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The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

Jimbo Fisher is Texas A&M's latest, boldest big-money bet

1490 days ago
David Wilson

Texas A&M found its man, price be damned, and the outrage came swiftly.

Determined to place its football program among the nation's elite after winning just one conference title in the previous two decades, the Aggies went out and paid a record sum to land one of the nation's best coaches. It was a coup, but the gaudy contract called into question the priorities of a university.

A Michigan mathematics professor said it was a "sad sidelight on American society." A Wisconsin professor predicted a faculty revolt if such a deal were made in Madison. "I just wonder how they can do that," said the athletic director at Arizona.

"It comes to a matter of market conditions," an A&M spokesman told The New York Times. "It costs that much money to get a top-caliber football coach."

This was in 1982, when the Aggies had just given Jackie Sherrill the first contract with a total value exceeding $1 million in college football history, luring him from Pitt after three consecutive 11-1 seasons.

In December, 36 years after Sherrill's contract ignited a debate, the Aggies guaranteed $75 million over 10 years to Jimbo Fisher, one of just four active coaches with a national championship, to whisk him away from Florida State. Once again, it was the richest contract ever given to a college football coach.

Because, like all things sacred at A&M, spending money on a top-caliber coach is a well-worn school tradition.

When Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward fired Kevin Sumlin, who went 51-26 in the Aggies' first six seasons in the SEC (albeit with a 25-23 conference record), the Aggies paid their coach $10.4 million to go away. The buyout, coupled with the $7.5 million annually for Fisher, shocked college football fans across the country.

A&M had done the unthinkable, hiring a coach away from a school where he won a national title for the first time in 40 years (since Johnny Majors left Pitt for Tennessee in 1976). How could Fisher leave Florida State, where he went 83-23, won three ACC titles and finished in the AP's top 10 four times, for A&M, which hasn't won a conference title since winning the Big 12 in 1998 and had finished no higher than fourth in the SEC West in the past five seasons?

The answer: This is what the Aggies do.

It's what they've done for more than 60 years, with possibly the most ambitious track record of hiring coaches of any school in the country. But ambition and success are different matters. And the two have rarely met when it comes to A&M's searches, some of which rival Tennessee's calamity this year. These searches have everything: oilmen, billionaire radio broadcasters, scared coaches and outraged governors.

The Ags' first foray into the world of major college football paid immediate dividends. In 1954, three regents formed an "athletic committee" of the board, and conducted business independently of the faculty athletics group that reported to the president. Jack Finney, a 37-year-old wholesale baker, took it upon himself to land Paul "Bear" Bryant, who was 60-23-6 at Kentucky, to be coach and athletic director. A&M gave him the largest contract ever given to a Southwest Conference coach -- $25,000 a year, including $15,000 from the school, and $10,000 from a foundation that was overseen by another regent, W.T. "Doc" Doherty. Bryant turned the Aggies around, leading A&M to its first conference title in 15 years and helping running back John David Crow win the only Heisman Trophy given to a Bryant player. Bryant famously left to return to Alabama after four seasons, because "Mama called" him to his alma mater.

The success -- the closest the Aggies had come to reliving the glory years of their only national championship in 1939 -- served to feed future bombast and dysfunction.

In January 1958, while the university's faculty athletic council searched for Bryant's replacement, which focused on Iowa State coach Jim Myers, Finney's advisory group seemingly pulled off another stunner by landing Notre Dame legend Frank Leahy, who had six undefeated seasons, won four national titles and coached four Heisman Trophy winners. But Leahy, who had been out of coaching for almost four years due to health issues, said doctors balked at his return to coaching, and he had to back out.

Afterward, it was reported that Finney offered $60,000 a year to Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty -- who was making $20,000 in East Lansing -- and met with UCLA coach Henry "Red" Sanders and Navy coach Eddie Erdelatz, who was rattled by the rival factions on a visit to College Station. "It scared me. I wanted to get out," Erdelatz said afterward. "I was in a whirl as to who was in charge."

The fallout was embarrassing for A&M, with Doherty, the chairman of the board, dissolving the athletic committee and Texas governor Price Daniel demanding a full explanation of the fiasco.

