-- This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Jan. 5 Championship Drive Issue. Subscribe today!
THE 35-SECOND CLIP encapsulates how far apart they are, one man casually spinning a football on his fingers, the other with his hands on his hips, trying to keep his head from exploding. Only Jameis Winston and Jimbo Fisher could make a pregame conversation the biggest highlight from Clemson-Florida State, a game that will go into overtime and nearly derail FSU's national title defense -- a game in which Winston won't even play.
The mega-talented Heisman-winning quarterback is serving a one-game suspension for shouting a sexually explicit Internet meme from atop a student union cafeteria table earlier in the week. But here is Winston, in his pads and helmet, going through warm-ups. What is he thinking?
Or better yet, what is Fisher thinking? He looks like a father doing his best not to scream at his son in the middle of the grocery store as he calmly tells Winston to please go to the locker room and change. And so Winston does, coming back onto the field smiling and seemingly unaffected. The 20-year-old kid captivates Fisher; he won him a national title, after all, FSU's first in 14 years. Winston also troubles Fisher, from the cafeteria scene to the student conduct trial over an alleged sexual assault that threatened to keep Winston out of the playoff. (Winston was cleared of the accusations on Sunday.) They seem to be in sync only between the lines, when Fisher is demanding too much from his team and Winston seems to be the only one who gets why. They are bonded by a competitiveness that borders on insanity.
How can Winston, so in control on the field, so driven to accomplish the exact same things Fisher wants, be so problematic off the field? The answer to that question won't come against Clemson, with another unblemished record on the line and the world breathing down their necks.
Fisher is just doing everything he can to save the season, to save Winston from himself. He has to save Winston. He's lost one before.
NINE WEEKS LATER, in a house nestled in the woods of south Georgia, Greg Reid nervously watches Boston College nearly knock off the Noles, a recurring theme this season. A cold rain taps outside, causing a family of feral cats to hover near the patio door, but Reid is fixated on the TV. He springs to his feet, clapping and imploring FSU to do something big. "You see that effort?" Reid says after one particularly solid play. "That's coaching, man."
Three years removed from his final game in garnet and gold, Reid is even more passionate about Jimbo Fisher. He hates that Fisher has become the most polarizing coach in college football, widely known for being an apologist for misbehaving players, most notably Winston.
The critics, Reid says, just don't know Jimbo. The only way to understand him is to live through a season with him.In 2008, Reid was just a teenager, the top recruit in Georgia, when he met Fisher, who was Bobby Bowden's offensive coordinator and the head-coach-in-waiting. Reid, a cornerback, had pledged to play for FSU rival Florida. Many smooth-talking coaches had passed through Reid's hometown of Valdosta, and they all started sounding the same. But when Fisher knelt down with Reid's mom, Diane Hart, for Sunday service at Mount Calvary Baptist Church, she was sold. Hart, a single mother, believed in Fisher's faith, that he would take care of her son. Reid believed Fisher when he said they would rebuild Florida State together.
And they did, from 7-6 in 2009, Bowden's final season, to 10-4 and an ACC title game berth in 2010, Fisher's first in charge. The two would become so close that teammates jokingly called the coach Reid's "daddy." Reid drew comparisons to Deion Sanders. He got a pit bull and named it Prime Time.
Then, like a number of FSU players before and after him, Reid made the wrong move. Just a few weeks before his senior season, in July 2012, the flashy DB steered his white Mercury Grand Marquis onto Georgia Highway 7 when blue police lights came up behind him. His seat belt was unbuckled, and his windows bore an illegal tint. The cops found a plastic baggie with a small amount of marijuana on the passenger seat. Within hours, Reid's arrest was national news.
It wasn't his first time in the doghouse. A year earlier, in September 2011, he was suspended for a game against Charleston Southern for a violation of team rules. Too afraid to call Fisher the night of his arrest and ashamed that he had let him down, Reid lay low. But just before fall camp in August, Fisher called Reid into his office. "I fought for you for a couple of weeks," Fisher said. "I'm going to have to release you."
Reid was stunned. He thought he'd just get a stern lecture -- boy, could Jimbo let the spittle fly when he was angry -- and now it was over? He walked home, tears streaming. Fisher, who had grown close to Reid's extended ?family, called and broke the news to Andrea Bridges, the high school teacher who had taken in Reid, who was often left alone while his mother worked long hours. Bridges says Fisher was crying.
"He could hardly even talk," she says. "He was upset. He loved Greg."
Two years later, Reid is back living with Bridges, her husband, King, and their 10-year-old son, Ty. He sits at their home, waiting by a phone that won't ring. He went to Valdosta State after his dismissal and tore his ACL on turf. He was a limited participant in the 2013 NFL combine and ran a 4.69 at FSU's pro day. After going undrafted, he had a second surgery on his knee. The Rams signed him this past March, but a week later Reid was arrested on a charge of violating his probation. The Rams cut him in late August, so he works out now at his old high school gym and doesn't go to many FSU games because it's hard to tell fans and friends that you're waiting for an NFL call. Reid believes -- he knows -- that he'd be playing in the league now had he not been dismissed from FSU. And Bridges is convinced that Reid's story has helped shape Fisher's mindset as he plows toward the playoff on the back of Winston, who was accused of rape but never charged by the Tallahassee police, who has shoplifted crab legs, stolen soda from a Burger King and damaged private property in BB gun fights.
