The date is October 8. Texas A&M in Alabama. Circle it in red.
Damn, encase him in blood. This has immediately become the most bitter rivalry of 2022, if not ever.
In a staggering span of less than 14 hours, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban launched an attack on Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher, saying A&M “bought every player on his team,” and Fisher responded with a fury of scorched earth. In a hastily arranged news conference, Fisher called his former boss’s comments “despicable,” called Saban “a narcissist” who “thinks he’s God,” openly and repeatedly questioned Saban’s ethics and adherence to rules and suggested that someone should have “hit” him. head like a child.
He did everything but mobilize the A&M Corps of Cadets to march on Tuscaloosa.
I’ve been covering college football for 32 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. The comments, especially Fisher’s, were part of a WWE script. College coaches tend to talk a lot off the record about who’s breaking the rules, or in vague generalities on the record: Here were two national championship coaches very publicly Going There about each other. They violated the Mutually Assured Destruction creed that has long existed in a sport where everyone is likely to cheat: coaches could take each other down, which helped enforce a collective silence because retaliatory strikes could be devastating to who throws first.
Well, forget that. Suddenly, the nuclear option has been deployed.
On Wednesday night, Saban directly went after A&M for exploiting the current landscape of names, likenesses and likenesses to offer recruiting incentives to players, which is against NCAA rules and Texas state law, according to Fisher. And then, in response on Thursday morning, Fisher nearly dared the greatest coach in college football history to come out and punch this out.
Fisher and Saban will have to share airspace and meeting space as early as May 31, when the Southeastern Conference spring meetings are held in Destin, Florida. Fisher was asked about that and shrugged off possible awkwardness. If they build a temporary octagon at the Sandestin Hilton, Fisher is ready to step in.
“I don’t mind the confrontation,” he said. “I lived with that my whole life. I like it, personally.
Do you know who hates it? SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who has worked hard to maintain the unified public front established by predecessor Mike Slive. A lot of it was just for show rather than reality, but the league gave it a high priority. professional decorum and esprit de corps expected, at least when people were watching.
Now Sankey has a full-fledged war on his hands, the likes of which we have never seen.
While this scores incredibly high on the exciting entertainment scale, it also dumps several tons of coal into the SEC’s runaway furnace of football and by any means necessary. The league’s reputation precedes itself, but now it’s become much more real. Everything the outside world once suspected about the SEC suddenly has more credibility, because a prominent coach in the league almost publicly declared the GOAT to be a cheat.
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Consider what fell into Sankey’s lap in a matter of hours: Saban left without details or proof, to which Fisher insisted, “I don’t cheat or lie,” and that Texas A&M is playing by the rules. But then Fisher did the same thing with Saban, suggesting, over and over again, that there are some shady dealings with Saban and everyone who worked for him knows it.
The problem with that statement is this: Fisher is one of those who worked for Saban. Instead of spouting vague (but forceful) slurs, he could offer something more concrete. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the NCAA doesn’t get on the phone with him before this column is published to ask for a meeting to discuss that very issue.
This is a credibility hit for college league presidents who want to be taken seriously for more than just winning football games on Saturdays. Many SEC schools have worked hard to raise their academic profiles, and to attract students from outside their geographic area, for high tuition costs, and now the venue is embroiled in a front porch dispute. (By the way, those presidents will also be in Destin, and it stands to reason that they’d want some answers about how the SEC is going to come out of this ruckus and fight with some semblance of dignity.)
Ultimately, this is the most football-centric area of college athletics reaching a boiling point in the new era of player compensation. It is a tumultuous time, and while the sport will come out ahead in some shape or form, trust in governance structures is at a crisis point.
Saban is arguably the smartest, most strategic and most calculating man in his profession. When he is in the mood, he will carefully expound on topics within his sport. But above all, he is a competitor. That’s important to remember here.
The catchphrase of his pay-for-play proclamation was this: “We were second in recruiting last year. A&M was first.” Nick Saban doesn’t like being second, it’s a matter of competitive disadvantage.
The world has changed rapidly around the 70-year-old Saban, with the supposed “guardrails” of NCAA compliance in the new NIL Era either flimsily constructed or ignored altogether. Alabama, which has been an industry leader in things like facilities, staffing and wages, is not at the forefront of the collective frontier of reinforcement. Whether this is an intentional decision to play by a presumption of what the rules were supposed to be, or a reluctance of its proponents to embrace the current climate, I don’t know. Perhaps a combination of the two.
But while Alabama navigates the new terrain at one pace, others are going full speed ahead with big deals. Texas A&M is among that group, though Fisher took offense in February over assumptions that the Aggies bought their way to the top of the 2022 draft rankings: “To me, it’s an insult to the players we drafted that’s why they would come here. Have you ever been to a game here? Have you ever come to school here and seen the education? Do you ever talk about 12th Man and the Aggie Network when you’re done? There’s no better college in this country.” .
Feel free to roll your eyes at Fisher’s protests of innocence. And for Saban’s concern for the sport, for that matter. Was the Crimson Tide program built to superpower status without the benefit of pre-NIL recruiting incentives? Make up your mind about it, but understand that the underground economy was running for decades in college football before paying players became legal in the NCAA last July 1st.
“My dad always said, ‘If someone shows you who they are, believe them,'” Fisher said at one point in his rant. “[Saban] he is showing you who he is.”
In one mind-blowing flurry, Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher showed everyone what the SEC is: a wild, carefree conference that’s becoming a caricature of itself. It just means more, in fact. More acrimony. Greg Sankey has work to do between now and Destin to prevent a fight on the beach.
More Saban/Fisher coverage:
• Lane Kiffin reacts to Fisher Blasting Saban
• Fisher on Saban: ‘Maybe someone should have slapped him’
• CFB Twitter reacts to Fisher and Saban drama