They’ve done this before.
Yeah, yeah, Jimbo Fisher and Mark Stoops have never gone head-to-head as head coaches. That changes Saturday night when Kentucky, coached by Stoops, and Texas A&M, coached by Fisher, play in College Station. Yes, Stoops called Fisher boss for three years (2010-12) when Jimbo was the head coach at Florida State. In fact, Stoops was Fisher’s first defensive coordinator.
That’s when the two first squared off. There was Fisher on one side of the practice field, directing the Seminoles’ offense. There was Stoops on the other side of the practice field, directing the Seminoles’ defense.
“Fond memories,” said Stoops this week of those FSU drills and scrimmages. “They were intense and fun sometimes, competing with him.”
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They were also priceless. “I learned a lot,” the Kentucky coach said Monday.
Yes, he did, after spending six years as defensive coordinator at Arizona for brother Mike Stoops, Mark slipped out of his sibling’s shadow. The morning after Arizona knocked off USC at L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum, Mark Stoops boarded a plane for Florida. He interviewed with Fisher, was offered the job, and went about replacing the legendary Mickey Andrews just as Fisher went about replacing the legendary Bobby Bowden.
“He was a guy that really, for being a first-time head coach, was really extremely organized,” Stoops said of Fisher. “Very, very talented with what he was doing.”
The two formed a formidable duo. Florida State went from 42nd to fourth to second nationally in total defense. Overall, the Seminoles went from 10-4 to 9-4 to 12-2. That brought the staff attention. Ultimately, it brought Stoops an offer to be Kentucky’s head coach.
The next season, 2013, Florida State won the national title. (Current Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt was Florida State’s defensive coordinator.) High bars have disadvantages, however. Four seasons later, after the ‘Noles plunged to 5-6, Fisher accepted a mountain of money from Texas A&M. Contract: $75 million over 10 years.
Back in Lexington, Stoops was climbing his own mountain. One step a time. His recruiting classes improved. His win total improved. This year, Stoops appears to have squeezed through to a breakthrough. The Cats are 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. They’re ranked 13th in the AP Top 25, a surprise success story in the first half of the college football season.
“They’ve got great coaches,” said Fisher this week. “I know them very well. Listen, if you’re around Mark, Mark’s a winner. He coaches. He plays. The guy eats, lives and breathes football. He does a good job and it does not surprise me one bit.”
Meanwhile, in College Station, Fisher has pulled on a pair of cowboy boots and gone to work. By all reports, the Aggies are a more physical team now. For all the killer speed he fielded at Florida State, Fisher is an old-school coach from West Virginia who learned the ropes under Terry Bowden at Auburn and Nick Saban at LSU.
In fact, when Stoops first came to Kentucky, the new coach quickly put in place a plethora of off-the-field programs and processes directed at player improvement.
“I got them from Jimbo,” explained Stoops. “He got them from Coach Saban.”
That would be Alabama’s Nick Saban. Coincidentally, of Alabama’s five foes so far this season, Texas A&M has come closest to giving the Crimson Tide an actual game. Alabama won 45-23. Before that, the Aggies took then No. 2-ranked Clemson to the wire before losing 28-26. They enter Saturday 3-2.
Last week brought a minor controversy — except on the internet, where everything is major — over Fisher’s jerking of a player’s face mask. Aggies linebacker Tyrel Dodson had become involved in extracurricular nonsense with some Arkansas Razorbacks. Fisher saw it as a teaching moment. Dodson backed his coach. No harm, no foul.
“Football is an emotional game,” Fisher said this week without apology after A&M’s 24-17 win.
Will Saturday be emotional for the two head coaches? Probably not. Neither enjoys coaching against friends, but the schedule is the schedule. And besides they’ve tried to beat the other before. At Florida State. In practice. This time, it just happens to be for real.