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Jimbo Fisher bristled at the question.
“I knew how to work hard for a long time before I started working for Nick,” he said.
This was just before the 2000 season at LSU. Nick Saban at 48 had taken over the previous November as LSU’s coach after a 9-2 breakthrough season as Michigan State’s coach. Not one assistant followed him to LSU, largely because of his reputation as an old school taskmaster. In his younger days, perhaps a bit like Robert Duvall in “The Great Santini,” like his father before him.
Saban hired Fisher, 34, from the offensive coordinator job at Cincinnati. And the rest is history. LSU won the national championship in the 2003 season and after 2004, Saban and Fisher went their separate ways – Saban became coach of the Miami Dolphins, then Alabama while Fisher stayed at LSU two seasons before becoming coordinator, then head coach at Florida State and then Texas A&M.
John James “Jimbo” Fisher made history on his 56th birthday Saturday night by becoming the first of the nine Saban assistant coaches who became head coaches to beat the father.
And Fisher did it in grand fashion on one of largest of stages in college football as his Aggies delivered a 41-38 victory over No. 1 Alabama on a 28-yard field goal by Seth Small as time expired in front of 106,815 and thousands of 12th men at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.
Saban – aka Santini – fell to 24-1 against his pupils since 2010 when these grasshopper games all started. Then-Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, also a former Saban assistant at LSU, started it all with a 41-10 loss that season.
One-by-one with more than one loss for most, they fell and fell at the feet of Dad – Dooley (0-3), Jim McElwain (0-3), Mark Dantonio (0-2), Will Muschamp (0-3), Kirby Smart (0-3), Jeremy Pruitt (0-3), Billy Napier (0-1), Lane Kiffin (0-2) and Fisher (0-4), until Saturday.
Dantonio, 65 and retired, is the oldest of the Saban assistants turned head coach, having coached defensive backs for Sabanat Michigan State from 1995-99 and later serving as the Spartans’ head coach from 2007-19 and winning three Big Ten titles. Dantonio went 12-1 in the 2015 season before a 38-0 loss to Saban in the College Football Playoff semifinal. And Saban beat Clemson for his fifth national title.
Fisher, though, is the most successful of Saban’s sons at the moment, but look out for Kiffin, 46, at Ole Miss and the baby – Billy Napier, 42, at Louisiana-Lafayette with a bigger job likely soon. Perhaps at LSU?
Fisher is the only Saban student with a national championship, which he won at Florida State in 2013, to put next to Dad’s seven over the TV.
Fisher’s Seminoles also reached the inaugural College Football Playoff final four in 2014 before losing in the semifinal and finishing 13-1. And arguably his Aggies of last season should have reached the CFP final four as they finished 9-1 and at No. 4 in the nation to No. 1 Alabama, which was the only team to beat A&M last year.
So, it is fitting that Fisher be the first.
“It was inevitable,” Fisher said after the game. “Somebody was going to do it in time. Hey, it happened to be us. That’s great. But that doesn’t mean anything to me because that’s not a goal that I’m trying to talk about or do.”
Don’t buy that. Fisher’s “beat his ass” comment about Saban to the Houton Touchdown Club last May is closer to the truth.
Fisher never came close to beating any part of Saban in his four losses – 52-24 last year, 47-28 in 2019, 45-23 in 2018 and 24-7 at Florida State in 2017. He may say it doesn’t mean anything to him publicly, but it does. This one will be brought up around the table at Thanksgiving. Fisher just won perhaps the biggest game of his life next to his national championship win over Auburn, 34-31, in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6, 2014, in the last BCS title game.
He beat Saban, who will be 70 on Halloween. He beat Alabama before Saban retires. Even if this does not lead to the CFP this season for the Aggies (4-2, 1-2 SEC), it is a watershed victory. Fisher became the first coach of an unranked team to beat Saban after Saban won 100 straight of those, going back to his first year at Alabama and a 21-14 loss to Charlie Weatherby at Louisiana-Monroe.
Saban was also 48-0 as the No. 1 team against unranked teams. And Alabama was 19-0. Alabama also hadn’t given up a kickoff return for a touchdown since 2014. Fisher beat Saban at his own game, or three games – special teams, offense and defense – and his team was tougher at the end.
It is right that Fisher was the first to beat Father because Fisher may be the most Saban-like of Saban’s coaching sons.
Fisher talks much faster and is friendlier, but they have the same West Virginia work ethic, which is what Fisher was saying 21 years ago. Saban couldn’t make him work any harder than he already had been.
Fisher is the only Saban head coach-pupil who is a fellow West Virginian. Saban was born in 1951 in Fairmont, West Virginia – 22 miles north of Clarksburg, West Virginia, where Fisher was born on Oct. 9, 1965.
“I have the utmost respect for Nick Saban, always have, always will,” Fisher said. “I consider us friends, and I think he does, too. But we’re competitors. I don’t think I’m going to lose to him. Like he said, he didn’t think he was going to lose to me either. That’s ball, and I respect him for that. We grew up in the same neck of the woods.”
Around a lot of coal.
Both were star high school quarterbacks. Both were very good at baseball, too. Saban played baseball for Kent State while he was a defensive back on the football team. Fisher first went to Clemson on a baseball scholarship, but decided to play quarterback at Salem College in West Virginia instead.
Fisher’s college coach was Terry Bowden, who became his first mentor as he learned offense from him as his quarterback at Salem and then at Samford in Birmingham, Alabama. Fisher became a graduate assistant and coached quarterbacks for Bowden at Samford from 1988-92 and at Auburn from 1993-98. Bowden, a son of the late Florida State legendary coach Bobby Bowden, is now Louisiana-Monroe’s coach.
The Bowdens also have West Virginia ties as the elder Bowden was West Virginia’s coach from 1970-75 and coached his sons there. Fisher learned about the passing game from Terry Bowden, who was among the best at that in the country while at Auburn.
Saban’s college coach, Don James, became his mentor and Saban was a graduate assistant under him at Kent State in 1973-74. James worked Saban and other players and assistants as hard as Saban ever worked anyone.
Fisher and Saban mainly got their work ethic, though, from their fathers. Fisher’s dad, Big Jim Fisher, worked in the coal mines. Saban’s dad, Nick Saban Sr., was a Pop Warner coach in his spare time as he owned a gas station that Nick Jr. worked at – a lot. And his dad was more of a taskmaster than James or Saban Jr.
Both Fisher and Saban lost their dads when they were just starting their coaching careers – Fisher was 29 in 1994 and coaching at Auburn when his dad died of black lung at age 62. Saban was 21 and his first season as a graduate assistant at Kent State when his dad died of a heart attack at age 46.
Yes, it’s fitting that Fisher would be the first son to beat Saban.
“We drank a lot of the same water,” Fisher said.
And their players sip, then sometimes guzzle the same coaching.
“It just comes down to us choosing during the week to trust the process,” Small said Saturday night after his historic field goal, ending his sentence with a word Saban brought to Baton Rouge in 1999.
“That’s one thing Coach Fisher told us, ‘Don’t worry about the scoreboard. Worry about your play, your job on this play, and the scoreboard will be there,'” Small said.
Saban has said that a lot for decades, too.
Like father, like coaching son.