The date is Oct. 8. Texas A&M at Alabama. Circle it in red.
Hell, circle it in blood. This has immediately escalated into the most bitter rivalry of 2022—if not ever.
In a jaw-dropping 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 their team,” and Fisher responded with scorched-earth fury. In a hastily arranged press conference, Fisher called his former boss’s comments “despicable,” labeled Saban “a narcissist” who “thinks he’s God,” overtly and repeatedly questioned Saban’s ethics and rules compliance and suggested somebody should have “slapped him” upside the head as a child.
He did everything but mobilize the A&M Corps of Cadets to march on Tuscaloosa.
Last year, Fisher (left) became the first former Saban assistant to beat the Alabama coach.
Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/USA TODAY Network
I’ve been covering college football for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. The comments—especially those from Fisher—were the stuff of a WWE script. College coaches tend to talk a lot off the record about who is breaking rules, or in vague generalities on the record—here were two national championship coaches very publicly Going There on each other. They violated the Mutually Assured Destruction credo that has long existed in a sport where everyone is likely cheating: coaches could all take down each other, which helped enforce a collective silence because the retaliatory strikes could be devastating to whoever launches first.
Well, forget that. Suddenly, the nuclear option has been deployed.
Wednesday night, Saban directly went after A&M for exploiting the current name, image and likeness landscape to offer recruiting inducements to players, which is against NCAA rules—and Texas state law, per Fisher. And then in response Thursday morning, Fisher all but dared the greatest coach in college football history to take it outside and settle this with their fists.
Fisher and Saban will have to share airspace and meeting space as soon as May 31, when the Southeastern Conference spring meetings take place in Destin, Fla. Fisher was asked about that and shrugged off the potential awkwardness. If they build a temporary octagon at the Sandestin Hilton, Fisher is ready to step in.
“I don’t mind confrontation,” he said. “Lived with it my whole life. Kind of like it, personally.”
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 that was just for show more than reality, but the league put a high priority on it. Professional decorum and esprit de corps were expected, at least when people were watching.
Now Sankey has a full-fledged war on his hands, the likes of which we’ve never seen.
While this scores incredibly high on the Titillating Entertainment Scale, it also dumps several tons of coal into the SEC’s out-of-control, by-any-means-necessary football furnace. The league’s reputation precedes itself, but now it just became much more real. Everything the outside world has ever suspected about the SEC suddenly has greater credence—because one prominent coach in the league all but publicly declared that the GOAT is a cheater.
Consider what dropped in Sankey’s lap in a matter of hours: Saban went off without specifics or evidence, to which Fisher insisted, “I don’t cheat and I don’t lie,” and that Texas A&M is playing by the rules. But then Fisher did much the same to Saban, suggesting—over and over and over—that there are some shady dealings with Saban and everyone who worked for him knows it.
The problem with that assertion is this: Fisher is one of those who worked for Saban. Instead of casting vague (but forceful) aspersions, he could offer something more concrete. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the NCAA isn’t on the phone with him before this column is even published to ask for a sit-down to discuss that very subject.
This is a credibility hit for university presidents in the league who want to be taken seriously for something other than winning football games on Saturdays. Many SEC schools have worked hard to raise their academic profiles—and to attract students from outside their geographic footprint, for pricy tuition costs—and now the place is embroiled in a front-porch feud. (By the way, those presidents will be in Destin, too, and it would stand to reason they want some answers about how the SEC is going to emerge from this fussin’ and fightin’ with some semblance of dignity.)
Ultimately, this is the most football-centric area of college athletics reaching a boiling point over the new era of player compensation. It’s a tumultuous time, and while the sport will power through it in some form or fashion, confidence in the governance structures is at a crisis point.
Saban is arguably the smartest, most strategic and most calculating man in his profession. When in the mood, he will expound thoughtfully on issues within his sport. But mostly, he’s a competitor. That’s important to remember here.
The key phrase from 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. This is a matter of competitive disadvantage.
Saban’s Tide are coming off a national championship loss to Georgia.
Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports
The world has changed quickly around the 70-year-old Saban, with the alleged “guardrails” of NCAA compliance in the new NIL Era either flimsily constructed or wholly ignored. Alabama, which has been an industry leader in things like facilities and staffing and salaries, is not at the forefront of the booster collective frontier. Whether that’s an intentional decision to play by a presumption of what the rules were supposed to be or a reluctance of its boosters to embrace the current climate, I don’t know. Perhaps a combination of the two.
But while Alabama is navigating the new terrain at one pace, others are hurtling ahead at warp speed with big offers. Texas A&M is among that group, although Fisher took offense back in February to assumptions that the Aggies bought their way to the top of the 2022 recruiting rankings: “To me it’s insulting to the players that we recruited that that’s why they would come here. You ever been to a game here? You ever come to school here and see the education? You ever talk about the 12th Man and the Aggie network when you’re done? There ain’t a better university in this country.”
Feel free to roll your eyes at Fisher’s protestations of innocence. And at Saban’s concern for the sport, for that matter. Was the Crimson Tide program built to superpower status without benefit of pre-NIL recruiting inducements? Make up your own mind on that one, but understand that the underground economy was humming for decades in college football before paying players went NCAA-legal last July 1.
“My dad always said, ‘If someone shows you who they are, believe them,’” Fisher said at one point in his screed. “[Saban] is showing you who he is.”
In an eye-popping flurry, Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher showed everyone what the SEC is—a buck-wild, bare-knuckles conference that is becoming a caricature of itself. It just means more, indeed. More acrimony. Greg Sankey has some work to do between now and Destin to avoid a brawl by the beach.
More Saban/Fisher Coverage:
• Lane Kiffin Reacts to Fisher Blasting Saban• Fisher on Saban: ‘Maybe Somebody Should Have Slapped Him’• CFB Twitter Reacts to Fisher, Saban Drama