Never mind that Jimbo Fisher is going to collect approximately $77 million from Texas A&M even if he lands another coaching gig that pays him, say, $77 million. That’s more than three times the amount any other college football program has ever spent to fire its football coach, and if you like Aggie jokes, there’s your all-timer. Until Sunday, Auburn’s $21.45 million payout to Gus Malzahn after the 2020 season had been the highest on record, and once A&M pays off Fisher’s assistant coaches, the final tab will likely cost more than $100 million.
It was only six years ago that A&M chancellor John Sharp, when asked why he’d given Fisher a ten-year contract, shot back: “We couldn’t get him to agree to a fifteen-year deal, so this is the best we got.” Sharp gave Fisher a ceremonial plaque for the national title—which would have been A&M’s first since 1939—he would deliver.
Jokes aside, however, Texas A&M had to do this. To allow Fisher to return to College Station for a seventh season and expect different results would have been insane. As A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told reporters Sunday evening after the school announced Fisher’s firing: “Our program is stuck in neutral.”
Bjork was being kind. Under Fisher, the Aggies had become college football’s number one underachievers. No school has more advantages than Texas A&M. No school. Not Alabama or Georgia. Not Texas. Now, with the Longhorns about to join A&M in the Southeastern Conference next season, some Aggies were terrified of a return to the “little brother” status that defined the schools’ relationship for most of the century the in-state rivals spent together in the Southwest Conference and the Big 12.
Fisher was 45–25 overall in College Station, but over his final three seasons, after signing one heralded recruiting class after another, the Aggies were 19–15 overall, 10–13 in the SEC, and 12–14 against Power Five schools. Texas A&M hasn’t won a true road game in—wait for it—more than two years and has lost ten of its last fourteen one-score games.
Fisher’s offense, the thing he prided himself on, appeared predictable and mistake-prone. His teams did not play with the sense of urgency championship squads have, and over the last few weeks, he seemed to lose the edge that had made him a championship coach in the past. He may not have become resigned to losing, but outsiders could have seen it that way.
This wasn’t about talent. The Aggies are the fourth-most gifted team in the land, according to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. Earlier this season, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin slipped in a backhanded compliment about Fisher’s stacked lineup days before Mississippi beat A&M 38–35. “It really is like an NFL roster,” Kiffin said.
I can see readers rolling their eyes before I’ve even written this, but it’s important to view the university’s decision to fire Fisher through the eyes of administrators, donors, and other Aggie power brokers who justifiably believe Texas A&M is one of the ten or fifteen best jobs for a college football coach. Please, stay with me on this.
First, football is special at Texas A&M. It matters. The Aggies averaged 102,297 fans for their four conference home games this season, and anyone who has spent a Saturday afternoon at Kyle Field understands its value as one of the best home field experiences in the nation. I’ve stood on the sidelines at the ends of victories and watched high school recruits react in awe to ovations from the crowd that sound like thunderclaps when good things are happening for the Aggies.
The Aggies have splurged bottomless sums of money over the last decade to build the football program a first-class stadium, locker room, players’ lounge, and indoor practice facility. Has some of the spending been ridiculous? Sure it has. That’s part of the arms race in college sports that separates Ohio State, Michigan, and other national championship competitors from the rest.
There’s also this: few schools in the country have more elite high school football talent within, say, a three-hour drive from campus. Fisher did a tremendous job getting some of those blue-chip prospects to College Station, including members of the 2022 group, which analysts consider one of the best of all time.
All of which brings us to one final factor: money. A&M has gobs of it, probably as much as any school in the country, which it proved again on Sunday by pulling the trigger on the coaching change.
By hiring Fisher in 2017 and continuing to invest in the program throughout his tenure, Texas A&M positioned itself for—and paid for—greatness. The Aggies haven’t come particularly close to achieving greatness under Fisher, and that makes his firing a reasonable decision. Now the challenge will be to hire a head coach who can turn all of A&M’s advantages into victories.
