The debate about name, image and likeness and how it affects recruiting is raging throughout college football these days, and some of the sport’s biggest names took up the topic on Mobile Thursday night.
Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin, Baylor head coach Dave Aranda, high-profile assistants Lance Taylor (Louisville) and Major Applewhite (South Alabama), and former head coach David Cutcliffe commented on NIL Imaging L during a session with reporters ahead of the 28th annual DEX ‘Arche Football Preview Event at Spring Hill College. Harsin said many in college football have lost sight of the intent of the NIL legislation, which began as a way for established collegiate athletes to capitalize on newfound fame but has quickly become part of many schools’ recruiting strategy.
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“Is that how it started? No,” Harsin said. “Are we here right now? Yes, but nobody really knows what that means. … And in the end, it’s all about the players. I think we’re losing the whole concept of what collegiate athletics is about.
“…Of course it’s about money and there are ways that – if done right – will make the experience even better for them. And that’s really what college should be. It’s not a career. It’s an experience they must have. And you hope at the end of that experience, if you ask her, would you do that again? You would say yes.”
Harsin shares SEC West with the two schools at the center of the NIL controversy, Alabama and Texas A&M. A long-simmering debate erupted into open war about nine days ago when Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban claimed during a speech in Birmingham that the Aggies had “bought every player” in their senior recruiting class of 2022 with funds raised by the NIL of the School were distributed collectively.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher responded with an all-out attack on Saban, not challenging his former mentor’s allegations but questioning his character during a 9-minute press conference the following day at College Station. Saban has since apologized to Fisher, but the debate continues.
Aranda, the former LSU defense coordinator, no longer trains in the SEC but shares recruiting territory with Texas A&M, Alabama and other schools that are dismantling (or at least trying to dismantle) the talent-rich area of north Texas. Though Baylor is a private school, he said the Bears have been able to rival their state brethren and the Big 12 when it comes to NIL opportunities after those players joined the team.
“We have quite a lot of players who have NIL deals,” Aranda said. “None of that is in the numbers that we hear in the headlines and all that. But in terms of the percentage of our team, I would say that we are among the best in our league. … But we’re trying to bring in kids who can see that education is important, spiritual growth is important. Things other than football matter, who you are off the field really matters. Football is what you do, it’s not who you are.”
Assistant trainers are typically on the front line when it comes to recruitment, as they do much of the early relationship building with potential clients. NIL is just another complicating factor to an already thick NCAA rule book within which they must operate.
Lance Taylor, a former wide receiver from Alabama who is in his first season as an offensive coordinator in Louisville, has been an assistant coach for more than 15 years in the game at positions including Appalachian State, Stanford and Notre Dame. He said he has no illusions about NIL going away, so coaches might as well embrace it – within the rules.
“It’s here to stay,” Taylor said. “But I think it’s great that the players can make money. And I think it can be a positive thing. A lot of negativity is spread about it. But how we encourage it and really have a structure around it is the most important thing we try to do as coaches. How do we have crash barriers? How do we all work under the same system, so that we compete where there is no competitive advantage but still allow players to make money? How do we teach them and give them the education to do good with the money they earn?”
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Taylor has spent much of his collegiate coaching career at the Power 5 level, at schools that have now begun forming NIL collectives designed to maximize the earning potential for their athletes. It’s a different world at the Group 5 level, where football programs aren’t typically tied to dozens of well-heeled boosters.
South Alabama offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said he saw a definite difference in his sophomore year with the Jaguars now that NIL has exploded as it has. Players who might transition from Power 5 schools to the G5 in search of more playtime are now looking for ZERO opportunities associated with their movement.
“It’s much more difficult; that’s been my experience,” Applewhite said. “Your situation is possibly the best for the child in terms of their time on the field, their opportunity to play, their opportunity to be productive. But a $25,000 deal (from another school) is the difference. And that is the reality at the moment.
“There are some kids who can see through that. You can see the long-term aspects of that — that’s short-term money versus long-term, which is what I want to do. But they are 20, 21 (years old). They will take the cash right away and there. … It’s a shame. But we’re just trying to find the right guys that fit our program, fit our style and can help us win games.”
Cutcliffe retired at the end of the 2021 season, after a career that spanned 19 seasons as a head coach at Duke and Ole Miss and nearly two decades as an assistant at Tennessee. But stepping back from the sidelines hasn’t spared him the NIL debate.
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Cutcliffe, 67, recently accepted a job as SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s special assistant for football relations, where he will act as a liaison between coaches and the league office. This newly created position put him in the middle of the Saban-Fisher controversy.
“It’s a difficult time, let’s be honest,” Cutcliffe said. “When you get people who are emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted, things like this are going to happen. And maybe great things will come out of such circumstances. It won’t be the last time something like this happens and we won’t be the only league where it happens. I’ve always viewed such big moments as times of growth. Let’s make sure we use that.
“That was my first reaction in the office this week – make this a great thing. That’s kind of how I see it. Some of the best teams I’ve ever been on were when you had explosions within the workforce. And don’t think that some of it isn’t done internally. These are always growth opportunities.”
Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was also in attendance Thursday but declined to attend the pre-event press conference. Crimson Tide assistants do not typically speak to the media, although an exception is generally made for L’Arche, where former Alabama employees Steve Sarkisian, Mario Cristobal, and Scott Cochran (among others) have spoken to reporters in recent years to have.
L’Arche is an international organization where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in communities. For more information about L’Arche Mobile, visit larchemobile.org.