The full dysfunctional glory that is the Nick Saban-Jimbo Fisher feud has come to outshine almost everything else under the sports sun. For good reason, too, considering it’s not every day that you see two veteran national title-winning coaches, one of whom is the best in the game’s history, publicly go at it like squabbling children.
There was, of course, Saban’s initial accusation that Texas A&M football has “bought every player” on its team on the way to signing the greatest signing class in the sport’s history. Then came Fisher swinging back to drop this doozy: “It’s despicable that a reputable head coach could come out and say this when he doesn’t get his way, or things don’t go his way. The narcissist in him doesn’t allow those things to happen. It’s ridiculous when he’s not on top. The parity in college football he’s been talking about, go to talk to coaches who coach for him. Go dig into wherever he’s been. You can find out anything.”
Oh, and this:
Fisher, who served as offensive coordinator under Saban at LSU, has clearly taken the gloves off when it comes to his old boss. This moment feels like it could be an inflection point in the culture of big-time college football coaching, banishing any last remnants of stuffiness from the profession.
Just look at these perspectives on the feud via ESPN from two anonymous coaches:
Big Ten assistant: “I think there was like a universal 90 minutes where no one got s— done because they were just laughing their a— off, us included.”
Group of 5 head coach: “It’s like the sequel to the best movie ever. [Fisher not calling] is going to offend Saban more than Jimbo saying stuff, that he won’t pick up the phone. … I was in a meeting, and we had a break. I looked at my phone, and I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek got into the fray, too, with his own Razorback-branded admission of being thoroughly entertained:
Sam, Nick and Jimbo
This wouldn’t be all fun and games, from the Arkansas football perspective, if it was Yurachek’s coach warring in a feud instead.
While Sam Pittman has shown he can be chippy at times when fans attack him, it’s hard to imagine him going after one of his mentors from previous stops (e.g. Butch Davis, Kirby Smart) with the same level of vitriol. Previously at Arkansas, Pittman worked for a head coach in Bret Bielema who absolutely would publicly feud with opposing coaches. But it doesn’t seem to be in Pittman’s personality to launch into such personal attacks, as Fisher did while refusing to take the offending coach’s calls.
That is, while Fisher was right to defend himself from Saban’s accusation, he went overboard in the way he shot back. The result has become something of a runaway circus act that will only build speed heading into the start of SEC Media Days on July 18.
While this fracas is fun to follow, it will ultimately hurt both Saban and Fisher on the recruiting trail. It makes both coaches look small, and that is good news for teams like Georgia and Arkansas, who are ready to take advantage of a post-Nick Saban SEC landscape, whenever he should retire.
“If anyone wins this wild mid-May debacle between two of college football’s most well-known coaches, it’s Smart,” Fansided’s Savannah Leigh wrote. She should have thrown Pittman in there, too, because everything else she wrote also applies to Arkansas: “He is already an elite recruiter, but this gives him an angle to take. While these two coaches are bickering like school girls, he can make up some ground with guys looking at both Texas A&M and Alabama.
“The smartest thing to do is not comment on this situation, and let it work itself out. Georgia isn’t [ignorant] to the NIL and how it’s affecting college football, but if coaches are imploding and crying, use it to your advantage and keep recruiting at an elite level.”
Pittman As a Kind of Anti-Fisher
Last fall, AL.com’s John Talty wrote about the potential of SEC athletic directors going beyond “in-the-box” thinking during the head football coach hiring process by focusing on splashy, big-name coordinators and former head coaches. In terms of coaching background, Fisher represents this conventional career lineage to a T, considering his background as an offensive coordinator under Saban, and then taking the helm at Florida State.
To that end, plenty of other head coaches in the SEC have similar backgrounds. Pittman, and to a lesser extent Shane Beamer at South Carolina, represent something closer to the opposite side of the spectrum — a head coach without the experience of a coordinator or head coach, but the ability to check off boxes in so many other ways.
“Pittman might not have been a universally acclaimed hire like some other coaches at the time, but most importantly, he looks like a smart hire, and that’s because of Arkansas’ willingness to think differently,” Talty wrote.
For all of Fisher’s success on the field and on the recruiting trail, at this point, he has a record of only 1-1 versus Pittman. They are on equal footing, for now at least, which is notable since the king of college football clearly considers Fisher such a threat. Saban is mad because, yes, Fisher beat him last fall, but more importantly, he sees the way the landscape of college football has been tilting toward programs like Texas A&M with access to more NIL riches.
Texas Football Blessed With More
States like Texas, Florida and Arkansas gave the green light to NIL collectives early on, but Alabama’s state law didn’t allow them until more recently. The ability to form multibooster-backed collectives has helped Texas A&M legally “buy” its hordes of five-star recruits, but it also gives Arkansas a way to close the gap between itself and Alabama — at least until Alabama catches up — by becoming a more enticing transfer destination than it would have been without the new J.B. Hunt family NIL collective.
Saban referred to this dynamic recently night when he said: “Now, in recruiting, we have players in our state that grew up wanting to come to Alabama that, they won’t commit to us unless we say we’re going to give them what someone else is going to give them. My theory on that is everything that we’ve done in college athletics has always been equal. [Saban refers to scholarships, cost of attendance, etc.] … I told our players, ‘We’re going to have a collective, but everyone is going to get the same amount of opportunity from that collective.’”
One place where the two biggest Texas schools outpace the programs in other states is donations.
“Texas and Texas A&M’s athletic departments have routinely grossed more in donations than any other schools in the country,” SI.Com’s Ross Dellenger wrote. “Just last year, the Aggies pulled in $47.7 million in donations — one-fifth of the total donations to the 13 SEC public schools combined. And Texas? The Longhorns led everyone with $60 million in giving.”
The sheer amount of oil money flowing into the coffers of these schools hasn’t yet led to national titles, or even a spot in the College Football Playoffs, but Saban sees the tide turning for Alabama and the rest of the SEC, as the Longhorns are set to join the conference in the coming years.
As long as Pittman and Smart stay steady in their current paths, their programs can only gain from the ego-fueled theatrics enveloping College Station and Tuscaloosa. Indeed, the 2022 schedule lines up for Arkansas to take advantage of this feud since Alabama will almost certainly be looking forward to hosting Texas A&M on Oct. 8 even more than it would have anyway for a revenge game. The week before, the Crimson Tide must travel to Fayetteville for an Arkansas-Alabama showdown that now has a bit more of a trap type feel to it than before the Fisher-Saban blowup.
Meanwhile, as Lane Kiffin does whatever it is he does, other coaches on the periphery like Pittman get the benefit of looking like actual adults. That perception will be all the more valuable in the coming weeks.
As one major college athletic director told ESPN, “My initial thought was our profession has hit an all-time low. This makes coaches look like a bunch of buffoons. It’s like, no wonder we have the issues we have, when we have adults and people in leadership positions handling stuff this way.”