Fisher signs first class as FSU coach
Editor's note: ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach was with the Florida State coaching staff on signing day as Jimbo Fisher put the finishing touches on his first recruiting as the Seminoles' head coach.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A couple of minutes after 8 a.m. on Wednesday's national signing day for college football, Eddie Gran's cell phone rang.
The Florida State running backs coach leaped from his chair in the team's spacious meeting room and stepped into an adjoining hallway.
"It's Lemonier," Gran whispered to FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, before leaving the room to speak to defensive end Corey Lemonier of Hialeah, Fla., one of the top uncommitted prospects left on Florida State's recruiting board.
"Hopefully, it's a good call," Seminoles defensive line coach Odell Haggins said.
"He ain't calling us to say no," FSU quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig joked.
A few minutes later, Gran pulled Fisher into the hallway to speak to Lemonier, who was about to announce whether he would play college football at Auburn or Florida State.
Phone calls like that send college coaches scrambling on signing day.
Over the next eight hours, Fisher and his staff would work diligently to put the finishing touches on one of the country's best recruiting classes. They would spend several minutes making last-ditch efforts to lure prospects to FSU and would endure several anxious moments trying to keep the recruits they believed they already had.
"It is days like that make you want to quit," Gran would say several hours later, after national signing day had finally ended.
Fisher's efforts started months ago, while he was still working as the offensive coordinator under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden. After Fisher was named Bowden's replacement in early December, he had to scramble to assemble a coaching staff and keep FSU's recruiting class intact.
"The way we jelled as a staff immediately was a big key," Fisher said. "I've never been around a staff like that before. It's like we'd been together three or four years and were feeding off each other. Our team did a great job in recruiting."
Going into Wednesday, the first day high school prospects could sign a national letter of intent with colleges under NCAA rules, the Seminoles had 24 recruits who had verbally committed to play for them. Four of those players -- quarterback Clint Trickett, linebacker Jeff Luc and junior college transfers Anthony McCloud and Debrale Smiley -- had already enrolled in FSU classes as mid-year signees.
Florida State's haul in Fisher's first season as head coach is ranked in the top 10 nationally by most recruiting services. Luc, from Treasure Coast High School in Port St. Lucie, Fla., was ranked the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country by ESPN Scouts Inc. Lamarcus Joyner of St. Thomas Aquinas High in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., also was headed to FSU, was ranked the No. 1 cornerback.
Getting both of those players to verbally commit to FSU in early December was important, Fisher said.
"When the No. 1 linebacker and No. 1 cornerback in the country say, 'We're going to FSU to be part of the new group,' that made everybody say, 'Hey, wait a minute,'" Fisher said. "I think Luc and Joyner gave us enough credibility to get in the door and sell the program. Those guys got us in the door and kicked it off. Now, you start winning games and take off."
FSU's coaches had learned in the previous few days that two other highly regarded prospects -- linebacker Christian Jones of Winter Park, Fla., and wide receiver Christian Green of Tampa, Fla. -- were going to sign with the Seminoles on Wednesday. Jones is the son of former FSU All-America defensive lineman Willie Jones; Green is related to former FSU star receiver E.G. Green.
"These are good kids," Fisher told his staff. "They're great players, but they aren't prima donnas."
But the Seminoles were still in the race for several highly ranked prospects, most of whom were taking their decisions to the 11th hour. Of course, those players' decisions wouldn't be made until later in the day, with many of them making their announcements in front of packed gymnasiums and TV cameras.
Along with Lemonier, FSU remained in the hunt for about a half-dozen other uncommitted prospects. Demar Dorsey of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the country's No. 2 safety prospect, told FSU's coaches late Tuesday night that he would be signing with the Seminoles. Outside linebacker Darrin Kitchens of Homestead, Fla., also remained a strong possibility for FSU.
Four other recruits -- running back Mack Brown of Atlanta; receiver Vincent Sanders of Macon, Miss.; defensive lineman Calvin Smith of Hialeah, Fla.; and defensive tackle J.R. Ferguson of Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia -- were still considering the Seminoles. But Fisher said he really didn't feel confident about his team's chances of landing any of those prospects.
Brown, who was ranked the No. 4 running back prospect in the country by ESPN.com, told FSU's coaches on Tuesday night that he was reconsidering his decision to attend rival Florida. During Fisher's first staff meeting on Jan. 2, recruiting coordinator James Coley received a text message indicating Brown would make an official visit to the FSU campus.
Fisher immediately swore his coaches and support staff to secrecy.
"That doesn't leave this room," Fisher said, while looking at several of the team's graduate assistants. "Understand that ga.com? I know the [Internet recruiting sites] are giving supplements to somebody. They've got a source in this room, and I'm going to find it. When I do, I hope they give you severance while you're walking out the door."
Not all of FSU's committed players are household names. At 8:15 a.m. on Wednesday, Coley received a telephone call from an ESPN producer. The network was scheduled to broadcast the announcements of tight end Will Tye and defensive end Bjoern Werner, who played at the Salisbury School in Salisbury, Conn. The producer wanted to confirm the Seminoles were actually recruiting Werner, a German exchange student, who has played football for only two seasons.