"I was chatting with [Ohio State coach] Woody [Hayes]," said Notre Dame's Terry Brennan during a speech at the Columbus Touchdown Club. "I find he hasn't been approached about the Texas A&M job either. We feel ignored or neglected, for we must be the only two coaches who haven't been contacted."

Myers even bowed out, but he was later convinced to reconsider and take the job by school officials. He went 12-24-1 in four seasons.

After Myers, and without the parade of boosters setting their sights on an admittedly stellar lineup of coaches, A&M's administration suffered through a series of struggles.

The Aggies hired Wichita State coach Hank Foldberg, who was coveted by Nebraska, as the new athletic director and coach in 1962. He went 6-23-1. Nebraska managed to console themselves by hiring Bob Devaney, who went 101-20-2 with two national titles.

In 1964, A&M tried to rekindle some magic by hiring one of Bryant's "Junction Boys," from his A&M tenure. Gene Stallings, then a 29-year-old Alabama assistant, was labeled by Bryant as "the top young collegiate coaching prospect in America." Success was elusive for Stallings, charged with recruiting to a military school during the Vietnam War. He went 27-45-1, with just one winning season in 1967 and was fired in 1971.

A&M turned to Austin to nab Emory Bellard, the architect of the wishbone offense at Texas who, as offensive coordinator, helped Darrell Royal win two national championships. A&M, which hadn't won eight games in a season since Bryant's departure, did it four years in a row, including two 10-2 finishes, the most victories since the '39 title season. In 1978, he reached No. 6 in the polls after a 4-0 start, then lost two straight games. For his efforts in reviving the Aggies, he resigned immediately after learning he was going to be replaced as coach at the end of the year and asked to remain as athletic director. He went 40-13 in his last 4½ years at A&M.

Tom Wilson, Bellard's offensive coordinator, was named the permanent replacement and finished 21-19 overall. This would become the end of the boosters remaining in the background.

In 1982, with a year left on Wilson's contract, oilman H.R. "Bum" Bright was determined to right the woes of the football program. Bright was one of the richest men in Texas -- he later purchased the Dallas Cowboys before selling them to Jerry Jones -- and was such a fervent Aggies fan that he printed one million maroon and white matchboxes following a 1967 A&M upset of Texas. They read "Tee Hee Hee: Texas A&M 10, Texas 7."

Bright, the chairman of the board of regents, could put his money where his mouth was. He asked Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel, to find him the best college football coach money could buy. Brandt returned two names: Michigan coach Bo Schembechler and Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill.

Landing Schembechler would be a tough task. Bright called him and told him A&M would make him coach and athletic director, a position he didn't hold at Michigan, and money wasn't an issue. Schembechler politely declined.

A couple of weeks later, Michigan played UCLA in the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, and Brandt called with a friendly offer for Bright to make the short trip up to Dallas to watch a Cowboys playoff game as his guest, according to Schembechler in his book, "Bo."

Brandt offered to have someone pick him up at the airport. To Schembechler's surprise, when he arrived, a short, stocky man with a crew cut was there waiting for him. "Bo," he said. "I'm Bum Bright."

Bright insisted they drive to his house, where he offered Schembechler, who was making $60,000 a year at Michigan, a 10-year contract worth $2.25 million. If he decided he didn't want to coach anymore, he could remain athletic director at the same salary. "Before you leave here tonight, we're gonna have ourselves a deal," Bright told him.

Schembechler held him off, and Michigan countered with a $25,000 raise, to $85,000 a year vs. the $225,000 at A&M. "Remember, we're talking money, two cars, membership at the country club, an expense account for entertaining," Bright called to remind him.

Schembechler eventually held a media conference to announce that he would be staying at Michigan. On his way to speak, Schembechler saw Michigan booster Tom Monaghan, the owner of Domino's, who sweetened the pot, gifting Schembechler a Domino's franchise -- in Columbus, Ohio, on the Ohio State campus.

"In one night, I'd turned down millions and gained a pizza store in Woody Hayes' backyard," Schembechler said.

Not to be deterred, Bright had also been discussing the job with Sherrill, who was coming off three consecutive 11-1 seasons at Pitt, where as an assistant, he'd recruited Tony Dorsett and as head coach had groomed Dan Marino.

This time, the negotiations were swift, because there wasn't much of a negotiation.

"They didn't make an offer," Sherrill said. "I was the one that put the deal together. I didn't have an agent. Never had an agent."

