A sputtering offense, a stubborn coach and a $76 million buyout: Inside Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M downfall

SHORTLY AFTER TEXAS A&M athletic director Ross Bjork fired Jimbo Fisher, he described what the Aggies are seeking in a replacement. They’re looking for a coach who’s open to change, adaptable, organized, easy to work with, has a creative offense and is more of a CEO type than someone who’s in the film room all night.

It sounded like he was describing the opposite of Fisher.

Fisher was fired Sunday morning late in his sixth season at Texas A&M with more than $76 million remaining on his fully guaranteed contract. He was undone by an offense — his offense — that didn’t keep up with the trends in college football, ranking 101st nationally in scoring during a disastrous 5-7 season in 2022. He was undone by a stubbornness to change, waiting until Year 6 to even hire an offensive coordinator. He was undone, sources say, by his ego and his insistence on making each and every decision.

No doubt there were tantalizing highs: Fisher’s 2020 COVID-year team finished 9-1 against an all-SEC schedule and notched a 41-27 win in the Orange Bowl to finish the season at No. 4, the Aggies’ highest season-ending ranking since their 1939 national championship season. Fisher remained popular with players until the end and recruited at a level never seen before in College Station. In 2022, he landed one of the most touted recruiting classes in modern history, ranked No. 1 nationally.

But the low points were lower than the Aggies could have bargained for. There were five seasons with four or more losses, including that 2022 campaign, in which the Aggies opened the season at No. 6, only to crash to a 5-7 record amid a six-game losing streak. It was the program’s first losing season since 2009. Somewhere in that mess was a home loss to Appalachian State in which Fisher’s offense managed 180 yards and nine first downs. The Aggies became a joke. They were the biggest underachievers in the country.

Meanwhile, Fisher’s singular focus on running his program his way didn’t endear him to many people on campus. Fisher was the decision-maker on everything, and if you questioned why something was done a certain way, you were likely to be met with an angry response, sources said. (Fisher did not return a message seeking comment for this story.)

That included habits like Fisher’s desire to travel to road games on Thursday nights, meaning players and staff left campus shortly after practice, and sometimes didn’t get to hotels until late in the evening or early mornings. Then they’d wake up on Friday mornings and have meetings and just wait around for the game.

“No one does that,” one Power 5 operations director said. “It impacts academics, takes staff away from their families — and there’s nothing to do. You’re just asking for players to get in trouble.”

A staff member agreed: “You just felt like you were there for so long. That kind of wears on the players.”

The results bear that out. The Aggies have lost nine straight road games dating to the 2021 season. They were 0-9 against ranked teams on the road during Fisher’s entire tenure. When something wasn’t working, it seemed like Fisher was reluctant to change.

“You have to adapt, you have to evolve,” Bjork said at a news conference after Fisher’s firing. “I’m not going to say whether he did or didn’t, but it didn’t work.”

Looking back, that 2020 season was obviously an anomaly. As issues piled up, Fisher, enabled by his contract, doubled down on doing things his way.

“There was no hope that this would ever get better because what was going to change?” a staff member said. “He wasn’t going to listen to anybody else. It was just going to continue the way that it was.”

In the end, the Aggies decided it was no longer worth throwing good money after bad. They decided it was worth $76 million to send Fisher out the door a day after a 41-point win.

“Modern-day football requires, to me, a certain type of leadership,” Bjork said. “You’re moving forward and you’re making change and you’re dialed into what the young men want and what they expect in terms of style of play and the system and the culture and the day-to-day.”

He didn’t see that happening under Fisher.

“To me, [the lack of] all of those things were just leading to lack of confidence,” Bjork said.

AFTER THE WORST offensive season of Fisher’s career — the Aggies averaged 22.7 points a game last season — Fisher hired Bobby Petrino to take over the offense. The Aggies had a potential superstar at quarterback in Conner Weigman and skill position talent all around him, including receiver Evan Stewart. There was cautious optimism around the 2023 season. A longtime SEC personnel director called Texas A&M’s roster one of the best three in the league this year.

But after the Aggies sputtered in October losses to Alabama and Tennessee, scoring just three points in the second half of each loss, Fisher’s future appeared precarious for the first time, even accounting for the massive buyout that would accompany his firing. And for the second year in a row, offensive line troubles forced the Aggies to play their third-string quarterback.

