Fisher revealed: An inside look at man who has energized Aggieland

On a shelf behind John James "Jimbo" Fisher Jr.'s desk are various framed photos of his sons, Trey and Ethan, and one of a gray-bearded, barrel-chested bear of a man.

John James "Big Jim" Fisher Sr.

Jimbo says the photo of his father was taken on his last Christmas Day, in 1993. Jimbo was Auburn's 28-year-old quarterbacks coach. Big Jim, farmer by day, coal miner by night, had black lung disease.

A quarter-century later, Big Jim's commanding presence, which exceeded his 6-foot-3 stature, still resonates back home in West Virginia — and here at Texas A&M, personified in Jimbo's magnetism, mannerisms and homespun proverbs.

No, 5-9 Jimbo did not inherit his father's size, but he was a tenacious athlete, all-state in three sports and Division III Player of the Year as a quarterback despite 11 surgeries.

And get a load of Jimbo now, in his spacious office, adjacent to 102,733-seat Kyle Field. What would Big Jim think of Jimbo's 10-year, $75 million contract, the richest in college football coaching history?

"He'd be grinnin'," Jimbo says. "He'd say, 'Bo, you'd better get your ass to work if you want to earn your (expletive) money.' "

It's the West Virginian mentality, further evidenced by Jimbo's 81-year-old mother, Gloria. She retired seven years ago after 51 years of teaching, mostly high school chemistry and physics, but she still substitute teaches.

As for Jimbo, 52, it was six months ago that A&M stunningly wooed him from Florida State, where he was 83-23 in eight seasons and won the 2013 national title. But he's been so busy recruiting and jetting to Aggie meet-and-greets around the state that he hasn't fully decorated his office.

"A bunch of my stuff is still over there (in Tallahassee)," he says. "I'll get it later this summer."

Last weekend Fisher-and-staff's recruiting efforts netted an oral, nonbinding commitment from Humble Atascocita offensive tackle Kenyon Green. rates him the state's No. 1 recruit and A&M's 2019 class No. 2 in the nation, behind Alabama's.

The Aggies also last weekend reaped oral commitments from 2020-class offensive linemen Akinola Ogunbiyi and Smart Chibuzo, both from Fort Bend County.

"Hopefully what we can do," Fisher declares during a wide-ranging interview with The News before zipping out to Midland, "is make A&M more of a national brand.

"Don't get me wrong: We want to get every Texas football player we can. We're going to saturate this state, top to bottom, but there may be one or two or three great players out there across the country that could make your program different. We've got to be able to go out and pluck those players."

Aggies athletic director Scott Woodward says the Fisher Effect, in the wake of three straight 8-5 seasons under Kevin Sumlin, has been appreciable in ways other than recruiting.

Woodward says he senses energized Aggie Spirit as Fisher's Aug. 30 debut against Northwestern State approaches. Looming nine days later is a home clash against Clemson. Two weeks after that is a trip to face defending national champion Alabama and Fisher's ex-boss, fellow West Virginian Nick Saban.

"You're seeing, in my opinion, a very, very high intensity of what he wants to sell and bring to the program," Woodward says of Fisher.

Woodward isn't surprised, nor is he unbiased. Coach and AD have known one another since 2000, when then-LSU coach Saban hired Fisher as offensive coordinator and Woodward was Chancellor Mark Emmert's liaison to the athletic department.

Woodward says he spent many evening hours in the football offices watching Saban, Fisher and staff game plan opponents and build the program, ultimately to the 2003 national championship.

"As a young man," Woodward says of Fisher, "he carried himself with such maturity and such confidence that I said, 'Man, this guy is going to be an incredible head coach one day.' I just knew it."

Now, six months into their reunion?

"He gets the culture of Aggieland and is a great fit for it," Woodward says. "And Aggies in particular, donors and supporters, sense that right away. The feedback I've gotten is, 'Hey, this guy really gets us and understands what he has here.' "


Why he left Florida State

Unanswered, though, is the $75 million question.


Why, besides the obvious monetary allure, would Fisher leave a traditional powerhouse like Florida State, where he emerged from Bobby Bowden's shadow and won a national title, to come to a school whose only national football championship came in 1939?

Only three other active Bowl Subdivision coaches have won national titles: Saban, Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Ohio State's Urban Meyer. Two left schools after winning national titles, but in those cases Saban took over the NFL's Dolphins and Meyer retired for a year.

When Saban and Meyer returned to the college ranks, it was to coach blueblood programs, something A&M is not, despite its rich traditions.

"I never planned on leaving," Fisher says. "It wasn't what Florida State didn't have or didn't do. It's a tremendous, tremendous university.

"It was what I thought A&M does have and could do."


"Yes. And the challenge of putting it together."

