DESTIN, Fla. — While talking to a handful of reporters during a lunch break at the Southeastern Conference Spring Meetings last month, new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher’s cellular phone rang.
He showed it to one of the Louisiana writers huddled around him.
“Look,” he said smiling while showing the cell screen, which showed a 225 area code. “I’ll call him back. That’s a board member guy. No, not a board member. What’s the fund-raising group?”
Tiger Athletic Foundation, he was told.
“That’s right — the T-A-F,” Fisher said. “I’m still friends with a few guys over there.”
But the TAF and LSU could not afford Fisher, or did not want to afford Fisher, or did not think Fisher was worth the price that his agent, Jimmy Sexton, was asking when LSU athletic director Joe Alleva was looking for a football coach late in the 2015 season briefly before Coach Les Miles got a reprieve and again early in the 2016 season when Miles was fired. Regardless of what you believe or is true, LSU made a huge mistake in not hiring Fisher.
Alleva instead wooed young Houston coach Tom Herman, 43, intensely for a week or more as his first choice, and Herman would have been an excellent hire along the lines of LSU basketball coach Will Wade – so far Alleva’s best hire for a major job at LSU by miles. But Herman took the Texas job for $5 million a year instead, as most everyone assumed he would considering he coached 16 of his 19-year career in that state. Everyone knew everything about Herman and his career path led to Austin, Texas. Everyone but Alleva apparently. Still, though, Alleva tried. But then, frustrated, Alleva promoted journeyman LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron on Nov. 26, 2016, at $3.5 million a year to permanent head coach.
Just about one year later, Texas A&M hired Fisher from Florida State for 10 years at $7.5 million a year — about $500,000 to $1 million more a year than he would have gone to LSU for a year earlier and somewhat less than that the year before.
LSU, though, particularly did not like the long-term contract Sexton was pushing for a rarity in the hiring game — a sitting national championship coach still young enough to win a couple more. Fisher, 52, won the national title in the 2013 season with the Seminoles and guided them to the first College Football Playoff final four a year later.
When LSU passed on Fisher, though, it did not know that he would be passing on them so soon. Fisher, who directed some of the best offenses in the Southeastern Conference as LSU’s coordinator from 2000-06 and in the nation as Florida State’s head coach from 2010-17, will host LSU and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda at Texas A&M on Nov. 24.
Fisher is familiar with Aranda. He tried to hire him after the 2017 season. There were incorrect media reports in Texas that he did.
“No, no, I can’t say,” Fisher said at the SEC Spring Meetings when asked how close he was to getting Aranda. “I’ll not say. Those are personal things that go back and forth.”
Fisher still considers LSU and Louisiana personal friends. He and his former wife Candace had their first child, Trey, in Baton Rouge.
“There’s still a lot of old relationships and things that are there,” Fisher said. “And again, Louisiana was a great time for me when I lived there and coached there.”
Fisher became friends with LSU fan Bill “Chico” Moore, who has worked with the Gridiron Club and helped start the Bayou Bash recruiting party in the mid-1990s. He was Fisher’s neighbor while at LSU in the University Club subdivision.
“We had a couple of the first houses there,” Fisher said.
Fisher and offensive line coach Stacey Searels, who followed Fisher from Auburn to Cincinnati and to LSU, were the only assistant coaches on the staff of then-LSU coach Nick Saban (2000-04) to stay on with Miles when he replaced Saban after the 2004 season, and both stayed through the 2006 season.
Fisher plans on continuing to visit Louisiana often, now that he is in a neighboring state. He was able to sign tight end Glenn Beal out of John Curtis High last recruiting season for his No. 16 ranked class of 2018, according to Rivals.com. That Aggies’ class was not even in the top 30 at the time Fisher was hired early last December. Beal was just a three-star prospect and ranked as the No. 41 player at his position in the nation and No. 26 prospect in Louisiana, but LSU did try to sign him late.
“I think you have to recruit Louisiana if you’re the coach at Texas A&M,” Fisher said. “That’s part of our state’s regional area. It’s so close, and you’ve got to bridge over in that area and be able to do that.”
Fisher just lost three-star cornerback Marcus Banks of DeKaney High School in the Houston area to Orgeron. Banks, the No. 40 cornerback in the nation according to Rivals.com, visited Texas A&M on April 27. He was offered scholarships by Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Baylor, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech, among others.
Fisher’s class of 2019 is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation by Rivals.com with 21 commitments, but none from Louisiana at the moment. LSU’s class of 2019 is ranked No. 6 with 19 commitments, including three from Texas.
“Louisiana has great high school football,” Fisher said. “It’s coached very well. Kids are very competitive and tough. I think it’s an area that we do have to get into along with other areas. There’s still a lot of the same high school coaches in Louisiana there that are very successful, and there are some new ones you have to meet.”
Orgeron has been asked about Fisher’s presence to his west twice over the last several weeks.
“Not much (personal) history,” Orgeron said at the Houston Touchdown Club on May 2.
Asked what he thought of Fisher’s jump from Florida State to Texas A&M, Orgeron said only, “It has nothing to do with me.”
At the SEC Spring Meetings, Orgeron was asked how Fisher’s new job impacts him. “Not at all,” he said. “Not at all. You know, the SEC has a lot of good coaches. I mean, every year. Kevin Sumlin was a good recruiter. Those guys did a good job.”
Sumlin was fired as Texas A&M’s coach last season and is now head coach at Arizona.
“We have to recruit. Nothing changes for me,” Orgeron said. “Houston is like an in-state area for us. That’s the way we treat it. We’ve had a lot of success there. Obviously, Jimbo is going to do a great job there. We know that. He’s an outstanding recruiter. We’re not going to get everybody in Houston, but we’re going to get our share.”
