TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) The foundation of Jimbo Fisher’s coaching philosophy began during rides home with his father after Pop Warner games. His dad would pepper him in the car with a single question: Why?
John Fisher would ask the young quarterback why did he make a certain throw? Why didn’t he make different decisions?
The talks continued through high school, and three decades later Florida State’s Fisher has used those father-son bonding moments to arguably become the pre-eminent quarterback coach in college football.
Fisher has had eight quarterbacks drafted to the NFL since 2001, works with reigning Heisman winner Jamies Winston and two of his former Seminole disciples are expected to start for other major college programs this year.
”There’s one thing I ask them: Why?” Fisher said. ”Why’d you do that? Why did you not do that? Why was that successful? Why was that not successful?
”If you can’t know why you did something and why you didn’t, how are you going to repeat it? If you do it well, but you don’t understand why you did it, when the moment comes that you have to repeat it In the game for the championship, you can’t do it because you never understood in the first place.”
Fisher, 48, lists former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and Alabama coach Nick Saban as major influences, but it was his father who first peppered him with the question, ”Why?”
Fisher always played quarterback through college at Salem College and Samford, but was never the most athletic. His father constantly questioned Fisher with the goal being to outthink other players.
The lessons stuck.
Fisher helped turn JaMarcus Russell into the first overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft when he was offensive coordinator at LSU. Former Tiger Matt Flynn is the backup in Green Bay. Former FSU quarterback Christian Ponder was the No. 12 overall pick in 2011. E.J. Manuel was the first quarterback taken in the 2013 draft. Winston is a leading candidate to win his second Heisman trophy. Florida State transfers Clint Trickett and Jacob Coker are likely to start at West Virginia and Alabama, respectively.
Fisher is the only head coach in college football that has had three quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2007, according to STATS LLC.
”I think a combination of things makes him really, really successful,” said Tommy Bowden, who coached with Fisher at Auburn. ”One, he played the position. He’s an overachiever. He’s extremely confident.
”He’s a hard-nosed guy, coming from that coal-mining background with his father. … He doesn’t baby those guys.”
Winston, Manuel and Ponder credit their success to how Fisher trains QBs mentally.
Fisher drills technique and fundamentals, but he holds quarterbacks accountable for everything in the offense.
”He’ll test you in practice just to see how you respond,” Manuel said. ”He’ll say things just to get you off your game and see if you can come and battle back because that’s what’s going to happen in a real game.
”Things aren’t always going to go perfect. He wants to see if you have the mental makeup to bounce back.”
The BCS championship victory was one of Fisher’s proudest moments as a coach. Not because it validated his status in college football, but because of Winston’s performance. He struggled in the first half and the Seminoles fell behind 21-3. Winston responded and eventually drove FSU on an 80-yard drive and threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining.
The top-ranked Seminoles begin their title defense Saturday against Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas.
”His practices are so tough,” Winston said of Fisher. ”He’s constantly on us. He’s on us the hardest out of everyone. We are accountable for every mistake.”
Part of Fisher’s drive derives from a constant fear of failure. He uses that motivation to be a better coach, recruiter and teacher. He’s never had another job outside of coaching and always yearned to be in charge. Fisher wanted that responsibility regardless of the sport.
”I wanted to be involved in play-calling,” Fisher said. ”I think I liked being in charge. I was competitive as a young kid. I wanted to decide that game, not nobody else. Whether we won or we lost.”
Florida State runs a complex, quarterback-driven, pro-style offense designed to have an answer for every defensive coverage. Fisher compares it to math where there’s a formula for each problem.
The quarterback is responsible for knowing where to go with the ball in every situation. The quarterbacks aren’t only expected to regurgitate Fisher’s ideas, but to come up with their own solutions. He gives homework assignments where they are tasked to come up with concepts to counter certain looks.
”I don’t want to teach them everything,” Fisher said. ”I think the greatest teacher in the world is yourself. I don’t want them to be robots. I don’t want them to learn it because that’s what I said. I want them to understand it. There’s a difference.”
It has made his QBs attractive to NFL teams.
”He put a lot of things on the quarterback … with checks and everything,” Ponder said. ”That helps the team, getting the best look and the best play, and also helps you transition to the NFL game.
”Because especially in the offense now, there are so many checks and so much on the quarterback, I feel like from that offense I was prepared for this.”
Associated Press reporter Dave Campbell in Minnesota contributed to this story.