COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Nearly six years ago, after Jimbo Fisher had participated in all the pomp and circumstance of his introduction as Texas A&M’s head coach, he sat with a group of local beat reporters in a small room adjacent to the Kyle Field visitor’s locker room, discussing the future and his expectations.
“We have to understand that we’re not interested in being good,” Fisher said on Dec. 4, 2017. “We’re interested in being elite. We’re interested in being great.”
He dropped other quips that would be repeated often in his six-year Texas A&M tenure, from “Your actions speak so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying” to “When good enough becomes good enough, you’ve got a problem.”
Asked that day whether he thought a national championship was an attainable goal in the near future, Fisher said, “I definitely do, or I wouldn’t be here.”
On Saturday night, the Aggies thumped Mississippi State 51-10. The immense stockpile of talent that Fisher and his staff had assembled was on full display. In some ways, it was a cathartic result. But for many fans and alumni, it was maddening. The win improved the 2023 Aggies’ record to a meager 6-4, and they felt just about as far from a national championship as they were when they fired Fisher’s predecessor, Kevin Sumlin.
Following the win, Fisher was asked whether he was frustrated after seeing his team put it all together with a third-string quarterback in a year otherwise full of letdowns.
“It’s not frustrating,” Fisher said. “It’s disappointing at times. … We’re three or four plays from playing in a (College Football) Playoff spot. But we’ve got to put that past us and grow from it and learn from it next year, but we’ve got to finish out this year.
“We’re 6-4, we need to be the best 7-4 team in the country and the best 8-4 team in the country. That’s our goal and what we can control right now.”
Somewhere along the line, good enough became good enough, and that was a problem for Texas A&M. The school announced Fisher’s firing on Sunday, sending a tremor through the coaching carousel. Texas A&M will eat the more than $77 million remaining on his contract, which will be paid out over the next eight years, starting with a lump sum of $19.3 million within the next 60 days.
Texas A&M’s pricey decision was crystal-clear to most people who watched the Aggies the last three seasons. Fisher was paid like a national championship coach because he won one 10 years ago at Florida State, but ever since A&M’s top-five finish in 2020, the Aggies haven’t been in shouting distance of even an SEC West title. The talent on the roster kept growing, but the on-field results never caught up.
“Our program is stuck in neutral,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said Sunday.
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‘We were stuck’
Since Fisher signed a contract extension following that 2o20 breakthrough that guaranteed him nearly $95 million over 10 years, the list of program shortcomings has reached a staggering length. In the three seasons since:
- Texas A&M is 19-15 overall, 10-13 against SEC competition and 12-14 against Power 5 teams.
- Texas A&M is 1-9 in true road games, including a nine-game losing streak that has spanned more than two years.
- Texas A&M is 4-10 in games decided by eight points or less, including a seven-game losing streak which is the longest of its kind in the FBS. (Cincinnati, Louisiana Tech and North Texas have the second-longest such streaks at four games, according to TruMedia.)
- Texas A&M posted a 5-7 season in 2022, its worst since 2009.
Fisher’s 45-25 record after 70 games at Texas A&M is worse than Sumlin’s was through 70 games (48-22). Sumlin was fired following his sixth season at A&M.
Meanwhile, Fisher had signed four consecutive recruiting classes that ranked in the top eight nationally from 2019 to 2022. That included the No. 1 class in 2022, which was the highest-rated haul in the internet recruiting rankings era, according to the 247Sports Composite. The talent kept accumulating, but the wins didn’t follow.
“We are not reaching our full potential,” Bjork said Sunday. “We are not in the championship conversation and something was not quite right about our direction and the plan.”
In the last two seasons, Texas A&M’s roster has ranked fourth in the country in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. The only teams with more talent than the Aggies? Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State. Those three teams are a combined 29-1 this season.
“All the ingredients at Texas A&M are here,” Bjork told The Athletic in August. “We’ve never recruited at a higher level. A coach who has won a national championship. A staff of head coaches who have seen it at a high level, recruited at a high level. Players with all the different blue-chip rankings. The investment has been made by our donors, the 12th Man Foundation, facilities, the infrastructure is there.
“Now truly we have the pieces. We may have had nice facilities before, but we’ve never recruited at this level. To me, that’s the perfect combination.”
On Sunday, Bjork compared the program to a car going 55 miles per hour in the left lane, holding up faster traffic behind it.
“You’re either moving forward or you’re stuck,” he said. “We were stuck.”
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A lagging offense
On the side of the ball where he made his name as a coach, Fisher could never seem to get out of his own way. Fisher’s offensive scheme, known for its complexity, required a level of precision and perfection that muted the considerable skill position talent Texas A&M possessed. Week after week, whenever A&M would fail to hit 30 points or pull out a close game, Fisher harped on “execution.” Fisher used the term so frequently that A&M fans came to loathe it.
The 2022 offense was bad enough that Fisher, who had been the primary offensive game planner and play caller for his entire head coaching career, attempted to transform his approach, giving up those duties to hire Bobby Petrino as his offensive coordinator. And although Petrino’s arrival provided some optimism after early-season blowouts of New Mexico and Louisiana-Monroe, old issues eventually resurfaced. The offense began to resemble what it looked like under Fisher, lacking variety. Passing concepts were slow developing — a poor complement to a struggling offensive line — and led to an inefficient use of the immense skill talent on hand.
