp expects results for his school’s investment. During an event in February to honor fellow system member Texas A&M-Commerce’s Division II national title in football, Sharp presented TAMU-Commerce coach Colby Carthel with a plaque commemorating the 2017 team’s achievement. Sharp then gave Fisher an identical plaque but left the year blank. “I hope I fill in a couple,” Fisher told his boss’s boss’s boss.
The plaque is a statement of hope. But it’s also a threat. Fisher had better fill in at least one of those years. That’s why Texas A&M is paying all this money.
The Aggies convinced Fisher of their commitment with their offer, but the fact remains that he left a school that already knows how to win national titles for one that can’t figure out the formula. Fisher’s mandate is to teach the Aggies that math. He’ll be paid handsomely for it, and he’ll be expected to deliver the desired result. Texas A&M has the money, the buildings, the recruiting territory and the fully aligned administration. The coach got on the plane. This has to work, because if it doesn’t…
Woodward pays homage to the NASA control room in nearby Houston when he chooses not to consider that possibility. “I haven’t thought about it,” he says, “because failure is not an option.”