The verbal haymakers exchanged by Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher the past 24 hours can best be summed up as the most appropriate possible soundtrack for 2022.
The joust centered around the year’s most volatile issue — ambiguity around Name, Image and Likeness rules and enforcement. They involved programs expected to be two of the season’s headliners, as both Alabama and Texas A&M are locks to be preseason top 5 teams. And, perhaps most important, the dueling former co-workers illuminated the cold reality of college athletics in 2022 – there are few rules and absolutely no one to enforce them.
While this tiff will surely reverberate loudly until both teams play in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 8, it also casts well beyond that. It’s a look at the future of a sport with little leadership, rules bathed in gray and no governing body that’s capable or respected enough to enforce them. In many ways, the bickering has just begun.
“These entire shenanigans emphasize how impotent the NCAA is and has been,” one veteran assistant coach told ESPN on Thursday afternoon. “It’s like two cartels pointing their fingers at each other.”
From SEC conference meetings in Destin at the end of the month to media days in July, and until both teams play on the field this fall, Saban vs. Fisher is going to resonate as the juiciest on-field story in the sport.
It’s also illustrative of where the sport is going. And where many like Saban don’t want it to go, with NIL power trumping tradition, buying power resonating as the new recruiting muscle and perhaps a new recruiting prism where a program “buying” players, as Saban accused Texas A&M of, is actually thought of as savvy more than unsavory.
To recap the verbal kerfuffle, Saban said in a speaking engagement on Wednesday that Texas A&M “bought every player” in its highly regarded 2022 recruiting class. His old assistant, Fisher, held nothing back in response, including suggesting that “somebody should have slapped” Saban.
In a made-for-Finebaum shotgun press conference that lasted nearly 10 minutes, Fisher called Saban a “narcissist” and essentially accused him of paying players over the years with the memorable insult: “Go look into how God did his deal.” Yes, he said that at a press conference.
As Finebaum himself noted during his SEC Network show on Thursday, Fisher used the word “despicable” 15 times in his rant. Fisher was so emotional, so passionate and so insulting that it brought to mind the old line from Hamlet about “doth protest too much, methinks.”
Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork ran a 4.33 40-yard dash to the nearest microphone to pander to the A&M fan base. In a day of ridiculous salvos, Bjork asserting to Sports Illustrated that Saban was “threatened” and comparing him to an “emperor who loses their dynasty” were perhaps the most amusing. Time will tell. And scoreboards will amplify.
Texas A&M hasn’t won a conference title since 1998 and finished last season 8-4, with losses to Arkansas, Mississippi State and a historically bad LSU team that had already fired their coach. They did beat Alabama, which is where some of the institutional chestiness comes from. But Texas A&M should probably reach the SEC championship game at some point, which it has failed to do since joining the league in 2012, before chirping with all the empire toppling chatter.
Meanwhile, all of college football giggled along, tossing around enough texted exclamation points, popcorn emojis and belly laughs to seemingly send Apple stock back upward. It was WWE rhetoric meets SEC passion, and the result was such a violent collision of raw emotion and a lack of self-awareness that it seemingly came from some type of SEC fever dream.
Where does this all lead us? Other than to the easy jokes playing off the SEC’s slogan that it just means more … storylines. Well, here’s the safest prediction — expect more coaches to unload their true feelings. The landscape is lawless, the sheriff in Indianapolis has abandoned his post and everyone is fraying at the edges. Simply put, today is a reminder that there’s no one to police the NIL world, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s verbal hand slap certainly isn’t going to stop anyone.
“I think there’s more to come,” one veteran head coach said. “There’s a chaos vacuum. The vacuum is always going to fill with something. Chaos has been created. Any one of us can go on for hours about the issues it has created.”
Could Saban, 70, have been tipping his hand that he’ll be following Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams out to the pasture of NIL ambivalent legends? That’s doubtful. He’s a cyborg, and he’ll adjust. Just like he complained about tempo offenses being too fast, then went and essentially built the best one.
While the Alabama dynasty isn’t in imminent peril, one of the windows this opens is to what the sport could look like if NIL truly does lead the way in recruiting in the future. While there’s alleged regulations and supposed efforts to enforce them, the reality on the landscape is there’s so little faith in NCAA enforcement that the richest schools will pay for the best players. What even is legal and illegal anymore?
If A&M had been savvier and less emotional, they’d have dunked on Saban’s comments and taken them as a compliment that they’ve managed to build a better system. They could have subtly mocked Alabama for being behind the times and Saban and Alabama’s administration being too slow on the draw to keep up with their NIL prowess.
Instead, Texas A&M got defensive, catty and, well, glorious. They were generous enough to take a week of storylines and turn them into a full season’s worth. They haven’t thrown a tantrum like this since the SEC let Texas into the league. And it was all so real and entertaining.
The soundtrack of the 2022 season has begun with a slap. It will echo on through the fall and well beyond, until there’s definitive rules and folks in charge competent enough to enforce them.