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The Survivor

Tennessee\'s Jeff Fisher has thrived in the face of titanic problems
by: Richard Scott
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Here he was, scaling a fence in a driving thunderstorm, with a blank videocassette under his rain jacket.

The coaching staff desperately needed video of its next opponent, but a lack of sufficient technology at the team's training facility prevented the team from finding the game on television. That did not, however, prevent the team's head coach from finding another solution. So with the rain pouring down and thunder rumbling overhead, he found himself climbing the fence between the team's practice facility and a sports bar, videocassette in hand, so he could ask the bartender to tape the game.

This wasn't a small high school team in a rural community, nor was it a tiny non-scholarship college program. This wasn't even a semi-pro team.

This was Jeff Fisher, head coach of the NFL's Tennessee Titans."I felt like I had a productive day," Fisher said when he recalled the story.

It was all in a day's work for a 41-year-old coach who has spent the past seven years leading his team through a marathon test of improbable endurance, including a massive rebuilding job, four years of franchise limbo and a nomadic existence, all the way to the Super Bowl.

The aforementioned story took place in 1998, during the franchise's turbulent transition from Houston Oilers to Tennessee Titans. It's just one amazing story among many for a franchise and a coach that has overcome hurdles without losing its sense of direction.

"I really believe that what we've gone through has kind of pulled this team together," Fisher says. "Success in the NFL is directly related to your ability to deal with distractions, whether that's injuries or a coach in the last year of his contract or something off the field. Those things can knock a team off-course quicker than anything, but we've been able to deal with distractions.

"Things are going to come up, they always do, but it still doesn't faze this football team."

It certainly doesn't seem to faze Fisher, but that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has coached, played with or worked with Fisher in his 19-year NFL career.

"We've been through some tough times, and I don't know if a lot of people would have stuck around like he did," says Titans tight end Frank Wycheck. "He always saw the light at the end of tunnel. A lot of teams would have packed it in after what we went through. But we didn't, and he deserves a lot of credit for that."

Fisher, however, is the first to insist his players get the credit for the team's success. After all, he says, "I don't make the tackles out there. I don't throw the passes. I don't make the kicks. The players do."

Still, every successful venture needs a leader who ordains the vision, the plan and the pace of a group that must pull together and learn how to handle the agony of defeat and the glory of success. Whether or not the Titans can handle their 1999 success remains to be proven over time, but Fisher has already proven his ability to lead a team through an obstacle course of adversity.

Fisher is no stranger to climbing steep hills on the way to the top. He was a third-string receiver at USC when former Trojans coach John Robinson moved him to defensive back, where he made a quick transition and earned a place in the same secondary with future NFL Pro Bowlers Ronnie Lott, Dennis Smith and Joey Browner.

Fisher never became a star of his teammates' magnitude, but he did play five years as a defensive back and return specialist for the Chicago Bears. Despite spending the 1985 season on injured reserve with a career-ending ankle injury, Fisher spent the season assisting defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan as an unofficial coach and earned a Super Bowl ring when the Bears beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

When the season was over, Ryan became the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and Fisher found himself contemplating a life without football.

"I had an opportunity to keep playing, but I chose to retire," Fisher said. "I also had a chance to coach with Buddy at Philadelphia, but the decision wasn't that easy. I was involved with a software firm in Los Angeles. I had been working with them a couple of years and I had headed up a Midwest sales operation out of Chicago. I was prepared to do that, and financially it was a good opportunity.

"But I gave it a great deal of thought. I had been in organized football, at that point, for 18 years. The realization that the experience was finally over was hard for me. I wasn't ready to leave the game that I loved. I knew about the rewards of being a player, but the rewards in coaching are different and I was intrigued by that.

"Two years earlier, I had snuck off and copied my playbook, for no other reason than the fact that I wanted to have it. I figured I might end up coaching, whether it was youth football or high school or whatever, I thought it would be a valuable tool. Maybe it was a subconscious thing."

Fisher's fire and flair for coaching was evident from the start. He spent three years coaching the secondary for Ryan before becoming the NFL's youngest defensive coordinator in 1988. In three seasons, the Eagles' defense became one of the NFL's best, as it led the league in interceptions (30) and quarterback sacks (62) in 1989 and in 1990 was No. 1 in rushing defense and No. 2 in quarterback sacks.

By the time Ryan was walking out the door at Philadelphia, the 32-year-old Fisher knew he wanted to be a head coach. Philadelphia wasn't so sure of Fisher and went with Rich Kotite. Fisher moved on and spent the 1991 season as the defensive coordinator under Robinson with the Los Angeles Rams.

Robinson was fired following the season, and once again, Fisher was not given the head coaching job. At the time, Rams president John Shaw insisted, "Jeff will never be a head coach in the NFL," but Fisher remained firm in his desire to lead an NFL team.

After a year working for George Seifert as the San Francisco 49ers' secondary coach, Fisher joined the Oilers as Jack Pardee's defensive coordinator in 1994. It was a difficult time for a franchise in transition. After coming close to reaching the Super Bowl more than once, the team had passed its peak and Pardee paid the price when he was fired 10 games into the season.

Finally, Fisher had his chance to be a head coach. But for the first time in his coaching career, he wasn't sure he wanted the Oilers' job and its "interim" title.

"I thought it was going to be a dead end for me," Fisher said.

