SEC spat: Fisher, Saban exchange accusations over NIL deals
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By RALPH D. RUSSO
The Southeastern Conference spring meetings will be held in person for the first time since 2019 in a little less than two weeks.
It is unlikely two of the league's superstar coaches will be chumming around Destin, Florida, together.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher called Nick Saban a "narcissist" on Thursday after the Alabama coach accused the rival Aggies of using name, image and likeness deals to land their top-ranked recruiting classes. Saban apologized a few hours later but generally stuck to his stance and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey followed soon after with a public reprimand for both.
So much for a quiet offseason.
The public spat is perhaps the ugliest display of the growing angst among college coaches who are wrestling with two big changes: the NIL compensation era that launched last July and its impact on recruiting, and the ease with which players can now transfer. Both have upset the landscape veteran coaches are used to, leading to complaints and now scathing accusations.
Less than 24 hours after Saban said Texas A&M was essentially "buying" players, Fisher called an impromptu news conference to blast college football's most accomplished coach and his former boss at LSU.
"It's despicable that a reputable head coach can come out and say this when he doesn't get his way or things don't go his way," Fisher said in College Station, Texas. "The narcissist in him doesn't allow those things to happen - it's ridiculous - when he's not on top. And the parity in college football he's been talking about? Go talk to coaches who have coached for him. You'll find out all the parity. Go dig into wherever he's been."
Texas A&M had the consensus No. 1 recruiting class in the country for 2022 after beating Alabama during the regular season. The Tide's class was No. 2. In his session with reporters, which lasted about 10 minutes, Fisher declared: "We never bought anybody, no rules are broken. Nothing was done wrong."
Saban said he has reached out to Fisher but "never got a response." He apologized for singling anybody out but stood by the gist of his message about booster-backed collectives helping to recruit players.
"I feel bad about it. But I'm not changing my philosophy," Saban said on SiriusXM radio. "I look at the betterment of college football. What is good for the game?"
When asked if he wanted to address the conflict with Fisher at the upcoming SEC meetings, Saban said he's hoping to work on big-picture issues.
"I really wasn't saying that anybody did anything illegal in using name, image and likeness," Saban said. "I didn't say that. That was something that was assumed by what I said, which was not really what I meant. Nor was it what I said. There's nothing illegal about doing this. It's the system that allows you to do it. And that's the issue that I have."
Sankey issued a "public reprimand" for both coaches, but acknowledged there's "tremendous frustration" about the lack of consistency in NIL rules in different states.
"The membership of the Southeastern Conference has established expectations for conduct and sportsmanship that were not met last night nor today," Sankey said.
The Crimson Tide lost to the Aggies in 2021, but went on to win the SEC championship and play for the national title. The Aggies finished 8-4 in their fourth season under Fisher, who, like Saban, is among the highest-paid coaches in the game at more than $9 million per season.
Saban, who has won six national championships at Alabana, another at LSU and is widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game, has called the current state of affairs unsustainable. At an event in Birmingham, Alabama, earlier this week he said some schools were spending "tons of money to get players."
"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," Saban said Wednesday night.
Fisher was an assistant under Saban in the early 2000s at LSU, working as offensive coordinator on the Tigers' 2003 national title team. That relationship appears to be badly damaged now.
"We're done," Fisher said. "He showed you who he is. He's the greatest ever, huh? When you got all the advantages, it's easy."
He said Saban's comments were insulting to Texas A&M and the families of the players who signed with the Aggies.
Texas A&M plays at Alabama on Oct. 8, but Fisher and Saban won't have to wait that long to cross paths with the SEC meetings just around the corner.
"I don't cheat. I don't lie. If you did my old man slapped me across the face. Maybe someone should have slapped him (Saban)," Fisher said.
The 56-year-old Fisher won a national championship in 2013 as head coach at Florida State before receiving a 10-year contract for $75 million to leave Tallahassee for Texas A&M in 2017. Fisher was hired to deliver a title to a program that has not won a national championship since 1939 despite its deep-pocketed boosters, resources and access to talent.
Aggies athletic director Ross Bjork echoed Fisher's defense of the program and said he believes some rivals might feel threatened that A&M is finally starting to put the pieces in place to reach its potential.
"So, why we're the target, is that a threat to the power system of college football? SEC? State of Texas?" he asked. "I don't know. You'd have to ask all the other people why they're talking about A&M so much."
The NCAA lifted most of its rules barring athletes from earning money from sponsorship and endorsement deals last July, but there are concerns among many in college sports that NIL deals are being used as recruiting inducements and de facto pay-for-play. Last week, the NCAA issued guidance to Division I members to clarify rules against boosters being involved in recruiting.
This was the second time this year Fisher issued a fiery public defense of his program. In February, he went off on competitors who were pushing rumors that Texas A&M had spent $30 million on NIL deals to secure one the highest-rated recruiting classes in history.
The 70-year-old Saban didn't stop at just Texas A&M during is speaking engagement Wednesday night. He also mentioned Jackson State and Miami in his critique of NIL.
Jackson State coach Deion Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, landed one of the top recruits in the country in cornerback Travis Hunter, who had been committed to Florida State until a signing-day flip in December.
Sanders has denied Hunter received any impermissible deals before signing and told Andscape.com that he would like to have a public conversation with Saban about the accusations.
"I still love him. I admire him. I respect him. He's the magna cum laude of college football and that's what it's going to be because he's earned that," Sanders said. "But he took a left when he should've stayed right. I'm sure he'll get back on course. I ain't tripping."
As for Fisher, he said he's looking forward to the Destin meetings.
"I don't mind confrontation. Lived with it my whole life," Fisher said. "Kind of like it myself. Backing away from it isn't the way I was raised."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com
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Updated May 20, 2022