And it was quite a deal, a landmark in college football history as the first contract to top $1 million in total value. Sherrill would not confirm the details, but told The New York Times, "when I returned home from Texas, my wife, Daryle, said, 'I always did want to marry a millionaire.'" The Times reported the deal was worth $280,000 a year, and included a home, new cars, insurance policies and money-fund investments. The contract rolled over every year, remaining a six-year deal every season.

"According to the best estimates of several officials with a broad knowledge of higher-education matters," the Times wrote, "no other person has ever received so much in pay from an American university."

"There is concern that the Aggies may have gone financially berserk," Sports Illustrated wrote, and an anonymous athletic director sounded the alarm. "I'm afraid this will start an escalation in the bidding I don't like to see," he said. "Suddenly money doesn't mean anything. It becomes plastic. Everything is all out of whack."

Under Sherrill, A&M was 52-28-1 with five consecutive wins over the Longhorns in his last five seasons, a streak the Aggies had never before accomplished in 90 years of the rivalry. A school that had won the Southwest Conference title outright only twice since 1942 won three straight SWC championships between 1985-87.

Sherrill remains convinced the Aggies were close to breaking through.

"I've had a chance to win national championships," Sherrill said. "If the damn coach had been smarter, we would have."

But in 1988, the NCAA found A&M guilty of nine significant rules violations and 25 overall. Although Sherrill wasn't named, the committee did cite the school for "lack of institutional control." Sherrill eventually resigned amid accusations that he paid "hush money" to a former player during the investigation, saying "it is time for us to come to a mutual parting of the ways in order for everyone concerned to get a fresh start."

Sherrill's defensive coordinator, R.C. Slocum, followed by becoming the winningest coach in A&M history, going 123-47-2 in 14 years, never suffering a losing season. He had the best SWC winning percentage of all time at 44-6-2 (.865) ahead of Royal, the legendary Texas coach (.797). Slocum's teams also won 22 straight conference games to break Royal's record of 21.

But all the while, according to Slocum, A&M started to fall behind in the details that were becoming a bigger part of recruiting.

"When Mack [Brown] went to Texas, they went in and they worked around-the-clock shifts redoing Memorial Stadium and his offices and locker rooms and all that stuff," Slocum said. "His office had a big living room area that looked out over the deal, had an aquarium and all that. They put me ... first of all I was in the ninth floor of Rudder [a building next to the student center down the street from the stadium] in a little small office behind the elevator.

"Then somebody needed that space, so they put me in [an office in] the parking garage. I had a desk, a coffee table and two straight-back chairs. So when I brought families in, I had to drag chairs in so they could all sit together. Then they'd leave here and go straight to Austin the next weekend, and they got that big thing."

Suddenly, the football-crazed school that kept showing its financial muscle was a distant third behind Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12. Slocum had to press the administration to keep up.

Slocum finally called on an old friend -- Bright, who agreed to donate $5 million for what would eventually become the Bright Football Complex, a standalone facility with a much-needed new locker room and coaches' offices. Slocum panhandled around to find the rest of the money, while he was still coaching. "I went to several of my other friends, and got some major gifts," he said. "I took one summer traveling around the state to get the money for the Bright Building. I'd go to towns and meet with people and have little luncheons and tell them why it was important."

But fans grew impatient. Bob Stoops and Oklahoma won a national title in 2000, just Stoops' second season as a head coach. Brown and Texas beat A&M four of the five meetings between him and Slocum, and the Longhorns dominated on the recruiting trail.

So the Aggies did what the Aggies do. Slocum finally got to move out of that parking garage, but not to his new office.

"I got it started, had the plans, had the groundbreaking, and then I never got to use it. I got fired. I never even set foot in it, until five years down the road when [Dennis] Franchione was gone."

According to the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio billionaire Lowry Mays, the founder of Clear Channel Communications and a regent at A&M, had targeted Franchione earlier in the 2002 season, and had assurances that he would leave Alabama for A&M. On Dec. 3, A&M president Dr. Robert Gates fired Slocum and announced the hire of Franchione on Dec. 5. Meanwhile, the Aggies' athletics fundraising arm, The 12th Man Foundation, registered on Nov. 25, four days before Slocum had coached his final game against Texas.

