There are few things that get a wealthy, powerful man more incensed than to hear someone question his integrity. If you’re into watching someone like that lose his cool, Texas A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher’s press conference on Thursday morning—which was arranged, hastily, in response to comments made Wednesday evening by Alabama coach Nick Saban that “A&M bought every player on their team”—was appointment viewing.
Saban’s accusation was incendiary because he named Fisher’s program (along with Deion Sanders’s program at Jackson State), but the substance of Saban’s gripe was mostly just a finger-wag at how new NCAA rules allowing players to profit from name, image, and likeness rights (NIL) have changed recruiting and at the schools he believes have most aggressively taken advantage of the opportunity to help players earn money from their on-field labor. From Saban’s perspective, it makes sense why college football’s new and unpredictable landscape bums him out: he’s great at recruiting in an environment in which the only thing a player stands to earn is the chance to play for Nick Saban. (Saban’s short-lived NFL tenure with the Miami Dolphins, where his recruiting advantage meant nothing to professional athletes, is a testament to that.)
Fisher, on the other hand, responded to Saban’s lament the way John Wick reacted when those Russian goons killed his dog: with wild, disproportionate fury. Fisher’s performance at Thursday’s press conference was a ten-minute diss track aimed squarely at the sainted Saban. He accused Saban of attacking the integrity of his players; in the process, Fisher portrayed himself as the shield protecting the teenage boys who would soon spend their Saturdays playing for the Aggies, even though, uh, that’s not what Saban said. Fisher called the Alabama coach “despicable” and a “narcissist” who, he heavily implied, built his program into a juggernaut through methods that Saban would prefer no one know about.
What did Fisher mean, exactly? Is it true? Who knows! That’s the glory of a true, top-blowing, steam-pouring-from-the-ears, “how dare you impugn my honor, sir” rant. Jimbo’s feelings were hurt, and he lashed out, making nonspecific claims intended to hurt Saban’s feelings in retaliation.
If it all sounds childish, it definitely is—and Fisher has been acting like a child every time someone wonders what A&M did to land its tops-in-the-nation 2022 recruiting class. In February, after a pseudonymous poster on an Oklahoma football message board claimed that the Aggies coaches directed boosters to arrange $30 million in NIL deals for incoming prospects, Fisher called out by name SlicedBread, the handle of the user, an example of a thin-skinned coach punching down so low that he needs a shovel to get there.
Doth Fisher protest too much, on his way to fielding a team that—through solely legal means, he stressed during his press conference—might finally allow A&M to overtake Saban’s Crimson Tide as the class of the SEC? Maybe! The introduction of NIL rights to college sports has certainly created a seismic shift in how athletes are recruited. Whether the new reality is as shady as Saban implies or is consistent with the letter and spirit of the rule, NIL will certainly transform college football in ways that erode some of Saban’s long-standing advantages. It could also absolutely provide a boost to a program like A&M, where any four-star recruit could enjoy a time as the face of car dealerships or doughnut shops in the Bryan–College Station metro area.
One of the more telling aspects of the Saban-Fisher spat is that it doesn’t actually matter. It’s just for fun, a grab-the-popcorn moment in which the stakes are all about which $85 million coach might or might not be violating arbitrary rules that the NCAA threw together on the fly after the Supreme Court found that the previous way of doing business violated the rights of players (which anyone who pays attention to the business of college sports already understood).
When Jimbo Fisher complained in 2014, during his time at Florida State, about his “reputation taking a hit” over his backing of quarterback Jameis Winston, who had been accused of sexual assault, the stakes mattered. His lashing out reflected poorly on him because it ignored the woman who had accused his quarterback. When Fisher declared that Winston had “done nothing wrong,” he effectively called her a liar. (Saban, a year later, reacted similarly to allegations of abuse against an Alabama player.)
There’s no real harm being done by the nonsense Fisher and Saban are bickering over, though, which makes this college sports controversy downright refreshing. It’s just a couple of high-income adult men with bruised egos holding press conferences to call each other names. If you’re as addicted to drama as we are, it’s nice to have a chance to watch these fellas act like children when there’s nothing more important at stake.