Alabama coach Nick Saban set the college football world abuzz Wednesday night when he told a gathering of business leaders in the state that Texas A&M assembled the top-ranked recruiting class in the country because it “bought every player” with name, image and likeness deals.
Decrying the influence of money in recruiting, Saban said NIL was being used unfairly. At Alabama, he said of its No. 2-ranked class, “We didn’t buy one player, all right?”
Then Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher quickly assembled a news conference on Thursday morning in order to respond, and gasoline was poured on the fire.
Fisher didn’t hold back, calling Saban a “narcissist” and saying of him, “Some people think they’re God.” Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000 to 2004, Fisher practically laughed off his former boss’ assertion that there has always been parity in college football and NIL threatens to undermine that.
“He’s the greatest ever, huh?” Fisher said. “When you’ve got all the advantages, it’s easy.”
If coaches weren’t talking about Saban’s comments before, they were once Fisher’s fiery news conference was over. An SEC assistant said his phone was “blowing up” afterward. Out on the road recruiting, it was all the high school coach he was with at the time wanted to talk about.
The comments struck a nerve, not just because of what was said and who said it, but because of the subject matter involved. The 2022 signing class was the first to have NIL as part of the recruitment process — whether directly or indirectly — and many coaches are worried about the impact it’s having. Over and over again, they’ve described the lack of rules as creating an environment akin to the “Wild, wild West.”
But for two coaches to go after one another so directly was shocking, let alone the fact that it was two of the highest paid and most accomplished coaches in the game who are in the same conference and compete in the same division. Just last October, Fisher finally slayed the dragon and became the first of Saban’s former assistants to beat him when Texas A&M bested Alabama at home on a walk-off field goal 41-38.
Another assistant who once worked for Saban said that Fisher must have sensed an opening after the win and had the confidence from it to go on the attack. Still, he and everyone he spoke with wanted to know, “What the hell is Jimbo thinking?”
Yes, Saban was wrong. The assistant said Saban crossed the line when he singled out Texas A&M. What’s more, he was surprised that the usually calculating Saban allowed himself to be filmed saying what he did. “He should have been smarter,” the assistant said.
But why poke the bear? Like many others, the coach was surprised by Fisher’s reaction and pointed out, “[Saban] never said they were cheating.”
Regardless, it was riveting.
“I don’t know who we’re playing that week,” the coach said, laughing, “but I’ll skip it to watch Alabama-Texas A&M.”
With 142 days to go until the Crimson Tide host the Aggies, ESPN surveyed coaches and athletic directors across the country to get their reaction to the Fisher-Saban dustup: what it means, what happens next and what they expect when the two coaches meet in Bryant-Denny Stadium in October. — Alex Scarborough
What sparked Saban’s comments?
Was Saban upset about Texas A&M beating him on the recruiting trail? Genuinely concerned about the trajectory of college football? Maybe a little bit of both. But there’s no doubt that when Saban talks, people start listening.
SEC athletic director: “NIL has caused a lot of confusion and consternation, and as a league, we’ve got to handle issues like this, hopefully not in the public eye.”
Big Ten assistant coach: “A lot of us were just talking about it that we thought it was a call to arms. The way that they’ve been doing it isn’t really holding up in this new age, and that’s kind of what we saw it as. Everyone across the country is calling a booster to step up and that’s what I thought it was.”
Power 5 head coach: “Nick’s point, albeit valid, he’s smarter than that. He usually doesn’t put his hand in the hornet’s nest. There was no reason to cross the line like he did. All he had to do is be macro and vague. Something happened there. Jimbo did something, and the professor did not like what the pupil did.”
Power 5 AD: “Everybody knows Nick is very smart. There’s a reason he’s doing this. It’s almost like for him to do this, A&M is a serious threat or even bigger. I think he sees this as an existential crisis. He can see it, and unless something changes, that’s his way of saying you guys gotta do something. I think he sees this as man, this gap could potentially close, and he’s trying to ring the alarm.”
What was your reaction to Fisher’s rebuttal?
Big Ten assistant: “I think there was like a universal 90 minutes where no one got s— done because they were just laughing their asses off, us included.”
Group of 5 head coach: “It’s like the sequel to the best movie ever. [Fisher not calling] is going to offend Saban more than Jimbo saying stuff, that he won’t pick up the phone. … I was in a meeting and we had a break. I looked at my phone and I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Big Ten assistant: “I’ve gotten texts from coaches in the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC. The whole sport stopped whatever opponent we were scouting and ignored calls from recruits to focus on that press conference. There was a whole lot of loss of production around college football today.”
What does this say about the state of college football?
Saban’s comments come at a time of great chaos in the world of big-time college football. There’s the widening gap between the SEC and Big Ten and everybody else, spurring talk of a potential CFB Super League. There’s uncertainty over the NCAA’s future following numerous legal defeats and the impending departure of president Mark Emmert. And of course, there’s NIL, which as we’ve seen today, has caused much consternation throughout the sport. Will a high-profile dispute between two of the game’s marquee coaches — which resulted in public reprimands for both from the SEC office — change anything?
Power 5 AD: “The sport is much healthier than some of the atmosphere around it. People are just saying what is on their minds more so than ever before, but it’s not like these things haven’t been said. They were more general about it without naming anyone in particular. There are so many rumors out there, so many things people hear, even when some of the representatives of some of these athletes are telling coaches. It’s hard to know if figures are real or if they’re exaggerated — unless, unless the people involved with the figures actually come out and make statements about it, like the guy associated with the University of Miami. This makes for great theater but it’s one example of what concerns people behind the scenes who aren’t saying it out loud.”
Power 5 head coach: “This is unsustainable, and I am incredibly concerned about where college athletics is going. That’s coming from a football coach, and we’ll be fine, but the rest of it. Nick was right on. We go down this pay-for-whatever path, the other sports are going to die.”
Power 5 AD: Literally my initial thought was our profession has hit an all-time low. This makes coaches look like a bunch of buffoons. It’s like no wonder we have the issues we have, when we have adults and people in leadership positions handling stuff this way.”
What comes next?
Power 5 head coach: “I hope it creates some urgency for a new governance structure. Our game is in complete chaos right now, and this is a result of the chaos.”
Power 5 assistant: “What I keep coming back to, from a 30,000-foot perspective, is how are we gonna fix any of this stuff? I know there’s kind of that Twitter fun, ha ha this is entertainment. But to me, it stinks. The sport is literally in tatters right now and here’s two people that would have a chance to save it and they’re gut punching each other.”
Of course, this will ultimately be settled on the field when two programs with national championship aspirations meet in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 8.
Power 5 AD: “It better be a night game. I think it’s going to be one of these highest-rated games of the year. They’re going to both circle it. Nick’s going to say, we’re going to show ’em. And Jimbo is going to say, this is what these guys said about you. Get your popcorn ready.”
Andrea Adelson, Heather Dinich, Adam Rittenberg, Alex Scarborough and Tom VanHaaren contributed to this story.
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