Several weeks ago, a prominent former Aggie whispered this name to me: Dan Campbell, head coach of the Detroit Lions. When I countered that it could take $20 million a year, the former Aggie didn’t blink. That doesn’t mean Campbell is on his way to College Station, just that A&M donors won’t let any price tag get in the way of pursuing the coach they desire.
Among less-fanciful possibilities, Oregon head coach Dan Lanning would be a home run of a hire. So would Kiffin, who has turned taunting Jimbo into an art in recent years. Strong cases could be made for UTSA’s Jeff Traylor and Duke’s Mike Elko. Other names likely to be discussed: Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz, and Kansas’s Lance Leipold.
Here’s the larger point: Fisher seemed like a great hire six years ago, when he was lured away from Florida State with a breathtaking deal worth $75 million over ten years. Fisher’s FSU teams had won at least ten games per season in six of his eight seasons, including 2013, when the Seminoles went 13–0 and defeated Auburn in the national championship.
Things seemed on track at A&M when Fisher went 9–1 in his third season and finished fourth in the Associated Press poll. The following year, the Aggies opened the 2021 season at number six, and with rumors of LSU’s interest in Fisher swirling, the coach’s original contract was torn up and replaced with a ten-year, $95 million deal that runs through 2031.
If we could freeze this story at that moment, everyone would go home happy. We may never know exactly what went wrong with A&M football after that. The Aggies beat number one–ranked Alabama that season in front of 106,815 at Kyle Field. At the end of that game, with joyous fans pouring onto the field, greatness seemed within reach. But the team had already lost conference games to Arkansas and Mississippi State that year. Losses to Ole Miss and LSU would follow, and amid inconsistent quarterback play and the head coach’s inability to solve problems, a fall that began with national championship aspirations ended in disappointment.
This year began with trademark Aggie optimism. “Now truly we have the pieces,” Bjork told the Athletic in August. “We may have had nice facilities before, but we’ve never recruited at this level.” The good vibes vanished when the Aggies were blown out 48–33 in a week-two trip to Miami, and then, as the season went on, every Aggie loss started to feel like one more brick in the wall for the case to fire Fisher. He infuriated the A&M faithful by running out the clock in the first half against Alabama rather than trying for a quick score, racking up eleven penalties against Tennessee, overseeing a late missed field goal at Ole Miss—the list goes on.
It was after the loss at Ole Miss that Fisher appeared to be accepting his fate. His voice was quiet that evening in Oxford, Mississippi, when he sat in front of reporters and searched for words. “Tremendous college football game,” he began. “Disappointed we came out on the wrong end of it.”
Saturday night, after Texas A&M beat Mississippi State 51–10 at Kyle Field, Fisher declared the Aggies were “three or four plays” from being in the College Football Playoff. He’s not wrong—and with the team sitting at 6–4 and fourth place in the SEC West, with almost no chance of making the playoff, Fisher’s observation seemed to seal his fate.
It’s appropriate to ask if football should have such an outsized influence on a world-class university. Right or wrong, a great football team can inspire donations in a way Nobel Prizes can’t. But football also causes headaches, because dozens and dozens of donors who are willing to spend whatever it takes to see their team win want their voices heard. As former A&M president R. Bowen Loftin told the Athletic this summer: “If you were to get Jimbo alone right now and ask him who his real boss is, you might not get the answer you expect.”
Robert Gates, the former CIA director and defense secretary who was A&M’s president from 2002 to 2006, once told Time magazine: “Texas A&M football caused me more stress than any job I’ve ever had. . . . I asked my wife one time, ‘Why is that?’ And she said, ‘Because you have no control.’ ”
Problems like meddling boosters would probably vanish with the hiring of a successful coach, because part of a coach’s job is navigating an university’s bureaucracy—no matter how murky it is. Perhaps Texas A&M’s football program will never be mentioned in the same breath as those of SEC powers like Georgia and Alabama and LSU. But the Aggies should not be an also-ran. And when they name their new coach, that’s what they’re hoping to change.