It has been my great fortune to cover college football for over 40 years. And in that time, I have seen just about everything—good and bad--the sport has to offer.
But as we gather today brothers and sisters, I must confess that I have never seen anything quite like the highly-personal, brass-knuckles, torched-Earth, WWE smackdown provided on Wednesday and Thursday by Alabama football coach Nick Saban and his one-time protégé, Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M.
A brief summary:
On Wednesday Saban was in Birmingham addressing a group of powerful businessmen. And as the night was winding down Saban threw this bombshell into the proceedings on the subject of Name, Image, and Likeness and how it has impacted recruiting:
“We were second in recruiting. (Texas) A&M was first. A&M BOUGHT (my emphasis) every player on their team—made a deal for name, image and likeness. We didn’t buy one player.”
Now Fisher, who became the first Saban disciple to beat him last season, could have responded in one of several ways. He chose to call a press conference on Thursday and make it personal—intensely personal.
He called Saban’s remarks “despicable.” He called Saban a narcissist. Now I’ll bet those are two words you haven’t seen together in a press conference before.
And then he brought out the heavy artillery, suggesting that Saban should not be accusing anybody of not following the rules.
“It’s amazing. Some people think they are God,” Fisher said. “Go dig into how God (Saban) did his deal. You may find out about a lot of things you don’t want to know.”
By the end of the day SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey had seen and heard enough. Citing violations of specific SEC rules that deal with public comments by one conference official about another conference official, Sankey issued a public reprimand to both coaches.
So what should we make of all this?
First of all, both coaches are wrong.
Saban is the most calculating coach in the profession. He doesn’t say anything publicly without a specific intent. But for the life of me I don’t get what his end game might be. Was it to stir up a hornet’s nest to begin some kind of push to change the rules on NIL? Because at the end of the day that is what this is all about. So Saban was wrong to go public with his concerns but he obviously thought the controversy was worth it.
Later on Thursday Saban told ESPN’s Chris Low that he was wrong to single out Texas A&M for his criticism of the larger system. Saban also said he was wrong to mention Jackson State, an FCS school which signed a high-profile player, Travis Hunter, after allegedly giving him a large NIL deal, speculated to be as much as $1 million. Jackson State coach Deion Sanders has denied that story.
Fisher was wrong to make his disagreement with Saban so public and so personal. Yes, Fisher has every right to defend himself and his program for what he feels are false accusations. But you don’t publicly call another coach “despicable” or label him a narcissist. You just don’t.
This is a bad look for the SEC and when the coaches gather for their meeting in Destin, Fla. in a couple of weeks, it’s a pretty good bet that the commissioner will have a few well-chosen words for the group.
This has happened before. Back in 2009 the late Mike Slive met with his football coaches in Destin after some public sniping among the ranks. Slive, normally a calm, measured man, slammed his hand on the table and told the coaches to shut up (although I’m told the language was more colorful) and that all problems were to be managed through the conference office.
“The Commissioner basically peeled the paint off the walls,” said a head coach who was in the meeting. “We didn’t have that problem again for a while.”
But the college football world is a lot different now that it was in 2009. The combination of NIL and the transfer portal has elevated the pressure on coaches to a completely different level.
The financial rewards are also at a different level. Saban and Fisher both make in the area of $9.5 million per year.
So what we saw on Wednesday and Thursday from Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher was a result of all these pressures. And the pressure is not going way. It’s only going to get worse.
Fisher said that Saban reached out to him on Thursday. Fisher did not take the call.
“We’re done,” Fisher said.
The SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., start on May 31.
SEC Media Days start July 18 in Atlanta. Saban appears on July 19. Fisher appears July 21.
Texas A&M goes to Alabama on Oct. 8.