The greatest feud in US esports right now is not between two rival teams or young and hungry athletes, but between two head coaches who qualify for AARP membership. If you guessed we were about to talk about college football, you’re right. Last week, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher exchanged insults, suggesting that no one is quite sure how college football’s new era, where players can now make money from sponsorship deals, will work.
Saban shot first. After Texas A&M was named this year’s #1 Recruiting Class, Saban went on the offensive. “Last year we were second in recruitment,” he said, “A&M was first. A&M bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, picture and likeness [NIL]. We didn’t buy a player.”
More specifically, Saban accused Fisher of luring players by promising them ZERO perks. Prior to last year’s rule change, the NCAA didn’t allow players to capitalize on their fame through endorsements or paid public appearances. It’s still uncertain how these changes will be overseen by the NCAA, but Saban appeared convinced the Aggies head coach was doing something unethical while reinforcing rumors that boosters linked to the program were directly or indirectly giving this year’s recruits upwards of $30 million had promised.
During a very lengthy public backlash, Fisher initially defended his players (and himself, of course). “We never bought anyone,” said the coach last Thursday. “No rules are broken. Nothing was done wrong. It’s a shame you’re sitting here defending 17-year-old kids and families and Texas A&M.”
All of that was well and good. Fisher, who happened to be Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU for a time, earned the right to respond to serious allegations. Yet where he went next, it took him from a petty dispute to an all-out war.
After calling Saban a “narcissist,” Fisher portrayed his former boss as an almost satanic force in esports. “We’re building him to be the czar of football. Browse his past or anyone who has ever trained with him. You can find out anything you want to find out about what he does and how he does it. It’s despicable,” Fisher said.
Fisher has one thing on his side: Saban is uniquely hated by college football fans, much like New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is by NFL fans. The antipathy directed toward both men stems from a combination of their ridiculous levels of success, their outspoken personalities, and a perception that their teams profit from borderline illegal practices. Fisher is almost certainly right when he says others in football feel the same way, particularly opponents who have watched Saban win seven national championships, six with Alabama.
However, Fisher both reacted too harshly, leaving himself vulnerable to counterattacks. After Fisher left Florida State University, many stories emerged showing how he established a culture of entitlement, particularly with star quarterback Jameis Winston. While fans like it when he throws himself into the wildly despised Saban, this feels like a situation between Alien and Predator: who wins, we lose.
The public potshots could be the result of seasoned coaches becoming accustomed to a shift in collegiate sports’ power dynamics. NIL deals allow so-called “student athletes” to make money from their fame and success on the field (which are usually, but not always, linked).
NIL was not a move the NCAA took voluntarily: it took a Supreme Court decision to compel the organization to act. It’s a decision that threatens the sport’s old guard, who aren’t used to players having any economic clout. And players with economic clout are less willing to do whatever their coach tells them to do, especially if they think they can find a better deal at another college.
Finally, Saban did not limit his attacks to Fisher’s program. In fact, he also called Jackson State and the University of Miami, obviously concerned that the old way of doing things was on its way. After claiming that his program hadn’t “bought” a single player, Saban fumed about how things had changed: “I don’t know if we can keep that going in the future because more and more people are doing it. It’s difficult.” He also acknowledged that his own players are making money — a total of $3 million, he estimated — but that they are “doing it right.”
This is all an attempt to establish moral superiority in an industry – and college football is very much an industry – where ethics are often sorely lacking. In practice, college football, the “law” usually means anything you can get away with. If Saban sounds unusually insecure, it’s because he’s no longer sure what that is.
Saban has long had the advantage of selling recruits what it means to play for Alabama: They have a realistic chance of winning a championship every year and possibly even making the NFL. It’s an advantage programs like Texas A&M don’t have, so it’s easy to see why the Aggies would seek alternative ways to attract players — and it’s also easy to see why Saban would feel threatened.
What schools can get away with is now changing in real time, and with different states having different rules on NIL rights, the waters are muddy than ever. It’s also possible that even elite head coaches are concerned that power is gradually shifting to the players.
They don’t need to worry about that. No matter how much the players’ newfound revenue changes the dynamics in college esports, the industry remains focused on the coaches who run teams like their own private kingdom. After all, unlike in pro sports, players can only stay in college for a limited amount of time, and even star quarterbacks like Winston can remain – albeit crucial – cogs in much larger systems. Maybe someday that will change, but chances are it will be a long time before Saban and Fisher moved on.