Fisher couldn't help Reid, but the coach vigorously defends those he can, no matter how it looks. "He's a tremendous young man," Fisher will say about Winston, as folks outside of Tallahassee cackle. Before Halloween, Fisher's wife, Candi, tweeted a photo of their 13-year-old son, Trey, wearing Winston's jersey to school -- for Superhero Day.
Trey used to wear Reid's jersey too.
NO MATTER HOW long he lives, or how many national titles he wins, Fisher will always be linked to Winston, much like "Free Shoes University" will follow Bobby Bowden to his grave.
But Bowden had a reputation of gentlemanly charm, a way of making you forget the unpleasant side of college sports. He seemed genuine in the media, while his successor is defensive and occasionally terse. Fisher once again made the news cycle when he broke off an interview at the Monday Morning Quarterback Club in Birmingham, Alabama, once the questions turned negative about Winston.
Fisher -- who didn't respond to interview requests for this story -- now has to answer to the likes of TMZ and the Twitterverse and even the national media about what he feels is right and wrong. Maybe if he let them in like Bowden, people would see that Fisher and Bowden aren't so different. Bowden was never swayed by public opinion either. He'd pray about his decision, then do what he thought was right.
"I felt like if I kicked them out, they're on the dadgum streets," Bowden says now. "We don't need 'em on the streets. So I tried to save them if I could."
But it was a different time when Bowden and Oklahoma's Barry Switzer were among those who ruled college football. Today, a player is busted for weed or shoplifting and the story goes national within minutes.
"When I coached, you could handle things in-house," says Switzer, who won three national titles at OU in the 1970s and '80s. "The media didn't know about it. I had a [local] sheriff who was good to us and understood our problems. If it wasn't anything serious, kids getting into a bar fight or [smoking pot] ... it was something we could contain."
Fisher has carefully dealt with several incidents this year, from a player stealing a scooter to another leaving the scene of an accident. And he has said he believes Winston never committed rape, though the truth might never be known because the Tallahassee Police Department and Florida State were slow to react after the alleged offense, hindering prosecution. Perhaps in his mind, Fisher can explain away Winston's transgressions on a case-by-case basis, chalking some up to youthful foolishness while the court of public opinion thinks otherwise. The Burger King incident? Theft or just tiny cups of soda that cost pennies? ?BB guns? Four thousand dollars' worth of property damage or just some fun between boys and toys? And the offensive words Winston shouted on top of that table in September? A public act of misogyny or just an Internet meme the kids like to say these days?
When the school stiffened Winston's punishment for that outburst from a half-game suspension against Clemson to a full game, Fisher was so frustrated with the administration that he threatened to quit, says a person close to the situation, although FSU never seriously thought that he'd go through with it. According to the source, Fisher was incensed that the school caved to public pressure and also believed that the matter should've been handled within the locker room.
Fisher is very protective of Winston. They may yell at each other on the sideline, making for great TV, but that's just how they communicate. At one point in the ACC title game, Fisher became so frustrated with Winston that he barked "Let me call the game!" over the headset. But then as the Noles were celebrating a 37-35 victory, Fisher told reporters that he was "blessed to be part of [Winston's] life."
"They're like twins," says Winston's father, Antonor. "I hate that he's getting a lot of [negative] feedback, because he knows Jameis and nobody else does."
FISHER IS TOUGHEST on his quarterbacks. He's also closest to them. Fisher was a quarterback himself, about 5-foot-9, charging toward the pile whenever his teammates got into a fight. He didn't care about getting hurt. He had to protect his teammates.
He played for Terry Bowden, Bobby's son, at Salem College and Samford. Terry called the plays, so he had to be in the head of his quarterback. He made Fisher sit in his passenger seat for road games and on scouting trips. They ?would drive to Tallahassee to learn from Bowden's dad, and eventually Terry hired 27-year-old Fisher to be his quarterbacks coach at Auburn in 1993. After coaching at Cincinnati and then under Nick Saban at LSU, Fisher became Bobby's offensive coordinator in 2007. One of his first projects was a dual-threat QB named Xavier Lee. The first thing Lee noticed about Fisher was how different he was from his head coach. Bowden, then 77, was calm as a Sunday drive; Fisher was rush hour on steroids.
He would call for 1s vs. 1s in practice well into the season and lay into a player for being two minutes late. Reid says Fisher had underlings monitor his classes, sometimes standing outside the buildings to make sure he attended.
Lee says he once missed a 2007 practice because he was making up an assignment with an instructor. Fisher had to decide to play him or bench him for a Thursday night game at Wake Forest. Lee says Fisher called him the night before and went back and forth over what to do. The conversation must have lasted 30 minutes, according to Lee, and was filled with long pauses.
