Nick Saban can take the occasional loss on the football field.
One of the more admirable things about Saban is how much credit he gives his opponent after a loss. He rarely bitches about a loss or calls out officials, and he has lost three national championship games (to Georgia last season and to Clemson in the 2018 and 2016 seasons) at Alabama around the six national title wins there with another one at LSU.
But apparently, he does not like getting beat in recruiting, which led to the above 10 championship games he was in. Especially when he was following the rules.
“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” Saban once cracked on a golf course decades ago. Yes, he was kidding, and he might have been talking about golf. But he could’ve been speaking generally, and there is usually some truth in a joke.
Saban has been a college football coach since 1973 at Kent State with stops at Ohio State, West Virginia and Michigan State and a head coach in college or the NFL since 1995 with stops at Michigan State and LSU before Alabama. At most of the schools he has coached, one has to at least push the envelope or use envelopes of cash to recruit well.. All the major programs, and some not so major, have done it since early in the 20th century.
Amazingly as long as Saban has been a coach and as long as he has been routinely churning out national titles since 2003, he has never been in a major recruiting scandal anywhere. There was academic fraud at LSU that he mostly inherited, and there was a textbook scandal at Alabama. But nothing major.
Unlike, say former LSU basketball coach Will Wade, if Saban has been cheating, he knows how to do it as the best and brightest ones have known for decades – don’t be directly involved like Wade, don’t talk or brag about it anywhere, particularly on a phone, like Wade, don’t be ridiculously obvious like Wade, and always delegate for deniability, like Wade did not do.
Whether he did or not, Saban could also have long been following the fake-it-until-you-make-it philosophy. But Saban made it so long ago that he really hasn’t had to cheat that much – if he did – in recent years at Alabama after getting the Tide rolling immediately in his second year in 2008.
As much of a dynasty as Alabama has been under him, Saban didn’t need to tamper with wide receiver Tyler Harrell from an average program like Louisville to get him to transfer recently, and it would be hard to believe if he did.
Saban can also read. And he read the few rules around the new Name, Image and Likeness movement last summer as that national, legal money laundering process entered college football covertly, not unlike the Byrdes entry into Arkansas in “Ozark,” following a Supreme Court ruling.
When NIL first started last summer, the NCAA clearly stated interim rules about it:
“When recruiting a prospective student-athlete, a coach may share what NIL deals other previous members of the team have closed and how the institution has helped student-athletes maximize their NIL earning potential. However, coaches canot guarantee NIL deals to a prospect without violating the NCAA’s interim policy.”
Texas A&M and football coach Jimbo Fisher, it is believed as common knowledge, either didn’t read that rule or ignored it. He also must have overlooked or ignored what NCAA Division II presidents council chairman Sandra Jordan said last June.
“The new policy preserves the fact that college sports are not pay-for-play, she said. Or maybe she was just wishful speaking. And hey, she is in Division II.
NIL deals were flowing like legal free meals to Aggie recruits on official visits over the last cycle – so the story goes and most believe – as Fisher put together what 247Sports called the greatest signing class in history. It was a consensus No. 1 class with 20 4-star prospects and six 5-stars – the most in either category.
Alabama finished No. 2, and that may have really made Saban mad as it may have been the last straw in his mind.
From Saban’s first full recruiting year of 2007 at Alabama, the Tide finished No. 1 in the Rivals.com rankings eight times from 2008 through 2017. But Bama has just one No. 1 (in 2021) since 2018 with Georgia taking the top spot in 2019 and ’20. Georgia just beat Alabama in the national title game last season after Saban lost two of those to Clemson. Now A&M!
Does Saban fear that A&M will join Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney as gunslingers shooting him down – or taking over.
“A&M bought every player,” Saban said Wednesday night in Birmingham, Alabama, at a speaking engagement to area business leaders. “Made a deal for Name, Image and Likeness.”
Alabama has NIL deals, too, but Saban insists those only happened after the players were signed and in the process of getting into school.
“We didn’t buy one player,” he said. But he may not be counting LSU transfer cornerback Eli Ricks, who switched over to the Tide after last season because – some say – he wanted more out of his NIL deal than LSU was putting together.
Then Saban, and this has been largely overlooked, basically said, if he can’t beat his old friend Fisher, join him.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future,” he said. “Because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”
Interesting that Saban would say that in front of 100 business leaders, including many who could join the NIL game at Alabama if they have not already.
The NCAA recently said about the same thing Saban just did.
“Some things look very much like pay-for-play,” sports attorney Maddi Salamone said in an Associated Press story on May 11.
“The fact that the NCAA has been hesitant to enforce anything I think has emboldened a lot of people around this issue to be a little bit more obvious,” Salamone said.
Call Jimbo Fisher, Captain Obvious.
The NCAA did say this month that its enforcement staff will be looking for possible violations that might have occurred before May 9 of this year and to “pursue those actions that clearly are contrary to the published interim policy (see above), including the most severe violations of recruiting rules or payment for athletic performance.”
Texas A&M was not in that statement, but you could almost see an A and a M between the lines. It appears Saban fears Fisher’s recruiting more than he respects what the NCAA may do to Texas A&M.
And this friendship between two West Virginia natives who have similar philosophies on coaching, manic work ethic – and recruiting, by the way – appears over for now.
“We never bought anybody, no rules were broken, nothing was done wrong,” Fisher said at a press conference called for him to react to Saban’s comments. “It’s despicable that a reputable head coach can come out and say this when he doesn’t get his way. The narcissist in him doesn’t allow those things to happen, and it’s ridiculous when he’s not on top. Go dig into where he’s been.”
In Fisher’s defense, he was recruiting pretty well at A&M before NIL. He did have the No. 4 class in 2019, a No. 6 class in 2020 and a No. 7 in 2021.
And whether he pushed NIL deals on his recruits or not for the 2022 class, he probably pushed the fact that he became the first assistant coach of Saban to beat him as a head coach when the Aggies upset Alabama last season.
“I don’t cheat, and I don’t lie,” Fisher said. “I learned that when I was kid, if you did, the old man slapped you upside the head. Maybe somebody should have slapped him.”
Fisher said Saban called him Thursday.
“Oh, he’s called. We’re done,” he said.
That would mean Fisher lost one of his friends in high places.
“Some people think they’re God,” Fisher said. “Go dig into how God did his deal, and you may find things out about a guy you didn’t want to know. We build him up to be the czar of football. Go dig into his past or anybody that’s ever coached with him.”
Well, that would include you, Jimbo.
Saban will be 71 next Halloween. Would this be a good time to retire?
Probably not. Saban sounded like a 40-year-old coach Wednesday night. His competitive juices seem to be flowing as potently as ever.
But he better be ready if he bumps into Jimbo Fisher in the hotel lobby at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida, in two weeks. I see a run on media credentials for that today.
Game on! And we’ll also see you all in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 8.