Our Aggies and Longhorns may be two of college football’s biggest underachievers on the field, but they’ve somehow succeeded in scaring the sweet bejeezus out of the sport’s most accomplished coach. Nick Saban has worked himself into such a lather that he’s headed to Washington this week to urge legislators to take action before Texas A&M and Texas buy up all the national championships and destroy Saban’s precious sport.
Great coaches have the ability to look around corners and see potential threats before anyone else, and maybe Saban, who has led the University of Alabama to six national championships in the past thirteen seasons, sees something ominous coming around the bend. Although Texas and Texas A&M have been almost entirely out of the title picture for the last decade, both schools have some of the deepest pockets in the sport, with great facilities to show for it.
Maybe Saban has a point. Maybe he’s just whining. Either way, the Crimson Tide coach clearly needs to brush up on current events. For one thing, it’s not clear there is a legislative solution to prevent the wealthiest schools from throwing the most money at the best recruits via the NCAA’s rules that permit athletes to earn money by licensing their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights. Also, if lawmakers have proven unable or unwilling to tackle immigration, climate change, assault weapons, health care, and inflation, why would anyone think Congress would fast-track an NIL plan into law? Other than a photo op with his old rival, Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), Saban ought to know he’s wasting his time.
It’s more likely that when Mr. Saban goes to Washington, he’ll use the visit to restate the warnings he issued last week at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings, which were pretty much the same concerns he voiced last offseason, when he complained that Texas A&M had bought every single player in its top-ranked recruiting class. “The way Southern Cal, Texas, and Texas A&M are spending money,” Saban mused last week, “what are you willing to spend?”
He’s overlooking an assortment of other reasons that college football teams succeed or fail. Saban is correct about the potential threat posed by the schools with the most money buying all the best players and dominating the sport. But haven’t the Longhorns always had more advantages than other programs? At no time in recent history did Texas not have arguably the best facilities, largest crowds, most network television appearances, and a geographic advantage in Austin. Texas A&M joined the facilities arms race a bit later, but these days, no school in the country—not Texas, not Alabama—offers more in terms of facilities and a home-field advantage than what the Aggies have in College Station and Kyle Field.
Those advantages have not translated into the ultimate success on the field for the past decade because neither school has had a great head coach throughout many of those years. The Aggies believed they had their man when they made Jimbo Fisher one of the ten highest-paid coaches in the land in 2017, and he has stacked one elite recruiting class on top of another. But that has gotten the Aggies pretty much nothing. A&M has finished the season in the top ten of the Associated Press rankings once this century, in Fisher’s third season.
At the moment, the Aggies don’t even appear headed in the right direction after a 5–7 season that included a six-game losing streak and 31 players entering the transfer portal in search of greener pastures. Only Colorado (58), Ole Miss (33), and Oregon (32) have lost more players, according to On3.com. Texas A&M did land nine new players from the transfer portal, but of the 69 schools On3 ranked based on their performance, only Stanford was ranked lower than the Aggies. Perhaps the only thing that saved Fisher’s job last season was the $86.7 million remaining on his contract as of last December 1, according to USA Today.
He was lured away from Florida State in December 2017 with a ten-year, $75 million deal that made him the nation’s third-highest-paid coach, behind only Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. When the Aggies went 9–1 and finished number four in the Associated Press poll in 2020, A&M extended his contract by four years and bumped his annual salary from $7.5 million to $9 million. If the Aggies fall on their faces again in 2023, they’ll probably have to bite the bullet and pay $76.8 million to send Jimbo down the road.
Things haven’t been any better in Austin since Mack Brown was shown the door after the 2013 season. But the Longhorns are also a cautionary tale for Saban about what can happen when schools accumulate talent and finally do hire the right coach. Texas ended the season out of the Top 25 in ten of the sixteen seasons before Brown’s 1998 arrival and in eight of thirteen seasons since his dismissal. But he led a Longhorn football renaissance during his sixteen seasons in Austin, going 158–48.
Brown was wildly successful by any measuring stick, but in the seven seasons (2003–2009) in which Vince Young and Colt McCoy started at quarterback for the team, Texas went 75–10, won one national championship in 2005, played for another in 2009, and recorded five top-ten finishes. Texas has had just one top-ten finish in the last fourteen seasons, despite having more resources and better facilities than almost anyone. Steve Sarkisian is 13–12 in two seasons as the third coach to lead Texas since Brown’s departure.