Apparently, the ESPN producer wanted to avoid another embarrassing recruiting episode. Two years ago, Kevin Hart, a little-known lineman from Nevada, announced he was going to sign with the California Bears. Hart made the announcement in front of a packed gym. But California hadn't offered Hart a scholarship -- no college had.
"Yeah, we know him," Coley told the ESPN producer, in his strong Cuban accent.
"America is a great place," Fisher said. "You've got a Cuban recruiting a German to an American school."
By 9 a.m., FSU's fax machine started delivering national letters of intent. Offensive lineman Daniel Foose of Paramus, N.J., who had previously committed to play at Illinois, was the first player to officially sign with FSU. Shortly after his letter of intent arrived, Foose called Coley. Coley handed his phone to Fisher.
"Are you happy?" Fisher asked Foose, the only offensive lineman the Seminoles signed. "I'm ecstatic. We need you down here and you're not going to regret it. We're going to get you to knock open some holes for these skill guys to score touchdowns. We're going to build a great class around you. We're going to coach you up, and you're going to make a lot of money when you leave here. Welcome to the family."
"I'm going to let you talk to Coach Trickett," Fisher told Foose. "He's going to start yelling at you right now."
Fisher handed the phone to FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett, a former Marine, who is known for his rugged coaching style.
Trickett took the phone into the hallway. At the end of their conversation, Trickett told his new lineman, "Now, look, when you get out of class today, you get your rear in that weight room."
Shortly thereafter, FSU received signed national letters of intent from wide receivers Greg Dent of Belle Glade, Fla., and D.J. Johnson of Pahokee, Fla. (In a telephone conversation with Johnson, Fisher asked him, "You didn't misspell that did you? D dot J").
After Fisher talked to Johnson, he glanced at a dry-erase board that listed FSU's committed players.
"I'm not really worried about it because of the type of kids we've got and their families," Fisher told his coaches. "It's the first time I'm not worried about it. Usually, if you don't have them by 9 a.m., you get worried. But I'm not worried."
But 10 minutes later, FSU's first crisis arrived. Someone called Coley's cell phone, telling him that a radio station in Valdosta, Ga., was reporting that Lowndes County High School linebacker Telvin Smith was reconsidering his decision and might sign with Georgia. On Monday night, Smith announced he was signing with FSU.
Smith called Fisher a few minutes later. Fisher stepped out on the balcony that overlooks Doak Campbell Stadium's playing field.
The crisis lasted for more than an hour. Smith was sitting in a Burger King parking lot in Valdosta, trying to decide what to do.
In the end, Smith signed with the Seminoles. Fisher believes Smith, who is ranked the No. 8 outside linebacker in the country by Scouts Inc., might potentially be the best player in FSU's recruiting class.
"I just talked to him about his commitment and his instincts," Fisher said later. "He committed to us twice. We only have five scholarship linebackers and we're bringing in the best linebacker class in the country. Valdosta is only an hour away from here. He has a big family. When he comes here, he brings half of Valdosta with him. This was the right place for him."
By lunch time on Wednesday, most of FSU's recruiting class was finished. The Seminoles didn't secure any of the uncommitted prospects they had hoped to sign. Dorsey surprised them by signing with Michigan. Sanders stayed close to home and signed with Ole Miss, and Ferguson chose LSU.
Lemonier, the player who called ealier that morning, signed with Auburn.
"That was one confused boy," Fisher said. "His computer has locked up."
Calvin Smith, Lemonier's high school teammate, had the FSU coaches shaking their heads after he chose New Mexico (over FSU, Alabama and Tennessee, among other schools).
Kitchens, the hard-hitting linebacker from Homestead, Fla., called FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops shortly before signing with the Gators. Kitchens told Stoops he was holding national letters of intent for Florida and FSU and wasn't sure what he was going to do.
"He's walking into the door and has no idea," Stoops said. "It's us or Florida. He was breathing heavy."
At 3:30 p.m., Fisher sat at a table in front of a large projection TV and waited for Christian Green to make his announcement on ESPN2. Green had two hats in front of him: FSU and Georgia. Green had previously told FSU's coaches he was coming to Tallahassee, but Fisher still seemed anxious until Green put the FSU cap on his head.
"Do that chop, baby!" Fisher yelled. "That's a good way to finish, boys."
All in all, Fisher's first recruiting class at FSU had to be considered a success. ESPN.com ranked FSU's group of 24 signees the sixth-best class in the country.
"I thought we had a great day today," Fisher said. "I was very pleased with the things that happened today. I thought we addressed all of our needs and then went and got the best players available. Did you get everybody you wanted? No, you never do. There are some guys that slip out and that's recruiting."
Across the country, Fisher was commended for his ability to put together such a strong class despite FSU's coaching transition.
"I've been around coach Bowden, who was a great closer," Fisher said. "I've been around [Alabama coach Nick] Saban, who was a great closer."
Now, Fisher has to prove he can win as many games as Bowden and Saban have won.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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