Monday, August 15, 2022

Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher turn from backstabbing each other to burying the hatchet by settling their beef

ATLANTA — You should know that Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher have made up, as stunning as that sounds. Not as stunning as “The Beef” itself, which was the label attached to the biggest story of the offseason. 

Nick Saban vs. Jimbo Fisher was more than pearl-clutching. It was shocking. Breathtaking stuff, really, that perhaps the game’s best-ever coach would publicly accuse a colleague and former staff member of buying an entire recruiting class.

Throw in the fact that Texas A&M‘s most recent class was perhaps the best ever — they’ve only been ranked since the early 1990s, by the way — and that only heightened the drama.

But a truce was announced Thursday at the end of SEC Media Days. The high-powered pair have buried the hatchet instead of burying the hatchet in each other. 

“We’ve moved on,” Fisher said. 

Saban has intimated the same. They still won’t be sending each other birthday cards but football season is coming up and there is urgency. The less distractions, the better. 

The situation had de-escalated enough to the point Thursday afternoon I point-black asked Fisher on camera: “How are you cool with a guy you called a narcissist?”

Jimbo: “You’ve never been to West Virginia.”

That was much the same take as Saban, a fellow West Virginian. Maybe there is something in the water in the Mountain State that allows mortal combatants to reconcile. Besides, there are arguments in staff rooms all the time. Grudges aren’t held outside of meeting rooms in the name of Saturday victory. The pair worked with each other at LSU from 2000-2004, winning a national championship.

“If you understand our culture,” Fisher explained, “you can hold back and five minutes later you’re going at it again … That’s the people of West Virginia. What comes out, comes out and you move on.”

Except this was bitter and very public on a national stage. What The Beef revealed was the sensitivity of a sensitive subject – recruiting.  

Almost everywhere these days achievement inspires scrutiny, or worse. A tweet can delegitimize a simple show of hands. But there was no innuendo or parsing the meaning in The Beef. Saban flat-out said Fisher “bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, image and likeness.” 

It was out of character for the buttoned-up Saban. It was out of this world, really. Fisher fired back, denying the charge using the word “despicable” at least six times.  

“He’s the greatest ever, huh?” Jimbo said sarcastically

Blame those two high-powered coaches who should have known better. But the real blame goes to NIL. Without what has become name, image and likeness none of this happens. Fisher agreed Thursday during his remarks from the podium. 

“NIL, there’s no rules,” Fisher said. “Each state has its own rules. It’s not just an NCAA thing or a national thing … It’s just the world we’re in because there’s no unification of what happens and the way it happens.”

In a weird twist, NIL brought above board some of the business of the game that had been conducted underneath the table. Pre-NIL if a coach got to, let’s say, spending too liberally in acquiring talent, a phone call would be made.

Cut it out or I’ll turn you in to the NCAA.

There were rules against such things. What the NCAA didn’t catch was sometimes self-regulated by the coaching fraternity. It wasn’t perfect but it was something.

Now there’s no regulation. That’s what has coaches irked. Since July 1, 2021, the NCAA has punted responsibility on the issue that very likely will diminish its relevance. Recruiting may have been a catch-me-if-you-can enterprise previously. But add the fuel that is NIL and a fire broke out stoked with jealousy and animosity. 

Tennessee is getting a quarterback who has signed an NIL contract potentially worth $8 million. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young‘s valuation is approaching $2 million. In the state of Louisiana high schoolers can get NIL money. Boosters can assist with deals. All of it is allowed until the NCAA cops say it isn’t. Don’t hold your breath on that one. 

Those public numbers also put pressures on coaches. Business that was previously conducted clandestinely was revealed through NIL escalation. That riled fans who asked their schools and coaches why Good Ol’ State U doesn’t have an $8 million quarterback.

Enter The Beef that was really ignited when an anonymous internet poster said $30 million had been spent on the Aggies’ recruiting class. No substantiation. No confirmation. It was the equivalent of gossip, internet word vomit. But it got enough coaches and fans to believe it could be true. And as we’ve found out these days, sometimes that is enough. 

In the end, perhaps The Beef was merely entertainment. Nothing more. It programmed a bunch of sports talk shows for weeks. It got clicks. Two multi-millionaire coaches who once shared that staff room – and the 2003 natty – were going at it like a couple of junior high snarkers on Twitter. The Oct. 8 meeting between the two teams just had its TV ratings jacked up in advance. 

“It got me fired up, ready to play,” said Aggies safety Demani Richardson. “Not just that game but just ready for the season.”

Expect more of this junk. There is too much money, too much influence, too many whispers, too much certainty, floating around that make a lot of folks – from tailgaters to state senators — nervous. Some ADs and commissioners still think Congress is going to come riding in on a stallion to fix NIL. Oversee it. Regulate it. 

But as outgoing Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said recently, you need to come to Congress with the legislation written, not asking legislators to write it for you. For starters. Then try explaining NIL to the average Congressman. Some are fully engaged. Some couldn’t care less. 

All of them have an eye cast toward mid-terms, inflation, climate change, the war in Ukraine. Point is, there are bigger things on their plate. In college athletics, NIL has become the plate. 

The current climate is a big reason the 70-year old Bowlsby is gladfully retiring Aug. 1. It’s hard to have a beef with anyone when you’re resting comfortably on a beach somewhere. 

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