How coal miner's son from tiny Clarksburg, W. Va., became one of the best coaches on college football's biggest stage.
Jimbo Fisher's journey to head coach at Florida State started on a farm in Clarksburg, W. Va. Each summer Jimbo returns to his roots, along with his two sons, to visit family and friends, to relax and recharge.
This month Fisher allowed Palm Beach Post sports writer Tom D'Angelo and photographer Allen Eyestone unprecedented access into his life in the Mountaineer State, taking them on a journey to his family home — which is built on 300 acres — to a coal mine like the one where his father suffered horrific injuries during an explosion, and to the ballfields and schools where he competed and learned, growing into a three-sport All-Stater who realized athletics was his way out of a life in those coal mines.
But a college football coach can never truly get away from it all. While on vacation, Fisher had to deal with the fallout from freshman quarterback De'Andre Johnson striking a woman in the face in a Tallahassee bar. Fisher initially suspended Johnson pending an investigation but after a surveillance video of the incident was released, Fisher dismissed him from the team. Fisher then returned to Tallahassee to find out star running back Dalvin Cook was being investigated for also allegedly striking a woman at a bar. Cook has been charged with battery and suspended indefinitely from the team.
The two incidents refocused the spotlight on the program and Fisher, who issued a statement following Cook's suspension promising FSU "will do better" and that he will "not tolerate anything less" when it comes to educating and holding players responsible for their actions.
Some have criticized Fisher for being too lenient or trusting when his players, particularly former star Jameis Winston, have gotten into legal trouble. To Fisher it's a matter of not rushing to judgment or turning his back on players he promised to protect.
Keeping promises, even in difficult times, is one of the many lessons he learned as a boy on that farm in Clarksburg, where the story of Jimbo Fisher begins … and always returns.
By Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post staff writer
The smell of fresh-baked Italian bread fills the air before Jimbo Fisher, navigating the hilly streets of the North View neighborhood, drives past D'Annuzio's Bakery, home of the killer pepperoni roll.
"The grease just drips from your hands," says Jimbo, who picks up two dozen rolls each Wednesday and Sunday while vacationing at his family home.
Map shows the Clarksburg area in West Virginia where Jimbo Fisher grew up.
D'Annuzio's is one of several landmarks on the route from US 50, which cuts through this town located about 40 miles southwest of Morgantown, and leads to Gloria Fisher's modest white two-story home that sits on 300 acres. A few blocks away is the North View School where Jimbo spent his first nine years (and where Gloria commenced a 51-year teaching career) and the NVAC Park, which gave us the first hint that this son of a coal miner, John James, and science teacher, Gloria, had an insatiable desire to compete no matter the sport. No matter the odds. No matter the obstacles.
Jimbo played 9th grade football and Little League baseball at NVAC. In his first Little League at bat he singled, stole second, stole third and, after being called safe. … was carried off the field with a broken leg.
But injuries never stopped Jimbo Fisher. He's had 11 surgeries and played one season of high school football with a separated shoulder and three broken bones in his foot and a year of college football with torn cartilage in his knee without missing a game either time. In the end, he was All-State in football, basketball and baseball at Clarksburg's Liberty High School, received a baseball scholarship to Clemson and wound up being the NCAA Division III National Player of the Year in football his senior year at Samford University.
Jimbo Fisher (15) throws a pass. (Photo courtesy of Liberty High School Yearbook 1983)
"One of the best athletes ever to come through our area," boyhood friend Steve Daniels said.
But first the journey of how a farm boy parlayed those athletic feats into becoming one of the most successful, high-profile coaches in the country with 58 wins, three ACC titles and a national championship on his resume just five years after succeeding Bobby Bowden at Florida State.
Big Jim and Gloria
After exiting North View, you hit Glen Falls Road, which winds along the West Fork River and leads to unincorporated Glen Falls, a rural area where coal-mine entrances are covered over and the only hint of the tracks the trains once traveled to transport that coal is the grassy path along the banks of the river.
"We don't have any mayors," Gloria said. "You solve your own problems."
John James and Gloria bought their home in 1961, four years before starting a family. Jimbo came along in 1965, six years before his brother, Bryan. At the time, the home was a cozy 900 square feet but a 28-foot addition has made it — along with the 300 acres to ride dirt bikes and hunt turkey — a popular spot when Jimbo visits each summer with his two boys, Trey, 14, and Ethan, 10.
Jimbo Fisher with his mother, Gloria, at the family farm where he grew up near Clarksburg, West Virginia on June 29, 2015. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
John James (known as Big Jim), Jimbo (whose given name is John James, Jr.) and Bryan worked the farm day and night. Jimbo would tend to the cattle, ride the tractor up the hills to cut hay and scythe the fence line that the family built.
Jimbo remembers taking one family vacation, to Virginia Beach for three or four days, which is why the Fishers averaged putting up 6,000 bales of hay each summer.
A work ethic instilled by Big Jim.
"He'd say, 'You ain't going to work, get the hell out of here.' How many times did I hear that one?" Jimbo asked, standing in his mom's kitchen.
"Then as I was walking away he'd say 'Where the hell you going?' 'I'm going to the house.' 'No, get your ass back up here.'"
(L to R) Gloria Fisher, mother, Bryan Fisher, brother, John James Fisher, father, Loretta Gabbert, grandmother, Arthur Gabbert, grandfather and Jimbo Fisher. (Photo courtesy of Jimbo Fisher)
Big Jim was a strapping, no-nonsense man, a "man's man," said Sam Annie, 69, who played softball with Big Jim and was Jimbo's baseball coach at Liberty. He stood 6-foot-3 with strength nearly matching the animals he attended to. (Bryan is pushing 6-2 but Jimbo, at 5-10, drew the short gene). A typical day when he worked the overnight shift for the Clinchfield's Compass Mine #3 was to leave the house at 10 p.m., return home 10 to 12 hours later, work on the farm, grab a few hours of sleep before dinner, head to watch his sons play ball and return home for another quick nap, if he had time, before starting over again.
Gloria and "Big Jim" Fisher on their wedding day. (Photo courtesy of Jimbo Fisher)
Jimbo describes his dad in reverent, almost mythical, tones when talking about his huge hands, broad shoulders and power. He remembers riding home from stock-car races when he was 10 and coming upon a head-on collision. A girl was trapped inside her car, pinned by the weight of the engine and a decompressed door. She was screaming as emergency workers messed around with a crowbar trying to unhinge the door.
"Dad said, 'get the hell out of the way.' He grabbed the door handle and yanked the door off the hinges and set it on top the car and they pulled the girl out."
Jimbo never feared his dad. Sure, he got "whipped" but "he'd come back and hug you, love you." That tough love resonated and as Jimbo's respect mounted for his dad he made sure of one thing: "Never let him down."
Pain is in your head
Gloria Fisher remembers every detail of the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving 1967. The call came into North View, where Gloria was teaching at the time. She saw the looks on the faces of her principal, her aunt who was the school secretary (and the woman who gave Jimbo his nickname) and another family friend.
"I thought something was wrong with the baby," she said, referring to Jimbo.
"But it was Jim."
They rushed her to the hospital. Big Jim and two other men were inside the mine when a spark caused a methane gas pocket to explode. One of his legs was broken; his face was black and so badly burned that his lips melted against his teeth. And his fingers. … Gloria said they looked like overcooked hotdogs that had turned black and split open.
Yet, through the pain, the first words he whispered to Gloria: "Where's the baby?"
Big Jim remained in the hospital for four months and was out of work for three years. Out of the mines, that is. He continued to work on the farm, even on days he used a walker.
"What you don't understand was how strong and how tough and a tolerance of pain. … It didn't register," Jimbo said. "'Pain is in your head. What hurts is in your head. If you don't think it hurts, it don't hurt.'"
Jimbo recalls being snuck into the hospital to see his dad. It was just three months after his second birthday. But he swears he remembers, even if "they say I'm crazy." And who can doubt him? This is a man who can recall scores and detailed plays of games from the 1970s and recite every teacher he had during elementary and middle school.
Big Jim recovered from the blast, but the effects from a lifetime of mining coal ended his life prematurely. He developed black-lung disease and at 47 suffered his first of several strokes. In 1994, he died of a heart attack at 62. Jimbo had just completed his second year as the quarterback coach at Auburn.
"He would have been proud," said Bryan, who after four years as the offensive coordinator at Fairmont State has returned to Robert C. Byrd High School — a rival of Liberty's — this season for his second stint as head coach.
"I would have liked to see two things for Dad: how Jimbo's career played out and he never saw any of his grandkids."
The Fisher boys' discipline did not stop with Big Jim. Not even close. Gloria was a demanding teacher. "She taught the class the way I coach. There was one way. Discipline," Jimbo said.
Gloria Fisher, mother of Jimbo Fisher, at her home near Clarksburg, West Virginia on June 29, 2015. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Said Gloria: "I'm from the old school where you do what I say when I say it."
Gloria retired after 51 years, including the last 40 as a chemistry and physics teacher at Robert C. Byrd. But teaching is as much in her blood as farming and coal mining was in Big Jim's.
At 78 she continues to teach, her most recent assignment as a long-term sub at Liberty teaching physical science and biology. She has a comfortable life, loves to entertain her five grandchildren and her son is one of the highest compensated college coaches in the country, recently signing an extension that will pay him an average of $5.35 million a year.
So why does she do it?
"That's all I've done. All my life I've gone to school or taught, I'm still active, I still understand, I still got my mind. So I go."
Grab a shovel, get to work
Jimbo Fisher was determined to find Robinson Run No. 95 Coal Mine. The route, straight out of a John Denver song ("Almost heaven, West Virginia"), took us through Marion County, where Alabama's Nick Saban, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and longtime NFL and college coach John McKay were raised, giving this north-central region of the state its own Cradle of Coaches.
Nailed to several posts are small professionally printed signs – STOP THE WAR ON COAL. FIRE OBAMA. West Virginia used to be a blue state with the Democrats winning eight of the 10 presidential elections from 1960-96. But Republicans have taken the last four elections and President Obama's approval rating in the state had dropped to 28 percent in 2011, mostly because of his regulations that could force coal plants and mines to shut down.
The tight, scenic, winding Robinson-Wyatt Run Road crosses single-lane bridges. Occasionally a house will dot the landscape, but the deeper you get into the hills, it is more likely you'll see deer.
Jimbo navigates curve after curve. "You OK? Some people can't handle these roads," he says.
A conveyor belt pops into view at the top of a hill. Jimbo takes a left and climbs an uneven, gravel-covered path until reaching the top where we have a view of the belt that stretches hundreds of feet in each direction.
Robinson Run No. 95 Coal Mine near Clarksburg, West Virginia on June 29, 2015. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Robinson Run employs 597 and is the closest active mine to Clinchfield #3 that was shut down in the mid-1970s. Jimbo recalls the day his dad brought him into the mine. He was 10. John James decided his son needed an attitude adjustment.
"I got cute, wasn't going to study, wasn't going to do this," Jimbo said. "He took me down said 'Grab a shovel. Go to work.'"
The mine was dark. It was damp. It was narrow. Big Jim was sending his oldest son a message: There is a better life out there. A safer life.
"I said, 'No, I think I'll study.'"
A return to happy days
Jimbo Fisher had not been to Hite Field in downtown Clarksburg for 30 years. Clarksburg is the county seat of Harrison County. Downtown is a shell of itself. Businesses, like C.G. Murphy, a five and dime that Jimbo considered a treat to visit, are long gone. Others have moved east off the I-79 corridor where it intersects with route 50 in Bridgeport. Adjacent to the steps leading to the country courthouse sits a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general who was born in Clarksburg in 1824.
Google Clarksburg and the first two pictures under "notable people" are Stonewall Jackson and Jimbo Fisher.
"Blue-collar workers," Annie said. "People took a lot of pride in our town. Looks kind of like a bombed out area now. People were resilient, but when the factories closed they had to move on."
The shuttering of glass factories, five of them in total, and coal mines have cut the population to just more than 16,000, about half of its peak in 1950.
One popular spot, though, remains: Toni's Ice Cream. Toni's is to Clarksburg what Al's Diner was to Happy Days.
"You like soft serve ice cream?" Jimbo asks.
Jimbo orders a strawberry cone. He had raspberry his previous stop to Toni's.
Jimbo Fisher played his high school football games at Hite Field in Clarksburg, West Virginia. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
At one time four area high schools used Hite Field, including Liberty, where Jimbo became the starting quarterback early in his sophomore year.
"Everybody looked up to him," said Daniels, who was a senior tight end when Jimbo was a sophomore. "As a sophomore, he was much more mature than his age."
