Rams' return to the Coliseum will be extra special for Jeff Fisher

As he emerged from the Coliseum tunnel, the panorama of the hallowed turf unfurled before him.

It was 1967, and 9-year-old Jeff Fisher was attending his first professional football game, the hometown Rams playing the Philadelphia Eagles.

Years later, he enjoyed another moment, striding down the stadium tunnel from the USC locker room to the field as a player for the Trojans.

This fall, Fisher will be 58 when he returns to the place of some of his most indelible football memories, as coach of the re-minted Los Angeles Rams.

"I've been a Rams fan for so long," Fisher said Friday after a news conference at the Forum, "it's an honor to be part of this homecoming."

When the Rams play their first regular-season home game this fall, Fisher will be at the forefront of the Rams return to Southern California after a 21-year absence.

The Rams are building a new Inglewood stadium that is set to open in time for the 2019 season. While it is being constructed, they will probably spend the next three seasons in the Coliseum, where Fisher played receiver and defensive back for USC.

"There's a winning tradition there," Fisher said of the Coliseum. "You win a lot more games than you lose there. Our players are going to get that message."

Fisher has deep local roots. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where he played football, baseball and ran track at Woodland Hills Taft High.

Ray O'Connor was Taft's baseball coach and also assisted with football.

O'Connor said he moved Fisher from outfield to catcher "because of amazing intellect," and he likes to tell a story that reflects Fisher's ability to strategize on the football field.

In 1975, Fisher set a school single-game record with 12 receptions for 258 yards and two touchdowns against Chatsworth. Taft had a four-point lead late in the game and was pinned in its own territory preparing to punt. Fisher called time out and ran to the sideline.

"He just came over and demanded that we take a safety," said O'Connor, 86. "We take a safety, we come out, and our guy punts the ball 65 yards and we win the ball game."

At USC, he played receiver for two seasons, catching one pass as a sophomore. He moved to cornerback as a junior in 1979, playing in a secondary that included Joey Browner, Dennis Smith and Ronnie Lott — all first-round NFL draft picks.

"He went over there because of his competitiveness — because he was a nasty guy," former coach John Robinson said this week. "He was the right kind of person to do it."

Lott had worked against Fisher in practice. He was not surprised by his ability to transition quickly.

"Jeff was not only a talented athlete but he was smart guy," Lott said. "His acumen for picking up not only the offense but also the defense led to him being able to play a significant role.

"He didn't miss a beat."

Fisher intercepted two passes as a junior, three as a senior. He holds fond memories of playing for the Trojans in the Coliseum.

"Getting to play with some amazing athletes," he said, "first-round pick after first-round pick."

The Trojans' defensive effort in a 1980 victory over South Carolina and Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers came to mind for Fisher on Friday.

So did a "missed opportunity" in the 1980 game against UCLA, when Fisher had a chance to intercept a pass that Bruins running back Freeman McNeil caught and turned into a long touchdown in a 20-17 UCLA victory.

"It was a learning experience for me that was extremely valuable for my career," Fisher said. "Because you can't make every single play, but you have to bounce back. I learned to bounce back."

The Chicago Bears selected Fisher in the seventh round of the 1981 draft and he played five NFL seasons as a defensive back and punt returner. He was on injured reserve because of an ankle injury in 1985, when the Bears defeated the Rams in the NFC championship game on their way to winning the Super Bowl.

Fisher helped Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan that season and was a member of his Philadelphia Eagles staff from 1986 to 1990, before joining Robinson's Rams' staff as defensive coordinator in 1991. He coached two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and then joined the Houston Oilers staff, taking over as head coach with six games left in the 1994 season.

Fisher was at the helm when the team moved to Tennessee before the 1997 season and eventually became the Titans. He coached the Oilers/Titans for 16 full seasons, leading them to the playoffs six times, including the Super Bowl in 1999.

The Rams hired Fisher in 2012 and he has a record of 27-36-1, including 7-9 this season in the fourth year of a five-year contract that reportedly pays him about $7 million annually.

Fisher's name has surfaced every time there has been a USC coaching change in the last six years.

"I think everyone at some point in their career would like the opportunity to go back to their alma mater," Fisher said, "but from a timing standpoint it's just never worked. I'm going to keep my commitment to those I'm working for."

Some Trojans fans wanted Fisher when Pete Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. USC hired Lane Kiffin.

Fisher's name came up again after Pat Haden fired Kiffin in 2013, and after Steve Sarkisian was fired five games into last season. Haden hired Clay Helton.

"I've been contacted on occasion," Fisher said. "As a matter of fact, I talked to Pat and [senior associate athletic director J.K. [McKay] this time around, but it wasn't about me. It was about who's out there.

"I told both of them: 'You've got the right guy.'"

Fisher said he did not begin to ponder what it would be like to come down the Coliseum tunnel again until he spoke to Rams safety T.J. McDonald, a former USC standout who is recovering from shoulder surgery.

"He was so excited," Fisher said. "He said, 'I can't wait to come out of that tunnel again.' That kind of got the ball rolling for me mentally."

Much of Fisher's family still resides locally, including his parents. Fisher said they were happy when they heard the Rams were moving back to Los Angeles.

"They've been curious and hopeful," he said. "It was a long way to go to watch me wherever I'm coaching.

"It was a really sweet message from Mom and Dad. It said, 'Welcome home.'"

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter: @latimesklein

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 16, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Rams' favorite son comes home - Fisher, who grew up in Southern California as a fan of the NFL team, will return to his roots at the Coliseum, where he played for USC" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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