There was too much noise and precious little poise in Jeff Fisher's world, and when the moment of truth arrived, Fisher, the Tennessee Titans' ever-ready coach, was startled by a shrill whistle. "Quiet, everybody!" ordered his wife, Juli, after removing her thumb and forefinger from her mouth. "This is what we've all been waiting for." Dutifully, 30 family members and friends who had gathered at the Fishers' Franklin, Tenn., home last Saturday night turned their attention to a small TV set wedged inside a kitchen cabinet and prepared to review a fantastic finish that they and millions of other football fans will relive for the rest of their lives.
What unfolded before them, in living color, was the 21st century's first classic sports highlight, the NFL's most electric ending since Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception in 1972: Kevin Dyson dashing down the sideline with the pulse-tweaking kickoff return that gave the Titans a 22-16 AFC wild-card playoff victory over the Buffalo Bills. The Fishers' kitchen was filled with the same emotion and merriment as Nashville's Adelphia Coliseum had contained four hours earlier. For when Dyson reached the end zone with three seconds left, sending the Titans to Indianapolis for a second-round showdown against the Colts on Sunday, Fisher continued his amazing journey—a six-year coaching spin that has been as choppy as a late-night cruise with Puffy Combs and Jennifer Lopez.
After viewing a replay for the first time, the 41-year-old Fisher put down his wine glass, dropped his head and looked humbled by the magnitude of the feat. "They're calling it the Music City Miracle," said Dianne Girard, Fisher's mother-in-law. Yet Dyson's 75-yard catch and dash—which came after fullback Lorenzo Neal had fielded a short, high kickoff and handed off to tight end Frank Wycheck, who ran to his right before throwing across the field to Dyson behind a wall of blockers along the left sideline—was anything but supernatural. True to his methodical nature, Fisher had anticipated just such a situation, chosen a viable escape route, made sure his team knew the drill and practiced the play at the end of each Saturday's special teams session.
"Another one of Jeff Fisher's crazy setups," quipped Blaine Bishop, the Titans' veteran free safety. "You name the situation—10 seconds left, we take an intentional safety; just before halftime, we call a fail catch and try a free kick—and we'll practice it. Guys'll be tired and rolling their eyes, saying, 'Yeah, like this'll ever come up.' "
Fisher, an L.A. native with a highway cop's mustache, doesn't fit into any of the NFL's typical coaching boxes. He's not a professorial guru like Mike Shanahan, a peppy motivator like Dick Vermeil or a macho antagonist like his mentor, Buddy Ryan Fisher's approach is based on two simple premises—relentless preparation and poise under pressure—that he regularly hammers home to his players.
For 4� seasons, including consecutive 8-8 finishes from 1996 through '98, Fisher's system failed to yield a winning record. He went into this season under the cloud of a playoffs-or-pink-slip decree from Titans owner Bud Adams. That came off as a bit harsh, since it was Adams who had created most of the team's logistical nightmares, including the indignity of being housed for the last two years in a temporary training facility consisting of three trailers that served as the coaching staff's offices, meeting rooms and cafeteria. "When you hang out in trailers, you start feeling real trailer park," Bishop said last Thursday as he dined at a Brentwood, Tenn., eatery. "We felt second-rate, like we weren't even in the NFL. But Jeff had faith in the system and kept his cool, and we kept our faith in him."
"Most people, even those in our business, have no idea what an incredible job Jeff Fisher has done the past few years," says Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry, the man who devised the razzle-dazzle return.
Life isn't always fair, though, even in the NFL, and Fisher approached his make-or-break season as coach of Trailer Park America's Team with the same aggressive mentality that characterizes his innovative defensive schemes. Shortly after the end of the '98 season, he received a front-office edict to purge several assistants, including Lowry, who had served as his receivers coach the previous two years. Fisher shared the news with Lowry, whom he had grown friendly with while both were San Francisco 49ers assistants in 1992 and '93, then hopped a plane to Houston and showed up unannounced at Adams's office. "He was surprised to see me, but he was very receptive," Fisher says. "Alan was being blamed for things out of his control—our best receiver [ Yancey Thigpen] was hurt most of the year, Kevin Dyson was a rookie struggling to adjust, and our quarterback [ Steve McNair] was in his second year as a starter. I told Bud that Alan had done the best job of any of my assistants that year, and that I wanted to move him to special teams, where he had a great history."
Fisher is a former Chicago Bears safety who retired following the team's Super Bowl season in '85—he spent that year on injured reserve with a bad ankle and began his coaching career as an unofficial assistant to Ryan, the defensive coordinator—but he is far from being one of the guys. "He's pretty much all business," says Bruce Matthews, the Titans' 17-year veteran guard who was Fisher's teammate at USC. "As much as players talk about wanting to have the freedom to make plays on the field and not be babysat off it, you quickly realize that discipline is what wins. Jeff pays attention to the little things, because those things add up and cost you games."
Fisher's strategic wrinkles have helped the Titans all season, from the eight-defensive-back alignment he devised to help neutralize St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk in an Oct. 31 victory to the no-huddle, goal line offense that produced McNair's one-yard touchdown run against the Bills midway through the second quarter of Saturday's game. Fisher also kept his team on an even keel emotionally, a contrast to what happened in Buffalo leading up to the game ( coach Wade Phillips's quarterback switching and wideout Andre Reed's cyber-bitching about how he was being used). The disparity seemed to manifest itself in the wild-card game penalty totals: 10 for the Bills, two for the Titans.