The move again stunned the nation. Franchione was coming off a 10-3 season at Alabama where he'd beaten Nick Saban's No. 12 LSU team 31-0 and ended Bama's seven-game losing streak to Tennessee. In the previous 72 years, only two coaches (Wallace Wade and Bill Curry) had ever left Alabama for other jobs.

Franchione couldn't turn the tide in College Station, going 32-28, 19-21 in the Big 12, and suffered multiple embarrassing losses, including the 77-0 loss to Oklahoma that came to define the disappointment of his tenure.

The results confirmed to Slocum -- who had worked for three A&M coaches (Bellard, Wilson and Sherrill) who had either been fired or forced to resign, before he was fired himself -- what he already knew. That there wasn't just one piece that could cure everything and A&M hadn't yet figured that out.

"It's not just the coach," said Slocum, who has been in College Station for 45 years, and still lives about five miles from the stadium. "The coach is pretty important, but the coach has to be able to hire and pay coaches. He has to have facilities that he can show recruits when they come in.

"We didn't always get it. In some cases, we've been our own worst enemy. We had high expectations but didn't totally look at what it takes."

And that's where another hire on Dec. 5, 2003 alongside Franchione becomes much more important: Bill Byrne would become the Aggies' new athletic director, coming from Nebraska.

Byrne oversaw $110 million in athletic facility improvements across the campus. Widely credited as the first "professional" athletic director in school history, fundraising and facilities became the focus.

But football still was mired in mediocrity, going 58-54 during Byrne's tenure. He hired two former Slocum assistants to return to A&M, former Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman (25-25 over four seasons) and Kevin Sumlin, who became a hot candidate after going 12-0 at Houston in 2011. Sumlin landed a six-year, $30 million contract at A&M five months before Byrne retired.

Sumlin launched full-on hysteria with an inaugural 11-2 showing in A&M's first season in the SEC that included a Heisman for Johnny Manziel. The university raised more than $740 million in donations between Sept. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, 2013, a school record and more than $300 million better than any previous 12-month period in school history.

A&M struck quickly, launching a $484 million renovation to Kyle Field, bringing the total seating capacity to 102,733, making it the largest stadium in the SEC and fourth-largest in the country.

As a result, A&M, which had never reached $120 million in athletics revenue, has topped $190 million in the past three years, including $212 million in 2017, according to USA Today. The rival Longhorns ($215 million in 2017) and A&M are the only schools ever to cross the $200 million mark.

After years of rogue boosters and fly-by-night coaching hires, the Aggies' program was finally figuring out how to put the pieces together. And while A&M was suddenly "cool" under Sumlin, he was a victim of his own success so early in the SEC. Now, it seemed within reason that A&M could contend in the league.

With new facilities that could compare to any in the country, an opportunity to coach in the SEC and ample financial resources, the Aggies decided the time was right to make a big move -- again.

"They sorta wanna win a national championship," Stallings said. "They were determined to hire a coach that has won one. And the coach at Florida State had won one."

When A&M Chancellor John Sharp lured Washington president Michael Young to College Station in 2015, the pieces started to fit together. Young brought Washington's athletic director, Scott Woodward, a year later. Woodward, of course, just happened to be a contemporary of Jimbo Fisher's from their time together at LSU.

Woodward found a fan base eager to shake off several years of disappointing finishes during the Sumlin era. He found boosters eager to foot the bill for the massive buyout. And he found a board willing to approve the enormous sum it would take to land Fisher.

The result was a $75 million guaranteed contract funded entirely by the university's athletic department.

"We are ... one of the very few universities in the United States that could frankly make or undertake this financial obligation," Charles Schwartz, the current chairman of the board of regents, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle.

"They got Jimbo Fisher because Scott Woodward had the balls and forced it to get it done," Sherrill said. "It's like Mal Moore. He's the guy who brought Nick [Saban] to Alabama and gave Nick what he asked for to get it started."

But again, this wasn't new territory for A&M, yet it has rarely paid dividends. The difference this time? The key participants say it's unity -- something the Aggies are famous for at midnight yell practice, but not so much behind the scenes.

"From the chancellor, to the president, to the athletic director, to the head coach, it's one here," Fisher said. "I'm in communication with all three and very rarely does that happen consistently. They are very involved and always coming to me and saying, 'What do you need? What else do we need to do?' Their visions, goals and values are in line with mine. We all believe in the same thing."