Instead, it proved to be the first step in an arduous journey. Following the season, the Oilers took the "interim" tag off Fisher's job title and gave him the keys to a team that had seen better days. But his short time as a head coach had offered tangible proof that he could do the job, even if it wasn't obvious to outsiders.

"I had six weeks of hands-on experience in a very difficult environment, with a team that had won only one game; a team that was somewhat divided; a team that was wandering; a team victimized by the first year of the salary cap; a team hit by injuries," Fisher says. "But I still felt I was ready. I was very fortunate to work for three different winning head coaches in a four-year period and I learned a lot in a short amount of time."

Things got worse before they got better. First, Fisher and his new staff had to spend the entire spring and summer of 1995 installing a new offensive system, overhauling the run-and-shoot and replacing it with a more conventional pro-style offense. Then, before the Oilers even had a chance to take a positive step, pandemonium became a constant companion over the next five years.

In August, media reports broke the news that Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen was meeting with Oilers officials about building a new stadium and moving the team to Nashville. In November, Oilers owner K.S. "Bud" Adams, Jr. and Bredesen signed a relocation agreement to move the Oilers the Tennessee.

"We were hit between the eyes," Fisher said.

Houston football fans were angry and resentful, and they took their wrath out on a team by either staying home or sharing their bitterness with Oilers players and coaches. Those same players and coaches were caught in the middle, trying to find ways to win while Adams made all the important decisions about the future of the franchise.

Amazingly, the Oilers somehow remained competitive through those tumultuous times. After a 2-14 finish in 1994, the Oilers improved to 7-9 in Fisher's first season and went 8-8 in 1996, their last season in Houston. In 1997, the Oilers moved to Tennessee and went 8-8 again, despite playing their games in Memphis before the NFL's smallest, and most reluctant crowds. The Oilers spent one final year in limbo in 1998, playing their home games in Nashville at Dudley Field on the Vanderbilt University campus, finishing at .500 for the third consecutive season.

The team's facilities were substandard and the Oilers had no real home, but Fisher, his staff and his players refused to give in to the distractions. When Fisher wasn't busy hopping fences with videocassettes because the team had no satellite dish, the Oilers were managing to draft well and build the team from the bottom up, with young stars such as running back Eddie George, quarterback Steve McNair and defensive end Jevon Kearse.

"The most valuable experience I gained from all that was the vital importance of communicating with the players," Fisher said. "I had to explain to them on a daily basis everything that was going on. You didn't want them to hear things associated with the relocation second-hand. I had to explain to them the whole philosophy of dealing with the media and saying the right things and taking the right approach and staying focused on the things that were important.

"The bottom line was, regardless of everything that's happening around you - whether it's a lawsuit or a cancelled game or a referendum or the uncertainty of where we were going to play - you still had to line up and prepare yourself to play."

That's exactly what the Oilers did, and by the time the team had a new stadium, a new nickname, new uniforms and a new start, it was ready to make the most of the opportunity. With a new home, Adelphia Coliseum, and a newfound sense of stability, the Titans went 13-3 and beat the AFM's best regular season team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, in the AFM title game.

By reaching the Super Bowl, Fisher did something no Oilers coach had done - not Bum Phillips, Jerry Glanville or Pardee. But more important, the Titans had done something no other NFL team had ever accomplished by climbing a huge mountain of adversity.

"That's what made this year so much more enjoyable," Fisher said. "It was for all the players who had endured all that, who endured in what was ahead, believed what we told them and believed this was a good team, despite all the distractions and difficulties. After everything that's happened, and no matter what happened last year, nothing was going to faze this football team."

Although he won't take credit for it, Fisher played a huge role in establishing that mentality. He's widely considered to be a players' coach because he prefers treating players with professional respect. He's demanding, and he'll yell if he has to get someone's attention, but he's not a coach given to constant tirades and threats. Asked to name the people who had the biggest influence on his coaching career, Fisher mentioned Ryan, Robinson and Seifert, but he just as quick to add his players and former teammates have made the most significant impact on his growth as a coach.

Add it all up, and it goes a long way toward explaining why the players were willing to believe Fisher as he led them through four years of darkness.

Linebacker Blake Wortham recalls Fisher telling his players, " 'Guys, look, it's going to get better. Just have patience and understand that this thing takes time.' That's all he kept talking about. He just kept beating it into our heads.

"You can't do anything but believe in the guy because ... he's still fighting. And you know, you've got to believe in a fighter."

It's probably a good bet that Fisher will continue to hold the respect of his players and succeed as an NFL coach, but it's a sure bet that Fisher won't be taking any foolish chances with his career path or his team. He received a contract extension, has newfound fame that includes a "Got Milk?" ad with New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, but he hasn't lost his fire or his sense of why the Titans have found a way to emerge as one of the best teams in the NFL.

"If any coach at any level feels comfortable, you're going to ultimately end up underachieving," Fisher says. "You always have to find ways to improve, just like the players do. You have to expand your knowledge. You have to study your division, study the teams outside your division, improve your schemes, your systems, your personnel and find more ways to win.

"The worst thing we can do at this point is feel like we've arrived, we're now a playoff contender and we don't have to do anything to maintain that. The attitude around here is like that of an 8-8 team. If we don't take that approach, you're never going to get better. We won 13 games and reached the Super Bowl last year, and we want to win one more this year."


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