Jimbo Fisher, Mark Richt and Jim McElwain sat on a panel together for the first time, and the moderator could not help himself.
Forget about softball questions to get the conversation going. Florida Gov. Rick Scott had gotten the coaches to attend a jobs summit for leaders in higher education, and he could not waste the opportunity to talk football -- if only with his opening question:
“Which state school will win the next national championship?” Scott asked.
The coaches looked around at each other a little awkwardly but played along.
"Florida State," Fisher said with a wide grin.
McElwain went next.
"Chomp, chomp!" the second-year Florida coach said.
Now it came time for Richt to answer. Rather than flash the U, the new Miami coach said, “We're working on getting a first down right now.”
The coaches went on to answer questions about leadership, education and preparing players for the real world, but that opening snapshot illustrates everything you need to know about football among the big three in Florida right now. Florida State leads the charge, with designs on a second national championship in four years; Florida is optimistic after winning the SEC East last season; Miami is in wait-and-see mode (again). No one school is in the same phase. Where Fisher has the pressure to maintain, McElwain has the pressure to sustain, and Richt has the pressure to win, period.
It has been a decade since the big three finished ranked together in the AP Top 25, far too long considering the recruiting advantages all three have -- not to mention the history, tradition and NFL pedigree to sell.
All three programs faced rebuilding projects in that decade. Fisher has completed his, taking over a Florida State program that slipped in the final years under Bobby Bowden. Since taking over as head coach in 2010, Fisher has won three ACC championships, one national championship and has gone 11-1 over Florida and Miami.
If anyone could lend advice to Richt and McElwain about rebuilding and maintaining a program that has previously won championships, it would be Fisher.
“It’s important in leadership that you educate the people around you of what that vision, then give them a guideline daily of what you want to do,” Fisher said. “So it doesn’t overwhelm you with trying to get there tomorrow. You’ve got to have long-term goals, you’ve got to have short-term goals and you have daily goals. Those daily goals are what you have to do to get there, and those become your habits and that’s what allows you to change. If the process is right, the results will come. That’s how we did it.”
“The Process” is a phrase both Fisher and McElwain are familiar with, given their background with Alabama coach Nick Saban. For McElwain, learning what it takes to sustain a program came during his brief time with Saban at Alabama. The success the Gators had in 2015 might have come as a surprise to some, but all that season did was reset the expectations bar. If McElwain could do that in Year 1, what will he do for an encore? At Florida, fans already are talking about the way former coach Urban Meyer won a national championship when he was in Year 2 with the Gators.
“The big piece of it, I would say, is how quickly your team adapts to the expectations that are set and how the new guys come in and actually the older guys say, ‘Hey, look we’re not going to put up with this stuff anymore. This is how we’re going to do it,’” McElwain said. “A big piece of it is: How willing are your older players to go ahead and say, ‘Look, I’m going to kind of give up myself a little bit to help the other people around me.’ I’ve seen some really good strides.”
Fisher, like McElwain did at Florida, made it to the conference championship game in his first year as Florida State head coach. But it took another two years before the Seminoles won their first ACC title in 2012. They followed that up with a national championship in 2013, an appearance in the College Football Playoff in 2014, another 10-win season in 2015 and are among the preseason favorites to make the playoff again in 2016.
At a place with so many expectations, Fisher says the most important aspect for players and coaches is to “Believe in your process. Believe in what you do daily, that your plans for doing things right. If I do this, this and this, then this is the result that’s going to end up there. You can’t panic on those things. Trust the process of what you’re doing.”
The rise back up was not without controversy, as Fisher dealt with off-field incidents involving multiple players, including quarterback Jameis Winston. Fisher took heat for the way he handled player discipline.
Ultimately, Florida State implemented a required class for all incoming freshmen student-athletes covering leadership, time management, social responsibility and other topics. Fisher increased efforts to educate his players about making the right choices off the field and has lobbied for more positions on coaching staffs designated for mentors to assist players on a daily basis.
"These kids are scrutinized more than they ever have been in their entire life," Fisher said. "I couldn't play in today's world. Kids can't make a mistake. As soon as they do, we want to throw them away. Why not have guys working with your team every day to present the things they had success with? A coach can say it, but someone who grew up in their shoes -- why not invest in putting those guys on your staff?"
Fisher also has gone about modernizing the program -- revamping strength and conditioning, nutrition, academic support and putting down a blueprint for facilities improvement.
“Every aspect that touches their life, you had to go A to Z all the way through it and explain it and get people to do it,” Fisher said.
Under Fisher, Florida State has built an indoor practice facility and completely redone the coaches offices, locker room, weight room and vast swaths of Doak Campbell Stadium, giving the Seminoles the best football facility in the state by a wide margin. Modernizing the Florida facility is heavy on McElwain’s agenda, too.
Same with Richt, who has spearheaded Miami’s campaign to raise money for an indoor facility that also houses just about every aspect related to football. Richt clearly brings a unique perspective to the task that awaits him at Miami. He went to school there when it was just starting its ascent, then coached under Bowden at Florida State when the Seminoles and Hurricanes battled for state supremacy on a yearly basis. At Georgia, he faced pressure to get the Bulldogs back atop the SEC and to a long-anticipated championship.
The pressures at Miami are different, thanks to five national championships and an incredible run of success from 1983-2003 that may never be duplicated.
“You have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run,” Richt said. “You start talking about national championships all you want, but we’ve got to make sure we’re building the right foundation and so I’m focusing on smaller targets that if we do things right on a daily basis, we’ll set the foundation to be able to play for a national championship. It’s easy to say we’re going to win a national championship. No we’re going to go to work. Just like I said early on, I’m going to promise that we’re going to work hard, we’re going to do it the right way and if we do things in the right way I think we’ll have the success everybody wants.”