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SI:AM | Nick Saban vs. Jimbo Fisher Is a ‘Full-Fledged War’

Plus, Rory McIlroy starts hot.

Good morning, I’m Josh Rosenblat. I want someone to call me the “czar” of something one time. Just once.

In today’s SI:AM:

😤 Nick Saban vs. Jimbo Fisher

Hello, Rory

☘️ The Celtics rolled the Heat

Saban vs. Fisher

In the SEC, it just means more. Especially to football coaches in mid-May, apparently.

Let’s cut straight to it. Here’s Alabama coach Nick Saban:

[Texas] A&M bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, image and likeness. We didn’t buy one player. But I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to sustain that in the future because more and more people are doing it.”

Then, less than 14 hours later, Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher fired back at his former boss in a press conference:

Some people think they’re God. Go dig into how God did his deal. You may find out about a guy, a lot of things you don’t want to know. We build him up to be the czar of football. Go dig into his past.”

Fisher added:

“You can call me anything you want to call me, but you ain’t calling me a cheat. I don’t cheat and I don’t lie. I learned that when I was a kid if you did, the old man slapped you upside the head. Maybe somebody should’ve slapped him. … Now you’re fooling with our name.”

Whew.

SI’s Richard Johnson went through Fisher’s responses, digging into some of the context behind the coach’s words. Fisher was the offensive coordinator at LSU under Saban from 2000 to ’04.

But the bottom line may be best explained by SI’s Pat Forde, who wrote:

“They violated the Mutually Assured Destruction credo that has long existed in a sport where everyone is likely cheating: coaches could all take down each other, which helped enforce a collective silence because the retaliatory strikes could be devastating to whoever launches first.”

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We’ve known for a while that the NIL situation has been chaotic, with SI’s Ross Dellenger reporting on the major role boosters are taking up in what amounts to a marketplace for recruits and transfers. Even in July, when athletes could begin legally profiting off their NIL rights, Dellenger wrote a deeply reported piece within which one source predicted: ​​“It’s going to be a clusterf---.”

Is there a more apt description for what has gone down over the last 36 hours? “I’ve been covering college football for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Forde wrote, who called the spat a “full-fledged war.”

Saban’s comments didn’t touch only Fisher and his program. The Alabama coach also accused Jackson State of paying “a guy a million dollars last year that was a really good Division I player.” Jackson State coach Deion Sanders responded initially on Twitter: “You best believe I will address that LIE Coach SABAN told tomorrow. We as a PEOPLE don’t have to pay our PEOPLE to play with our PEOPLE.”

Late Thursday, Saban apologized for singling out both Fisher and Sanders during an appearance on ESPNU radio’s Off-Campus.

The SEC is no stranger to competition, but there might be something a little extra in the air at the end of the month when the conference’s spring meetings occur in Destin, Fla.

“The league’s reputation precedes itself, but now it just became much more real. Everything the outside world has ever suspected about the SEC suddenly has greater credencebecause one prominent coach in the league all but publicly declared that the GOAT is a cheater,” Forde wrote.

Rory goes low

In his last two rounds of major championship golf, Rory McIlroy is 13 under. Back at Augusta in April, McIlroy charged up the leaderboard on Sunday, capping off an 8-under round with a hole out from the sand on the 72nd hole to finish second.

In many ways, that Sunday was a return to the sensational, boyish golfer who rattled off four major wins between 2011–14. And he looked that way again in the first round of this week’s PGA Championship.

Paired with Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, all eyes were on the 33-year-old’s group as he started his quest for a third PGA Championship with a masterful round: a 5-under 65.

“Since winning his fourth major title nearly eight years ago, Rory McIlroy has suffered a familiar fate at the game’s biggest tournaments: slow starts,” Morning Read’s Bob Harig wrote. “He did his best Thursday to alter that narrative.”

At the end of the day, McIlroy found himself alone atop the leaderboard.

Ahead of the 2022 Masters, a tournament that followed the pattern Harig referred to, SI’s Chris Almeida wrote a fantastic piece on McIlroy, exploring both how we feel watching him and what he could be feeling as searches for a return to major championship glory.

“I’ve been thinking about Rory a lot lately. About his place within an old and strange and rigid game amid a rather volatile time in its history. About our attempts to take the Jordanesque model that Tiger refined and square it with the trajectory of The Next Tiger’s real-life career. And about McIlroy’s attempts to square that story with the realities of his own career. The golf world talks about Rory as a contender too much. But perhaps he’s more interesting in this post-alpha-dog phase of his career than he ever was while winning majors.”

Almeida also compared McIlroy, presciently, to his playing partners at Southern Hills in Tulsa. There was a time when he dominated in ways only to which Woods could relate, making “it look like the idea of something going wrong hadn’t even occurred to them,” Almeida wrote. And while he hasn’t reached those heights consistently in recent years, he also still doesn’t come close to how “Speith and Phil Mickelson make the game look hard 99% of the time.” (Woods finished his first round at 4 over, Spieth was 2 over and Mickelson, as you probably know by now, is not defending his title.)

McIlroy will play again with Woods and Spieth today, teeing off at 2:36 p.m. ET.

As for whether he can convert this uncharacteristic strong start into a fifth major title, you’ll have to tune in this weekend. But, I’ll leave you with this stat from Justin Ray (a tremendous follow on Twitter) of sports analytics firm Twenty First Group:

The best of Sports Illustrated

barcelona-femeni

The most dominant soccer team in the world plays in Barcelona. SI’s Andrew Gastelum explores the rise of Barcelona Femení ahead of their Champions League final match tomorrow against French power Lyon.