Fisher says A&M's academic reputation and diversity of offerings — from agriculture to zoology — plus Aggie alumni's penchant for hiring their own, are an easy sell to recruits. To Fisher, though, that is only part of a potentially potent football formula.

"In this world of individualism, this school is not about individuals," he says. "This is one school that creates a culture that's about A&M, that you become part of it. I think that's very hard in the individualistic world we're in today.

"So if your great individuals that you recruit are around people who think as a team and family and school, it makes it easier to coach."


A&M hasn't won an outright conference football championship since 1998's Big 12 title under R.C. Slocum.

During Fisher's eight seasons in the ACC, his Seminoles and Swinney's Tigers won four title games apiece. Now Fisher is in the same SEC West fire pit as Alabama. Saban is 12-0 against his former assistants, including 1-0 vs. Fisher, with his teams outscoring theirs 456-134.

"I grew up in this league," says Fisher, who spent six years at Auburn (1993-98) and seven at LSU (2000-06). "If you don't want to go against the best, don't get into (coaching).

"We're trying to win a national championship. If you do that, you're going to play everybody, anyway, if you're talking about playing for all the marbles like we did at Florida State.

"I kind of like it."

He pauses, allowing his words to sink before finishing.

"It drives you every day."


Fisher family history

Jimbo's only sibling, Bryan, inherited Big Jim's height gene.

Bryan, six years younger than Jimbo, sprouted into a 6-2 standout tight end, eventually at Samford University in Alabama, where Jimbo not coincidentally was getting his coaching start under Terry Bowden, son of Bobby.

The Fisher boys did, however, share traits inherited from and instilled by Big Jim and Gloria. Among them: no-excuses resolve from Dad; logical problem-solving from Mom.

Naturally, the boys' willpower sometimes clashed.

"We hate to lose," Bryan says. "Me and Jimbo have been in fistfights over cards. Literally fistfights. I mean slugging it out, not just pushing each other."

Big Jim and Gloria grew up in rural north-central West Virginia. They met at a fair when he was 23 and she 18. She was showing horses in a ring when Big Jim, who had quit school in eighth grade to help support his four siblings, told one of his sisters: "See that girl? I'm gonna marry her."

In 1961 they bought a 1913-built, 900-square-foot home and its surrounding 16 acres in Glen Falls, an unincorporated community of about 300 homes, roughly 3 miles outside of Clarksburg.

Gloria's first teaching salary was $3,100. Big Jim tended the farm and cattle and moonlighted, literally, by working the night shift at the nearby Clinchfield Coal Co. mine. Jimbo was born in Clarksburg on Oct. 9, 1965.

Jimbo barely was 2 when, five days after Thanksgiving 1967, a flash-fire blast catapulted Big Jim several hundred feet, slamming him into the mine wall. He broke one leg in three places and suffered severe arm and facial burns, his lips melding to his teeth.

"He didn't think he was going to make it," Gloria says. "He'd never had a thing wrong with him until then."

One of Jimbo's early vivid memories is his father rehabbing himself by maintaining the Fishers' by-then 300-acre fence line — using a walker to brace himself.

"And that ain't flat like it is in Texas," Jimbo says. "You talk about tough, mentally, physically. Never once heard him complain."

Jimbo's Type-A personality, Gloria says, surfaced early. His fourth-grade teacher remarked that Jimbo was obsessed with being first, whether it came to grades or the recess line.

The family of Steve Daniels, Jimbo's lifelong best friend, lived across a hollow from the Fishers. Even now, when the trees lose leaves during winters, Daniels can see the Fisher barns and house, which Gloria expanded to 2,000 square feet several years ago.

"When Jimbo ran away from home, which happened once or twice a year until he was probably 10, maybe getting in arguments with his dad, he didn't have to go very far," Daniels says. "He just came and knocked on our door."


Big Jim's big influence

Daniels says neighborhood kids flocked to the Fisher property for football and whiffle ball games. Jimbo, however, wasn't allowed to play until he finished chores like cutting and storing hay, feeding cattle and scything fence lines.

Mastermind Jimbo found creative shortcuts.

"We teased him because he was like Tom Sawyer," Gloria says. "Every time I looked out, there would be another kid mowing around the house."

Big Jim passed exams and worked his way up to night foreman at the mine, but Gloria says he turned down chances to become superintendent because it would have meant working days.

He preferred working the mine from 10:30 p.m. to 9 a.m., working the farm the rest of the morning, taking a two- or three-hour nap and then attending the boys' practices and games.

When Jimbo briefly slacked at age 10, Big Jim took him to work, led him into the mine's utter blackness and handed him a shovel.

"He didn't care what the boys were," Gloria says, "as long as they went up."

Jimbo was the starting quarterback at Clarksburg's Liberty High as a sophomore and also became a dominant point guard, standout middle infielder and pitcher.

