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Sports Illustrated

Saban-Fisher Feud Shows Winning CFB Coaches Are Still Untouchable

Eight years ago, as Jimbo Fisher and Florida State won the national championship, Alabama coach Nick Saban was pacing along the Seminoles’ sideline, pulling for them. Officially, Saban was at the Rose Bowl to do TV work, but it was pretty obvious to anyone watching him that he wanted his former assistant to win.

Well, maybe Saban really just wanted Fisher’s opponent, Auburn, to lose. When you rule over an empire, your first thought every morning is protecting it.

Now Saban and Fisher are in a nasty and shockingly public spat, which started with Saban saying Fisher and Texas A&M are using name, image and likeness rights to “buy” players. But I don’t think Saban really cares if Texas A&M is “buying” recruits. He cares if Texas A&M is buying better recruits than Alabama is getting. Fisher fired back, strongly implying Saban has been cheating for years, and saying “some people think they’re God,” which was funny, because he is one of them.

College football is in a strange new era, but in some ways, it feels familiar. Winning coaches can say whatever they want. You don’t need to look at the record to see if a coach is successful. Just count how many people defend his lies and nonsense.

Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports (Saban); Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports (Fisher)

Fisher spouted all sorts of ridiculous comments Thursday, like this: "You can call me anything you want to call me. You can't call me a cheat.” Sorry, Jimbo: The NCAA already called you a cheat. It put Texas A&M on probation, slapped a six-month show cause on Fisher, and declared he failed to “promote an atmosphere of compliance because of his personal involvement in the recruiting violation.”

Fisher touted other reasons for his recruiting success at A&M: “You ever come to school here and see the education? … There ain’t a better university in this country.”

I will be honest and say I ain’t personally seen the education at A&M. But I did read a Bleacher Report story in which a former assistant said coaches were given one academic mandate: "Keep the players eligible." The FSU athletic director at the time, Dave Coburn, basically confirmed that approach, telling Bleacher Report: "It appears that was the case."

If you think Jimbo Fisher left Florida State for Texas A&M because he preferred A&M’s academic profile, you probably think his dream job is coaching Yale.

Fisher said: “You coach with people like Bobby Bowden and learn how to do things. You coach with other people and learn how not to do things.”

Is that the same Bobby Bowden who complained he was “pushed out” at FSU so Fisher could take over? Why yes, it is! And yes, they officially smoothed things over after that. Not the point. Then and now, Fisher looks out for Fisher … just as Saban looks out for Saban.

They both have administrators who will look out for them, no matter what they do, because blindly supporting a successful coach is a smart career move. Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told SI’s Ross Dellenger, “Everyone here at A&M has Coach Fisher’s back. I’ve been with our Board of Regents the last day. The regents, chancellor and president all have Jimbo’s back. We are going to stand up for our program.”

Note the tone. Not: “These are serious allegations and anybody making them should provide evidence.” Just: “Everyone here has Coach Fisher’s back.” This is how most administrations operate.

This is so obvious that I can’t believe I need to type it, but here goes: They’re all just trying to win football games.

(Meanwhile, let’s check in on the SEC West. Alabama’s Saban and Texas A&M’s Fisher are feuding publicly. LSU’s Brian Kelly is faking a Cajun accent and dancing with recruits. Auburn left Bryan Harsin twisting in the wind for weeks while it looked for reasons to fire him, which it will inevitably do in a year or two. Come on, Lane Kiffin, do something wild! You’re falling behind.)

Saban has played a passive-aggressive game ever since athletes were allowed to capitalize on name, image and likeness. Last year, the Bama coach said quarterback Bryce Young was making “almost seven figures” despite not starting a game because of the power of Alabama’s “brand.” The implication: Come to Alabama, five-star recruits, and you’ll get paid. Now he is saying the only school to finish ahead of Alabama in recruiting rankings did so because of NIL deals. There are two implications: If Alabama is slipping in recruiting even a little, it’s not Saban’s fault; and if Bama boosters want their school to keep winning national titles, they better step up.

Fisher told ESPN a few months ago that schools have paid players for years; the deals “just weren’t legal.” The legality remains murky, both according to Texas law and NCAA rules. But NIL has taken college football’s private dealings and made them public. Now a feud that would have been private in the past has become public. If you wonder whose side you should be on, you miss the point. This isn’t about right vs. wrong. It’s about us vs. them. It always has been.