- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach was with the Florida State football team in Jacksonville, Fla., during Bobby Bowden's final game as head coach during the Gator Bowl. He was in Tallahassee the following day as Bowden's successor, Jimbo Fisher, began life as the Seminoles' first new head coach since 1976.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The day after Bobby Bowden's 34-year career as Florida State's football coach ended, his parking space outside Gate M of Doak Campbell Stadium was noticeably empty.
A few Florida State fans mingled outside FSU's athletic department building, snapping photos of the bronze statue of Bowden, which never cast nearly as big a shadow as the one he left on the sideline of the nearby football field that bears his name.
On the third floor of the Coyle E. Moore Center, two FSU workers were painting the walls of Bowden's old office and hanging two 55-inch, flat-screen TVs. The desk where Bowden once sat is even gone. Bowden took it home, along with more than three decades' worth of memorabilia and memories from one of college football's greatest coaching careers.
The Bowden era at Florida State ended on New Year's Day, after the Seminoles defeated West Virginia 33-21 in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
Bowden's postgame speech after his final game as a coach was surprisingly brief. He thanked his players for their effort and told them he would enjoy watching them become a better team in 2010.
After only a few remarks, Bowden turned to FSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and told his players, "I'd like to introduce you to your new coach, Jimbo Fisher."
In the early morning hours of Jan. 2, Fisher awoke in a hotel room in Jacksonville as a head coach for the first time in his life. After 19 seasons as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Samford (Ala.) University, Auburn, Cincinnati, LSU and FSU, Fisher finally had a program of his own.
And for the first time since 1976, someone other than Bowden was coaching the Seminoles.
"Everybody told me that after the Gator Bowl, I was still in Coach Bowden mode," Fisher said, shortly after he entered FSU's football offices for the first time as the school's head coach. "This morning, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. I sat there in bed and thought about what I had to do. I told myself, 'We've got our first meeting today.' The butterflies hit my stomach, and I got a little excited thinking through the day about what I had to do."
In the weeks between the Dec. 1 announcement that Bowden wouldn't return as FSU's coach in 2010 and his final game in the Gator Bowl, Fisher worked behind the scenes to assemble his coaching staff and plan for other changes. Fisher said he wanted to be sure he didn't deflect attention away from Bowden's farewell.
"I wasn't pushing him out," Fisher said. "I didn't want to push him out. I hope people don't think that. I know coach Bowden and I don't think that. We've had great talks since then."
On his first day on the job, Fisher arrived at FSU's football offices shortly after 1 p.m., after driving three hours back from Jacksonville. He walked out of an elevator with Eddie Gran, who had been hired as the team's running backs coach, after Fisher plucked him from Lane Kiffin's staff at Tennessee. Fisher and Gran walked through the narrow hall that leads to the assistant coaches' offices.
Fisher showed Gran two identical offices.
"Take your pick," Fisher told Gran.
Across the hall, defensive line coach Odell Haggins and receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey, two of the four assistants Fisher retained from Bowden's staff, were sitting in a film room (the other two Fisher kept: offensive line coach Rick Trickett and James Coley, who Fisher promoted from tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator to offensive coordinator). They were watching the early moments of the International Bowl, along with other members of FSU's support staff.
As FSU's offensive coordinator the past three seasons, Fisher helped the Seminoles become one of the ACC's most explosive offenses. But fixing FSU's defense is Fisher's first order of business. Among 120 FBS teams, FSU finished 110th in pass-efficiency defense (149.9 rating), 108th in total defense (434.6 yards per game), 108th in rushing defense (204.6 yards) and 94th in scoring defense (30 points per game).
Fisher made many changes to FSU's coaching staff. Longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews announced his retirement in November after 26 seasons at FSU. Fisher fired linebackers coach Chuck Amato and defensive ends coach Jody Allen, who had worked for Bowden for 31 seasons combined. Running backs coach Dexter Carter and strength coach Todd Stroud were dismissed, too.
Fisher moved quickly to hire Gran, who is regarded as a top recruiter in South Florida. South Alabama assistant Dameyune Craig, who played quarterback for Fisher at Auburn, was hired as quarterbacks coach. Fisher also was able to persuade Arizona defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to leave his brother Mike's staff. East Carolina defensive coordinator Greg Hudson was hired as FSU's linebackers coach, but he wouldn't come to Tallahassee until after the Pirates played Arkansas in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Jan. 2.
