- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- On his way to join the Florida State defense at spring practice on Monday, defensive end Kevin McNeil lingered to watch the quarterbacks, pausing just long enough for offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to tease him about being on the wrong side of the field.
"Why don't you come over here and play tight end?" Fisher joked.
"I don't want to make them other guys look bad," McNeil said with a smirk.
"Don't worry 'bout them other guys," Fisher said, "It's me you gotta worry about."
"Maybe next year, when you're the head guy, we'll talk."
Next year? Maybe.
Whenever it happens, Florida State is ready.
The deal was done in December, when university president T.K. Wetherell and interim athletic director Bill Proctor named Fisher as Bobby Bowden's successor, but the coaching transition at Florida State has already begun -- quietly, smoothly and without resistance from the winningest coach in college football.
For the first time in 32 seasons, Bowden has told recruits he's not sure if he's going to be there for five more years. For the first time since they began supporting the program decades ago, wealthy boosters have met with someone other than Bowden. And while Fisher's voice echoed throughout Doak S. Campbell stadium during a scrimmage on Monday as Bowden watched from the stands, it was clear who was running the show.
It's just not his program. Not yet.
"I understand it's not my football team," said Fisher. "I'm not the head coach, coach Bowden is. I do have an ultimate respect for that. We're just trying to make sure we gradually put little pieces in place as we go."
And Bowden, who has a one-year contract he can renew after each season, is content to help usher the process along.
"The thing it does for him," Bowden said, "it allows him to observe on the job what has taken place and what a head coach has to do, whereas he might not have paid that much attention to it if his eyes were elsewhere."
Even at 78, though, Bowden's eyes are still fixed on winning.
As he leaned back in his garnet leather office chair and chewed on an unlit cigar, Bowden matter-of-factly said he would like to increase his win total from 373 to 400 games and, perhaps, win another national championship before he officially hands his job over to Fisher -- in other words, resurrect his once proud program that failed to finish in the national rankings for the past two seasons.
"I'd sure like to," he said. "And if it doesn't, I ought to get out."
Meanwhile, Fisher is working his way in.
Between now and the end of May, Fisher will have about 10 private, invitation-only meetings with the prime money movers in the Seminoles' booster club -- and without Bowden. Fisher, who has never been a head coach before, will tell them about his vision for the program, which includes a much-needed and discussed indoor practice facility. He has already had three one-on-one meetings throughout the state with multimillionaires.
"They want to get to know Jimbo," said Charlie Barnes, executive director and senior vice president of Seminole Boosters. " They're very interested in meeting him and getting to know him since he's going to be taking over eventually, but you have to understand, these are all friends of Bobby's. They grew up with him, his status will never change in their eyes. Now they understand, 'Well, there's going to be a new guy. Let's find out what he's all about and if we can offer him some support, then let's do that.'"
Fisher also will join Bowden on four occasions during Bowden's 24-city spring speaking tour (at Miami Seminole club, Fisher will be the only one to sign autographs). When he's not on the road with Bowden, Fisher will recruit.
"I've always had to assure these young men my plans are to be here five years," Bowden said. "Well, I'm 78. Can I guarantee I'll be here 'til 83? No, I can't. And I don't think I desire to be here at 83. That's why the timing of this thing is excellent."
It played a huge role in luring incoming quarterback E.J. Manuel, a five-star recruit ranked the No. 6 quarterback in the country by Scouts Inc.
"That was the most important thing to me," said Manuel, who will attend this weekend's spring game. "Of course coach Bowden is an awesome coach. He's already a legend in the game. It's going to be awesome to play for coach Bowden, but once coach Fisher becomes the head coach that meant a lot to me. One, because he's a quarterback coach, two because he recruited me. I know he has a lot of trust in my abilities and I know he's going to coach me well so I can become even better."
Bowden has long had a hands-off approach, but on Monday, his distance couldn't have been more measurable. With the scrimmage closed to the public, there was really only one fan watching. Bowden parked his golf court in one of the stadium entrance ways, took a seat in the stands at midfield, leaned back with his legs crossed, arms outstretched, and watched the show.
