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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Fisher overcomes staff shakeups on NSD

By David M. Hale

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher got the news on Monday, nearly two full days before Jalen Ramsey's official letter of intent would inch its way through Florida State's fax machine.

A month earlier, Florida State had been little more than a small blip on Ramsey's radar, but things had changed. Ramsey had a good rapport with FSU's new defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, who had recruited him while still coaching at Alabama. As January's chaos finally began to fade, it was that relationship that pushed Ramsey toward the Seminoles, but when the final decision was made, even Pruitt was kept in the dark.

"[Ramsey] wanted to keep it close,” Fisher said, “so I didn't even let it out to Jeremy, not to anybody.”

Jimbo Fisher
Jimbo Fisher's new coaching hires opened some new doors on the recruiting trail that helped FSU finish well on signing day.
That combination of new voices and Fisher’s steadfast control provided a perfect synopsis of how Florida State managed to put together the nation's ninth-best recruiting class on Wednesday in spite of an offseason of overwhelming transition in which six assistant coaches left for other jobs.

Fisher was careful to bring in veteran recruiters to fill the vacancies on his staff, including former coordinators Sal Sunseri, Billy Napier, Charles Kelly and Randy Sanders. Fisher insists all were hired with long-term goals in mind, but the short-term benefit was that several new doors were opened on the recruiting trail. FSU wouldn't have been in the picture for Ramsey or defensive end DeMarcus Walker had Pruitt not arrived first.

"That was his guy from the start," Walker's high school coach, Adam Geis, told ESPN.

For weeks, it seemed Florida State might slump to the finish, but instead the Seminoles closed with a bang, with the new blood on the staff helping to reel in late additions like Ramsey and Keith Bryant.

"I actually think it opened up more doors in guys we ended up getting on the back end of it," Fisher said. "It's probably a wash, but we got in on some key guys I never thought we'd have a chance to get in on."

On the other hand, it was Fisher's staunch demands to have his fingerprints on every aspect of the program that allowed FSU to navigate the turbulent waters after so many coaching changes in the weeks leading up to national signing day. The opposition had an easy sales pitch to recruits: The assistants they had trusted were gone. But Fisher had an answer: He'd been there all along, and he wasn't going anywhere.

"That's why I try to stay very active in everything we do, whether it's coaching or recruiting," Fisher said. "You have to stay very much involved to bridge those gaps and be able to translate that back to your guys and to our new coaches when they get out there."

The irony is that level of involvement might have helped push a few coaches, such as offensive coordinator James Coley, out the door to jobs where they enjoyed a greater degree of freedom in coaching and play-calling. But the rewards of Wednesday's signing class were ample evidence that Fisher's vision works. It was his third consecutive top-10 class.

In the weeks between FSU's Orange Bowl victory and Wednesday's recruiting finish line, Fisher was the point man, lead salesman and de facto recruiting coordinator. He was on the road in South Florida, locking up FSU's biggest catch in Matthew Thomas. This was Coley's domain, but Fisher didn't miss a beat in landing the nation's top linebacker.

"I've always recruited South Florida," Fisher said. "Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm -- that's been my area for years. It actually felt good, back in the system for a while doing the ground work."

It was Fisher who closed the deal with wavering linebacker E.J. Levenberry, and it was Fisher who ensured Thomas provided a crown jewel in this year's class. Fisher was the touchstone while the rest of the staff adjusted on the fly.

In the end, the plan wasn't foolproof. FSU waved goodbye to a few key commitments, such as offensive tackle Austin Golson, and it failed to reel in a few other big fish, such as receiver Stacy Coley.

But this was still an overwhelming victory for Fisher and Florida State. The changes came at a frenetic pace, but Fisher had been prepared with new hires who already understood his system and recruits who already believed in it.

"It's very tough," Fisher said, "but our guys did a great job of it and we were able to bridge that gap."