Saturday’s win over Mississippi State marked the second consecutive year in which Texas A&M’s third-string quarterback — Conner Weigman in 2022, Jaylen Henderson in 2023 — has been thrust into action with a simplified game plan. The result, both times, was one of the best performances of the season. When the coaches pared down the scheme to help their inexperienced passers, the offense thrived and the players’ talents shone through. But such a plan was only put in place when necessary, and too often A&M made offensive football look arduous.
The quarterback injuries that set up those situations hurt the Aggies, too. Texas A&M has lost a starting quarterback to season-ending injury each of the last three years: Haynes King missed the final 10 games of the 2021 season; after King was benched two games into 2022, Max Johnson missed the final seven games of 2022; this season, Weigman was lost for the year after three games.
And the offensive line issues persisted. The Aggies have been among the worst in the country and last in the SEC in pressure rate allowed for three years running. According to TruMedia, A&M ranked:
- 110th in the FBS and last in the SEC in pressure rate allowed in 2021 (37.5 percent).
- 126th in the FBS and last in the SEC in 2022 (41.3 percent).
- 128th in the FBS and last in the SEC so far in 2023 (43.2 percent).
The offensive issues were magnified in 2023 because of how good the Aggies’ defense is. Texas A&M is second in the SEC, behind only Georgia, in yards allowed per play (4.8) and fourth in the SEC and 32nd in the FBS in scoring defense (20.4 points allowed per game).
Questionable game management
Before Petrino’s hire, Texas A&M developed a habit under Fisher of getting plays in late and being forced to use timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties. The images of Fisher thumbing through a stack of papers on the sideline thick enough to make a CPA blush just to communicate a play became a punchline.
Even with that issue rectified this year, Fisher’s risk aversion became a sore spot. Throughout his head coaching career, including his time at Florida State, Fisher was among the most conservative coaches on fourth downs, annually ranking at or near the bottom of the FBS in fourth-down attempts.
Beyond fourth downs, on two occasions this season Fisher chose to pocket multiple timeouts and let the final seconds of the first half tick away, rather than try to score before the half. In both instances, against Alabama and Tennessee, Texas A&M eventually lost by one score.
Fisher defended those decisions because the Aggies possessed the ball inside their own 30-yard line each time, countering that if the Aggies went three-and-out, they’d punt the ball back and give the opponents optimal field position. Although the logic was understandable, the fact that Fisher wouldn’t at least try to steal points with a veteran quarterback and a plethora of blue-chip receivers was telling: He feared his offense’s failure more than he believed in its ability to succeed.
Special teams have been a problem: Texas A&M allows the 12th-most kickoff return yards on average in the FBS (24.37), a mark that is last in the SEC. The Aggies have allowed three special teams touchdowns this season: one punt return and two kickoff returns, including the opening kickoff on Saturday against Mississippi State. Fisher does not have a dedicated special teams coach, and none of the 10 full-time assistant coaches have special teams listed in their title on the coaching staff roster.
“It’s the totality of how the program operates on a day-to-day basis,” Bjork said Sunday. “Something was not working to reach our full potential. It’s not one game, it’s not one moment, it’s not one win or one loss.”
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Off the field, A&M’s 2022 season was a masterclass in dysfunction. Fisher was so deeply involved in offensive game planning that, at times, discipline issues and other big-picture program tasks became secondary. Suspensions were a common occurrence, none more glaring than a locker room incident at South Carolina that led to the suspension of four freshmen for the rest of the season (all four transferred out of the program at the end of 2022).
Fisher lagged in adapting to the transfer portal, showing a reluctance to take transfers until this season. In Fisher’s first five years leading A&M, he took only seven scholarship transfers combined. This season, after 25 scholarship players transferred out of the program, Fisher took 10.
This season, Texas A&M has operated for five months without a director of player personnel, a key position in the rapidly evolving recruiting world that exists on the staff of almost every major program. After parting ways with Kevin Mashack, who held the position for a year before his departure in June, Fisher still has yet to fill the position. When asked about it in August, he said there was no timetable for filling the job.
“A recruiting director ain’t doing all the recruiting,” Fisher said on Aug. 21. “Every coach still does it. Every off-field guy has roles. … As a head coach you’re still regulating it all. You’re still deciding who you sign, when you sign, where you go, what you do, how you do all that.”
On Sunday, Bjork alluded to organization as a key asset needed in the next coach.
“Consistency and how the program operates on a daily basis impacts the confidence level of every single person in the program and thus influences performance,” Bjork said. “Based on my experience, the best programs have confidence. … I did not feel like we were meeting those standards of excellence and leadership.”
Asked what bothered him most about how the program ran, Bjork said, “consistency and positivity and confidence. That’s really what it boils down to. Everything we do in this world rises and falls on leadership, good and bad.”
Ultimately, the cracks in the program’s foundation were too hard to ignore this year. From a 15-point loss at Miami in Week 2 to the frustrating one-score losses to Alabama, Tennessee and Ole Miss, there was no solid evidence the Aggies would magically become a Playoff contender with Fisher in charge, even if he was given another year. And the problems this season were too reminiscent of what ailed the program in the previous two.
“It goes back to the last couple of years,” Bjork said. “Do we have momentum? Do we have hope? How do we see things trending? And we just didn’t see trend lines improving.”
The Aggies gave Fisher everything he asked for: a massive contract, facilities upgrades, NIL funds and a large coaching staff salary pool. In turn, Fisher accumulated the talent that could win a title.
But instead of contending for a championship, the Aggies are working on being the best 8-4 team in the country, and that’s not good enough.
(Photo: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)