DESTIN, Fla. — Regrets, Jimbo Fisher?
“We’re movin’ on.”
Would you like to address your allegations that Nick Saban is, for lack of a specific charge, a shady dude?
“We’re movin’ on.”
Any inquiries from the NCAA, Jimbo?
“We’re movin’ on.”
With that—and a dozen other declarations that he was not going to answer questions about napalming Saban on May 19—the Texas A&M coach moved on out of Southeastern Conference spring meetings. He offered no apology for calling Saban a “narcissist” who thinks he’s “God,” nor for suggesting that reporters should investigate the seven-time national champion’s methods of doing business. “Go dig into how ‘God’ did his deal,” Fisher said. “You may find out about a lot of things you don’t want to know.”
After hinting strongly that he knew the skeletons in the Saban closet, Fisher then declined to open the closet door. Much like the A&M football program, he overpromised and underdelivered. He didn’t walk anything back, but he declined to push it forward, too. He just semi-pretended that going nuclear upon the greatest coach in the history of the sport never happened.
Coming on the heels of Saban rather meekly backing away Tuesday from Fisher’s broadside, it became clear that denial of this mushroom cloud was the operative strategy. Which isn’t surprising.
It’s what college football coaches do, although rarely this publicly—they say their rivals are cheating, then run away when it’s time to supply facts and figures. And most people just shrug it off as part of the business.
After all these decades, an enterprise built upon a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell code (especially Don’t Tell) remains unshakable. Even after the most incredible war of words in recent memory. A man who speaks like a squirrel acts—hyper and twitchy—just bulldozed forward with a three-word swat of almost all Saban-related inquiries.
Thus ends, for now, the May mayhem between two of the most accomplished current coaches in the sport. It will bubble back to the surface in July at SEC media days, and again the first week of October in anticipation of the Aggies visiting the Crimson Tide on Oct. 8. The way that game is played and the postgame handshake between the two coaches may be the next (and last) time we get a real glimpse at how they really feel about each other.
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Does the winning team try to run up the score? Is the interaction between Saban and Fisher anything other than a cursory, fake exchange? We won’t know for four-plus months.
Before there are football games, we must navigate our way through an unprecedented Talkin’ Season in the sport. There are months of roiling angst still to come over compensating players via collectives or name, image and likeness. There is transfer portal trauma to be addressed. And looming beyond all of it, a thundercloud in the distance, is the very shape of of college athletics as it staggers into the future. To use Fisher’s phrase of the day, we’re movin’ on to … what?
Will players become university employees? Will college athletic teams become licensed entities separate from universities? Is Congress setting the rules? Are boosters empowered decision makers? Are Olympic sports doomed? Is educating athletes still even a thing? Are conferences on a collision course with splintering and reorganizing around the twin towers of the SEC and Big Ten? What in the name of the Independence Bowl is going on here?
The number of “I don’t knows” from intelligent people in the SEC this week has been both noteworthy and unsettling. The whole enterprise can continue, of course, and lucratively so. But the best course and final destination both remain elusive.
While the Saban-Fisher feud inhaled much of the heat and light from this affair—“Two hillbillies fighting from West Virginia,” said LSU athletic director Scott Woodward on the “Paul Finebaum Show” on the SEC Network—there are larger issues afoot.
For that reason, the most interesting Wednesday sight at SEC meetings was a table in the Sandestin Hilton during lunch time. At one end was mega-agent Jimmy Sexton of Creative Artists Agency, whose client list includes Saban, Fisher, Kirby Smart, Lane Kiffin, James Franklin and many others. At the other end was ESPN president of programming Burke Magnus. On the side was ESPN vice president of programming Lee Fitting, the guiding force for years behind “College GameDay.”
Without question, the two most powerful SEC-adjacent entities are ESPN and Sexton.
That was a table of heaviest hitters, and a seat there might have offered some real insight into the shape of things to come. Do not underestimate the influence ESPN and Fox Sports are having on the future shape of college football, and do not underestimate the leverage Sexton has utilized in ratcheting up coaching salaries in the sport. While some administrators are moaning about players getting six-figure (and a few seven-figure) deals from collectives, they are willfully ignoring the massive escalations in size and salary pool for coaching staffs. And the driving force behind that is the increasingly lucrative media-rights deals.
This is part of the shell game of college sports. Let the coach squabble grab your attention, or the kvetching about players earning some money, or the travails of the transfer portal. While your eyes are focused on that noise, the real power brokers are doing work that may reconfigure everything.
Jimbo Fisher “movin’ on” from his flare-up feud with Nick Saban is one story from these SEC spring meetings. What’s happening elsewhere could end up being more consequential. We can all follow the money to the players—or we can follow the truly big money to the conferences and see where that is leading us.
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