And Fisher plans on getting his share in Louisiana and beyond. He just hired a rising recruiting ace and talent evaluation aficionado whom Orgeron said would one day be an NFL general manager — Austin Thomas.
Orgeron made Thomas LSU’s “general manager” before last season after retaining him from Miles’ staff when Thomas had the title of assistant athletic director for player personnel. Thomas also worked with Orgeron at Tennessee and at USC, but Thomas was not hired back at LSU after he left last December for a similar job at Tennessee that did not work out.
Thomas joins three Texas A&M assistant coaches with LSU ties like Fisher — offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Darrell Dickey, who was LSU’s tight ends coach from 1991-93; linebacker coach Bradley Dale Peveto, who was special teams coach and linebackers coach under Miles from 2005-08 and again from 2014-16 after he was Northwestern State’s head coach from 2009-12; and wide receivers coach/recruiting ace Dameyune Craig, who was LSU’s wide receivers coach in 2016 and a graduate assistant with the Tigers in 2004.
Orgeron fired Peveto shortly after being named permanent head coach in November and canned Craig the following February.
Another Louisiana connection at Texas A&M is athletic director Scott Woodward, a Baton Rouge native and LSU alum who was LSU vice chancellor under chancellor Mark Emmert from 2001-04. Emmert hired Saban, who hired Fisher, who was hired by Woodward.
Fisher gives the SEC a record four head coaches who formerly coached at LSU. The other three are Saban at Alabama, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, who was LSU’s defensive backs coach under Saban in 2004, and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, who was Saban’s defensive backs coach in 2001 and his defensive coordinator from 2002-04. Saban’s class of 2019 is ranked No. 1 by Rivals.com with 20 commitments. South Carolina is at No. 12 with 16 commitments, and Georgia is at No. 15 with 10 commitments. Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia have zero commitments from Louisiana, but with the state expected to have one of its top classes in a few years, that may not be over yet.
Orgeron and LSU will host Smart and Georgia on Oct. 13 and will play Saban and Alabama in Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3.
Former SEC head coach Derek Dooley, who was at Tennessee from 2010-12 and is now the offensive coordinator at Missouri after serving as a Dallas Cowboys assistant, was also an LSU assistant from 2000-04. He helped get Muschamp, a former Georgia safety, to LSU in 2001 from the Valdosta State defensive coordinator slot. Smart also came to LSU from Valdosta State after a stop at Florida State.
“There were a lot of good coaches on that staff,” Muschamp, who was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1995-96 when Fisher was Auburn’s quarterbacks coach, said in Destin.
Like Fisher, Saban, Muschamp and Smart also have former LSU assistants on their staff and other assistants with recruiting-strategic Louisiana ties.
At Alabama, strength coach Scott Cochran was an assistant strength coach at LSU in 2003 and ’04 and was a graduate assistant from 2001-03. There is also assistant athletic director for football Burton Burns, a New Orleans native who was the Tide’s running back coach from 2007-16 and previously was an assistant at Tulane and Southern and coached at St. Augustine and Booker T. Washington high schools in New Orleans. In addition, defensive back coach Karl Scott was an assistant at Louisiana Tech and Southeastern Louisiana, while inside linebackers coach Pete Golding is a Hammond native who coached at Southeastern Louisiana as well.
At South Carolina, defensive line coach Lance Thompson was defensive line coach at LSU in 2002 and recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach in 2003. Plus, tight ends coach Pat Washington was the wide receivers coach at Louisiana-Lafayette from 1989-91.
At Georgia, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was LSU’s secondary coach in 2000, and co-offensive coordinator James Coley was a graduate assistant at LSU in 2003 and ’04. In addition, wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton is a New Orleans native who played at St. Augustine High School and is the son of two New Orleans policemen.
“It’s like a reunion around here,” Fisher said. “It’s such a great conference, and I grew up around the SEC. I was 13 years in this league (1993-98 at Auburn as quarterbacks coach under Terry Bowden, 2000-06 at LSU as offensive coordinator under Saban and Miles) and have tremendous respect for it. I know how challenging it is. I was in a great conference, too (Atlantic Coast Conference). But I mean you know how competitive the SEC is. You know one thing about the SEC — it’s prioritized so they’re all going to be the best they can possibly be.”
When Fisher, Muschamp, Smart and Dooley got hired at LSU it represented dramatic upwardly mobile moves for each. Fisher was offensive coordinator at Cincinnati in 1999 before coming to LSU. Muschamp was defensive coordinator at Valdosta State. Smart was at Florida State, but as a graduate assistant. Dooley, meanwhile, was a wide receivers coach at SMU.
Fisher is closest to Muschamp. When Fisher was in his last season as LSU’s offensive coordinator in 2006 and Muschamp was in his first as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, Fisher’s family stayed at Muschamp’s house during game weekend when No. 6 LSU played at No. 3 Auburn. Muschamp won, 7-3.
While both were coordinators at LSU, Fisher and Muschamp co-coordinated ownership of a beach house on the Florida panhandle and kept it for several years, including when they were blood rivals as head coaches – Fisher at Florida State from 2010-17 and Muschamp at Florida from 2011-14.
“Will’s still a great friend,” Fisher said. “As a matter of fact, I talked to him on the phone two days ago and just talked about issues and things we have in the league for the meetings. Will’s a great coach and a great guy. I have a lot of respect for him.”
The waterfront partnership eventually ended, though.
“We both got so busy, we didn’t go enough,” Fisher said. “So we sold it.”
Apparently, coaching in the SEC is no day at the beach whether you are coaching against friends or not. Or in Orgeron’s case – against LSU coaching alumni to his left and right.