RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, Calif. — When his phone rang last December, the former Nebraska assistant coach just assumed it was another misguided inquiry about a recruit.
Rich Fisher had been off NU’s staff for almost a full year, though players still sent him Twitter messages requesting that he watch their highlight tapes, and coaches still reached out to gain increased exposure for their kids.
So an unknown phone number with a California area code? Ignore. Fisher let it go to voicemail.
Fisher, reclining back in his chair inside his new office on a sunny June morning, can’t help but chuckle when he reflects back on that moment. He’s the head football coach at Santa Margarita High School, a job he never expected to take. Now, as he manages one of the top programs in Southern California, he can’t believe he’d initially planned on saying no.
“This is better than I even anticipated,” Fisher said in an interview last month.
But it wasn’t exactly what he spent a year preparing himself to do.
Fisher did not get retained at Nebraska, where he worked for Bo Pelini as receivers coach. That was in January 2015. He had a couple of opportunities to coach in the weeks that followed, but he chose to be patient. He assumed his résumé would speak for itself.
So Fisher was left only to stare at a wide open calendar. That’s when he called up his old friend Bill Belichick and waited.
“I knew what was best for me,” Fisher said. “I was going to get the chance to do the things you never have an opportunity to do while you’re coaching.”
That included job shadowing.
He spent a week with the New England Patriots, meticulously taking notes as Belichick led situational drills or conducted meetings and film sessions, or as the legendary coach stopped practice just so he could pour water on the football to simulate wet conditions.
He went to Jacksonville to learn from veteran receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. He made a stop at Northwestern to see Pat Fitzgerald operate firsthand. He visited UNLV, where former Husker assistants Barney Cotton and John Garrison now work (Tony Samuel, too). He went to Southern Utah and absorbed as much as he could from Ed Lamb, who coached with Fisher at Idaho more than a decade ago and had recently taken a job at BYU.
Fisher watched USC install its offense during its fall drills, too. He and now-coach Clay Helton attended the same high school in Texas. It was there that Steve Sarkisian, who’s since been fired, told Fisher that Nebraska’s offensive plan at the 2014 Holiday Bowl was the best the Trojans had seen that year.
“I’ve got pages and pages of notes,” Fisher says, pointing to a couple of yellow-shaded sets of papers on his Santa Margarita desk.
But the sabbatical is over now.
Santa Margarita, a private school with an annual tuition of more than $16,000, competes in the six-team Trinity League. Their peers are programs like St. John Bosco (which finished fourth in the USA Today national computer rankings) and Mater Dei (20th). That’s the standard. Santa Margarita went 1-4 in conference games and finished .500 last year — and dismissed its coach.
Fisher accepted the job and hired Lenny Vandermade, a former assistant at USC and San Diego, to be his offensive coordinator. He brought on a couple of coaches with Nebraska ties — ex-Husker linebacker T.J. Hollowell and former grad assistant Max Onyegbule — to work with the defense.
“We don’t expect him to go 10-0 in his first year,” said Andy Sulick, president of Santa Margarita. “What I was looking for was the ROI for our students. Return of investment. If my kids are going to play high school football, I want the best opportunity for them.”
Sulick was the one who called Fisher back in December.
That was when Fisher thought he had his future mapped out. He had a couple of FBS job offers, one of which seemed rather promising. Fisher listened to Sulick’s message and returned it out of courtesy, pretty convinced that he wasn’t going to coach at a high school again (he led the Rivers School program in Massachusetts in 2009 and 2010 — when he got to know Belichick).
Then they started talking. For 45 minutes. Two days later, Fisher was on a plane headed for Orange County.
“After going through the first interview process, I thought, ‘You know, this could be, actually, a really good deal,’ ” Fisher said. “The second interview sealed it. There’s something to be said about running your own program.”
In paradise, too. The scenery is picturesque — palm trees and blue sky, with a mountainous backdrop to the east and a clear path to the beach to the west. There are endless places to golf and fish. He knew all this years ago because, like any college coach recruiting Southern California, he’d been to Santa Margarita High School many times. Former Husker quarterback Johnny Stanton starred at Santa Margarita.
But now it’s Fisher’s home. And he’s thrilled about what lies ahead.
Just recently, Fisher was touring the school’s pristine campus with a prospective player and his family when they entered the weight room. Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was there working out.
Quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were among the NFL draft prospects who used Santa Margarita’s facilities last spring. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer is an alum.
“It’s kind of like the Hollywood of football,” Fisher said. “I’m excited to see what we can do.”
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