Fisher’s in-game decisions remained a source of frustration. Against Alabama, he chose to punt on fourth-and-1 at the Tide’s 45-yard line in the third quarter of a 17-17 game. Alabama scored six plays later and never trailed again. That one call became emblematic of larger issues for a fanbase that felt, even against the best teams in the league, Fisher was playing too conservatively, almost not to lose as opposed to trying to win.

“If it wasn’t a full yard, inside a yard, [we] probably would have went,” Fisher said.

Fisher runs a complex, pro-style offense and multiple staffers indicated that while Petrino was calling the plays, a large portion of the plays he was calling were still Fisher’s offense.

The offense worked when everything clicked, but proper execution became increasingly difficult with the revolving door at quarterback and the transfer portal leading to the addition of new players unfamiliar with the system.

Even when it didn’t work, Fisher stayed the course.

“We’ve had things there,” Fisher said after those losses to Tennessee and Alabama in which the offense scored 33 points combined. “It’s just a matter of executing plays. It has been shocking that we haven’t been able to go out and execute like that.”

But it was Fisher’s job to get them to execute, and “just gotta execute” became the defining phrase of his tenure.

“It’s too complicated,” a former player said. “And that’s why I think you saw a lot of struggles with it. It just seemed like all these pieces have to go right for a play to work. There’s a lot of thinking. There’s not a lot of just going out and playing. And I think that’s a big deal.”

And it didn’t help that the quarterbacks were battered. In this year’s game against Tennessee, Pro Football Focus said Max Johnson was pressured on 25 of his 39 dropbacks, or 64.1% of them.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Texas A&M QBs were hit on 51.7% of their dropbacks in the Alabama and Tennessee games. Among the 75 FBS teams with a minimum of 50 dropbacks over that two-week span, A&M was the only school with a QB contact percentage of more than 50%. The next closest were Kent State at 49.4% and Akron at 47.2%.

Kellen Mond started all 36 games in Fisher’s first three seasons in College Station. But since 2021, five different quarterbacks have made starts, the most in the SEC. During that span, the Aggies have had 15 games with fewer than 200 passing yards.

In the seven seasons before Fisher’s arrival, Texas A&M produced nine first-round draft picks. In the six years since, despite signing 70 ESPN 300 players, the fourth most in the FBS behind Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, it has had one: Kenyon Green, a guard. A&M has produced just two skill-position draftees that signed with Fisher: Isaiah Spiller, a fourth-rounder at running back last year and De’Von Achane in the third round this season.

Other schools made Fisher’s stagnant offense a point of emphasis. Johntay Cook II, a Texas high school receiver who was No. 32 in the 2023 ESPN 300, told On3 during his recruitment it was a concern.

“A&M has the players but not the scheme,” Cook said. “I mean A&M is running like the Wishbone offense. It’s cool and all, but if Jimbo opened it up that would be serious.”

Cook ended up signing with Texas.

But that wasn’t the only recruiting problem. Fisher prized talent above all, as most coaches do. But there were several high-profile players who committed to A&M who couldn’t stay out of trouble.

Five-star cornerback Denver Harris was suspended twice, then transferred to LSU, where he is on scholarship and in school, but not practicing with the team because of disciplinary issues. Four-star corner Smoke Bouie and five-star wide receiver Chris Marshall were suspended and transferred. Bouie has since been dismissed at Georgia and Marshall was removed from the Ole Miss roster and is now at Kilgore College, a junior college in East Texas.

Sources said discipline was a recurring issue at A&M, with Fisher preferring to let his players lead the locker room. A former player spoke of “individualism” on the roster, with players often not being punished for missing meetings or being late.

“There was 100% a lack of discipline, a lack of accountability,” a former player said.

Last season, Fisher suspended Stewart, Bouie, Marshall and Harris for the Miami game because of a curfew violation. Harris, Marshall and offensive lineman PJ Williams were suspended indefinitely for a locker room incident before the South Carolina game.

Since the Aggies signed the No. 1 class in the country in 2022, they have gone 11-11. Sources at Texas A&M indicated there was a concern that if Fisher had remained, the exodus into the transfer portal would have been significant. The Aggies were in a no-win situation, so they made the move early in hopes that a new coach could rerecruit the roster.

