Texas A&M athletics are on a roll. They’re rolling in money, accumulating high-profile coaching hires, and upgrading facilities that are already as good as any in the country. In this way, the university has positioned itself to contend for national championships not just in football, but in every sport.
However, this good fortune begins with and depends on keeping head football coach Jimbo Fisher living the good life in College Station. In the end, it’s as simple as that. With Fisher, the Aggies finally have found a coach capable of unlocking the passion (and money) of all those hundreds of thousands of former students.
When a school finds the right guy, its mission then becomes keeping him happy. Remember what Alabama was before Nick Saban was hired after the 2006 season? Mediocre? Yeah, that’s a good word. Untapped potential? There you go. Closer to home, the University of Texas, with all its wealth and influence, hasn’t sniffed national relevance since showing Mack Brown the door after the 2013 season. In seven seasons since, the Longhorns have only finished in the Associated Press Top Ten once.
Texas A&M’s decision to make Jimbo Fisher the second-highest paid coach in college football is actually about more than football. It’s the school’s way of hanging a giant “Do Not Disturb” sign around its athletic department. Fisher’s arrival in December 2017 changed everything about A&M football, and in just three seasons, he has delivered the kind of program Aggies have long dreamed of. And that football program has been the rising tide that lifts the rest of the school’s sports programs. When A&M initially signed Fisher to a ten-year, $75 million contract, the deal seemed like a jaw-dropping commitment. Give Chancellor John Sharp credit for seeing around corners.
Asked at the time about the wisdom of giving a coach ten years, Sharp told the Houston Chronicle’s Brent Zwerneman: “We couldn’t get him to agree to a fifteen-year deal, so this is the best we got.” That original deal looks like a bargain when it’s weighed against A&M athletics’ subsequent growth in revenues, stature, performance, and visibility.
Some of that rise can be traced to the school’s 2012 move to the Southeastern Conference, but it’s the success of Aggies football that has allowed A&M to spend huge amounts on men’s basketball coach Buzz Williams and baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle. That’s why A&M is doing the smart thing in extending Fisher’s contract for three years—through 2031, gulp—and bumping his salary from $7.5 million to around $9 million. When all the t’s are crossed and all the i’s are dotted, only Alabama’s Saban, who’s delivered six national championships to the Crimson Tide, will be making more, with an annual average of $10.6 million.
The administrators in College Station, especially athletic director Ross Bjork, are acting preemptively to dissuade other schools—looking at you, Michigan and Nebraska—from whispering sweet nothings in Fisher’s ear. And $9 million will still be a bargain in the context of Fisher’s importance to A&M and the revenue he helps generate.
Again, plenty of A&M’s success can be traced to the SEC. But plenty more is attributable to how much Aggie fans care about football and how Fisher has made them believe in the program in ways they’ve seldom believed before. This happened about ten minutes after his arrival. Fisher is so persuasive and energetic and focused that he makes it almost impossible to resist buying in. He’s a natural salesman, and salesmen never stop selling. His words come out in bursts. His confidence is contagious. And every aspect of his football program is a contest to be won.
Texas has hundred-inch LEDs in its players lounge? We’ll go two hundred inches! And throw in another dozen leather recliners!
A&M underachieved on such a grand scale for so long that some football fans in Texas began to think the school might never come into its own. Turns out, all the Aggies had to do was hire the right leader. This summer, when Fisher welcomed recruits back to campus for the first time after two years of pandemic-enforced remote calls, he was so fired up he was almost bouncing off the walls. To Fisher, recruiting was another kind of game day, another chance to outperform the competition, and every member of the Aggies football staff, from assistant coaches to equipment managers to administrators, understood the importance of the moment.
Maybe that’s why Rivals has ranked A&M as having the sixth-best recruiting class in the nation for the last three years. For as long as recruiting services have been ranking schools’ incoming classes, that’s the best A&M has ever done. That’s the clout the school wields at this moment in history. The giant sleeps no more. Texas A&M’s $212.7 million in revenue during the pre-pandemic 2018–2019 fiscal year was the second-most among more than two hundred NCAA Division I schools. (Only Texas, at $223.9 million, raked in more cash that year.) A&M’s revenue was two and a half times more than the $87.3 million the school generated in 2011, its final season in the Big 12. Two years after a massive renovation of Kyle Field, the Aggies cracked $200 million in 2017.
At the time, school officials didn’t expect revenue to remain at that level. That changed when Fisher showed up and began preaching the gospel of A&M football. All of a sudden, Aggies couldn’t wait to whip out their checkbooks and match his enthusiasm with their cash. Other college-football powerhouses have experienced similar boom times. At Clemson, ticket sales, television revenues, and donations have almost doubled and prompted a building spree since Dabo Swinney took over in 2008.
Last year, in Fisher’s third season, the Aggies barely missed a berth in the College Football Playoff. Their number-four ranking in the final Associated Press poll was the school’s highest since winning the national championship in 1939. Headed into Saturday’s season opener against Kent State, the Aggies are ranked sixth, their highest preseason spot since 1995. But the date many Aggies diehards have circled on their calendars is October 9, when defending national champions Alabama come to Kyle Field. If that isn’t the most anticipated game in A&M history, it’s certainly on the short list, and Fisher stirred the pot in May when he was asked at an event if the Aggies would have to wait for Saban’s retirement to get a win over the Crimson Tide.
“We’re going to beat his ass when he’s there,” said Fisher, who was an assistant coach under Saban at LSU in the early 2000s. ESPN’s Paul Finebaum labeled it “the shot heard ’round the college football world.” That night, according to Zwerneman, Fisher said: “I wrote a check today that I’m going to have to cash.”
Asked about Fisher’s prediction, Saban responded: “In golf?” Saban is 23–0 against his former assistants.
The Aggies may or may not be on the verge of pushing Alabama aside in the SEC, but Fisher has elevated the program to a place where the possibility of A&M’s ascension is actually being discussed. “It’s a tremendous organization with tremendous people who give us all the support, and they’re behind us one hundred percent,” Fisher said of the university while discussing his extension this week.
We’re likely to be debating the role of big-time sports at universities for as long as college athletics exist. Can football and basketball success and the revenue they generate really benefit the academic mission at these institutions? At the University of Alabama, overall enrollment has risen from 25,000 to almost 40,000 since Saban’s first season. The number of out-of-state students has jumped from 12,000 in 2011 to 22,000 in 2020. In 2017, Alabama released a status report in which it credited the coach with attracting more and better students to Tuscaloosa.
During Mack Brown’s best years at Texas, contributions increased to the point where administrators seemed to have trouble spending all the money that had poured into UT’s coffers. One afternoon in 2006, I walked around Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium with Brown and a school official. As we came upon a construction area, Brown asked: “What’s this?”
“I don’t know what it is,” the official said. “But I know who paid for it—you.” Turns out, that was a museum honoring Bevo, the Longhorns mascot, built through contributions solicited by the Silver Spurs, a campus service organization founded in 1937 to care for the animal. The Aggies already have a campus site honoring their mascot, Reveille, so no matter how much money rolls in during the Jimbo Fisher era, that’s unlikely to be a priority.
Right now, it’s about as a big a crisis as anyone involved in sports at Texas A&M has to worry about. This is what happens when a school hires the right coach. For Texas A&M, Jimbo Fisher is that coach.