Nick Saban's petty dig at Jimbo Fisher was the micro issue, but fireworks aside, this is about a macro issue
Instead of relaxing with a quiet getaway to Gasparilla Island as he often does during his summer vacation, Nick Saban decided to take a blow torch to the college football world. Twice.
Last week, he went on The Paul Finebaum Show and claimed that “everything in college football has always had parity.” That was met with an eye-roll from Tacoma to Fort Lauderdale. Even though Saban was referencing the equal distribution with scholarships, health care and academic support, it still came off as a head-scratching way to voice frustrations about the use of NIL. Why? Well, because nobody wants to hear about an even playing field from the guy who dominated the sport like nobody ever has in the post-integration world of college football.
But of course, that comment was an afterthought by the time Saban spoke at a 50-day countdown event for the World Games in Birmingham.
“I know the consequence is going to be difficult for the people who are spending tons of money to get players,” Saban said on Wednesday night (via AL.com). “You read about it, you know who they are. We were second in recruiting last year. A&M was first. A&M bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, image and likeness.
“We didn’t buy one player. A’ight? But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”
Watch the entire answer that Saban delivered and you’ll get an even deeper understanding as to why this wasn’t as simple as the Alabama coach wanting to call out his former assistant after the way in which he signed a historically loaded class:
If you’re an Alabama fan, you heard Saban’s comments and probably said “yeah, go get those cheaters, Coach!”
If you’re an A&M fan, you heard Saban’s comments and probably said, “yeah, of course he’s got a problem with Jimbo now.”
Honestly, though, it doesn’t really matter if Saban is right or wrong about A&M paying every player. It’s not like he and Fisher are about to go to court to get some sort of ruling on this. The lack of federal rules regarding NIL and the lack of enforcement from the NCAA into any sort of pay-for-play scenarios are why we’re here.
If we’re being honest, Saban and Fisher are both probably wrong to a certain extent. Saban saying A&M “bought” every single player it signed implies that Fisher was like a bidder at an auction doing something illegal. At the same time, Fisher denying that NIL played any sort of impact on signing the highest-rated class of all-time in the first NIL recruiting cycle implies that Saban is wrong.
This isn’t a micro issue here. Even if there’s a part of Saban that’s bitter about losing to Fisher on the field and on the recruiting trail, this isn’t just sour grapes, despite what Fisher said in response to that claim (more on that later). The macro issue that Saban addressed — albeit in petty fashion — is with enforcement.
Saban’s gripe is that there’s nothing stopping programs from offering guaranteed contracts before recruits arrive on campus. In that 7-minute answer, Saban said there were 25 players on Alabama’s roster who made a total of $3 million off NIL last season. We can’t fact-check that, nor can we fact-check his claim that every single player who signed at Alabama had to earn their NIL opportunities upon arrival.
Well, let me back up. In Saban’s world, he’s saying he would welcome an actual enforcement group to investigate how his program used NIL compared to how A&M or even co-Aflac spokesperson Deion Sanders perhaps used NIL money to sign No. 1 overall recruit Travis Hunter at Jackson State (Sanders called Saban’s claim a lie).
Would Saban welcome an enforcement group to investigate a claim that all of his players got Dodge Chargers throughout the 2010s when he signed No. 1 classes in 8 of the 10 years? There’s nobody to fact-check that, either.
For what it’s worth, Saban is pro-NIL. Watch the 7-minute answer and you’ll hear why he has no problem with players monetizing their value to work, and he advocated for businesses to help support the program. He’s even pro-collective … but only if it’s an equal system.
“I told our players that we’re gonna have a collective, but everybody’s gonna get the same amount of money from that collective. Now you can go earn however much you want, and I tell the recruits the same thing,” Saban said on Wednesday. “Because our job is not to buy you to come to school here.”
Saban repeated the words “I don’t know how you sustain a model like that.” That’s his macro gripe.
And no matter what side of the argument you’re on in all of this, let’s remember the dynamics at play. It’s not just that Saban recruited better than anyone on the planet for the past decade-plus. It’s that he won more than anyone on the planet. So now, after having more recruiting and on-field success than we’ve ever seen in college football in the modern era, he feels that his advantage is being diminished because of this alleged shortcut of guaranteed money.
Like, imagine a 17-year-old kid walking into Saban’s offense and saying, “hey, I know you’re the G.O.A.T., you basically go to the title game every year and you put more guys in the NFL than anybody on planet earth. But A&M just ponied up and I can’t turn that down.”
(Relax, A&M fans. I’m not saying that’s exactly how Fisher signed every recruit. I’m saying this is how Saban sees it.)
Saban doesn’t have an answer for that. If it’s as simple as guaranteed money, that’s a trump card that no amount of rings can overcome. From the sound of it, Saban knows that. It’s sort of irrelevant whether you, reader of this column, believe that Alabama has been paying players long before NIL. What’s undeniable is that there’s never been more money available to players, and there’s no real way to monitor it.
Whether you believe Saban is standing up for morals and the integrity of the sport, it’s clear that he feels like his stranglehold on the sport’s recruiting trail will continue to lessen unless he buys into a pay-for-play philosophy or we see FBS break away from the NCAA and form its new enforcement group. Saban seems to be advocating more for the latter. That is, until he feels like he has no choice but to sign up for the headache he believes Fisher created.
Many will say, “Who cares? Adapt or die, Nick.”
The irony is that nobody in the sport has done that better than Saban, which is also why he’s not gonna get a lick of sympathy for his scorched earth comments. If anything, Saban will continue to get a Dabo Swinney-like reaction.
He doesn’t care. Lord knows he probably didn’t care that Fisher took to the podium to tee off on the Alabama coach and deny any sort of wrongdoing. A&M fans will defend their guy and Alabama fans will defend theirs.
Well, let’s back up again. A&M fans will use this in pump-up videos from now until the end of time:
JIMBO FISHER RESPONDS TO NICK SABAN’S NIL ACCUSATIONS 😳🗣
(via @AggieFootball) pic.twitter.com/QyslIdo3Fz
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 19, 2022
Fisher called what Saban said “despicable” and claimed that he was a “narcissist” who was upset that he didn’t get his way. Does it matter if Fisher is right? No, though he absolutely won some points in the court of public opinion.
What’s crazy is that Fisher, in the midst of his own scorched earth comments, actually agreed with Saban on one thing. They both want some sort of federal guidelines. Fisher maintained that he didn’t break any rules or laws in the state of Texas.
Clearly, the 2 coaches at the top of the recruiting world have been driven past the point of being politically correct. Fisher said he turned down a call from Saban and that “we’re done” addressing the matter.
Call me crazy, but it feels like this fight is far from over. Who knows if we’re about to get any sort of resolution to this from the federal government, or if the issue of making players “employees” will forever be a stopgap.
Whatever the case, this heavyweight fight feels a touch different than a long weekend on Gasparilla Island.