“This is a story that goes from dirt fields to world-record crowds, one about the planting of tiny seeds that sprouted to shatter glass ceilings. This is a story about dynasties and blueprints, about queens and pioneers. This is about the sacrifices that the next generation won’t have to make, and about being the hero you never had. This is a story about how a culture crafted a club, and how that club brought that culture to the world. This is the point where a revolution becomes a dynasty. But mostly, this is a story not about what soccer has lost, but about what it is gaining back.”

With Marcus Smart and Al Horford back, the Celtics showcased what makes them special in their Game 2 dismantling of the Heat, Michael Pina wrote. … Emma Baccellieri is thoroughly enjoying the Albert Pujols nostalgia tour. And so is he. … Max Strus is the next in a long line of unheralded prospects starring in their role with the Heat, Rohan Nadkarni writes. … Conor Orr outlines his dream candidates for an NFL broadcast booth. … Jeremy Woo checks in from the NBA draft combine in Chicago. … Speaking of the draft combine, Kevin Sweeney looked at the decision some players will have to make: transfer or turn pro?

Around the sports world

The scenes from Everton’s come-from-behind 3–2 win over Crystal Palace to avoid relegation were wild. … The Lightning used a goal in the final seconds to beat the Panthers and take a 2–0 lead in their series. … The top-seeded Avs were outplayed in a 4–1 Game 2 loss to the Blues. … The USMNT has added another German-born recruit who is a Bayern Munich prospect. … A star wide receiver is transferring to USC. … GQ has a profile of Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo.

SIQ

The Cleveland-Milwaukee game on this day in 1985 was the first MLB game of the season to…

  • Go to extra innings
  • End 1–0
  • Be rained out
  • Not feature a home run

Yesterday’s SIQ: What piece of jewelry was part of former MLB reliever Turk Wendell’s unique on-field look?

Answer: a necklace made of teeth. And not just any teeth—teeth from animals he had hunted. Wendell wore No. 99 with the Mets and when the team re-signed Taijuan Walker (the second player in franchise history to wear the number) in 2021, Wendell sent him the necklace.

Wendell was a really quirky pitcher. When he was a 22-year-old prospect in Braves camp, a Sports Illustrated article said he “refuses to wear socks under his stirrups when he pitches.” He would dramatically skip over the foul line on his way to and from the mound. He drew three crosses in the dirt behind the mound and slammed the rosin bag emphatically to the ground before throwing his first pitch. He would also chew on a big wad of nasty black stuff while he toed the rubber. But it wasn’t tobacco—it was licorice. And lest he worry about cavities, he brushed his teeth between innings.

From the Vault: May 20, 1963

In the first paragraph of his cover story inside the May 20, 1963, issue of Sports Illustrated, John Underwood enumerated all the incidents that had cast a pall over the sports world to begin that year:

“In the first four months of 1963 these incidents made important news in sport: Paul Hornung (see cover) of Green Bay, one of the best football players in the world, and Alex Karras of Detroit were suspended from the National Football League for betting on games. Six other Detroit players were fined for the same offense. Alabama Coach Bear Bryant and Georgia Athletic Director Wally Butts were accused of conspiring to affect the outcome of last fall’s Alabama-Georgia football game. The University of Indiana and Purdue competed for a talented high school basketball player by offering scholarships to his girl friend. Jack Molinas, a former professional basketball player, was handed a 10-to-15-year sentence for fixing college-basketball games from 1957 to 1961. Biggie Munn, athletic director at Michigan State, was found, embarrassingly, to be a stockholder in a management firm owned by a Chicago gangster, Frank (Big Frank) Buccieri. (Munn promptly said he got out as soon as he discovered who ‘that furniture man’ really was.)”

Underwood’s essay—with the dramatic headline “The True Crisis”—goes on to lay out what he believes to be the actual problem with the sports industry at that time. It is not gambling or cheating or connections to organized crime. Instead, Underwood takes aim at the influx of money in all sports—amateur and professional.

“These prosperous days the major sports deal in very large amounts. Walter O’Malley’s new ball park in Los Angeles is a $22 million showcase. Racetracks in this country handle $2.5 billion a year, and pro football is a $20 million operation. Naturally, the athlete becomes a principal beneficiary. Big league baseball teams cascade hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses on big-eyed, little-tried talent (recent examples: $175,000 for Bob Bailey of Pittsburgh, $130,000 to $150,000 for Bob Garibaldi of San Francisco).”

Bailey was more than worth the investment. He went on to play 17 seasons in the majors. But Underwood was concerned with how greed and profiteering could corrupt the soul of sport, or something:

“The purpose of sport is to offer recreation, to lift men out of their humdrum experience and offer them an exultation they cannot find in other pursuits. When profits become the only objective, sport dies. The name is retained, but it is a mockery. In death, it kills more important things than itself.”

Underwood’s essay is strange to read in 2022, when at the same time it is impossible to imagine professional sports as anything other than a multibillion-dollar industry and recreational sports are perfectly healthy. It’s natural for Underwood to have been apprehensive about the future of hyper-commercialized sports (and he continued to be concerned about that trend, writing a book on the topic in 1984) but the money in sports today has all sorts of benefits for fans. A ticket to a game might not cost a nickel anymore but stadiums are more beautiful than ever. (If only they weren’t often built at great expense to taxpayers.) Higher salaries attract higher-caliber athletes and encourage them to train harder to get paid more. More games than ever are available to watch on TV or via streaming. The game has changed, but not for the worse. — Dan Gartland

Check out more of SI’s archives and historic images at vault.si.com.

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