This is based on a chapter from Matt Brown’s book, "What If? A closer look at college football’s great questions," available at Amazon.
Before the 2007 season, UAB almost hired Jimbo Fisher. Yes, that Jimbo Fisher.
A coordinator at LSU, Fisher had not only helped build a championship offense in Baton Rouge, he’d played and coached at Birmingham’s nearby Samford and had family ties to the area.
UAB drew up a contract to pay Fisher around $600,000, with $350,000 covered by booster money. UAB was ready to pick Fisher up in an airplane and take him to an introductory press conference.
And then Alabama said no.
UAB stands for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and as a University of Alabama, it is governed by the regents at Bama. This continued a string of events in which UAB football was eventually eliminated and then brought back.
Fisher instead went to Florida State to serve as offensive coordinator and then head coach. (Meanwhile, Alabama hired Nick Saban and brought in Major Applewhite as his first offensive coordinator.)
UAB swung and missed on Pat Sullivan, its OC who would become a success at Samford. Alabama State Senator and UAB booster Jack Williams told me Rick Neuheisel, the future UCLA head coach, was considered.
UAB hired Neil Callaway, an offensive line coach close to Bear Bryant Jr. The move was panned by national media. Callaway would leave after five seasons without a bowl.
How good could UAB have been under Fisher?
Given Fisher’s track record with quarterbacks and his ties to Alabama (he also coached at Auburn for five years), a recruiting bump would have been likely — difficult academics, poor facilities, and all.
Fisher would have inherited QB Joe Webb, who would be drafted by the Vikings and had dual-threat potential, but struggled with efficiency.
With a solid QB, conference-average recruiting, and great coaching, UAB likely would have reached bowl games in 2008 and 2009, the second and third in program history.
Success would have grown UAB’s fan base and made it harder for Alabama to block practice field projects or kill the program.
What are some jobs Fisher could have taken after UAB?
Let’s say Fisher drags UAB to a bowl in 2008 and starts looking for a new challenge.
Ole Miss needed a replacement for Ed Orgeron, and I’m willing to bet Rebel fans would have preferred Fisher to Arkansas runaway Houston Nutt. If Fisher had stuck around Birmingham in 2009, Auburn would have been a natural fit.
But the most interesting opening? Fisher’s home-state West Virginia Mountaineers after Rich Rodriguez left. Imagine Fisher in the Big East with players like Pat White, Noel Devine, and Geno Smith.
What if WVU had beaten Pitt?
This was about more than just West Virginia missing a chance at a big trophy because its rival ruined its season. That’s unfortunate, but not unprecedented.
What is remarkable is how the aftermath changed the trajectory of, like, six major programs. Maybe even more.
West Virginia is one, obviously.
Then there’s Ohio State.
The Buckeyes had locked up No. 1, even though they had been upset by Illinois in their second-to-last game. They boasted the best defense, but their offense was much less elite, and many suspected Ohio State’s ranking had more to do with the fact that nobody else could stay highly ranked more than two weeks.
With West Virginia losing, there weren’t one-loss teams to match up against Ohio State. Kansas had one loss but didn’t win its division. Hawaii was undefeated but beat mostly terrible teams in the WAC.
That means LSU is another.
The SEC champion, whose two losses came in triple overtime (against decent Kentucky and Arkansas teams), earned the other spot. The Tigers were excellent and a bad matchup for the Buckeyes. While there has been some revisionist history — helped by Florida blowing the Buckeyes’ doors off in the previous title game — LSU’s speed all over was superior to Ohio State’s.
If WVU beats Pitt, your title game is Ohio State vs. West Virginia, and LSU’s stuck in the Sugar Bowl.
But what about Florida State?
The ’Noles needed a new offensive coordinator after years of stagnant production. Newspaper reports mentioned Lawrence Dawsey, a former FSU assistant who was at USF; Valdosta State’s Chris Hatcher; and George Henshaw, another former FSU assistant then with the New Orleans Saints.
The pass-happy Hatcher is the most interesting name. But he was outside the Bowden tree. Fisher had played for and coached with Bowden’s son, Terry. Jimbo’s brother would later say Jimbo was "like a Bowden."
If Hatcher or another candidate is a bit worse than Jimbo, maybe the 2007 ’Noles don’t upset No. 2 Boston College or beat No. 21 Alabama, then miss a bowl for the first time since 1981 (depriving us of a 43-man roster taking on Kentucky). That would perhaps force FSU to make a coaching change earlier than it did.
Fisher would have been a candidate for Florida State, whenever it opened, but the program would’ve had other options around 2009. They could’ve saved Rich Rod from the poor cultural fit at Michigan (which might’ve hired Greg Schiano instead).
But if FSU wanted a coach whose preferred offense wouldn’t have been a radical departure, there would have been another name in demand. That would be LSU’s successful defensive coordinator, who boasted years of NFL experience.
