What Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher can learn about hot seat from Brian Kelly, Phillip Fulmer | Opinion
Order is restored in the national recruiting rankings after Wednesday’s National Signing Day produced no movement at the top.
Alabama is first, followed by Georgia, and Texas A&M is an also-ran. The Aggies, No. 15 in the 247Sports Composite, rank closer to South Carolina than they do big-brother Texas, which is No. 3.
The Aggies remain stalled after their biggest bust of a season since joining the SEC.
A year ago, Jimbo Fisher attracted the ire of his peers after Texas A&M topped the national recruiting rankings with its best signing class in program history. Fisher puffed his chest throughout the offseason. Then the hard part arrived: winning games. The king of the offseason became autumn’s joke. Now, Fisher sits on a hot seat protected only by his whopping buyout.
Can Fisher turn down the temperature in his sixth season at Texas A&M?
STAY UP-TO-DATE: Subscribe to our Sports newsletter now!
The Aggies possess talent many SEC peers would covet, and they hired an established-name offensive coordinator, but they’ll face a 2023 schedule that includes road games against Tennessee and Miami, alongside the usual SEC West gantlet and lingering questions about the offense’s direction.
The list is short of coaches who, deep into their tenure, survived a season as bad as the Aggies’ 2022 and rejuvenated their career at the same school.
TOPPMEYER: Why Brian Kelly's next big test with LSU football will occur this spring
QB COMPETITIONS:Our predictions for each SEC football team's starting quarterback, from Alabama to Vols
That list includes Brian Kelly, who should feel empathy for Fisher’s task.
So should Phillip Fulmer.
Brian Kelly provides a rare case study for recovery
Like Fisher, Kelly and Fulmer experienced a season that fell woefully short of meeting expectations, deep into their tenures at Notre Dame and Tennessee, respectively.
The 2016 Irish were ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP Top 25. They finished 4-8, and Kelly instituted sweeping changes. He installed new coordinators, but they wielded no magic wand.
Recovery required an examination of the program’s roots and Kelly evaluating his role.
"I made a decision early in the (2016 season) to make a change at defensive coordinator – I think it was (after Week 4) – but the changes were much more in the way we did things on a day-to-day basis," Kelly, now entering his second season as LSU’s coach, explained last year. "A lot of it had to do with the standards. We upped the standards. We demanded more from each other. I stepped away from having anything to do with play-calling and was much more involved with the day-to-day operations of our players."
Fisher, who called plays at Florida State and Texas A&M, is passing play-calling baton.
Cub Scouts don’t make the ideal companion when you’re gripped in the hot seat’s claws. Better off with someone battle tested. So it is, offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino rides in alongside Fisher.
Whether Petrino rejuvenates the Aggies’ offense may depend on whether Fisher shelves his ego and gives Petrino space to operate.
Petrino can’t function as a lap dog.
Fired as Arkansas’ coach after his infamous motorcycle wreck revealed he’d hired his mistress to his football staff, Petrino is rough around the gills, but he knows his way around a playbook.
The Aggies’ 2022 problems stretched further than play-calling, though.
Player discipline problems, a continued lack of quarterback development, an outdated offense, injuries and a depth chart too reliant on youth contributed to the Aggies going from preseason No. 6 to 5-7.
At Notre Dame, the 2016 season encouraged Kelly to institute a “reboot.”
"Something internally needed to change," Kelly said.
Kelly regained his footing. Two years after the ’16 flop, the Irish won 12 games. Kelly became Notre Dame’s all-time leader for victories.
Phillip Fulmer – and Jackie Sherrill – endured for a while after stalling
Fulmer wasn’t so fortunate after the Vols went from preseason No. 3 to 5-7 in his 13th season. He rehired David Cutcliffe after that 2005 debacle to revive the offense, but Fulmer could never stay more than one step ahead of the posse.
The pressure cranked up in 2007 to the extent that nearly 200 former players, including Peyton Manning, signed an open letter in support of Fulmer that published in the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Tennessee ousted Fulmer in 2008 after his second losing season in a four-year stretch, which began with the arrest-filled ‘05 calamity that ranks among the most disappointing teams in college football history, given the abundance of starters who returned from a 10-win team in ’04.
Fulmer lasted longer past 2005 than most coaches probably would nowadays.
Elsewhere in the SEC, Houston Nutt and Jackie Sherrill rebounded – for a while – after cratering.
At Arkansas, Nutt posted back-to-back losing seasons deep into his tenure. His Razorbacks recovered to go a combined 18-8 in 2006 and ’07 before Nutt resigned amid turmoil to become Ole Miss’ coach.
Sherrill posted consecutive losing seasons at Mississippi State in 1995-96, the fifth and sixth years of his stint. He boosted the Bulldogs to 33 victories during the next four seasons, one of the best stretches in program history, before his tenure fizzled.
Like Fulmer, Fisher boasts a national championship to his name. Like Fulmer, he whiffed on a high-expectations season and missed a bowl game as an established coach.
And, like Fulmer, Fisher will find a hazardous road to endurance.
Unlike Fulmer, Fisher does not enjoy the benefit of being a celebrated alumnus, nor will he be helped by Notre Dame’s prestige and history, nor receive the patience MSU afforded Sherrill in the mid-90s.
Kelly is the rare coach who successfully and perpetually pivoted past a humiliating season, deep into his tenure.
Fisher’s recovery must begin now.
Another season like the last would doom his tenure. With TCU coming off a national championship appearance and Texas set to enter the SEC no later than 2025, Fisher’s window of opportunity is tightening, the pressure is heightening and patience is in finite supply.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Jimbo Fisher, Brian Kelly, Phillip Fulmer & coaching hot seat lessons