Fitting the pieces

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It has been the most dominant and recurring headline of the offseason for Florida State, but Jimbo Fisher insists the task of replacing seven assistant coaches in the span of three months was no big deal.

The departures were expected after three years of success. The new faces were battle tested and required little time to adjust. The whole process, Fisher said, was relatively painless.

"It's not been hard because those guys come off the same tree," Fisher said of his new assistants. "They've been in the same system, been in the same environment. They hit the ground running easier than the old group did."

Fisher's optimism, along with a strong push on the recruiting trail before national signing day, has helped to calm a nervous fanbase, but as Florida State and its six new assistant coaches begin spring practice, questions still remain about the direction of the program after such massive turnover and the reasons why so many marquee jobs would be vacated in such a short time.

Even before defensive coordinator Mark Stoops bolted for the head coaching job at Kentucky in December, Fisher expected defections. With three straight winning seasons and two calm offseasons without a coaching departure, the odds were stacked against the Seminoles this time around, and Stoops spent much of 2012 as one of the nation's hottest candidates for a head coaching job.

In fact, rather than ignore the inevitable, Fisher embraced it. He kept lists, he said, detailing his top choices should jobs come open, and he boasted that his staff had a bevy of quality assistants qualified for better jobs. It didn't take long for other programs to agree with his conclusion.

Stoops brought defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot with him as Kentucky's new defensive coordinator. Running backs coach and special teams coordinator Eddie Gran bolted for Cincinnati to work with longtime friend Tommy Tuberville. Linebackers coach Greg Hudson was already rumored to be transitioning into the football operations role before he left to take the defensive coordinator job at Purdue. The floodgates had opened.

"But if you look at it, everybody got a better situation," Gran said. "They got those titles and were able to call plays, so it all worked out for everybody. Coach Stoops got a head job and then D.J. left with him, so it was a great thing for everybody. When you have success that's what happens."

And if that had been where the defections ended, that answer may have been sufficient. Instead, quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig left for Auburn just weeks after Fisher praised his protege as an exceptional recruiter and suggested their long history together would keep Craig around. Then, just two weeks before signing day, offensive coordinator James Coley accepted the same job with conference rival Miami. That's when the rumblings began in earnest that Fisher's desire to maintain command of his offense had pushed two key assistants out the door.

In Coley's case, the argument made sense. He'd held a nominal title, but he'd never been allowed to call plays under Fisher. At Miami, the offense would be his to design, and while Fisher gave lip service to the notion that Coley might have one day done the same at FSU, it's telling that none of the new hires assumed the offensive coordinator title.

For Coley, the opportunity to take what he'd learned from Fisher and apply it on Saturdays made all the difference.

"There are a lot of things that go into setting up the offense, being an offensive coordinator, and then Saturday is the play-calling duties. On Saturdays, Coach Fisher called the plays at Florida State," Coley said in his introductory news conference at Miami. "I learned a lot from him. He was a great mentor for me. He did a great job teaching me along in the process of becoming a play-caller and becoming a full-time offensive coordinator. He was phenomenal for me."

But if Fisher's role was, in part, a mentor to Coley and Craig, the tide seems to have turned with the new staff. While Fisher hasn't ceded control of play-calling, the new group of coaches on both sides of the ball come with impressive resumes. Of the seven assistants hired this offseason, five had previous experience as a coordinator, and six came from SEC programs.

Fisher also managed to compile the new staff without breaking the bank. While salaries for assistants have grown significantly in recent years, the staff this season is expected to earn less, in total, than last season's staff did. Of course, those numbers might be difficult to maintain if Fisher hopes to avoid another round of defections in the near future.

"A year ago, we paid our assistant coaches out at the No. 1 or 2 level [in the ACC]," FSU athletic director Randy Spetman said. "We've continued to do that. From what I've seen in the transition now, we've gotten great quality coaches. When you have a very successful program, the Stoopses of the world are going to get an opportunity to be head coaches. Some of these guys he's hired in the last few weeks are going to have other opportunities. We're able to financially reach out to coaches that want to come here and make us successful."

And while an adjustment period is expected, there's a feeling among many within the program that Fisher's latest round of hires has actually put the program in a better place than it was before.

The recruiting pedigree for new assistants such as Jeremy Pruitt, Sal Sunseri and Tim Brewster is impeccable, and in the coaching meetings, their perspective could provide a few interesting tweaks to the system.

"There's more idea guys, more guys who've seen different things and bring different things to the table, stimulate your brain in different ways and have been in decision-making situations," Fisher said. "It's easy to sit back and say what you would do when you've never been a decision maker. When you've actually called them and done it and you understand the logistics of everything that goes on, you get a lot bigger picture and greater understanding of what you want to do."

What Fisher wants to do is build a program like the one his mentor, Nick Saban, has created at Alabama. It's a system with movable pieces but an unflinching philosophy. That's what drove so much of this offseason's chaos.

The successful programs lose coaches, because everyone is eager to poach from the best. That's how Fisher arrived at Florida State in the first place, and it's why he hired Pruitt away from Saban in December.

"We've got a bunch of good coaches -- a lot of knowledge in a lot of areas and a lot of experience doing it," Fisher said. "They've done it in different leagues, different programs -- but big-time programs."