Bo Pelini as Florida State head coach would have been hilarious. We saw how one 1990s-spoiled fan base reacted to Pelini’s inability to reach double-digit wins. Can you imagine #FSUTwitter? And I’m sure Pelini would have responded to those tweets with aplomb.
Then, shoot, what does Nebraska do?
One possibility? The Cornhuskers hire Buffalo’s Turner Gill, a legendary QB for the Cornhuskers and once one of the nation’s best recruiters on the Nebraska staff. Gill would get mentioned for jobs like Auburn before taking over at Kansas, a tenure that failed spectacularly.
Former Wake Forest and Baylor head coach Jim Grobe claimed he was offered the Nebraska job, but turned it down because AD Tom Osborne wanted him to keep some assistants (Nebraska disputes this).
But wait, here’s a way more entertaining scenario for Florida State.
He was a former NFL head coach. He had experience as a strong recruiter for one of the most successful programs. He had a background as an offensive innovator, an area where FSU was struggling. He projected youth and energy, an Anti-Bowden.
I’m talking about Lane Kiffin, fresh out of the pros. Tennessee hired him that season, but Florida State would have been able to if it wanted.
It was silly when Kiffin picked fights with Urban Meyer while at Tennessee. At Florida State, where they’d also have to recruit against each other in state? Urban might have beaten the ’Noles by 50.
But what if Fisher decided to go to Alabama as Saban’s OC?
Even though Fisher would have been an upgrade over Applewhite, who left after one season to return to Texas, the difference in Saban’s first year wouldn’t have made up for much of Bama’s relative talent disadvantage. Maybe the Tide find a way to beat Louisiana-Monroe and go somewhere nicer than the Independence Bowl.
It’s what happens in the future that becomes more interesting. Saban replaced Applewhite with Fresno State’s Jim McElwain. Alabama’s quarterback play improved, but the explosion came from the running game. In year three, Alabama won the national title, and the dynasty was on.
Would Fisher have brought a title to Alabama sooner than that? Probably not, since beating Florida in 2008 would have been a tall order for anybody.
Does McElwain ever wind up at Florida?
McElwain parlayed his success into head coaching positions at Colorado State and Florida. Without shining at Alabama, it’s possible McElwain never gets a head coaching position at all, let alone one as prestigious as Florida’s.
And that would mean that we’d never get a press release from Florida claiming its head coach did not pose nude with a shark.
All of this could have created a true Alabama mega team.
Jameis Winston, the mega-QB recruit out of Hueytown, Ala., was considered likely to end up at Bama. But thanks to Fisher and FSU’s more open depth chart, the Seminoles secured his commitment. As a redshirt freshman, Winston led the ’Noles to a national title.
Had Fisher not been at FSU and Winston chose Alabama instead, Florida State wouldn’t win a title in 2013, and Alabama would’ve had a potential QB controversy between Winston and AJ McCarron, a Heisman finalist.
Maybe Alabama wins that 2013 title, robbing the world of the glorious Kick Six, or maybe Winston takes over in 2014 and beats Ohio State in the first Playoff.
Or maybe Fisher to UAB gives us a national champion Stanford.
After making the NFL, Winston would say he regretted not going to Stanford. If Fisher isn’t at FSU, maybe Winston decides it isn’t worth battling McCarron at Alabama, goes to a Stanford that’d win 11 games with Kevin Hogan IRL, and brings a title to Palo Alto.
This is more fun than "Winston could have created an even more powerful Alabama," so let’s go with this.
So let’s recap.
- Fisher rebuilds UAB football, leaving for West Virginia. (Does this have a conference realignment impact?)
- Success buys UAB enough goodwill to prevent Alabama from killing it in 2014.
- FSU replaces Bobby Bowden with Pelini, who leads the Seminoles to unfulfilling success. He never buys a cat, and his fake Twitter account is way less fun than @FauxPelini.
- Nebraska hires local legend Gill and craters.
- Winston heads to Stanford, where he beats Auburn for the 2013 national title.
- Alabama wins a bunch. OK, so that doesn’t change much.
But the fortunes at two major programs (FSU and Nebraska) look worse, West Virginia looks better, and the 2013 title changes hands. That’s a big deal!
In real life, things turned out great for everybody. Except UAB.
Fisher would be named coach-in-waiting at Florida State, replace Bowden in 2010, and build a powerhouse.
When asked about nearly going to UAB in 2014, Fisher said, "Somebody made a decision. It's funny in this business. You coulda went here. You coulda went there. Luckily, I'm glad they made that decision."
Alabama didn’t get Fisher either, but things have gone OK for that Saban character anyway.
But UAB? The Blazers struggled under Callaway and his replacement, Garrick McGee. They finally found the right man in Bill Clark, who even led the Blazers to bowl eligibility, but the damage was already done. The regents voted to disband UAB’s program, and momentum was shot. The Blazers lost much of a decade, even if the outcry in response to the program’s end might’ve given them more visibility than even Fisher would’ve.