Can Jimbo Fisher’s bold hire of Bobby Petrino relieve the pressure at A&M?

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — John James Fisher Jr. frequently found himself in trouble for not listening when he started the first grade in his hometown of Clarksburg, West Virginia.

His teacher, Mrs. Moore, would call on “John” in class, and he wouldn’t respond, wouldn’t follow directions and wouldn’t do what he was told.

“I was getting whippings, getting put in the corner, all that,” Fisher recalled of his school days in the early 1970s.

Finally, Fisher’s aunt, Juanita (or Ninny as he called her), went to his teacher to see if she could help with the situation. Juanita worked at the school as an assistant to the principal.

“I think we need to get your nephew John’s hearing tested,” Mrs. Moore told Juanita.

“John?” Juanita repeated. “Try calling him Jimbo and see what happens.”

Problem solved.

“My aunt is the one who gave me the name ‘Jimbo,'” Fisher said. “As soon as she heard that my teacher was calling me John, she knew what was wrong. I was never called John by anybody at home. So it wasn’t that I wasn’t listening or couldn’t hear.

“I was listening the whole time.”

In his sixth year as Texas A&M‘s coach — his most critical season yet after the Aggies struggled through a tumultuous 5-7 campaign a year ago — Fisher insists he’s still listening despite what his critics might suggest. He’s listening to those he trusts, at least, while also relying on his own instincts but being willing to change.

“I’m not as stubborn as some people might think,” Fisher told ESPN a few weeks before the start of the 2023 season. “I know what I want in a football program. I’m not going to panic and do something just because somebody outside this building thinks I should. I’m going to do what I think is right for the program. That’s the way it’s always been.”

And that’s precisely the reason he relinquished offensive playcalling duties, which had long been Fisher’s calling card, to new coordinator Bobby Petrino.

Hiring Petrino, who had been away from the FBS coaching ranks since 2018 and hadn’t worked as an assistant since 2002 when he was Tommy Tuberville’s offensive coordinator at Auburn, was hardly a snap decision, Fisher said.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that this is something I’d been considering for a couple of years,” he said. “But it had to be the right guy, the right time, and this was the right time because it’s almost impossible now to do everything that a head coach has to do and also call plays.”

Still, it’s fair to wonder, given the volatile personalities of both Petrino and Fisher and their history of running their own shows, if the pairing might be a disaster waiting to happen.

On the other hand, Petrino is an accomplished playcaller who should free up Fisher to be more involved with the whole team. Brilliant, right? If nothing else, it will be a storyline to watch and should be highly entertaining.

The early returns are good, albeit in a very small sample.

In last Saturday’s season opener, Texas A&M raced past New Mexico 52-10 at Kyle Field, the first time the Aggies scored 50 points or more against an FBS team in regulation in a regular-season game since Fisher arrived in College Station in 2018. Sophomore quarterback Conner Weigman threw four touchdown passes in the first half alone. In the previous three seasons combined, Texas A&M had thrown for four or more touchdowns in a game only twice. Last season, the Aggies didn’t reach 52 points against FCS foe Sam Houston and lowly UMass combined.

Obviously, a much more telling test awaits this Saturday when Texas A&M travels to Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), but the Aggies looked more explosive on offense than they ever did a year ago when they finished 101st nationally in scoring offense (22.8 points per game).

“It’s been different for me because I don’t have to be the hardass all the time,” joked Petrino, who has never been accused of being mild-mannered. “And that’s fun. I heard Jimbo say, ‘I’m tired of being the bad guy,’ and you do get tired of being like that when you’re the head coach. So, yeah, this side of it has been enjoyable. I get to teach and coach and enjoy the relationships.”

Fisher is adamant he didn’t want a yes man, and Petrino is hardly a yes man. And while Fisher is never going to completely step away from the offense, Petrino said it’s not like they have recurring sparring sessions in the meeting room.

“You saw all the stuff out there about how Petrino and Jimbo were not going to get along,” Petrino said. “People just don’t get it. That’s not how it works. He’s the boss, right? I’ve got to do my job, and that is to make sure we move the ball, score points and win. It was the same when I worked for Tom Coughlin, Bruce Snyder and Chris Ault, other head coaches with offensive backgrounds.

