For everything that has supposedly changed in the college athletics era of name, image and likeness, it has mostly brought the financial transactions that used to happen under the table into the public domain.
What a gift for us, though, that it has lifted the sport’s endemic pettiness into the light as well.
We were told for years by the college sports establishment that opening the market for athletes to make money was going to saddle them with responsibilities they were too young to handle. As it turns out, it’s the adults who are having way more problems adjusting to their new reality.
Alabama coach Nick Saban is 70 years old and universally revered as the greatest college football coach of all time. Jimbo Fisher is 56, a national champion at Florida State and currently one of the most highly compensated coaches in the country at ascendant Texas A&M.
And the moment a little bit of money started to flow to the players they’re trying to recruit, they have devolved into a pair of 9-year-olds on the playground squabbling over whose turn it is to climb the monkey bars.
In one corner we have Saban, who has lorded over the sport for more than a decade, uncharacteristically taking direct aim at Texas A&M’s program, saying at a public appearance in Birmingham on Wednesday that the Aggies straight-up bought their No. 1 recruiting class with NIL deals.
In the other we have Fisher, whose insistence that Texas A&M’s recruiting success isn’t in any way connected to NIL almost seems pathological.
As it turns out, even after all the money and success and power they’ve accumulated, they both have a vulnerable spot in their egos. And on Thursday, it led to one of the most remarkable moments college football has seen.
In a hastily called news conference to respond to Saban’s missive, Fisher didn’t just deny that A&M had done anything improper, he scorched the earth, then dropped napalm on it, then threw a few dozen sticks of dynamite just to make sure nothing survived.
He called Saban “despicable” and a “narcissist” who can’t handle losing recruits. He suggested that Saban has been cheating for years and encouraged reporters to go “dig into his past.” Fisher, a fellow West Virginian who worked under Saban at LSU from 2000-06, said Saban reached out to him Thursday but that he didn’t have any interest in taking the call.
“We’re done,” Fisher said.
Oh, there was plenty more, too. Fisher said he grew up with the fear of getting slapped by his father for lying or cheating, adding that “Maybe somebody should have slapped (Saban).” He mocked the idea of Saban as the greatest of all-time, saying “When you’ve got all the advantages, it’s easy.” And he repeatedly hinted around the idea that Saban got where he is by buying players, at one point saying, “I know things.”
“I don’t mind confrontation,” Fisher said. “Backing away from it isn’t how I was raised.”
For the last few months, coaches have been metaphorically referring to NIL as the Wild West. Turns out, we may not be far from a more literal interpretation.
As Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin tweeted shortly after Fisher’s rant, almost certainly echoing every one of his colleagues: “Did this really just happen?”
Obviously, Oct. 8 is now the No. 1 day to circle for the college football season when the Aggies visit Tuscaloosa. Every other game and storyline is a distant second.
With as much fuel as Fisher poured on the bonfire Thursday, it’s hard to imagine things dying down by then. With the SEC spring meetings later this month and the SEC media days in July, the Saban-Fisher feud will have plenty of oxygen to burn.
It’s undoubtedly great theater. But it’s a symptom of how poorly college sports has grappled with its new reality.
For years, we were forced to pretend that a lot of top players went to certain schools because of tradition (eye roll) or locker room waterfalls (seen one, seen ’em all) or academics (gasp!).
Often, of course, these decisions were made for more, uh, capitalistic reasons. Even if money wasn’t the primary motivation in a recruitment, boosters always had ways to ensure that it wasn’t the reason their school would lose a player it would otherwise get.
And coaches endlessly complained about that, too – only they did it behind the scenes so that the veneer of their profession was maintained. After all, it’s hard to justify those $9 million annual salaries when the actual work of player procurement is not due to their persuasive abilities but rather the allure of Benjamin Franklin.
And now that it’s all out in the open, many people in college sports are struggling with how to process it. What’s legal? What’s appropriate? If big-money NIL deals put together by Texas A&M boosters did play a role in this terrific recruiting class, is that wrong? Is it even against the rules?
That’s why Fisher’s over-the-top reaction, in which he claimed again Thursday that he has absolutely “no idea” what A&M’s booster collective is providing or promising players, is hard to take seriously.
You do not even have to accuse Texas A&M of breaking any rules to reduce that it’s historically great recruiting class was not merely the result of hard work and going 4-4 in the SEC last season.
Meanwhile, perhaps we have been giving Saban too much credit for being a calculated mastermind in everything he does or says. It has almost become canon in college football circles that when Saban is critical of the direction the game is headed, he’s not complaining but rather firing off a warning shot to his competitors.
That may have been true when he commandeered the spread offense that was beating his teams and then did it better than everyone else. But this seems less like some grand Saban plan and more a bout of unrestrained bitterness from a coach who just lost a national title to one of his former assistants in Georgia’s Kirby Smart and now sees another one beating him in recruiting.
Saban talks all the time about getting his players to ignore distractions and eliminate outside factors in their performance.
Saban has been around long enough to know what impact his words have. He uses the media all the time to send messages to his players. His famous news conference rants are almost always performances to get his team’s attention when he thinks it’s losing its edge.
You seemingly never catch Saban doing or saying anything that isn’t calculated.
But going after Texas A&M in such a public and direct way – “A&M bought every player on their team,” Saban said – seems like a rare moment where he lost his discipline. This almost certainly isn’t the topic he wanted to spend his summer and preseason talking about.
But as we near the one-year anniversary of NIL rights being granted to college athletes, it’s not just the money that has come to the surface. The frustrations, the personality feuds and the accusations are there for all to see. And so far, the kids are handling it far better than the adults.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken