There’s a different brand of pressure mounting around Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher. It’s not the-hot-seat-reaching-an-inferno temperature coaches like Nebraska’s Scott Frost are facing. This isn’t a battle to stay relevant on a national scale like the Deion Sanders-led charge from Jackson State, with Prime Time elevating the FCS HBCU into prominence with recruiting efforts. The upcoming events surrounding the Aggies aren’t solely to maintain elite status like SEC counterparts Alabama and Georgia.
The pressure for Fisher to win now is truly a combination of all of the above. When diagnosing which college football coach is facing the most overall pressure entering the season, it’s Jimbo. And there’s no one else equal. By nature, high-profile coaches are always under pressure with their ballooning salaries and how much every major college athletic department pours into the gridiron. Texas A&M’s case became unique because of the future of the SEC and the battle between Fisher and former friend and boss, Nick Saban.
Fisher had a highly publicized feud in May with Saban, who received a raise and 1-year contract extension on Tuesday, vaulting his annual salary to $11.7 million per year through the 2030 season to remain Alabama’s head coach. The tiff involved NIL deals and which teams pay recruits to play for their team, as if big colleges didn’t do underhanded things to make sure players weren’t taken care of financially before July 2021.
Yes, Sanders was involved in that spat, but the main event was Fisher vs. Saban. It transcended college football during a time when such limited news came out, making the clash relevant to every fan. Both fan bases have their Oct. 8 meeting circled. Fisher became the first former Saban assistant to beat the seven-time national championship-winning coach as a head coach last season in College Station. This year’s rematch in Tuscaloosa is so much more interesting thanks to the off-field drama, and should go a long way in deciding the SEC West.
The rivalry with Saban is an important footnote in how the pressure has built up around Fisher. The first major addition to the stakes of every game the Aggies play, beyond the usual rigors of the SEC and A&M, was how the school was blindsided by its home conference by welcoming Oklahoma and Texas into the league.
Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork’s messaging went from calling the Longhorn and Sooner additions “rumors” to accepted fact within hours. Mizzou head coach Eli Drinkwitz spoke early the next morning at SEC Media Days. He cracked jokes, asking SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey whether the Horns Down hand gesture would soon be a penalty in the league. Boy how the landscape changes quickly. And the Aggies were left in the dark.
How it affects A&M moving forward is this: The SEC is about to become a lot harder to win when the pair of former Big 12 rivals joins the league. That window, under the current set of circumstances, will only get smaller. And that recruiting pitch to Texas high school kids, the best football talent in the country, about A&M being The Lone Star States’ lone team in the best collegiate league — that’s gone, too.
A&M hasn’t even made an SEC championship game since joining the conference in 2012. The Aggies have one double-digit win season since the turn of the century, their debut campaign in the league when a little guy named Johnny Manziel won the Heisman. The frustration of others adding to their trophy cases around them, while the Aggies mainly tread water is becoming way more noticeable.
The difference between legitimate national title contender and pretender, acting like it could one day win the college football playoff but will never have the stamina to do it, is becoming clearer. A&M is one of the few teams left to not be clearly defined on either side. Aggies fans can shout about 2020, how the clear-No. 1 Alabama was their only loss. That’s true. The CFP is the most exclusive club for a reason. Being the strong No. 5 gets you entry in the same fashion as Vanderbilt. And A&M followed that up with a 8-4 season.
In four seasons under Fisher, the Aggies have gone 9-4, 8-5, 9-1, 8-4. Where’s that dip from Georgia? Alabama? Ohio State? Clemson surely won’t repeat last season. That’s the trend the Aggies need to buck . The pressure to raise their standards to the mountaintop is more worrisome than keeping them there. Or trying to keep a job.
The only coaches I can think of with similar pressure held the title of Notre Dame’s head coach in the last calendar year — Marcus Freeman and now-LSU coach Brian Kelly. Down in the Bayou, Kelly will have to eventually win a national title to meet expectations. But it’s year No. 1 in Baton Rouge. He’s got no extra pressure. Freeman was selected to lead Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish could’ve had someone with much better credentials lead them going forward. They kept things in-house in South Bend and he’ll also have no added pressure beyond the extreme ones that already exist with the sports’ greatest independent.
That’s why Fisher faces such an unbearably high bar. This is year No. 5. And he won a national championship at his last gig at Florida State. He’s truly never had one hand on the title with A&M. That needs to change soon, or he might need to find a new employer.