From the accusations of a $30 million slush fund from random message board poster “SlicedBread” to Lane Kiffin suggesting Texas A&M’s signing class should incur a “luxury tax” to Nick Saban outright accusing the Aggies of “buying” every player in their No. 1-ranked 2022 recruiting class, Jimbo Fisher has had his feathers ruffled numerous times this offseason.
Fisher went ballistic Thursday in an impromptu news conference solely to answer Saban, calling his former colleague a “narcissist,” suggesting he should be “slapped,” calling the accusations “despicable” and maintaining that his program has recruited within the rules.
It’s at least the fourth time since signing day in February that Fisher has publicly admonished critics. There were two such rants Feb. 2, another April 5, then Fisher’s skewering of Saban on Thursday morning. The verbal jabs from Kiffin, Saban and other colleagues clearly bother Fisher. It grates on his ego. He hates that people believe he bought the signing class. He points to his track record as an elite recruiter, even before name, image and likeness (NIL) fundamentally altered the space.
Since he became a head coach, Fisher has signed 13 recruiting classes. Twelve of them ranked in the top nine by at least one major recruiting service, and three of them, including the 2022 class, ranked No. 1 (only the 2022 class reached the top spot in the 247Sports Composite). Fisher readily brings up his past recruiting success when the topic arises.
But this is a new era. The NCAA’s bare-bones name, image and likeness policy instituted last summer and the preceding court decisions that prompted a largely hands-off approach opened the door for chaos at the top of college football’s recruiting food chain. Collectives popped up, including at Texas A&M, where donors did secure deals for 2022 prospects, though not in the tens of millions as many have alleged. Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told The Athletic on Thursday that most of the players in A&M’s 2022 class do not have NIL deals.
If the accusations bother Fisher that much, there’s an easy way to put a stop to all of them: offer specifics about what the Aggies are doing in the NIL space. Show us your cards.
And this is not just a challenge to Fisher, but to Saban, Kiffin and everyone else who wishes to lob stones from their glass houses. Why not just tell the world what you’re doing? Saban says, “We didn’t buy one player” in the 2022 class at Alabama. Well, Nick, if you’re going to lob accusations at your division rival, or Jackson State coach Deion Sanders, show us exactly what you’re doing in Tuscaloosa. Or have your boosters do it. Tennessee’s collective, Spyre Sports, certainly hasn’t been shy about promoting its work, nor has Miami booster John Ruiz. Texas boosters openly announced the Clark Field Collective and Horns with Hearts programs last fall.
“We never bought anybody,” Fisher said Thursday. “No rules were broken. Nothing was done wrong.”
In this spirit, I called Bjork on Thursday to ask this precise question, not to pick on the Aggies, but to use them as a test case since they’re the ones taking all the heat right now and are clearly bothered by it. If Fisher is adamant that everything is above board, why not just disclose the details?
Bjork said it’s difficult to do because whenever a player signs an NIL deal, they’re required to disclose it to the school’s compliance department.
“When it comes to disclosure, because they’re students, it becomes a student record,” Bjork told me. “I do agree with you that if there were sunshine on all the contracts (it would be beneficial), but they’re students and these are student records and they’re not subject to open records.”
Bjork said that originally the NCAA planned to have a central database in which every NIL deal would be stored and publicly viewable. But that didn’t happen, so now everyone is left to speculate on who got what unless you’ve seen a contract, as The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel has, or you have an involved figure like Ruiz openly tweeting out details. So, though Bjork agrees with the overall sentiment that transparency would help all this, “It’s not that straightforward and it’s not a coach or even an AD that can decide that.”
So what is A&M doing NIL-wise? According to Bjork, most of the 2022 class doesn’t have an NIL deal. Those who do have deals that total in the “low single-digit millions,” as A&M boosters told The Athletic’s Andy Staples last month. Kenny Lawson, the chief executive officer of C.C. Creations, a printing company based in College Station, Texas, said during a public NIL panel at Texas A&M in April that the Aggies have “several collectives” that have engaged his company to do NIL deals with A&M athletes.
“They’re bringing a lot more money, because it is a collective of big donors, to help engage the opportunities that some of the bigger athletes have,” Lawson said. “They’re getting creative. They’re trying to find ways because it has to be a separation from the university because the university can’t have anything to do with it.”
TexAgs.com, a popular fan site for A&M devotees, has also done deals with current A&M athletes to arrange exclusive interviews via sponsorship and by pooling money together from its subscribers for such access.
Lawson said in April, “The price tag is definitely raised. These guys are coming with big money. Some of the deals you hear out there are real, some are not.”
Bjork, like Fisher, said he “absolutely” believes the Aggies have been above board and followed relevant rules and laws when it comes to NIL deals.
Part of the issue is that NIL’s impact on recruiting, which looks like a proxy for pay-for-play in some cases, is largely done in the shadows where the “bag man” culture has long operated. Recruiting inducements are as old as time: The Southwest Conference crumbled in part because of how many of its programs were sanctioned — most famously, SMU with its “Death Penalty” — over payments to recruits.
Because of the NCAA’s long-standing defense of amateurism, college coaches have spent virtually their entire careers in a climate in which paying players was deemed morally wrong. So when coaches throw out accusations, the recipients take it personally because the sport has conditioned those in and around it that it’s a no-no.
Furthermore, Fisher is an ultra-competitive recruiter, just like Saban. And Saban was a friend and former colleague, so the words stung. Before this recruiting cycle, both coaches usually spoke highly and respectfully of each other.
“We’re being accused of inducing players to come to Texas A&M really only using NIL as the inducement,” Bjork said. “Forget about the program, forget about facilities, forget about being coached by a national championship coach, forget about the 2020 season, forget about the (2021) Alabama win. ‘Oh, the only reason they’re choosing A&M is because of inducements.’ So that’s why we’re offended and why we’re defensive about it.
“A lot of people are like ‘Well, just embrace it.’ We’re embracing NIL. We have all kinds of tools in place for our student-athletes, but we’re being accused of inducing players. So that’s the crux of the whole thing where everybody’s agitated.”
Saban, in an appearance on SiriusXM College Sports on Thursday afternoon, apologized for singling out Fisher and Sanders.
“I should have never really singled anybody out,” Saban said. “That was a mistake and I really apologize for that part of it.”
He later added: “I really wasn’t saying that anybody did anything illegal in using name, image and likeness. I didn’t say that. That was something that was assumed by what I said, which is not really what I meant, nor was what I said. There’s nothing illegal about doing this. It’s the system that allows you to do it and that’s the issue that I have.”
The institution of NIL last summer sparked a massive sea change that’s not even a year old and is still evolving. Coaches and programs are still grappling with its effects. It clearly plays a role in recruiting, yet it’s not fully clear how much because of how new it is and how few of the contracts are publicized.
But it’s here and it’s not changing despite how uncomfortable it makes current coaches. Both Fisher and Saban have said they are not against NIL, but both are asking for a national law that may never come. Saban, in his radio interview, raised issue with collectives because of competitive balance, but that idea seems laughable considering the resource gap between programs like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Texas and Texas A&M and programs like Akron, New Mexico State and Rice, which are purportedly in the same subdivision of football but have just a fraction of the budget as the big boys.
College football coaches are used to being in control of everything and this is largely out of their control, so embracing it is difficult to stomach. But transparency would help.
Maybe there will come a time when all the contracts are announced and out in the open and everybody knows what everyone else is doing. Maybe not.
In the meantime, enjoy the show and mark your calendar for Oct. 8 when Texas A&M visits Alabama. It’ll be a doozy.
(Photo: Maria Lysaker / USA Today)