Rides home with Big Jim after games were psychology lessons that unwittingly prepared Jimbo for coaching.

"I could throw for three or four touchdowns and he'd talk about the two or three plays we screwed up," Jimbo says. "But at the same time, he could push the buttons with me to bring me back up. 'You did this right. That was good.'

"I'd say things like, 'Well, Dad, he's bigger.' He'd say, 'Well, figure it out.' "

Late in Jimbo's senior year, Liberty was in the state baseball playoffs when misfortune struck. Jimbo, picking up Bryan from youth league practice, got into a dunk contest with buddies on a 9-foot goal and landed awkwardly, spraining ligaments in his ankle.

A doctor placed a hard cast on the foot and told Jimbo he would be out eight weeks. Eight nights later, in their upstairs bedroom, Jimbo hatched a plan with Bryan.

"He said, 'Go get a knife,'" Bryan recalls. Bryan retrieved a serrated butcher knife in the kitchen and helped saw the cast.

The boys were unable to remove it, though, so in the morning Jimbo borrowed tin snips from shop class. He returned to the field and little brother was thereafter called "Doc Bryan" at home.

"We knew Mom and Dad would be mad," Bryan says. "But in the long run we knew what Dad would say: 'If you can stand the pain, play with it.'"


'Jimbo, he's gone.'

Jimbo enrolled at Clemson on a baseball scholarship before his 18th birthday but left after one semester, disappointing Big Jim, who thought his son had a major league future.

Jimbo enrolled at West Virginia's Salem University to play quarterback for Terry Bowden, who had recruited him in high school. When Bowden went to Samford, Fisher followed, becoming Division III's national Player of the Year in 1987.

He played for the Arena League's Chicago Bruisers, but he injured his knee in a game at Madison Square Garden. He became Samford's grad-assistant/quarterbacks coach, then in 1993 followed Bowden to Auburn.

On March 25, 1994, Big Jim went fishing with a friend about an hour from Glen Falls, in Barbour County. That evening, the friend called Gloria, saying Big Jim was being rushed to Alderson Broaddus Hospital.

Big Jim 15 years earlier had suffered his first of several strokes, but "Jim always came back," Gloria says. While driving to Alderson Broaddus, she wondered how long it would be before she could move him to Clarksburg Hospital.

"But when I got there, he had already passed," she says.

She left several phone messages for Jimbo, who had gone out that night with then-wife Candi. Finally, he called back.

"How's Dad?"

"Jimbo, he's gone."

"How soon before he can come home? ..."

"Jimbo, he's gone."

"Oh, I'll never forget the screams and the cries," says Gloria, 24 years later. "And the phone flew. His wife picked it up and said, 'I'll call you back.' It was just a shock."


A bigger purpose

Jimbo says he plans to remodel his A&M office, but that will have to wait until after the season.

For now, his decor includes commemorative footballs from significant Florida State wins. A see-through case on his desk displays replicas of his 2013 ACC title and 2003 and 2013 national championship rings, but he says he never wears the actual ones.

Why not?

"Just reminds you that you need to go get another one."

The photos of sons Trey and Ethan reflect the passions he shares with each. For Trey, it's football. For Ethan, hunting and fishing.

One photo is of Jimbo holding little Trey at LSU's national title parade. Now Trey is a standout quarterback who recently transferred to A&M Consolidated to play his final two high school seasons.

Jimbo recently took Ethan, 13, on a hunting trip to Bright Star Ranch near Franklin, where Ethan bagged a buck.

Ethan in 2011 was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, Fanconi anemia, which affects bone marrow and results in decreased blood cell production.

Uncertainty surrounding Ethan's condition and treatment initially led Jimbo to consider stepping away from coaching. Ultimately, he and Candi founded the Kidz1st Fund, which since has raised more than $5 million for Fanconi anemia research and treatment.

In six years since Kidz1st's founding, the average life expectancy of Fanconi anemia patients has risen 11 years, to the mid-30s. Last month, Minnesota's Masonic Children's Hospital rechristened its specialty wing the Kidz1st Fanconi Anemia Comprehensive Care Program.

"We're changing how medicine is being practiced, I mean totally changing it," Fisher says. He says he is grateful that Florida State and now Texas A&M have provided him "a platform to change medicine while saving lives."

"This," he adds, motioning around his office and toward Kyle Field, "is peanuts compared to that."

If anything, Jimbo says, Ethan's fight, Fanconi anemia breakthroughs on the horizon and Texas A&M's largely untapped football potential give him more purpose to succeed on his life path, laid by his parents.

"I'm going to be pushing every second of every day," he says. "And do it the right way.

"Because the key is to build a program, not a team. You've got to lay the foundation. Because teams will come and go. Programs will sustain the test of time."

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