Jimbo Fisher’s contract hovers over Texas A&M one year after Aggies made splash on National Signing Day

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Billy Liucci was lounging last month in a front office of the worldwide headquarters of TexAgs, one of the country’s oldest, most ambitious and successful fan websites. Although the site’s executive editor is not a member of Texas A&M’s athletic department, Liucci is one of the school’s most influential figures in athletics.

Plugged in doesn’t even start to explain that influence.

“If it wasn’t for the contract, I don’t think he’s here,” Liucci said the week of Thanksgiving. “It’s been that bad this year.”

He was speaking, of course, about Jimbo Fisher, the Aggies’ coach. A few days later, Texas A&M upset no. 6 LSU to finish 5-7, its worst season in 15 years. Whether Liucci’s statement pre-LSU should be reevaluated in light of that win is up for debate.

Regardless, Fisher’s contract continues to hover over everything else at Texas A&M: the future, the past, this week’s early signing day, next season … everything.

Nothing in these parts can be discussed without that contract context. It is fair to say Fisher has underachieved going 39-21 in five seasons at Texas A&M. There has been not so much as a division title, although a 9-1 COVID-19-infused season in 2020 remains the high point. But for the money, Fisher era at Texas A&M flat out hasn’t been worth it. So far.

An at-the-time jaw-dropping fully guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract in 2018 was replaced by an exceptionally jaw-dropping 10-year, $95 million fully guaranteed contract in 2021. There is $85 million left on the deal as a buyout following Texas A&M’s first season without a bowl appearance since 2008. Even if well-heeled Aggies donors wanted to make a move, that number is too big even for them.

Hence, Liucci’s candor.

“On one hand, people see Texas and Oklahoma aren’t doing much. Maybe that’s a saving grace,” he said of the Aggies’ longtime rivals. “The problem, I think, is when you see the SEC West right now. … [LSU coach] Brian Kelly is doing it in Year 1. He’s doing it on the back of a linebacker who was committed to Texas A&M for a couple of months [Harold Perkins Jr.]. You look around the league, and it’s a year where it was there for the taking.”

Georgia is No. 1 and undefeated, but that’s a minor detail. You don’t pay $9.5 million a year to lose at home to Appalachian State and then — later — drop six games in a row.

Wednesday’s early signing day might as well be a bookmark before moving to the program’s next chapter. Last year’s monster no. 1 class suggested 2022 would be a gap year. No one wanted to hear that, apparently among them those who ranked the Aggies sixth in the preseason rankings. Those players were highly rated, but they were also young. The maturity of three straight top 10 recruiting classes weren’t enough to fill in.

This season will most likely [be remembered] like a disappointment,” said junior guard Layden Robinson. “There’s no hiding that. There’s no going away from that.”

247Sports Composite team rankings lists the Aggies 15th entering the first National Signing Day of the 2023 cycle. What in the name of the Dixie Chicken is next for one of the richest — yet title barren — programs in the country?

For only the second time in his 13 years as a head coach, Fisher isn’t preparing for a bowl or a conference championship game following the end of the regular season. A team that started the season no. 6 was out of the top 25 by Week 5.

“You can’t let circumstances define who you are,” Fisher said last month. “It doesn’t mean you’re happy with it, content with it. It’s not fun when it’s going on, I promise you that.”

This offseason feels like some sort of crossroads for Texas A&M — and the game. Buyouts have gotten completely out of control with no end in sight. In 2021, the top 10 buyouts (Fisher included) averaged more than $35 million. With more money in the system than ever, that trend isn’t likely to slow down.

If you identify your guy, you lock him up. The upside: If he is successful, the contract eventually becomes a bargain. If not, well, take a look at Texas A&M. In this Year of the Turnaround, the Aggies weren’t active participants. They haven’t turned it around yet.

The program under Fisher has derisively been called the national champions of the offseason. Plenty of recruits, plenty of hype … then underachievement when compared to the expectations generated with that contract.

Three of Texas A&M’s best offensive linemen went down last season. Slot wide receiver Ainias Smith, perhaps the team’s best playmaker, was injured early on. Quarterback Haynes King replaced the injured Max Johnson. Five-star freshman Conner Weigman then replaced the injured King completing only 55% of his passes. King has since transferred to Georgia Tech.

And that’s before discussing the massive offseason dust up with Alabama coach Nick Saban over recruiting tactics.

That preceded the gap year that turned into an awful year, especially when reflected off the shine from that contract. Even as fortunes declined, it became apparent Fisher was likely staying. There was too much to lose on the chance Fisher becomes worth it.

The most important offseason tasks are obvious. At least 20 players have entered the transfer portal since that LSU win. Veteran offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey was fired, suggesting Fisher will give up play-calling duties. A&M being A&M, the program will spare no expense. Consider that former defensive coordinator Mike Elko was making $2.1 million before he left to become Duke head coach.

That new offensive boss arrives with a huge challenge: make the Aggies interesting again. Since Fisher proclaimed “we ain’t done” following a 2020 season that ended with a No. 4 ranking, the Aggies are 13-11. In their last 16 games, they scored 30 points only once against an FBS opponent (LSU).

And remember: Offense is Fisher’s specialty. He built his reputation — winning one national championship as a head coach and another as a coordinator — developing quarterbacks and running up scores. The biggest concern in that transition to a new offensive coordinator might be Fisher looking over the shoulder of the new guy.

There have been disciplinary issues. Some really awkward. Wide receiver Moose Muhammad III was benched, reportedly for wearing sleeves. There have been inconsistencies. Texas A&M both took Alabama down to the last play on the road only to get blown out at home by an average Florida team.

“I’m super positive to be honest,” said one of those donors, Houston-based David Coolidge, who spent years running his own natural gas and commodity fund. “That’s just not maroon-colored glasses. Who do you want as your head coach? I guess you could say Nick Saban, and Dabo Swinney has been around. Jimbo Fisher is a sitting national championship head coach. There’s not that many.”

Coolidge just named three of the five who have won it all since 2013, Urban Meyer and Ed Orgeron being the others.

There’s that and the reality of having to hit the transfer portal to help replace those 20 departed Aggies.

“There are a lot of reasons it happened, but there’s also a lot of reasons to be optimistic,” Coolidge said. “Jimbo Fisher is a tremendous coach. He didn’t forget how to coach. Most people I talk to are extremely glad he’s our coach.”

Worst case: Fisher fails and Texas A&M continues chasing its first conference title since 1998 paying out millions in buyout money. Best case- – at least for Fisher: There still seems to be plenty of room to fail. The fans may howl, but slicing $9 million more off that buyout in 2023 may not make a firing any more affordable.

Last season may have cratered on Nov. 19 when Texas A&M beat UMass on a cold, dreary, rainy day, 20-3. Pictures sent out on social media suggested Kyle Field had become a ghost town of apathy.

“If I could go inside, I might go inside,” Fisher said referring to the weather conditions that day.

The announced attendance was more than 90,000 at 102,700-seat Kyle Field, a week after that sixth straight loss. Then, the Aggies won their final two games. There is perhaps hope among the apathy.

“You’re at a place where it matters,” Fisher reminded.

Five years in, not much has changed about the job. There remain huge expectations; they are mostly unrealized.

“It’s a situation where you could dramatically turn things around pretty quick,” Liucci said. “The problem is, you’ve run out of runway.”

Not until that buyout runs down.

Leave a Comment