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Quarterback roots: Jimbo Fisher’s days at Samford played key role in career development

April 14, 2018 GMT

Jimbo Fisher became one of the nation’s best coaches at Florida State, but the foundation for that success was nurtured at Samford University, where he played quarterback and started his coaching career.

“One of the best choices I ever made was the day I transferred to Samford,” Fisher said during his induction speech in February as part of the school’s second Hall of Fame class. “Samford has been so intertwined in my life so much, in my athletic life, my coaching life.”

The university in Birmingham, Alabama, was Fisher’s third stop in college. He started at Clemson for one semester, then Salem College in his home state of West Virginia in 1985. Coach Terry Bowden left for Akron during Fisher’s career at Salem, and then moved to Samford. Fisher followed Bowden to Samford in 1987.

In Birmingham, Fisher became an NCAA Division III All-American, leading the Bulldogs to a 9-1 record. The success was part of a big turnaround for Samford, which suspended the football program from 1974 to 1983, and then was 6-21 in the three seasons before Bowden became coach. Bowden brought in several transfers who made an immediate impact, none bigger than Fisher, who passed for 2,394 yards and 34 touchdowns and was named the Division III National Player of the Year.

“He was the best athlete I ever had at quarterback,” Bowden told USA Today in 2014. “He had a strong arm, he had great leadership. But he was just 5-foot-8. He was never limited in talent. He was limited in height only.”

Fisher was Samford’s second quarterback to earn All-America honors. The first? Bobby Bowden, father of Terry, who would go on to win two national championships at Florida State. Bobby Bowden brought Fisher on staff in Tallahassee in 2007, and Fisher would succeed him as coach in 2010. Fisher’s first game that year was against Samford. Even his first collegiate game at Salem was against Samford.

“You don’t think the good Lord doesn’t work in funny ways?” Fisher said at his induction. “The choice to come to Samford was one of the top choices of my life. And I pray to God the one I just made is just as good, I promise you that. I hope that is just as good.”

Tommy Rohling, a teammate of Fisher’s who is Samford’s strength and conditioning coach, said Fisher provided leadership from the first day he walked on campus by hitting the weight room.

“You gotta understand, this is 1987, and Jimbo was what I would call the first ‘weight room guy’ that was the quarterback,” Rohling said. “He got in there and he didn’t do his own thing. He got in there and he did the heavy dips, he did the heavy bench press, he did the heavy squat and the heavy power cleans, and he did all the conditioning.”

Fisher showed his moxie in Samford’s 1987 season opener, guiding the team to a come-from-behind 28-23 victory at Cumberland (Kentucky).

“We were down,” Rohling said, “and it was that point in the fourth quarter where, in the last three years, basically we would have said, ‘Well, we came up here and we gave it our best try. Hey, we got Hampden-Sydney [at home] next weekend.’ Well, Coach Bowden and Jimbo were like, ‘Well, the hell with that, we can still win this game.’”

Fisher led the Bulldogs on a game-winning drive. More than three decades later, a fourth-and-6 conversion remains etched in Rohling’s mind.

“The irony is Jimbo completed a pass to Jeff Walters,” Rohling said. “Well, the year before, Jeff Walters had been our quarterback. Jimbo comes in and Terry tells [Walters] the lay of the land. Well, he moves to tight end, and the irony is Jeff ends up becoming one of Jimbo’s favorite targets that year.”

After a year playing for the Chicago Bruisers in the Arena Football League, Fisher returned to Samford as a graduate assistant. The Bulldogs were making the transition from Division III, with no athletic scholarships, to Division I-AA (now known as FCS, for Football Championship Subdivision).

In 1991, Fisher was elevated to offensive coordinator, helping the Bulldogs improve from 6-4-1 to 12-2, and making the I-AA playoffs. Rohling, who became a graduate assistant in 1990, gives much of the credit to Fisher, who had to replace three-year starters at quarterback and running back. Fisher molded former backup quarterback Ben Wiggins, who threw for 5,096 career passing yards, which is still eighth in school history. He signed running back Surkano “Tank” Edwards from Marine Military Academy, who rushed for 2,094 career yards, which ranks sixth in school history.

Terry Bowden was hired at Auburn after the 1992 season, and he took Fisher with him. That started a path — Auburn, Cincinnati, LSU, Florida State — that would eventually bring Fisher to Aggieland.

But it all started at Samford, because it afforded Fisher the opportunity to play in the South and be a part of reviving a program.

“It was as much fun as I’ve ever had in football maybe, because it was a school that was building football back, and you were able to be the first, part of having a tremendous season, setting the records we did, playing like we did,” Fisher said. “Being part of that team, that’s something no one can ever take away. And that’s what I tell our guys. When you’re one of those teams that did it first, there’s just a great feeling of accomplishment.”