Could Jimbo Fisher mimic Bob Stoops?
Once upon a time -- 2000, to be exact -- a second-year head coach won the national title and restored a powerhouse to glory.
That coach was Bob Stoops, and that program was Oklahoma. The program on the losing end in the Orange Bowl that year was Florida State.
That season launched a powerful run for the Sooners that has not subsided, although they haven't attained that ultimate high since. The season also ended a powerful run for the Seminoles, who incredibly won 10 or more games every year from 1987 to 2000.
Eleven years later, the Oklahoma coach in the visor is the elder statesman entering a major showdown against a guy attempting to pull a Stoops. On Saturday in Doak Campbell Stadium, a second-year head coach will try to take a major step forward in re-establishing an elite school.
That coach is Jimbo Fisher, and that program is Florida State.
The two came up on different sides of the ball -- Stoops played defensive back and cut his teeth as a defensive coach; Fisher was a quarterback and offensive coordinator -- but have much in common.
They grew up 170 miles apart in what could be called the Fertile Crescent of college coaching, the eastern Ohio-western Pennsylvania-West Virginia region. Stoops, 51, is from Youngstown, Ohio. Fisher, 45, is from Clarksburg, W.Va.
They quickly established big reputations as assistant coaches working under big-time head coaches. Stoops was defensive coordinator at Kansas State under Bill Snyder from 1991 to 1995, then at Florida under Steve Spurrier from 1996 to 1998. Fisher was offensive coordinator at LSU under Nick Saban and Les Miles from 2000 to '06, then at Florida State under Bobby Bowden from 2007 to '09. Both were hailed early on as adept tacticians and relentless recruiters.
Both got their first head-coaching jobs at Cadillac programs despite a lifetime lack of experience being the boss. Despite wearing the Hot Coach label for several years, both waited for the right head-coaching job instead of taking the first available head-coaching job.
"We were guys that were fortunate that our first head coaching jobs came at universities where you would want to stay," Fisher said. "We were both patient, I guess, in our careers and didn't take earlier jobs that maybe had opportunities to take and took some chances that way and worked out that way."
Fisher took over a program that hadn't slid as far as Oklahoma in the 1990s. Florida State hasn't competed for the national title in a few years, but it still has produced 34 straight winning seasons (unless you deduct vacated wins under Bowden in 2006-07). That's a big reason the Seminoles began this season ranked No. 6, prominently positioned for a run at it all.
When Stoops came to Norman, the Sooners had stumbled through five straight nonwinning seasons. The school had tried just about everything in terms of hiring the right coach: the loyal Barry Switzer assistant (Gary Gibbs); the established head coach (Howard Schnellenberger); the ace recruiter (John Blake). All bombed.
Athletic director Joe Castiglione, relatively new to Norman at that point, had to get the next one right.
"I did firmly believe [Stoops] was the right person," Castiglione said. "There were various perspectives around Oklahoma that we needed to hire a sitting head coach. I had to deal with some of that, but you want someone who can provide the right kind of leadership at the right time.
"In most searches you have a primary list and another list, that might have to be activated. Bob was the only assistant coach on our primary list. There were some who were quick to point out the risk, but we really believed he was uniquely prepared."
Stoops' acumen blended perfectly with the underachieving talent Blake had brought in. Properly coached, the Sooners rebounded to 7-5 in 1999, then stunningly won it all the next year after starting the season No. 19 in the Associated Press poll.
Today Stoops' team is again ranked No. 1, he's making $4 million a year and he's turned down a ton of job offers to stay in Norman.
"I would say if my career goes as well as Bob's does, I'll be very happy," said Fisher, who is enough of a Stoops fan to have his little brother, Mark, as his defensive coordinator.
Yet while Fisher is looking to make a name for himself Saturday, Stoops is looking to restore a name. Or, more precisely, a nickname: Big Game Bob.
For roughly the first half of his tenure at Oklahoma, Stoops seemed bulletproof when the stakes were highest. From 2000 until the 2004 Orange Bowl against USC, he was a ridiculous 8-2 against Top 10 teams and 18-3 against ranked opponents.
The Trojans trashed that invincibility, destroying Oklahoma 55-19. Since then Big Game Bob has occasionally been closer to Big Game Boob, going 4-6 against the Top 10 and 20-12 against ranked teams.
"None of us ever created that nickname [Big Game Bob]," Castiglione said. "I'm not sure who did or how it was created. I have seen how many times his teams can face different kinds of challenges and overcome them. There were so many wins that at the time people didn't characterize as huge wins, where maybe others would have struggled.
"I'm not being naive. I understand that people are talking about games with all the lights and big implications -- our team has played quite a few of those. We understand being in a program where perhaps we don't always meet the level of expectations, and the disappointment that comes with that. But nobody's more disappointed than the people involved."
One team will be disappointed Saturday night. The other will take a significant step toward playing for the national title.
Oklahoma has a pair of highly ranked conference opponents in its late-season schedule in Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. The annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas in October is never a given, no matter where either program stands that particular season.
Without a Big 12 title game to serve as potential double jeopardy, odds are prohibitive that a 12-0 Sooners squad would play for the national title.
Florida State figures to be a solid favorite in every Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season game before what could be a difficult closing double. It faces archrival Florida on the road and could tangle with Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game.
But first things first. If the Seminoles pull the upset of the Sooners, we'll have even more evidence that Jimbo Fisher might be Bob Stoops all over again.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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