"'You put me in a really bad situation,'" Lee recalls Fisher saying. "'Part of me wants to play you because the team rallies around you and they all respond to how you play. Part of me wants to bench you because this can't happen.' At the end of the day, I did play."
But Lee reached his breaking point with Fisher near the end of that 7-6 season. Fisher was yelling at him, and Lee says he balled up his fist and contemplated punching his coach. He concluded that would be a bad decision and ultimately decided to forgo his senior year and enter the NFL draft.
"Every practice, if the ball wasn't precisely where he wanted it," Lee says, "he would rip you the entire time because he knew you could do better. He would push you to another level ?you didn't even know you had."
Former FSU QB Christian Ponder, who's now with the Vikings, is thought to have had a relationship that most resembles the one between Fisher and Winston. Both quarterbacks could tune out the cussing and process what Fisher wanted, and they had a playful side that acted as foil to Fisher's gruff demeanor. Once, when Ponder went to the Fisher home for dinner after a mistake-filled loss to Virginia Tech, Fisher's son ?Trey said, "Hey, Christian, why'd you fumble the ball and cost us the Virginia Tech game?"
"We didn't see Trey for a few minutes," Ponder says, laughing. "I think he just got a little spanking. [Fisher] treats everyone like his own kids. It's almost like a father-son relationship there."
CLARKSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA, is just about the opposite of everything that Fisher's critics believe he has become. It's gritty, honest and true, a place where coal miner daddies used to crawl down a hole and stay for long hours to give their kids better lives.
Fisher had one of those daddies. His name was John, but everyone called him Big Jim. He stood about 6-2, worked overnights in the mines and then came home to tend the family farm. Big Jim nearly died in a mine explosion when Jimbo was 2, but by God, eventually he got back in those mines. He taught both of his boys two things: Don't lie and never be lazy. In the summers, Jimbo baled hay. In the winters, he'd spend nights sitting on a snowy hill, keeping watch over the family's pregnant cows.
Steve Daniels, one of Fisher's best friends, is a sheet metal worker in Clarksburg and still quotes Big Jim's maxims to his own kids.
"His mom and dad believed that if you've done something wrong, then you fess up to it," says Daniels. "You only compound the problem when you don't come out with the truth because eventually it all comes back to get you."
Sometimes, when the pressure of the season weighs on Fisher, he'll call Daniels for an escape, a reminder of the simpler life of an honest day's work and a free weekend to go deer hunting. Jimbo's dad died 20 years ago and never got to see his son become a big-time coach. But Jimbo makes a point to bring his sons back to Clarksburg every year so that they can see where he's from, where things are simpler but not nearly as easy.
Fisher's mom, Gloria, and his brother, Bryan, still live in Clarksburg. Gloria is 78 and substitute-teaches. She runs into people she taught 30 years ago and still remembers names. Bryan is a history teacher and high school football coach. In early December, he was featured in the local paper, a lighthearted Q&A that asked the question, "Lunch duty or bus duty?"
But when asked recently about his brother, Bryan naturally becomes defensive. "You're portrayed one way or the other in the media," he says, "good or bad."
He says there is no in between.
SO HOW DID Fisher get from Clarksburg to here, from a well-raised, scrupulously honest small-town boy to a man many perceive as the symbol of corrupt, self-serving college sports? Maybe, say those who know him best, he hasn't changed much, if at all. Maybe he's still the same as he's always been, only with the responsibilities and expectations of so many others on his shoulders. Maybe, at least in college football, it's become impossible to distinguish the line between good and evil.
"Jimbo is one who'll do exactly what he thinks is right," says Bob Tindale, Fisher's pastor at Killearn United Methodist Church in Tallahassee. "That may be stricter than people think at times and much more lax at times, but he's going to do what he thinks is right and is really not going to be swayed by public opinion."
The criticism that Fisher is a win-at-all-costs coach bothers him, Tindale says, because he does know there are things more important than winning. In March 2011, Fisher's son Ethan, now 9, was officially diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, a rare genetic disorder that causes bone-marrow failure. According to Bryan, Ethan's illness changed Jimbo. It gave his brother perspective. "Everybody says it's all about winning games," Bryan says. "No, it's not with him."
His son's illness also made him more protective of family. His players are family. Even the ones who stray.
"He gave me the rules," Reid says. "He told me everything to do in life. It wasn't his fault. It was obviously my fault, the decisions I made. I was so caught up in playing football and being G-5 to the fans. I should've been the person he tried to build me into."
When Reid and Fisher talk, as they often do, Fisher reminds him about having choices and making the right ones. Reid says he could have left early and been at least a second- or third-round pick, but he wanted to win a national championship with Fisher.
The Noles' title came one season later as Winston led the team to the final BCS championship game. Reid was in Pasadena to cheer on his former team. When it was over, he found Fisher on the field. They hugged, and Reid cried. Then Fisher went to celebrate with the one he's still trying to save.
David M. Hale contributed to this report.