Now that the tornado of dust whipped up by that Jimbo Fisher press conference has somewhat settled (don’t worry, there’s still plenty of other kinds of dust still floating around), the reality of what just happened is setting in. As thrilling as it was to watch adult men worth millions get up in front of a camera and publicly shit on each other to an extent not seen in a long time in this sport, the fun is going to end soon. There are about to be some very real consequences — the NCAA, president-less though it may be, is not going to let accusations like these slide.
Nick Saban seems to recognize this, as he walked back his comments in part following Thursday’s backlash from Jimbo Fisher and Deion Sanders after the Alabama coach essentially accused them of “buying” their players through the NIL. While he wasn’t necessarily implying that they were breaking any actual rules, it was certainly a shot at their recruiting abilities, and it broke the fragile decorum, false as it was, that was surrounding the new era of the sport.
Within the borders of that decorum, coaches could spout off as much as they felt like it on what they thought should be legislated about NIL, lamenting about the transfer portal and the changing nature of college football. But to call out a specific name or program and accuse them of using NIL to an advantage somehow unavailable to other schools crossed a line. Knowing Jimbo’s temper, I can’t imagine Saban thought this through before he said it. Because now his rival and former assistant has blown everything up.
On Thursday, Saban stood behind his disdain at the state of NIL and his criticism of the system, but admitted he was wrong to single out certain schools. No shit, dude. You singled out two of the most reactive coaches in the sport (Jackson State’s Deion Sanders was also called out by name in the initial comments). Though he didn’t explicitly say they were breaking the rules, he implied that they were breaking the code. And with the code broken by the biggest name in the sport, there’s no longer any gentlemen’s agreement, no matter how tense it was when it existed. At least it existed.
Saban and Fisher are now both facing reprimands from the SEC, but the damage is done. Fisher told the world that, while he and other current head coaches were working under Saban, who has the largest active coaching tree in the sport, Alabama was breaking NCAA recruiting rules. That is one of the most damning accusations you can face in this sport. What if they do choose to investigate? How many coaches still on the sidelines throughout the country will be facing down consequences? How will Alabama’s legacy and national championships overcome these kinds of violations? And we’re not just talking about Alabama here — if these coaches are everywhere, and if it was, in fact, an open secret that everyone was sort of breaking the rules and not talking about it, this is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb to the sport.
Lane Kiffin has been chilling out with his popcorn, watching it all go down. Gus Malzahn is getting his jokes off on Twitter. Brian Kelly is getting quite the introduction to conference life. Greg Sankey just lost about five years off his life in the past 24 hours as he tries to stamp out a wildfire, barring the rest of the SEC coaches from talking to the media for the time being (although The Athletic got a few great quotes from Kiffin before the ban went into place, much to the rest of the world’s delight).
As former SEC football players have taken to Twitter to confirm that their friends or even they themselves were given things like cars and offered cash during their recruiting periods, the ever-weakened NCAA finds itself in a massive conundrum.
To address the problem that has been at hand — their issues with how players and schools are choosing to take advantage of NIL opportunities — or to use their limited investigative resources to go after Saban and Alabama, as well as the rest of the powerful coaches, who could be implicated if they were to find anything? While Thursday was obviously the result of a longstanding personal feud boiling over, Fisher’s comments can’t exactly be taken lightly by the press and the governing body, as he repeatedly told the gathered crowd to “dig into” Saban’s past.
If this blows over, it’ll be a miracle and a testament to Saban’s place in the sport — but if the NCAA was hoping to make an example out of Texas A&M on NIL stuff, they have quite the battle ahead of them. Fisher will go down with his ship and take anyone he can down with him, and Saban is first on that list. Jimbo may be done, but this is just getting started.