Titans Coach Is No Rich Kotite Jeff Fisher Was Passed Over In His Bid To Coach The Birds In 1991. Now He Has A Super Bowl On His Resume.

Posted: August 17, 2000

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — It's easy to romanticize the road not taken. What if you'd married your first real love? Where would you be now if you had gone to a different college? How would things have been different if the Eagles had hired Jeff Fisher instead of Rich Kotite back on Jan. 8, 1991?

"I believe I could have been successful with that team," said Fisher, who will make his return to Veterans Stadium when his Tennessee Titans play the Eagles tomorrow night. "That was a very good team."

It was. Fisher was 32 years old the day his mentor, Buddy Ryan, was fired by Norman Braman. Fisher was the team's defensive coordinator. Kotite had been the offensive coordinator for one year. Braman interviewed them both immediately after telling Ryan to turn in his key to the office.

In the end, Braman went with the older, more experienced Kotite. He asked Fisher to stay on as defensive coordinator. Fisher declined, taking a job as defensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.

"There were many nights in Los Angeles when I missed that defensive meeting room and all those great players," Fisher said. "That was a good football team that was a player or two away from staying at the top of the NFC East for a number of years."

Instead, Kotite presided over a gradual disintegration of that group of great players. Eagles such as Reggie White and Keith Jackson were at the forefront of challenging the NFL's free-agency policy, so eager were they to flee Kotite and Braman. Others, including Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons and Eric Allen, followed as soon as they were able.

Fisher was closely allied with the popular Ryan. It's possible that he would have been able to hold that team together longer and take it further. During all the years that White and Randall Cunningham were together, the Eagles won exactly one wild-card playoff game. It was a disappointing run, to say the least, and personalities had a lot to do with the way it all fell apart.

There's no way to know how it might have been different. As it turned out, Fisher worked for the Rams for one year and then for the San Francisco 49ers for two years. In 1994, he took a job as defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. Ten games into his first year there, he got the opportunity denied him in Philadelphia. Head coach Jack Pardee was fired. Fisher was named as his replacement.

"I think any head coach would believe that he's ready when given the opportunity," Fisher said. "Looking back, some of the experience I had with the Rams and the 49ers, I needed that experience. To experience working in different organizations was good for me."

Fisher wound up beating the Eagles to the Super Bowl. It was not easy.

The Oilers played a lame-duck season in Houston before moving on to Tennessee. Fisher went 7-9 in his first full season as head coach. That was 1995, the year Ray Rhodes went 10-6 and took the Eagles to the playoffs in his first year. Fisher then went 8-8 for three straight seasons. His boss, owner Bud Adams, gave Fisher some slack because of the circumstances. The team was moving from city to city, at times working out of trailers because it had no permanent practice facility.

"The experience did build a sense of character amongst the players," Fisher said. "After going through so much, there's nothing that can affect them. They have the ability to play through distractions. It battle-hardened them."

Last year, the team changed its name to the Tennessee Titans. Its new stadium in Nashville, Adelphia Coliseum, opened. Fisher knew entering the season that he had no excuses. It was time to win.

The Titans went 13-3. No Eagles coach has ever won 13 games in a season.

But it was in the postseason that Fisher really distinguished himself as special. Unlike Ryan, who went to the playoffs three straight times and never won a game, Fisher was able to focus and motivate his team every week.

Two days before playing Buffalo, the Titans practiced a few gadget plays on special teams. That weekend, they pulled off the "Music City Miracle," a lateral from Frank Wycheck to Kevin Dyson that turned a loss into a victory as time expired.

The day before the Titans played Indianapolis, Fisher sat next to running back Eddie George. He told George that he was a great player. He told him about being a teammate of Walter Payton's during his own playing days with the Bears. Fisher told George that this was the kind of game the franchise had in mind when it selected George in the first round of the 1996 draft.

The next day, George ran for 162 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown, to lead the Titans over the heavily favored Colts.

In Jacksonville the next weekend, Fisher stood up in front of his team the night before the AFC championship game. He told the players he wanted to show them a film. It turned out to be a music video the Jaguars players had made. They were rapping about going to the Super Bowl.

The Titans stomped their division rivals, 33-14, to earn the right to play St. Louis in the Super Bowl. They lost, but it took one of the most dramatic finishes in the game's history to do it. Dyson was tackled a yard from scoring a tying touchdown on the game's final play.

"I didn't watch the game for a couple of weeks," Fisher said. "Then my wife Juli and I sat down with a TV copy. I skipped right ahead to the fourth quarter. After that, I was able to come back to the office and look at it. I tried to be objective and just looked at it like it was last week's game."

It wasn't, of course. It was a great moment in the career of a man and the history of a franchise. Fisher had lost to Dick Vermeil, the only coach who has been able to get the Eagles to that pinnacle. That was 20 years ago. Fisher, who is still a very young head coach at 42, now has the challenge of getting his team to return.

"We've closed the book," he said. "We discussed it at our opening meeting of training camp, and we put it behind us. It was a very positive experience. We want to use the momentum we had, especially in that fourth quarter, to carry us into the start of the season. The team recognizes how hard it was to get where we were, and it's going to be even harder this year."

Phil Sheridan's e-mail address is psheridan@phillynews.com

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