DESTIN, Florida – Alabama football coach Nick Saban, 70, and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, 56, grew up in West Virginia in Fairmont and Clarksburg, respectively – 14 years apart, but just 22 miles away.
Saban’s late father, Nick Saban Sr., owned a gas station and diner and coached Pop Warner youth football. Fisher’s late father, John James “Big Jim” Fisher, was a coal miner and farmer.
They both excelled in baseball – Saban played on Kent State’s team while on the football team. Fisher signed to play baseball at Clemson before transferring to Salem College in Salem, West Virginia, and later to Samford in Birmingham, Alabama, playing quarterback at both schools.
Saban also returned to his home state as an assistant football coach when he left Syracuse to coach at the West Virginia University in Morgantown.
They both played quarterback in high school – Saban at Monongah High, which he led to the state championship in 1968, and Fisher at Liberty High.
They both were assistant football coaches in Ohio – Saban at Kent State, Ohio State and with the Cleveland Browns and Fisher at the University of Cincinnati.
They both tend to be hot tempered, particularly on the football field as coaches, and in staff meetings. Their style has worked. They have nine national championships between them. Saban has seven as a head coach – six at Alabama and one at LSU. Fisher has one as a head coach at Florida State and one as Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU in the 2003 season.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward knows both very well. He was LSU’s director of external affairs in the chancellor’s office from 2000-04 when Saban and Fisher were both at LSU. As Texas A&M’s athletic director in 2017, he hired Fisher away from Florida State to be the Aggies’ head coach.
Woodward laughed when he read about the Saban-Fisher feud last month that started with Saban accusing A&M of buying “every player” in its 2022, No. 1-ranked signing class. Fisher fired back the next day, calling Saban “despicable” and questioning his recruiting record.
“You know, it’s just unfortunate because I like ‘em both,” Woodward said Wednesday night at the SEC Spring Meetings here. “And they shouldn’t have done it, and I think they know it. And they regret it.”
But Woodward still got a good laugh out of it all.
“That’s what you get when you get two West Virginia hillbillies, you know,” Woodward joked. “They can’t help themselves.”
Woodward knows about saucy behavior. He grew up around Cajuns in Baton Rouge and has been friends with James “Ragin’ Cajun” James Carville since both LSU graduates worked under Baton Rouge mayor Pat Screen in the 1980s.
“And they laughed about it,” Woodward said of Saban and Fisher, both of whom he has spoken with this week. “And hopefully it’s behind them. But it was unfortunate.”
LSU coach Brian Kelly, whom Woodward just hired from Notre Dame last December, said Saban apologized to all 13 other SEC football coaches as a group at a meeting here for calling out Texas A&M and thus Fisher last month.
Woodward, who has been in advisory roles with Saban and Fisher in the past, said he did not need to advise either one. Saban has now said at least three times publicly that he should not have singled out Texas A&M publicly. And Woodward said Fisher also feels as if he may have gone too far with his responses about Saban.
“I think he knew he did,” Woodward said. “I mean I didn’t have to tell him. I think he was contrite about it.”
Woodward said both Saban and Fisher were wrong.
“Look, you just don’t do those things,” he said. “In this day and age, it’s just not, in my opinion, what you do.”
The SEC Spring Meetings conclude on Friday.