Still, Saban surely can see how potent the Aggies and Longhorns might be if the programs get their act together. In sophomore quarterback Conner Weigman, A&M finally has a player who appears capable of leading an Aggie resurgence. Likewise, the Longhorns have three highly touted quarterbacks in Quinn Ewers, Arch Manning, and Maalik Murphy. If either team gets outstanding play at that position, they’ve got a chance to do big things.
Saban has advocated for an NIL system that would distribute money equally, along the lines of how the National Football League distributes its national television money among 32 teams. But even if Congress somehow could (or would) craft legislation mandating NIL guardrails, it’s impossible to imagine it surviving legal challenges. Whatever happened to freedom of enterprise? It’s why Saban is making more than any other college football coach in the country. It’s also why Ewers was offered millions in NIL money while he was still in high school.
Saban’s idea would be to pay every player equally out of a fund provided by schools and boosters. Would he like the same idea for coaches? Besides, can anyone imagine a system in which Texas A&M boosters ponied up money to pay Baylor or TCU or Texas recruits? “I think name, image, and likeness is good for players,” Saban told Sports Illustrated. “The whole concept of collectives is what has created this environment that we are in, and I’m not sure that anybody really had the insight or the vision to see that was going to happen. So therefore, we had no guidelines, and now we’re trying to develop some.”
This isn’t the first time Saban has used his bully pulpit to advocate for change. In 2012, he warned that college football was going down the drain with up-tempo offenses that ran all those darned passing plays. “Is this what we want football to be?” he said. Only he didn’t ask Congress to outlaw the forward pass. Instead, he adjusted by hiring great offensive minds and recruiting some of the top quarterbacks and receivers in the land.
In the ten seasons since those comments, Saban has won his fourth, fifth, and sixth national championships with Alabama, and this fall, former Crimson Tide quarterbacks are expected to start for the Miami Dolphins (Tua Tagovailoa), New England Patriots (Mac Jones), Philadelphia Eagles (Jalen Hurts), and Carolina Panthers (Bryce Young).
Last year, when Saban said the Aggies “bought every player” in that top-ranked recruiting class, he believed he was in an off-the-record session. He probably didn’t mind that the comments got out, or that Fisher fired back, saying: “Some people think they’re God. Go dig into how ‘God’ did his deal. You may find out about a lot of things you don’t want to know.”
Saban’s message was supposed to be aimed at Alabama boosters, telling them it was time to pony up or risk falling behind the Aggies, Longhorns, and any other program willing to be the highest bidder on a national championship football team. Even though Alabama’s backers had made Saban the sport’s highest-paid coach and built all those beautiful facilities—there’s a waterfall in the locker room—and delivered on his every whim, he understands that NIL and the transfer portal are threats to Alabama’s superiority.
NIL does challenge Alabama’s way of doing business. Saban tells recruits that Alabama players have made close to $2 billion in the NFL since 2007. “And all those guys didn’t play when they were freshmen,” he told broadcaster Mike Gottfried. “They didn’t all play when they were sophomores. They didn’t even all play when they were juniors, but they all developed.”
This was the Alabama formula: come to Tuscaloosa, win championships, prepare yourself for the NFL. Alabama has had 44 first-round picks since 2015. NIL has created a different dynamic. “The issue is, when you create those [collectives] for people, are you establishing a pay-for-play type of environment that can be used in recruiting?” Saban told Sports Illustrated. “So now . . . guys are not going to school where they can create the most value for their future. Guys are going to school where they can make the most money. I don’t think that is even the best thing for the player.”
Don’t think for a minute that Alabama is unprepared for these new challenges. Last fall, hours before the Crimson Tide was to play Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa, Alabama opened “The Authentic,” a store selling officially licensed NIL student-athlete merchandise inside Bryant–Denny Stadium. No matter how flush with cash the program is, Alabama donors will still be asked to dig deep to keep pace with the Aggies and Longhorns. This they almost certainly will do. Alabama’s supremacy has already been challenged, with Georgia winning back-to-back national championships. But Texas and A&M don’t appear close to joining that conversation.
As Bum Phillips once said of Bear Bryant, “[He] can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.” Nick Saban can do that, too. The Longhorns and Aggies haven’t found their Nick Saban, and until they do, money will only buy so much.