Jimbo Fisher and the never-ending quest to catch Nick Saban

Before the start of fall camp last month, Nick Saban gathered everyone inside Alabama's team auditorium to lay out his vision for the next 30 days. The 66-year-old head coach told his players about how difficult the training would be, how they'd have to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, how they needed to realize "we've kind of raised the standard in college football."

It was a message meant to challenge a team coming off a national championship, a team hoping to avoid complacency while also wearing the burden of a preseason No. 1 ranking. In other words: You set the bar, so you'd better find a way to get over it.

But it was also a warning of a different kind.

"Everybody is chasing us," Saban told his team.

They aren't strangers anymore, either.

Nine months earlier, Jimbo Fisher stood in front of reporters, university staffers and hundreds of alumni inside the "Hall of Champions" at Kyle Field as he was introduced as the new head coach at Texas A&M. Donning a maroon blazer and tie, Fisher -- a onetime offensive coordinator for Saban at LSU -- went into detail about why he left Florida State and how soon he hopes to take the Aggies from being a good college football program to an elite one.

"Yesterday," he said with a laugh.

"Listen, I'm not a very patient guy. Now, in saying that, we have a process. And you're going to hear me say this word a hundred times: It's not about the outcome, it's about the process. If the process of how you do your business and what you're doing is right, the outcomes will be there."

Sound familiar? It certainly does to Saban, who coined the term "The Process" back when he was coaching at Michigan State -- before he won a combined six national championships at LSU and Alabama and became the gold standard of college football coaches everywhere.

Now, as Saban told his players at Alabama, people were trying to "figure out what we do" by hiring his former assistants. Four of his protégés are currently head coaches in the SEC alone.

"They're trying to catch us," Saban said. "They're trying to get what we got. And we've got to do it better."

Fisher went from a benign threat in the ACC to a full-blown worry when parked himself on Saban's block in the SEC West and took over a Texas A&M program that's widely considered to be a sleeping giant -- a place flush with cash and a fertile recruiting ground. That he got a fully guaranteed $75 million contract spelled out the Aggies' championship expectations, loud and clear.

The question isn't whether Fisher is a good enough coach to win a championship; he has already shown he can at Florida State. It's whether he can become the first to take down his former boss -- Saban is currently 12-0 against former assistants -- and finally catch the giant that is Alabama.

On Saturday, Fisher will make his first trip to Tuscaloosa to start the chase.

It's game week, and Jhamon Ausbon sits on a stool inside Kyle Field as reporters pepper him with questions about facing No. 1-ranked Alabama.

The sophomore receiver wears a maroon, long-sleeved T-shirt. Printed on the back are the core tenets of Fisher's A&M program: toughness, effort, discipline and pride. Fisher uses those terms a lot; they're even on a large wall graphic inside the Aggies' locker room.

More than 600 miles away in Tuscaloosa, there is a strikingly similar graphic inside Alabama's football facilities: four fingers held high, a thumb tucked in, those same four words -- and one additional one, commitment, next to a Saban quote and the heading "The Process Begins Here."

When Ausbon is later asked how Fisher and his staff define success to the players, it sounds like something straight out of the Alabama handbook.

"Whenever we approach a game, he gives us things that he wants to see, no matter the outcome," Ausbon said. "It's to focus on play after play and don't focus on winning the game or the score."

If you listen to Fisher speak long enough, you'll hear "process" and "control" and "focus" about as often as Saban utters the words. One of Fisher's oft-used adages this offseason -- "You don't practice it until you do it right; you practice it until can't do it wrong" -- is something Saban has said several times before.

Fisher made a host of changes upon his arrival. Chief among them, running back Trayveon Willams noticed in Fisher's first team meeting last December, was his demeanor.

"He came in with a sense of urgency," Williams said. "He came in with a look on his face that we knew he was about business. And from Day 1, he was like, 'This is not gonna be like it used to be, and things are gonna change.'"

Like Saban, Fisher is specific about how he wants the team to practice. And there's no doubting who's in charge. In the spring, while speaking to alumni on a July trip to Houston, Fisher said his team was beginning to grasp how he wanted things done and that "they're finding out, on certain things, I'm very non-negotiable."

Players were also struck by how detail-oriented Fisher is. Backup quarterback Nick Starkel recalled being surprised to find out in a special-teams meeting that he and Kellen Mond were the fourth- and fifth-string holders on place kicks, respectively, even though neither had practiced holding.

"I never saw a holding depth chart; that was the first time I ever saw that far down who was holding," Starkel said. "I've never seen a coach do that. ... If one guy goes down, you gotta know who's up next. You gotta know what you're doing. It's definitely a testament to his attention to detail."