Fisher still had to bring in a defensive ends coach (he later hired Rice's D.J. Eliot) and a new strength coach (he has since hired SMU's Vic Viloria). Fisher planned additional changes to FSU's support staff, too. He plans to hire a team psychologist and establish a "unity council" among his players.
"I really want the players to take ownership of the team," Fisher said. "There are some accountability issues within the framework of the team. With a unity council, kids will have to explain themselves to their teammates."
With 10 starters coming back on offense from a 7-6 team, FSU might be very good on offense in 2010, especially when quarterback Christian Ponder returns from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the last four games this past season. Fisher will still call the offensive plays, even though Coley was promoted to offensive coordinator.
"I think we were really close this year," Fisher said. "We have to get our kids to understand the consistency of winning. I think we can be very competitive very quickly. How many wins? I don't know if you can put a finger on it. If we can get rid of some of the self-inflicted wounds, I think we can be in the hunt pretty quickly."
Fisher said he'll have to do a better job of managing his time and schedule, with so many more administrative duties required with being a head coach. During the past two seasons, Bowden relegated many of those duties to Fisher to prepare him for this day.
"I'll still be involved with the 'ball' part of the offense," Fisher said. "I think the structure and organization and time might well be the key. There will be more off-field duties. I like recruiting and speaking. I like to deal with people. We have to get our message out."
Most importantly, Fisher has to get his message out to recruits. His first staff meeting at FSU was designed to familiarize his new coaches with FSU's recruiting. But the first task was getting FSU's coaches familiar with themselves. The meeting began with Fisher introducing Craig and Gran to the team's returning coaches and support staff. Stoops had just arrived in Tallahassee and was running late for the meeting.
"Everybody know everybody?" Fisher asked.
For the first few minutes of the meeting, Fisher went over administrative details, making sure the new coaches had FSU apparel and equipment in their lockers. He checked on available jersey numbers for incoming recruits, and checked to make sure four midyear enrollees were up-to-date on their academic transcripts and other paperwork. The staff discussed which of their current players might not be coming back because of injuries.
Then Fisher and his coaches got down to serious business. A wooden cabinet, which resembles the kind that hides a dart board in a sports bar, was opened and revealed the secrets to FSU's recruiting class. A dry-erase board listed the high school prospects who had verbally committed to the Seminoles and the recruits FSU was still actively pursuing.
Over the next three hours, Fisher and his staff discussed the strength and weaknesses of more than 40 players on FSU's recruiting board. Each coach discussed where the Seminoles stood with each prospect, when the player was visiting campus and which schools they were competing with.
As the FSU coaches discussed the players, with Trickett chomping on a cigar and his cowboy boots propped on the table, their comments ranged from "solid as a rock" to "guy we have to go see."
Under NCAA rules, Fisher and his coaches can't publicly comment on potential recruits until after they have signed national letters of intent with FSU. In exchange for access to Fisher's first staff meeting at FSU, ESPN.com agreed not to identify the players discussed in the room who haven't yet signed.
FSU's recruiting class of 19 committed players is ranked No. 10 in the country by ESPN.com. Four players -- quarterback Clint Trickett (the offensive line coach's son), linebacker Jeff Luc, juco defensive tackle Anthony McCloud and juco running back Debrale Smiley have already enrolled in classes.
It is clear that Fisher's first recruiting class is designed to help FSU's struggling defense. Of FSU's 19 committed players, 14 of them are expected to play defense.
"The big guys are a priority," Fisher told his assistants. "We have to change ourselves on the defensive line, and our offensive linemen are getting older. We need grown-ass men."
Shortly afterward, Stoops walks in the door and quickly introduces himself to the other coaches in the room.
"I'm late," Stoops said. "First staff meeting, I'm late."
Stoops, who spent the past six seasons at Arizona, jumped right into the discussion. Fisher tells a video assistant to get Stoops film of defensive recruits to offer his assessment of them.
"Whenever and wherever, I'm ready to go," Stoops said.
With 60 returning scholarship players, FSU could sign as many as 25 incoming freshmen, and maybe a few more after attrition. The Seminoles have more than 20 uncommitted targets on their board.
"If we land what we think we're going to land, we'll be OK," Fisher said. "This could be a big year."
And it was only the second day of 2010 -- and Fisher's first day on the job.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Bobby Bowden ended his illustrious Florida State career, his successor, Jimbo Fisher, was assembling his staff and laying the groundwork for what he hopes is a new and successful era in FSU football.