IOWA CITY, Ia. – Three years into his Iowa football career, Cole Fisher had one tackle to his name. He was down on himself.
The question crept in: Is this worth it?
The 2014 Outback Bowl became Fisher’s crossroads. He played on special teams with no stats in that 21-14 loss to LSU. For an academically-driven civil engineering major who makes decisions on calculations, it was hard to accept one tackle in three years as an indicator of future success.
Todd Fisher remembers a tough conversation with his son after Iowa’s 2013 season finished in Tampa, Fla.
“I said, ‘Son, it’s not that you don’t have the ability,’ ” he recalled. “But right now, for whatever reason, you don’t believe that you do.”
Todd Fisher knows a thing or two about what it takes to play high-end college football. He was a backup defensive back during Nebraska’s 1980s glory days under Tom Osborne. He played in the 1984 Orange Bowl, a college football classic: Miami 31, Nebraska 30. Another son, Sean, was a starting linebacker for the Cornhuskers in 2012.
Todd’s advice: Stick with football. Don’t quit. Don’t transfer.
Nineteen months later, less than two weeks before the 2015 regular season, there was a development. Cole Fisher was named the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 weak-side linebacker – over younger 2014 starter Bo Bower.
Fisher’s been tremendous since. He has been an integral piece in the nation’s No. 3 rushing defense and Iowa’s 7-0 start and No. 10 national ranking. He leads the team with 61 tackles.
Yeah, this all feels like it came out of nowhere.
“It’s surprised me a little bit,” Fisher said this week. “But there’s a lot of people who have been believing in me for a long time.
“It’s been a huge, long road that maybe I had possibly given up on myself at times."
It would have been easy for Iowa’s coaching staff to give up on Fisher. Linebackers coach Jim Reid, 64, never did. Reid joined the Hawkeyes’ staff after Fisher’s second season.
The old-school teacher's style, replete with a thick Boston accent, resonated with Fisher, the latest in a line of Hawkeyes to play at Omaha's Millard North High School.
“He’s got a way of inspiring you,” Fisher said.
With the way Iowa’s defense based on reads and discipline, learning to play linebacker at Iowa requires about as much studying at quarterback. Up an engineer’s alley, right?
For Fisher, not so much.
“You definitely have to know a lot, and that’s been my downfall over the years,” he said. “I’ve had a hard time doing all the mental stuff along with school and everything.”
Fisher’s head was spinning for four years at Iowa. Coaches plugged him in at all three linebacker spots – Leo (outside), Mike (middle) and Will (weak-side). He couldn't find a comfortable home.
“With me, I was maybe sitting there reading too much and not reacting enough,” Fisher said. “It would slow me down.”
So did class conflicts. His schedule and demanding workload caused him to miss almost every position meeting last season. He felt like he was constantly playing catch-up.
But this semester, he’s got five credits left to graduate. There’s more time for football. Everything's clicking.
The Pittsburgh moment
Fisher has been better than steady in his first seven career starts. He’s led Iowa in tackles in five of them – including a career-best 14 stops in the 10-6 win at Wisconsin on Oct. 3 – and has his first three career sacks.
One of the reasons he’s been able to break through is he’s doing a better job – albeit far from a perfect one – at following Reid’s teaching: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Fisher's tendency has historically been to dwell on them. When Dad watched Cole give up a 19-yard pass in the final minute against Pittsburgh on fourth-and-15, he knew that would be the first thing Cole focused on in their postgame discussion – even though Iowa would win, 27-24, on Marshall Koehn’s 57-yard field goal as time expired.
Dad knows best. That was the first thing out of Cole’s mouth. But then, Cole added something unexpected: “Yeah, but I gave Marshall a chance to be a hero.”
“The old Cole would never have found something comedic to say about that,” Todd Fisher said.
This football thing …
Iowa 17th-year head coach Kirk Ferentz loves good “stories” in his program. Fisher’s is one of them, but he’s certainly not the first Hawkeye to become a starter in his fifth year.
Ferentz this week recalled his nine years as Iowa’s offensive line coach and a guy named Chris Gambol. Like Fisher, Gambol entered the 1986 season on the second team going into camp but became a first-time starting lineman as a fifth-year senior. He became a third-round NFL Draft pick by the Indianapolis Colts in the spring of 1987.
“Players that work hard and have good attitudes do get better, and sometimes it's a matter of opportunity,” Ferentz said. “But usually that opportunity has to be met by a guy who's really prepared and worked hard and developed. And we've had a ton of those historically here.”
The pro possibility has caught Fisher, an impressive-looking 6-foot-2, 236 pounds, completely off guard. His plan was to begin his Masters program next semester in structural engineering – Iowa recently told him he’ll be kept on scholarship through the spring. It’s a 30-hour Masters program, so he could be applying for engineering jobs by by Christmas 2016.
But, hey, NFL …
“It’s kind of funny, because this past week everyone seems to be asking that,” Fisher said. “I don’t know.
“All this football success, maybe I’ve got to start rethinking.”
And that’s the Fisher story in a nutshell.
A year ago, he was searching for his football place and missing meetings. Now, he's an emerging star and with a possible football future after college.
Later, there will be more time to think about all that. For now, Fisher’s surprising rise continues with Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. home game against Maryland.
“Fortunately, it all kind of came together for him,” Todd Fisher said. “The biggest that I can tell you is he’s having fun. And that makes me as a father the happiest of anything.”
SATURDAY'S GAME: MARYLAND (2-5, 0-3) AT IOWA (7-0, 3-0)
- When, where: 2:30 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
- TV: ABC regional broadcast (ESPN2 otherwise). Announcers are Adam Amin and Kelly Stouffer.
- The line: Iowa is favored by 17.
- Forecast: Cloudy and a chance of light rain; high of 52 degrees
- Tickets: About 8,200 remained as of Thursday afternoon. Cost is $65 each and can be purchased by calling 1-800-IA-HAWKS or at hawkeyesports.com
- Pregame Halloween event: Ticketed kids dressed in Halloween costumes are invited to trick-or-treat inside Kinnick Stadium from 1:15-1:45 p.m. Candy and tattoos will be available at all 18 concession stands and throughout the concourse. Security asks that costumes do no resemble any football player, official or law-enforcement officer. Also from the UI: "Apparel or props that in the sole discretion of authorized law enforcement personnel, could cause unnecessary fear or panic to other patrons" are not permitted.