Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork says Nick Saban’s comments Wednesday night regarding the Aggies’ recruiting practices violate SEC sportsmanship bylaws and he has been in discussion about the situation with commissioner Greg Sankey.
Bjork referred to Saban’s comments as a “personal attack” on his university and on his coach, Jimbo Fisher, a former Saban assistant, and believes the comments could trigger a reprimand from the league office. He has communicated with Sankey but declined to reveal details of their conversation. An SEC spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment. An Alabama spokesperson also did not respond to comment. (Update: At 5 p.m. Thursday, the SEC issued a public reprimand of both Saban and Fisher.)
“I don’t know why Nick Saban would say what he said except he’s threatened,” Bjork tells Sports Illustrated. “There is a saying … an emperor who loses their dynasty lashes out. He seems to be making excuses.
“This is personal. Coach Fisher views this as a personal attack on his integrity and on Texas A&M’s integrity,” Bjork continued. “To have personal attacks, to say that the only reason A&M is [recruiting well] is NIL money is wrong.”
Bjork says his school is following the Texas state law governing name, image and likeness (NIL). The law prohibits NIL from being used for inducements in recruiting and any pay-for-play, as does the NCAA’s interim NIL policy. Texas A&M signed the nation’s top recruiting class in 2022. Saban told a crowd of businesspeople in Birmingham on Wednesday that the Aggies “bought every player on their team” using NIL deals.
It’s the second such accusation made by a sitting SEC coach. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin suggested as much in February, comments that also triggered a passionate defense by Fisher.
“There are sportsmanship bylaws in the SEC. We believe Coach Saban violated those bylaws,” Bjork says. “Everyone knows NIL is here to stay. We’ve embraced it. We have all the tools and technology. We are educating our athletes and boosters. There is all kinds of awareness here. The part that is frustrating is to say NIL is the only reason kids are choosing our program. That is hypocritical, and I don’t know why we are the target.
“A&M has a huge former student base. The Aggie network is strong. We’ve rebuilt Kyle Field and joined the SEC. I guess people don’t like A&M disrupting the power base of college football.”
Bjork, who has not been contacted by anyone from Alabama, says Saban’s comments have further galvanized the Aggies’ fan and donor base.
“We aren’t done and going anywhere,” he says. “Everyone here at A&M has Coach Fisher’s back. I’ve been with our Board of Regents the last day. The regents, chancellor and president all have Jimbo’s back. We are going to stand up for our program.”
At an impromptu news conference Thursday morning, Fisher vehemently defended his program. He referred to Saban as a narcissist, suggested reporters dig into Saban’s own recruiting past and said the friendship between the two men is over.
Asked about Fisher’s comments about Saban’s recruiting, Bjork says, “That speaks for itself. People who know college football know the history.”
The public sparring comes at an uneasy time in college football where differing state NIL laws have created a disparate set of rules across the country. NIL has triggered the formation of booster-led collectives that have involved themselves heavily in recruiting. SI examined the issue earlier this month.
In his comments Wednesday, Saban suggested that NCAA enforcement spring into action. Months ago, the NCAA requested information from A&M regarding its recruiting, Bjork says, but has heard nothing more from the association. The organization is somewhat hamstrung in enforcing its own bylaws given potential antitrust legal challenges from wealthy boosters who, some believe, are protected by state laws.
“That’s part of it—the whole sort of lack of uniformity with different state laws. It’s what has people the most frustrated,” Bjork says. “People are acting differently based on their landscape.”
For three years, college leaders have lobbied Congress for federal, uniform NIL legislation. Those attempts have failed, and nothing is expected until next year, at the very least.
“Here’s what’s being missed in the conversation,” says Bjork. “The deal is, the NCAA still has bylaws. The state law of Texas says you can’t use NIL to induce pay-for-play. All these accusations are accusing A&M of using it as an inducement. Nobody is talking about what our current players are doing for NIL. We have no idea why people are only talking about the inducement piece.”
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