The signs of progress are everywhere in College Station, where A&M was an overwhelmingly beige, 8,000-student all-male military school when the Aggies first got swept up in the football arms race and hired Bryant. This fall, enrollment is expected to number about 65,000.

There are thousands of reasons to believe even more money will be pumping into athletics. According to the Association of Former Students, the number of students who have attended A&M in the past 20 years easily exceeds the total number of its first 120. There are 445,817 living former students, with about 30 percent of those attending in the past 10 years.

"We've got a bunch of people that are stepping up in a big way that weren't around when I was coaching," Slocum said. "And they're not all oilmen."

One more sign: On Monday, the Texas A&M Hotel and Conference Center opened 96 yards from Kyle Field with 250 rooms, two penthouses, 11 suites and a rooftop pool overlooking the stadium. For a donation of $55,000-$125,000 per room, fans can become 10-year members of the hotel to get a guaranteed rate on game weekends. The hotel said rooms ranging from $300 to $700 per night -- or $1,000 to $2,000 a night for suites or penthouses -- sold out before opening day for games against Clemson, Ole Miss and LSU, and is nearing capacity for all other games.

Judging by the overflow crowds attending Fisher's coaches' night tours around the state -- the Dallas event sold overflow tickets to a room outside the auditorium showing Fisher's comments via video -- fans aren't tempering their enthusiasm.

"Jimbo gets it," Sherrill said. "He understands. You have to reach out and touch the Aggies. And he's doing that."

A&M coaches -- past and present -- aren't backing down from the idea that Fisher can win a championship, despite A&M's long stretch of looking for moral victories in November.

"Why can't we be as good as anybody?" Slocum said.

"They have a beautiful place to play. They've got great facilities," said Stallings, who after retiring from coaching has also served as an A&M regent. "You're paying a guy $75 million, I think the expectation is gonna be pretty high pretty quick. Why shouldn't the expectation be high?"

"There have been a lot of good teams here," Fisher said. "R.C. won three or four Southwest Conference championships, and Kevin had some phenomenal teams. But I don't think this place has ever had what its got right now, in my opinion, from the alignment of administration on down, to the commitment to the facilities, to the commitment to keep investing and reinvesting and then paying what it takes to get top assistant coaches. I think there was always one part of it that was missing in the past."

He's preaching to the choir. And, unsurprisingly, he's finding a receptive audience among its pews (and with recruits, currently claiming the No. 1 class in ESPN's 2019 recruiting class rankings).

Tony Buzbee, the tank-owning Marine-turned-superstar-lawyer who is a current member of the A&M board of regents, made news last season when he posted on Facebook that Sumlin "should go now" following a season-opening meltdown in a 45-44 loss to UCLA. He is unapologetic about the Aggies' bold ambitions.

"I feel like the contributions that Texas A&M and Aggies make to our state and nation are immense," Buzbee said. "We have a burning desire to excel, to do well in whatever we do, and to make a positive impact. I don't think anyone would say we 'deserve' a national championship in football, but I can damn well tell you we want one -- bad.

"I have been an outspoken member of the regents, and an outspoken alum. But, I can tell you this, I believe we have our guy. The hire has been made, and my job now is to step back and let the coach do what he does."

Yes, the Aggies with the power are finally singing Kumbaya. But history, particularly in College Station, has proven that no amount of pedigree or money can guarantee wins.

There's also the matter of the giant roadblock 620 miles to the east, where Nick Saban is 17-0 against any current SEC coach not named Gus Malzahn and 12-0 against former assistants (like Fisher). Not to mention the Alabama-like monster that Kirby Smart is already building at Georgia.

"It's the toughest division in the toughest conference," Stallings said. "They can still be a good team and not win eight or nine games."

And of course, at an institution as, um, unique as A&M, there's also the warning from Myers back in 1961.

"The new coach better have 42,000 personalities, because that's how many Aggie exes there are and they all think they know what's best for the school," he said.

For Fisher, the math is simple: Multiply that number by 10, add in the message boards, Twitter accounts and regents' Facebook pages.

Fisher is undeterred.

"Now, it's going to take a lot of work and there are going to be problems, no doubt," he said. "But we have a chance to be really good for a long time."

ESPN's Chris Low contributed to this report.