"People say, 'He can't coach no more,'" Bowden said. "Well, a head coach don't coach. [The assistants] coach. They do all the coaching. All I do is make decisions: Punt, don't punt. Go for it. Don't go for it. Let's go for two. Let's don't go for two. Four of my coaches are former head coaches. They know what they're doing. Really all I do is help organize and say 'Yes, we're going to do this,' 'No, we're not going to do that,' and then try and handle the problems."
One of which has been the offense -- a problem that is in the hands of Fisher for the second season. For the past two years, FSU has not had a winning record in the ACC and hasn't won more than seven games. Some of that can be attributed to inconsistency at quarterback, and an invisible running game.
Fisher was hired as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach last year, but this will be the first season scrutinizing Seminoles fans will be watching knowing he soon will be in charge of everything.
"You have to know what's realistic and what you can achieve," Fisher said. "You can see small improvements, which I've seen a lot of last year. Sometimes the fans don't see it because it doesn't translate into results immediately.
"Anytime as a coach, you can't worry about what people say or what people think. You have to do what you believe, what you know is right and the way you've been successful, and you have to be yourself. If you start worrying about the naysayers, you're chasing ghosts. When you do that, you're never going to be successful."
The only thing Fisher was chasing after on Monday was his offense.
"What is he DOING?" Fisher yelled about receiver Bert Reed. "He ain't running! RUN! 83, why are you not running? You're the first read on the post!"
Fisher, though, wasn't Bowden's first read as his successor.
Bowden had recommended that longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews become the next coach, but university president T.K. Wetherell wanted a younger coach.
Wetherell said FSU wasn't "out to hire a name," and the more they watched Fisher last season, the more it became clear he was what they were looking for.
"We've taken young coaches, then let them grow here and move on," Wetherell said. "That's been our system -- we just haven't had to hire a coach in 30 years. We made the decision we wanted to hire a young, energetic coach with certain moral values in terms of football and recruiting and that kind of thing. We wanted somebody with our values at Florida State. We made that decision before we ever knew Jimbo Fisher, then when we went through the transition, Jimbo came to the forefront there. As we got to know him -- what our boosters, our administration, our people came to see in him -- was the Bobby Bowden of 30 years ago."
Bowden, whose son Terry had coached Fisher at Salem College and Samford, and whose family has a friendship with the Fishers, accepted the decision but was concerned about how the staff would accept it.
"Mickey, he accepted it beautifully," Bowden said, "but I'm sure he still wondered what happened to him."
Andrews declined to comment for this story.
By accepting the terms of the deal, Fisher locked himself into the job and knocked himself out of contention for others. If Florida State fails to offer him the head position by 2011, Fisher will receive $2.5 million. If Fisher leaves, he owes the university the same amount.
"I talked to my agent about it, and all the things about it," Fisher said. "You could say well, OK, you can go take another job, but I've always thought this was one of the top jobs in the country. Even if I went and took another job somewhere else, if it wasn't the elite job, which I consider Florida State, then in three years you're begging for the same job they're offering you now. The decision I based it on was not where I was going to be tomorrow, but where I want to be five, 10, 15 years down the road. And this is ultimately where you want to be."
By turning down West Virginia, a job with personal ties to his home state, Fisher proved it.
The succession plan is working just the way Wetherell envisioned it.
"What you have is the ability to reinvent yourself while you still have the best of both worlds," he said. "You still have Bobby Bowden and I've got this new head coach who still has all this energy. Bobby is able to guide Jimbo. What he's learning is how to be a head coach, how to deal with boosters, how to raise money. He's learning now he's got to get out of the film room and appease some of the fat cat boosters so he can have an indoor practice facility. Bobby's the master when it comes to getting in front of a group of people or walking into a home and closing on a big recruit. We think we've got the best of both worlds."
Only one of them, though, is sticking around.
Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.