It's a fine line attempting to replicate Nick Saban, who is so prepared for games that he reportedly studies the tendencies of officials to gain an edge.

Not that people aren't trying relentlessly to manufacture their own version of the Saban Way. Four of his former assistants are now head coaches in the SEC (Fisher, South Carolina's Will Muschamp, Georgia's Kirby Smart and Tennessee's Jeremy Pruitt), and outside the conference there's Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, Mario Cristobal at Oregon and Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic.

Go a rung down on the ladder and the spread of Saban's influence is even more noticeable. Currently, nine of the 13 schools in the SEC not named Alabama have his former assistants on their coaching staff.

"I left Alabama with all the secrets I learned when I was there," Smart said, "and Muschamp took all those secrets from LSU, and Jimbo took all those secrets from LSU. Now Jeremy has all those secrets."

He added: "[Saban] didn't look at it as he's going to keep a secret from me because we might leave one day. He's just training. He was just helping."

Smart, who coached under Saban at both LSU and Alabama, has come the closest of anyone at taking down their former boss. Just last season -- his second as a head coach -- he nearly beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

But, according to Smart, the whole notion of having Saban's secret to success is ultimately misguided.

"They're trying to catch us. They're trying to get what we got. And we've got to do it better."
Nick Saban

If there were, we wouldn't have seen former Saban assistants fired as head coaches at Michigan State (Bobby Williams), Tennessee (Derek Dooley) and Florida (Muschamp and Jim McElwain). You have to bring your own thoughts to the table to make it work.

When Smart left for Georgia, Saban advised him, "Do it the way you think it ought to be done. Don't try to be somebody else."

Fisher, as he has shown at Florida State and Texas A&M, isn't afraid to put his own spin on things.

"We don't point to them," Fisher said of the Crimson Tide, "but I think everyone knows, right now, they're on top of college football. That's where you have to go and the consistency with which they play, and our kids see that."

So how long will it take until Jimbo Fisher delivers the Aggies a championship?

It's the $75 million question that will follow him until he accomplishes the feat. Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp went so far as to deliver a not-so-subtle message to Fisher in the offseason when he handed Fisher a dateless national championship plaque with his name on it. It's up to Fisher to fill in the date.

"People ask me all the time, 'When you gonna win a championship?' I don't know," Fisher said in July. "Could it be this year? Yes. ... There's not a timetable, because you don't want to put limitations on people, because it could happen now. But you also understand that it involves a lot of hard work and it's not going to happen overnight. I can't answer that question."

That's not what he told his players, though. While Fisher, deep down in his heart, knows it will probably take a few years and a few recruiting classes, his message to the current Aggies was nothing of the sort.

"From Day 1, he wants us to be great right now," Williams said. "We don't have time down the road. We don't have two or three years to be great. We have to go out there and be great now ... because the SEC is strong and the SEC is about its 'chips [championships], so we have to go out there and be great."

So far, the Aggies have shown encouraging progress. Despite being double-digit home underdogs to No. 2 Clemson on Sept. 8, Texas A&M pushed the Tigers to the final minute before falling just short, 28-26. After the game, Jimbo looked his players in the eyes in the locker room and said, "This is gonna be a hell of a program, guys. You guys are laying a hell of a foundation for it and it can be one hell of a year right now. It's the start of something."

Texas A&M has many of the necessary ingredients to move into college football's elite. The facilities are second-to-none. The fan support is among the best in the country. It is college football's most valuable program, according to Forbes. It's in football-crazed Texas, with three prime recruiting areas (Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and East Texas) just a short drive away.

So what will it take to get to Alabama's level?

Ultimately, what really makes it work is a ton of great talent.

Texas A&M's recruiting classes have been good, but not great in recent years. After finishing with the fourth-best class in 2014, the Aggies have been outside the top 10 in recruiting rankings every year since.

Alabama? The Crimson Tide have finished first, first, second, first and sixth in the past five years. That's the level Fisher recruited at Florida State. The past four classes he signed (2014-17) were third, second, first and fourth, respectively. That's how championship programs recruit. And Fisher has started fast in that department in College Station, with his 2019 recruiting class currently ranked No. 1 by ESPN. (Alabama is No. 2.)

Fisher's 2013 national championship ring shows he knows what it takes. The current Texas A&M players say they're on the right track.

"I think if we just keep doing what we're doing, we're eventually going to end up there," linebacker Tyrel Dodson said. "But it's going to take time, of course."

Fisher knows this, even if he's "not a very patient guy." On Saturday in Tuscaloosa, we may find out how patient he'll need to be.