“The assessment that I delivered was that we are not reaching our full potential,” Bjork said at a news conference of a conversation with the Texas A&M’s president, Gen. Mark A. Welsh. “We are not in the championship conversation and something was not quite right about our direction and the plan.”

FISHER GOT OFF to a rocky start when he first arrived in Texas and met with a 7-on-7 coach in the Houston area. This immediately raised eyebrows among the Texas High School Coaches Association, the most powerful group of its kind in the country, which had encouraged “straight-line recruiting,” going through the player’s high school coaches, rather than private trainers.

“It was just a matter of not really knowing the climate and how we’ve been working hard to keep that element out of Texas,” D.W. Rutledge, the organization’s executive director, told The Dallas Morning News in Dec. 2017.

When Mack Brown arrived at Texas, he extended a welcome to high school coaches, hiring Dallas Carter’s Bruce Chambers to his first staff, and keeping him on board for 16 years. Brown was a fixture at the THSCA convention, sending every one of his coaches to shake hands and invite coaches to campus.

Every year at the coaches’ convention, there is a keynote panel that includes every Division I coach in the state. This year, Fisher was the only coach who didn’t show. His presence was expected and his absence was not explained. That raised eyebrows across Texas.

“I just believe that if you coach in this state, you need to know when the Texas High School Coaches Association convention takes place and you need to be present,” said Lee Wiginton, the head coach at Allen High School and the past president of THSCA. “Texas A&M is a prestigious program in our great state. When their head football coach doesn’t attend our convention, it’s simply not a good look in the eyes of the Texas high school coaches.”

Fisher was the only coach in the state in recent years not to do interviews or appear on podcasts with Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine, often called the Bible of football in the state (and a publication that put Fisher on the cover when he arrived in College Station). Sources spoke of their surprise that Fisher didn’t offer a scholarship to John Paul Richardson, a wide receiver who is the son of Aggies great Bucky Richardson. Richardson instead signed with Oklahoma State and has since transferred to TCU. He notched 49 catches for 503 yards last season. On A&M’s roster, only Stewart, who had 53 catches for 649 yards last season, surpassed those numbers.

The Aggies started to see comparisons to all the stories they’d heard from Florida State before Fisher headed to College Station. “Jimbo was adamant that he wasn’t going to shake hands and kiss babies,” one influential FSU booster told ESPN in 2020.

Compared to Texas, which currently sits at No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings and will join Texas A&M in the SEC next year, the Aggies felt like they were “stuck in neutral” according to Bjork, and couldn’t afford to take any more chances.

The early signing period and the opening of the portal were coming quickly. There was a bowl game to contend with in the middle of that. There were staffing vacancies that needed to be filled. (After recruiting the historic 2022 class, director of player personnel Marshall Malchow departed for Oregon to join Dan Lanning’s staff and Fisher replaced him with Kevin Mashack from Indiana. In June of this year, Fisher abruptly fired Mashack and did not replace him this season.) There were likely to be more coaching changes, particularly along the offensive line. Bjork said this week that he didn’t believe Fisher had the blueprint to fix all of those issues.

“How was the plan going to be executed?” Bjork said. “Was there going to be any hope? Were we going to have the right performance next year? I didn’t see all that lining up for success.”

In the end, the Aggies were tired of being embarrassed. And so they paid Fisher more than triple the largest buyout in college football history. Bjork compared the program to a car driving too slow in the fast lane and holding everyone back.

With Fisher out of the way, Bjork says the Aggies will learn their lessons from the contract and the extension. They’re focused on finding the right fit, rather than worrying about winning a news conference or making a splash hire.

“You take the spirit, you take the passion that’s here. … We were 5-4 going into our last home game and we had 103,000 people that showed up on a Saturday night to support our team,” Bjork told ESPN. “There’s no other place like that. And so if you couple that enthusiasm, those resources, what we have to offer in the facilities world, the NIL world, all the support that people receive here at Texas A&M…”

Wiginton said Fisher’s departure offers the Aggies a chance to find someone who will take pride in his role in Texas. Bjork said it’s a chance to get a coach who embraces the current state of college football and to start over with a clean slate.

“It’s going to be a positive environment,” Bjork said. “We’re going to hire the right coach. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

Mark Schlabach contributed to this story.

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