For FSU, Fisher, perception is reality

Jimbo Fisher can’t help himself. Or maybe he just chooses not to. It’s difficult to tell sometimes whether the words that tumble out of Fisher’s mouth are the product of typical used-car-salesman denial or just an extreme case of doesn’t-get-it-ness.

“De’Andre Johnson. A 3.5 student. Had never been in trouble in his life. You saw him on “Good Morning America” with his mother. He wasn’t raised that way. He wasn’t coached that way. He was a good guy who made a bad choice.”

See? That’s all De’Andre Johnson did when he punched that woman in a bar. He made a bad choice. A Florida State player punches a woman in the face, and his coach makes it sound like the poor kid just picked out the wrong head of lettuce in Publix.

Florida State players go into clubs on consecutive nights and both get slapped with battery charges. Now Johnson is gone — even enabling football powerhouses struggle to spin things when surveillance video tape of the assault goes viral on the Internet — and Dalvin Cook is suspended indefinitely.

There have been other incidents at Florida State. As Fisher correctly points out, that hardly puts them in exclusive company in major college football. But this is the school that pampered and protected quarterback Jameis Winston any number of ways with the assistance of Inspector Clouseau and other members of the Tallahassee Police Department. So FSU is a little higher profile than most. The only question now is whether Fisher is any more of a mercenary than his coaching counterparts.

How bad is a situation when a university president (John Thrasher) feels compelled to address players directly about their conduct in a team meeting, write an open letter to alumni and meet with the editorial board of that city’s newspaper? How big of a problem has something become when a football program suddenly implements a “four-point program” intended to improve athlete behavior and the head coach is moved to ban players from clubs and bars at night?

“We banned them from putting themselves in bad situations,” Fisher said. “Don’t put yourself in third-and-20.”

Please. No football analogies.

Fisher took a seat in front of the assembled vultures Tuesday at ACC media days for the first time since Florida State returned to the news for the wrong reasons. He’s well-practiced in situations like this.

Fisher said he doesn’t minimize the seriousness of domestic violence. He doesn’t run a renegade program. He does not have the moral fiber of nougat.

When a player is involved in an incident that casts the program in a less-than-complimentary light, he said, “I look at myself as: I could not reach those guys. Why not?”

He’s saving souls. That’s what he’s doing.

“The story I tell today, not one of you will write it the same. You all will interpret everything I say and most of it will be different. It’s just like educating kids. When you educate them, they’re all coming from different backgrounds and they hear it in different ways.”

OK, first of all, let me state this in a way that a football coach can understand: I’m not judging you on your words, Jimbo. I’m judging you and players on actions. I’m looking at the tape.

Second, are there multiple ways to interpret, “Don’t hit a woman”?

At best, only one of the following is true in Tallahassee. At worst, all three apply: 1) there have been too many risks taken in recruiting; 2) players arrive and operate in Tallahassee with a sense of entitlement; 3) discipline has been lax and/or non-existent, particularly in the case of impact players who can help a team compete for a national championship.

Fisher wore his BCS Championship game polo shirt from two years ago to a morning news conference. If the intent was to change the national talking points, it didn’t work. The ripple effect from these two arrests won’t settle any time soon, just as the rape accusations against Winston haven’t completely faded away, with alleged victim and former FSU student Erica Kinsman going public and filing a civil suit against the quarterback (who’s now in the NFL)

It’s obvious Fisher can coach. He is 58-11, with a national championship and three ACC titles in five years. The Seminoles likely will contend for conference and national titles as long as he’s there. But if Fisher isn’t careful, this program will devolve into everybody’s Exhibit A of everything that is wrong with major college football.

How the Cook situation plays out will be interesting to watch because he’s the team’s starting running back and rushed for career-high 177 yards and a touchdown in the 37-35 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship game. But fortunately for Fisher, and Cook, and anybody with garnett and gold tomahawks painted on their cheeks, there is no video of the alleged assault.

What if the matter is pleaded down? Will Fisher let Cook play, and will Thrasher — who wrote a letter to alumni that athletes “will be held accountable for their actions” — give his coach that power?

It’s one thing for defense attorneys to make excuses for their clients, as Jose Baez did when he said Johnson was “provoked,” alleging the woman used a racial epithet. It’s one thing for a former FSU teammate, Ronald Darby (now with the Buffalo Bills) to tweet something so completely moronic as, “Y’all can’t keep letting females provoke guys in all ways then walk free.”

But coaches and school officials need to take their eyes off the scoreboard and have a higher level of accountability. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Tallahassee.

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