“I’ve learned a lot here with Jimbo. It’s been fun to put it all together and match it together. He’s been really open, saying, ‘That’s a great idea, go for it,’ or ‘Let’s look at this a different way.’ He knows exactly what he wants, the way he wants it run, but he’s also going to listen.”

IT’S HARD TO sugarcoat what happened last season at Texas A&M, a season that started with so much promise only to unravel on all fronts. The Aggies, ranked No. 6 in the AP preseason poll, lost at home to Appalachian State in Week 2 and dropped six straight at one point. They made a habit of losing close games, with five of their seven losses by six or fewer points.

Off the field, four freshmen from the Aggies’ top-ranked 2022 signing class were suspended for the Miami game in Week 3 after violating curfew rules the night before. The suspensions were especially frustrating for A&M fans because the unsettling loss to Appalachian State was still festering. Then, following a 30-24 road loss to South Carolina, the Aggies’ third straight loss in their six-game skid, four freshmen were indefinitely suspended after being caught smoking marijuana in the locker room, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle.

All four players suspended after the South Carolina game — Denver Harris, Chris Marshall, PJ Williams and Anthony Lucas — left the program following the season.

And already this season, a freshman from the 2023 signing class has been suspended indefinitely. Receiver Micah Tease was arrested on drug charges the day before the opener against New Mexico.

Losing seasons coupled with off-the-field issues are never a good combination in the win-or-else world of college football, which contributed to the restlessness in Aggieland coming into this season.

There were even rumblings in the media that Fisher could be on the hot seat despite being owed $77 million if Texas A&M were to fire him following this season. Athletic director Ross Bjork debunked that talk this summer when speaking with ESPN and said there’s a reason Texas A&M gave Fisher a guaranteed 10-year extension just prior to the 2021 season that will pay him $95 million through 2031.

The extension came in part because Bjork wanted to be proactive with the LSU job potentially coming open (which it did) toward the end of the 2021 season. He emphasized that the decision-makers at Texas A&M are still in agreement that Fisher has the program on the right track despite the troubling 2022 season.

“You build programs to last, not, ‘Well, this year it’s going to be this and then the next year we’ve got to push this guy out,'” Bjork said. “It doesn’t work that way.

“Look, we’ve got to lock arms. We’ve got to support this program. Clearly, our fans and donors have spoken up in a big way. Everyone knows the expectation. That’s why you sign up for it. But if you start going on these roller coasters of turnover, it doesn’t work. That’s not sustainable.”

When you look at the financials, it’s hard to say Fisher has lost crucial support. Money has poured in for the upgrading of the football facilities, with four donors giving $62.5 million as part of the centennial campaign. There were two other $5 million gifts, meaning six people gave to the tune of $72.5 million.

Season tickets are sold out with fans purchasing nearly 93,000 of 102,733 seats, which is a record for Kyle Field since its expansion in 2015. Bjork said Texas A&M has sold 23 new suites, and donations are tied to those suites.

“And we’re about to hit $20 million in sponsorship revenue. We’ve never hit $20 million, and that’s separate from donations,” Bjork said. “So in every metric of support, it’s never been better.”

David Coolidge, a major donor whose name is on the new Football Performance Center (featuring a massive 180-yard indoor facility), was a member of the 12th Man Kickoff team at Texas A&M in 1987 under Jackie Sherrill. Coolidge views the 2022 season as an “anomaly” and said it’s like any business that has one bad year and then bounces back.

“I’m super supportive that we’re going to do the same thing with our football program and that Jimbo has it headed in the right direction,” Coolidge said. “Now, we’re going to find out, but he’s made changes on his staff, recruiting at a level we never have in the past, and has gotten rid of some players that probably didn’t need to be here. Nobody likes being 5-7, but at its core, I think the program is extremely healthy.”

While college football is always going to be a bottom-line business, Coolidge echoed Bjork’s sentiments that he doesn’t sense a “clock-is-ticking” mentality among the Texas A&M donor base or the school’s administration. Then again, patience can be a moving target in college football.

