The verbal haymakers exchanged between Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher over the past 24 hours is best summed up as the most appropriate soundtrack for 2022.
The tournament focused on the most volatile issue of the year – the ambiguity surrounding the rules and enforcement of names, images and likenesses. They included programs that are expected to be two of the season’s headliners as both Alabama and Texas A&M will be the top 5 teams of preseason. And, perhaps most importantly, the dueling former staffers shed light on the cold reality of college athletics in 2022 — there are few rules and absolutely no one enforcing them.
While this argument will surely reverberate loudly until both teams play in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 8, it also throws well beyond that. It’s a glimpse into the future of a sport with little leadership, rules bathed in gray and no governing body capable or respected enough to enforce them. In many ways, the bickering has only just begun.
“All of this shenanigans underscores how powerless the NCAA is and has been,” a veteran assistant coach told ESPN Thursday afternoon. “It’s like two cartels pointing fingers at each other.”
From the SEC conference sessions in Destin at the end of the month through media days in July and until both teams hit the field this fall, Saban vs. Fisher will resonate as the sport’s juiciest field story.
It also shows where the sport is going. And where many like Saban don’t want it to go, with NIL power trumping tradition, purchasing power resonating as a new recruiting muscle and perhaps a new recruiting prism, where a player “buying” program, as Saban accused Texas A&M, in fact, is viewed as savvy rather than unsavory.
To sum up the verbal kerfuffle, Saban said in a speech Wednesday that Texas A&M “bought every player” in its highly regarded 2022 recruiting class. His old assistant, Fisher, held nothing back, including claiming that “someone should have hit Saban.”
In a nearly 10-minute press conference tailored for Finebaum, Fisher called Saban a “narcissist” and essentially accused him of paying players the memorable insult over the years: “Look how God made his deal.” has.” Yes, he said that at a press conference.
As Finebaum himself noted during his SEC Network show Thursday, Fisher used the word “despicable” 15 times in his tirade. Fisher was so emotional, so passionate, and so insulting, it was reminiscent of Hamlet’s old phrase, “I protest too much, I think.”
Texas A&M athletic director Ross Björk ran a 4.33 40-yard dash to the nearest mic to show support for the A&M fan base. On a day of ridiculous volleys, Björk claims sports illustrated that Saban was “threatened” and comparing him to an “emperor losing his dynasty” were perhaps most amusing. We will see. And scoreboards will intensify.
Texas A&M has not won a conference title since 1998 and finished last season 8-4, losing to Arkansas, Mississippi State and a historically poor LSU team that had already fired its coach. They beat Alabama, which is where part of the institutional chest comes from. But Texas A&M should probably make the SEC championship game at some point, which it hasn’t since joining the league in 2012 before crashing with all the chatter of the Empire.
Meanwhile, all of college football giggled along, throwing around enough texted exclamation marks, popcorn emojis, and belly laughs to seemingly send Apple stock back higher. It was WWE rhetoric meets SEC passion, and the result was a clash of raw emotion and a lack of confidence so violent it seemed to stem from some sort of SEC fever dream.
Where is all this taking us? Aside from the simple jokes that play off the SEC’s slogan that it just means more…storylines. Well, here’s the safest prediction – expect more trainers to unleash their true feelings. The landscape is lawless, the sheriff in Indianapolis has resigned and everyone is fraying at the edges. Simply put, today is a reminder that there is no one policing the NIL world and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s verbal slap in the face is certainly not going to stop anyone.
“I think there’s more to come,” said a veteran head coach. “There is a chaos vacuum. The vacuum will always be filled with something. Chaos was created. Each of us can talk for hours about the problems it caused.”
Could Saban, 70, have tipped his hand that he will follow Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams into the pasture of NIL’s ambivalent legends? That’s doubtful. He’s a cyborg and he will adapt. Just as he complained about speeding offenses, then went and essentially built the best.
While the Alabama dynasty is not in immediate danger, one of the windows is opening on what the sport could be like if NIL really leads the way in recruitment going forward. While there are purported regulations and purported efforts to enforce them, the reality on the landscape is that there is so little confidence in NCAA enforcement that the wealthiest schools will pay for the best players. What is still legal and illegal anyway?
If A&M had been smarter and less emotional, they would have listened to Saban’s comments and taken them as a compliment for managing to build a better system. They could have subtly taunted Alabama for being behind the times and for the Saban and Alabama government being too slow on the draw to keep up with their NIL capability.
Instead, Texas A&M got defensive, corrosive and, well, glorious. They were generous enough to take a week’s worth of storylines and turn them into an entire season’s worth. They haven’t thrown a tantrum like this since the SEC accepted Texas into the league. And it was all so real and entertaining.
The soundtrack of the 2022 season started with a slap in the face. It will reverberate through the fall and well beyond until final rules are in place and those responsible are competent enough to enforce them.