Jimbo Fisher played baseball, football and basketball at Liberty High School in his hometown of Clarksburg, West Virginia. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Liberty High School in Clarksburg, West Virginia. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Liberty High sits on a hill off Davisson Run Road. The school now has its own football field, constructed after Jimbo graduated. Mountaineer Middle School occupies the space that was once the football practice field. The baseball field where Jimbo played second base, shortstop and pitched is carved into the bottom of the hill opposite the school's entrance.
Jimbo was discovered when scouts were looking at another player while he was playing American Legion ball. He was not drafted because they were told he was going to college. So scouts told their friends who were coaching college about the tough, diminutive infielder/pitcher and he was offered a scholarship by Clemson.
But Jimbo's senior season hit a snag. He broke his ankle dunking on an 8-foot basketball goal and was told he'd have to wear a cast for eight weeks. After one week he attempted to cut off the cast at home with a steak knife. Unable to finish the job he went to the shop class at Liberty and freed himself with pair of tin snips.
Nobody was happy. Not the doctor. Not Big Jim. Not coach Annie. But it worked. He was back on the field after missing just six games.
"I couldn't sit still," Jimbo said.
There to greet Liberty's most famous alum on this day were principal Pamela Knight and her grandson Anthony Rogers, Athletics Director Robert Herrod and girls basketball coach Jared Mileto. Several photos are requested and Jimbo satisfies each one. He then starts singing the school fight song.
Jimbo Fisher on prom night. (Photo courtesy of Liberty High School Yearbook 1983)
"That just came out of nowhere," he says.
By all accounts, Jimbo was BMOC -- even at 5-8 1/2, 160 pounds. At least the grainy 1983 yearbook photos suggest so. Jimbo was Liberty's "Boy of the Month" for September, his athletic accomplishments are well documented and he looks dapper in his senior prom tux, complete with top hat, gloves and cane.
"They dared me to do it and I did it," he said.
Grades never were a problem. In fact, at one time he planned on attending medical school and he studied Latin. He even took piano lessons for four years, something he hated at the time but says, "I'm glad I did it. I can read music."
The big schools, including West Virginia, never called. Not for football. Not for basketball. Not when you are looking up at 5-10. He received scholarship offers in all three sports but from Division II schools in football and basketball. Clemson came in with a baseball scholarship. And although he accepted, Jimbo returned home before the season started.
Jimbo Fisher (foreground) coached his brother Bryan at Salem College. (Photo courtesy of Jimbo Fisher)
Enter the Bowden family. Jimbo decided to return to football and enrolled at Salem College, located about 15 miles west of Clarksburg and coached by Terry Bowden, Bobby's son. Jimbo was Terry's quarterback for two years at Salem. He then followed Terry to Samford for his final year where he broke several school single-season and single-game records while capturing national player of the year honors.
After a brief stint with the Chicago Bruisers of the Arena Football League, Jimbo's coaching journey began the next year when he joined Terry's Samford staff as a quarterback coach/offensive coordinator, later coaching Bryan, a tight end. Then, 19 years later, he would be united with another Bowden when Bobby hired Jimbo off the LSU staff as his offensive coordinator.
"It was in his blood," Gloria said. "I knew he would do well."
Jimbo Fisher recently purchased 350 acres of farmland to go along with the 300 acres behind Gloria's home and the 52 acres Jimbo and Bryan own off Fisher Hollow, a road that once included homes for a couple of generation of Fishers, including Big Jim and Big Jim's dad.
Jimbo Fisher at his mother's home near Clarksburg, West Virginia on June 29, 2015. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)
Jimbo enjoys returning home each summer to unwind and recharge. He visits old coaches and takes his boys fishing and on journeys through the West Virginia hills on four wheelers. …
And never forgets his pepperoni rolls.
As for the farm, Jimbo no longer strings fence, bales hay or takes out the tractors. But on this day he did feed the family horses housed in a barn just a few feet from the main house.
But there is no mistaking, you can take the boy off the farm and put him in a big time coaching position, but you can't take the farm out of the boy.
"That's your roots," Bryan said. "We were fortunate enough to play sports. We always had work to do but we never missed a practice, never missed a game.
"Sports was an avenue out."
Jimbo and his mother Gloria Fisher are interviewed by The Palm Beach Post's Tom D'Angelo. Video by Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post staff.