Double-duty defense

Jimbo Fisher says he can handle burden of calling plays for Noles

Updated: October 11, 2012, 10:40 AM ET
By David M. Hale | NoleNation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The playbook is Jimbo Fisher's baby.

Its origins can be traced back to his first days as a coach, and its most recent incarnation has taken nearly two decades to properly refine.

The playbook is a living history of Fisher's life's work, an autobiography written in X's and O's. He doesn't need to memorize schemes or study formations. He created them.

EJ Manuel, Jimbo Fisher
Elsa/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher's Florida State offenses have averaged over 400 yards per game in his three seasons as head coach.
So when Fisher is asked about the burden of calling plays along with his primary job as Florida State's head coach, he doesn't have to dig deep to find an answer. For him it's obvious.

"I've always done it," he said. "I feel our offense, I know it better than anybody. And we've been doing a great job as far as moving the ball and things. That's what we do."

Designing offenses, coaching quarterbacks, executing a game plan -- all of that carried Fisher to his perch atop Florida State's coaching staff. It's in his DNA. But while he's quick to point to a handful of contemporaries who also carry dual titles as head coach and primary playcaller, the truth is that Fisher remains in the minority.

Among head coaches of teams in BCS automatic qualifier conferences, only about one in six also holds the title of primary playcaller. A handful of others manage a hybrid role, splitting duties with an offensive coordinator. Some, like Oregon State's Mike Reilly, had abandoned play calling, only to return to the task this season. Others, like Georgia's Mark Richt, began their head-coaching careers calling plays but eventually backed away. In most cases, both roles are full-time jobs, and there simply aren't enough hours in the day to give each the proper attention.

"The job [of being a head coach] is a big job," said Richt, who served as Florida State's offensive coordinator in the 1990s with Bobby Bowden before taking over at Georgia. "It takes a lot of your life, a lot of your energy. It tests you physically, mentally and spiritually. So when you have all the responsibilities of head coach and coordinator, playcaller and all of that, sooner or later something's going to give."

In the wake of an ugly 17-16 loss at NC State in which Florida State's offense was shut out in the second half, a hefty contingent of the Seminoles' fan base is now wondering whether that time has come for Fisher.

It's a concern Fisher has little trouble disputing, pointing to the numbers produced by his offenses in recent years. One half of football against NC State hardly tells a story.

"We need to coach them better and play better and execute," Fisher said. "But we've got a good thing. We didn't move the ball, what, one half? Unfortunately we just didn't play well in the second half of that ballgame."

The stats offer some credence to Fisher's theory. In his three years as Florida State's offensive coordinator for Bowden, the Seminoles averaged 386.5 yards per game. In his 2.5 seasons in the dual roles of head coach and playcaller, Fisher's offenses have averaged 400 yards per game.

But in a season of wide-open offenses, high-flying passing attacks and offense-driven shootouts, the complaints from fans have less to do with a perceived decline in performance and more to do with a lack of growth that would be commensurate with an uptick in talent being brought into the program.

Part of the reaction is simply the obvious disappointment following another frustrating loss, but a portion stems from the fact that these losses have occurred at all. If Fisher's play-calling skills haven't diminished, perhaps it is because he's not focused enough on the responsibilities of being a head coach. That notion, too, is one Fisher dismisses.

"You are [balancing more], but it's not as much as you think," Fisher said. "That's because of what you do, and the people you have, and the information you get. You know when you walk in and sit down that it's a few more hours [of work], but it's not an immense strain. It's really not."

Again, the numbers appear to be on Fisher's side, though the math is a bit murky.

A perusal of top programs helmed by coaches who also call plays shows no clear distinction in performance. At West Virginia, Dana Holgersen has his Mountaineers flying high with an undefeated record and an offense that ranks third in the nation. On the flip side, Mike Leach has struggled to implement his offense at Washington State, where the Cougars have slumped in the early going and rank 97th nationally in offense.

For every Steve Spurrier there's another head coach who flames out trying to keep his fingers on too many buttons. While it might work for Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech, USC fans have already begun to stir about Lane Kiffin's ability to handle both jobs.

At Georgia, Richt called plays for the first six years of his tenure, but as time wore on he saw too many flaws in the approach. He'd frequently be interrupted during offensive meetings to handle more big-picture items, and while he was away the production ground to a halt.

For years at Florida State, Richt poured over the X's and O's, becoming one of the most dynamic playcallers in the country. But after a few years of balancing the head job with the play calling, his approach began to slip.

"As a coordinator, all I thought about was the X's and O's, really," Richt said. "There wasn't a lot of other things I had to deal with, so I was able to constantly stay on the cutting edge of what was going on in college football. As a head coach, there's just a little bit less time to do that."

Fisher isn't far enough removed from his days as coordinator to have glossed over a seismic shift in the college football landscape, but the rumblings from fans eager to see more big plays and high scores have already created an aura of discontent.

Some of that dichotomy is philosophical, however. After Saturday's loss, Fisher wondered whether he'd made the right calls. After watching the film, he insisted he wouldn't change a single one.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
AP Photo/David TulisAfter much success as FSU's offensive coordinator, Mark Richt struggled to balance his head coaching duties with calling plays.
"We could throw it more," Fisher said. "But it goes back to philosophical things at the time and the flow of the game."

For Richt, the most significant hurdle to handing over play calling came down to trust. He'd worked with his offensive coordinator, Mike Bobo, for years and he wanted to give his top assistant a chance to make his mark on the program, too.

When Richt was at Florida State, Bowden was a regular contributor in coaching meetings, but the final game plan was Richt's discretion. Richt appreciated that opportunity, and he wanted to do the same for his assistants.

These days, Richt said about 80 percent of a typical Georgia game plan overlaps with his approach. The rest is a bonus, an additional bit of insight stemming from opening the floor to differing voices.

"More times than not when we sit down together, it's a lot of what I might have wanted to do," Richt said. "The other 20 percent, it was good to have other people's thoughts and ideas."

In Fisher's third year as head coach, the diversity of input in creating his game plan hasn't changed drastically. Quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig is now coaching from the sidelines to expedite communication between Fisher, his quarterback and the coaches in the booth. The rest of the roles have remained largely the same.

This is, after all, Fisher's baby. Leaving it in the hands of someone else isn't easy, and that's not likely to happen soon. But there is a time when it will happen, when the big job gets too big and the details aren't so precious anymore.

"It's what's going on, and where things are going, and where you're at in the program, and does the program need other things?" Fisher said. "And do you feel comfortable enough -- because that's a big deal.

"To say you're going to do it your whole career, I don't say that. ... You don't ever know. You always make changes in what goes on as people evolve in your program."