Some in the Aggies fan base point out that Fisher’s predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, was 44-22 one game into his sixth season and wound up being fired after going 7-5 that year. One game into his sixth season at A&M, Fisher is 40-21.

“To me, it’s more about the future,” Coolidge said. “People are always going to find things to complain about, and we had our problems last year. I still think we’re close. We should have been in the playoff in 2020. But all these rumors last year that the school was looking to buy out Jimbo … that never happened. That wasn’t even close to happening. If anything, among the people I talk to, it was more, ‘How can we help?’

“It was never a situation where the sky was falling.”

Which begs a lingering question in Aggieland: What is the realistic expectation for a program that has unlimited resources and money, and incredible fan support, but that hasn’t earned a conference championship since winning the Big 12 in 1998 and hasn’t won a national championship since 1939?

One way to gauge fan support is to head to the message boards. Billy Liucci runs the popular TexAgs website, and he said there was clearly a restlessness among fans following last season, but that he never sensed they had the “pitchforks out to get Jimbo like a lot of people around the country made it seem.”

“There was a nervous energy coming off a 5-7 season last year,” he said, “but as the offseason went on, in my day-to-day involvement on message boards and talking to people and listening to Jimbo and the players, a lot of that restlessness was replaced by optimism and anticipation of what the team could do.”

THE AGGIES HAD 24 scholarship players enter the transfer portal following last season. Seven of those players were from the 2022 class, which some view as an indictment on Fisher and his staff in terms of evaluating character and fit. It’s worth noting that six of the seven wound up at other Power 5 schools (including USC, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss), although at least two are no longer with their teams.

The flip side to that exodus is that as many as 15 players from last year’s freshman class are either starting or playing key roles this year for the Aggies.

Going back to the offseason, Texas A&M’s players have noticed a more defiant Fisher. Bjork said Fisher is coaching with a “chip on his shoulder,” and his players are playing that way.

“As a team, we might have been missing a little bit of that last year,” senior receiver Ainias Smith said. “This is a chance to show who we really are and not the team everybody was so disappointed in.

“No more playing down to other teams’ level. We’ve done too much of that. It’s time we play to our level.”

Fisher shakes his head defiantly at any mention that he might have lost his team last season.

“I know what’s out there is that it was total chaos last year. And, yeah, we had some stuff happen that you don’t want,” Fisher said. “But I’ve had championship teams that had more problems than we did last year. Outside the building, it was one thing. But inside the building, we never lost it. Never did. … You saw that by the way we ended the season and the way we responded this offseason.”

Fisher also understands the passion of fans and the importance of staying on the right side of that passion, but he’s not consumed by it.

“You can’t be and be a coach in this league,” he said. “I grew up at Auburn, and they were restless all the time. I was at LSU. We won a bunch, and they were still pissed off. At Alabama, they stay pissed off 24 hours a day. It’s just the way it is, especially when everybody is invested in winning at the highest level.

“What you focus on is your team, and this team is hungry. They’re mature, and they’re committed to working their asses off.”

One of Fisher’s routines this year has been taking a lunchtime walk of three-plus miles around campus with Mark Robinson, Texas A&M’s associate athletic director for football and one of Fisher’s most trusted confidants.

“Some of my best ideas come when I’m working out or doing something outside,” Fisher said.

Robinson, a former offensive lineman at Appalachian State, has been with Fisher since the 2013 national championship season at Florida State.

“He walks fast and is always talking about ways we can do things better,” Robinson said.

In addition to doing plenty of talking, Fisher listens, too. But he’s not listening to the noise outside the building and the cries that a $95 million coach should be winning at a higher clip.

He’s always going to lean on the lessons learned from 35 years of coaching under the likes of Bobby Bowden and Nick Saban. But despite his reputation for being headstrong, Fisher insists he also listens to the roomful of former head coaches and coordinators who fill out his staff, which includes one of college football’s most intriguing offseason acquisitions in Petrino.

“The only way you grow is to listen,” Fisher said.

Listening is all well and good, but in Fisher’s world, the only growth that counts is winning the games that matter most and taking home championships.

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