Fisher hopes to replicate Swinney’s Clemson plan at Texas A&M
It’s somewhat fitting that Jimbo Fisher’s first big game at Texas A&M will force him to match wits with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. The two head football coaches had classic matchups in their eight-game series.
When the former Florida State coach learned he’d be playing Clemson on Sept. 8 at Kyle Field, his response:
“Are you kidding me?”
Fisher’s Seminoles and Swinney’s Tigers combined to win the last seven Atlantic Coast Conference championships and one national championship each since 2010. Swinney had a chance for his second last season, but his top-seeded Tigers lost in the College Football Playoff semifinals to Alabama, the team they beat the previous season for the national title. Swinney is expected to have another shot at winning it all this season with 17 starters and both kicking specialists returning from a 12-2 team.
Saturday’s game with the Aggies (1-0) will be a huge test for Swinney because of who’s on the other sideline.
“I got a lot of respect for Jimbo,” Swinney said. “He’s a heck of a coach.”
Fisher also came up short of capturing rare back-to-back national titles in 2014 when his third-seeded Seminoles lost in the CFP semifinals to Oregon, ending a 29-game winning streak.
When Fisher will have another legitimate chance to make the CFP is debatable, but there could be some clarity Saturday when the unranked Aggies play the second-ranked Tigers. A&M affords Fisher all the ingredients to be a national-championship caliber program, and playing Clemson will be a good benchmark of how far the program has come in nine months under Fisher.
“They’ve got great support, and I think they’ve hired a great football coach in Jimbo Fisher who’s been incredibly successful,” Swinney said. “He’s been around a lot of successful programs, and I don’t have any doubt that he’ll build something special there at College Station.”
Swinney and Fisher both built something special during their ACC rivalry.
Swinney rebuilt a program that had won a national championship in 1981. Danny Ford went 12-0 that season, one of only seven times Clemson had 10 or more victories in a season before hiring Swinney. The former Alabama wide receiver who played under legendary Aggie Gene Stallings was Clemson’s wide receivers coach when the school elevated him to interim head coach in 2008 to replace Tommy Bowden, coincidentally one of the many Bowdens who Fisher cut his coaching teeth with. Swinney finished the season 4-3 and had the interim tag dropped before a loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl. Two seasons later, he led Clemson to the first of seven straight double-digit winning seasons.
Fisher said Swinney is just a flat-out winner.
“First, he’s a very smart guy,” Fisher said. “He’s very charismatic and very engaging and intelligent. And he does a great job with people and people relations, and he’s recruited well and understands the game and has hired a good staff.”
That’s been complemented by a university that wants to win at the highest level.
“They’ve built new facilities,” Fisher said. “They’ve added to the stadium. They’ve done all the things to keep up with what you have to do, and they’ve done a great job of recruiting and coaching their tails off. It’s been an all-encompassing thing there that they did right.”
Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich was a senior associate AD at LSU from 2001-06, working with current A&M AD Scott Woodward, who was LSU’s director of external affairs from 2000-04, and Fisher, who was LSU’s offensive coordinator from 2000-06 first under Nick Saban then Les Miles.
Swinney said his program at Clemson was built “one day at time, one graduate at a time, one season at a time.”
He said you change a culture with the people you surround yourself with, which leads to discipline and accountability.
“I mean, it’s not something that you can just flip a switch with, especially where we were nine years ago,” Swinney said.
Fisher plans on building the Aggies in much the same way.
“You go minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year,” Fisher said. “You just build a culture in which how we think, how we practice and how we do things allows them to have success. And then they don’t worry about success and they don’t worry about winning. They worry about playing well. They worry about preparing well. They worry about the things they can control, and then the outcomes come. You’ve got to trust the process of how you do things and believe in what we’re doing, and it’s got to be a total commitment. It’s a never ending process.”
Fisher did all of it at Florida State, going 79-17 in the first seven seasons with six double-digit winning seasons, three ACC championships and the 2013 national title. He revived a program that won two national titles under Bobby Bowden but had slipped with the school’s last 10-win season in 2003 and the last major bowl victory coming in the 2000 Sugar Bowl when Fisher took over in 2010.
Fisher was facing a rebuilding project at Florida State after starting last season 5-6, but when A&M offered him $75 million and the chance to work again with Woodward, he jumped at it. Fisher has embraced the challenge in Aggieland, calling A&M one of the country’s best-kept secrets for everything it has to offer besides football. He hasn’t put a timetable on when A&M will compete for a national championship, something the Aggies haven’t done since 1939. Their last conference title came in 1998. But Fisher also takes over a program that is 67-37 in the last eight seasons without a losing record.
“Texas A&M is a lot further [along] than we were nine years ago,” Swinney said. “I think Texas A&M has got great facilities. I think they’ve got more four- and five-star [recruits] on their roster than we have over the last four years or so, so I think they’ve got everything they need. They’ve got great support.”
In the past, major success for both coaches hinged on how they fared in their head-to-head matchup. That won’t be the case Saturday.
Fisher would take a big step forward with a victory, but A&M still has to play five ranked teams in the Southeastern Conference including No. 1 Alabama in two weeks. A loss by Clemson wouldn’t keep it from making the CFP. The Tigers lost to a 5-4 Pittsburgh team two years ago at home and still won the national championship.
With their head-to-head series tied 4-4, the Fisher-Swinney debate is no longer about who wins the ACC but who wins the most national championships.
“I think both can win another title for sure,” said Clemson beat writer Grace Raynor, an Associated Press Top 25 voter who works at The Charleston Post and Courier.
“With Dabo, he’s established at Clemson. Clemson has the personnel, and lots of people think he could win another title as early as this year. With Jimbo, he’s an incredible play-caller and a heck of a coach, but he’s starting over at Texas A&M. It’s going to take time to build it up, but that’s why they hired him. They fully expect him to bring another one home, and certainly he’s one of the best in the game.”