Last winter, a message board poster named “Sliced Bread” wrote that Texas A&M’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class was, at least in part, a product of the school doling out some $30 million to prospects via name, image and likeness deals.
No proof was offered. No credibility existed. The actual figure was wildly outside the market rate and thus made no sense.
It didn’t matter. In the modern media world of aggregation, it was turned into a story and went viral from there. It was repeated so often A&M coach Jimbo Fisher felt compelled to address it.
He said it wasn’t true. He said SEC coaches who repeated it (hello, Lane Kiffin) were “clown acts” and “irresponsible as hell.” He just couldn’t believe it.
“Things were taken off a message board … by a guy named ‘Sliced Bread,’” Fisher ranted. “Whoever the heck that is.”
Well, it turns out he might be Nick Saban.
Put it this way, if Saban did have a burner account, “Sliced Bread” would be an appropriate handle since, at least in terms of coaching college football, he is the greatest thing since.
And, it turns out, he most certainly believes that A&M used NIL money of some amount to score all those recruits.
“A&M bought every player on their team,” Saban said Wednesday night at an event in Birmingham, Alabama, according to al.com. “Made a deal for name, image and likeness. We didn’t buy one player. Aight? But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”
College players can earn money through endorsements and appearances now — Saban said players on his team collectively made over $3 million. However, schools are not allowed to set up the deals and they can’t serve as an inducement to a recruit.
What Saban was alleging against A&M would be a NCAA major violation … perhaps 30 times over for each of the Aggies' 30 recruits. Well, that is if the NCAA actually wanted to enforce the rules.
This was a shot across the bow of historic proportions. While college coaches are known to gossip like middle schoolers off the record, it’s difficult to recall a coach publicly labeling another major program a cheat. Let alone one the stature of Saban against a former assistant. Fisher worked for Saban at LSU from 2000-2004.
On Thursday morning, Fisher fired back at his former employer, denying the accusations and calling Saban a "narcissist" — among other things.
“Some people think they are God,” Fisher said of Saban. “Go dig into how God did his deal and you may find out a lot about a lot of things you don’t want to know. We build him up to be this czar of football, go dig into his past.
“You can find out anything you want to find out or what he does or how he does it.”
Sliced Bread Saban didn't levy accusations of NIL improprieties at only Fisher.
“Jackson State paid a guy [top ranked recruit Travis Hunter] a million dollars last year … to come to school,” Saban said. “It was in the paper and they bragged about it. Nobody did anything about it.”
Jackson State coach Deion Sanders, who stars in Aflac commercials with Saban, immediately clapped back and repeated a denial that Jackson State used NIL money in a way that violates NCAA rules. He took exception to the idea that Hunter, an African American from suburban Atlanta, chose to attend a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) because of money.
“You best believe I will address that LIE Coach SABAN told,” Sanders tweeted. “... We as a PEOPLE don’t have to pay our PEOPLE to play with our PEOPLE.”
Saban also mentioned a Miami booster offering a $400,000 per season deal to a basketball transfer to endorse his company, LifeWallet, as a recruiting ploy to come play for the Hurricanes. That booster says what he does is NCAA legal.
The back-and-forth between Saban and Fisher resulted in a reprimand from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. Saban apologized Thursday.
Saban has been outspoken about how NIL is impacting recruiting, but these were his boldest comments yet.
Fisher, meanwhile, has been all over the place on the issue. He once joked on "The Paul Finebaum Show" that “there’s always been NIL stuff going on, it just wasn’t legal.” At other times he railed at the very suggestion that money had anything to do with the Aggies getting the top-ranked class for the first time.
Reality is likely somewhere in the middle. Texas A&M is a great place to play football and Fisher is a national championship coach (Florida State) whose staff did an exceptional job with lots of local recruits, particularly out of the Houston area.
That said, the Class of 2022 was Fisher’s fifth recruiting class since getting to College Station and he’d never had such success (A&M hadn’t ranked higher than sixth per Rivals.com).
Was money, or the promise of money, flowing around? Probably.
Was it $30 million? Almost assuredly not.
Did the Aggies violate NCAA rules? Who knows.
Is Saban, 70, just salty about the world of recruiting changing? Maybe. And maybe that is genuine or maybe it’s because under the old system he scored the No. 1 class in the country in nine of the last 13 years (and finished second, per Rivals, two other times). It’s part of why Saban has won seven national titles at Alabama.
Oh, and Fisher last year became the first Saban assistant to defeat the mentor.
What is clear is that Saban believes Alabama is playing by one rule in recruiting — the ones that are actually on the books — and other schools aren’t. He can weather that for now because many top players will seek a coach/program that can get them to the NFL over the short money of some recruiting inducement. Saban has had 41 NFL first-round draft picks at Alabama.
Besides, if you are a star in Tuscaloosa, you’ll make money (QB Bryce Young reportedly made $1 million last year).
So Saban has every right to call out double standards. Certainly there are plenty of Tide boosters ready to open the checkbook at Saban’s command.
Alabama isn’t, however, as wealthy of a school or a state as Texas A&M and many others. If open money becomes part of the recruiting process, then Saban is correct, he won’t be able to secure the top class year after year after year.
That, of course, is a big reason to see NIL — or pay for play — as a positive, not a negative. Compensation is how smaller, newer or distantly remote companies combat bigger, established ones for top employees in the professional world. Spreading the talent out should help bring parity to a sport that has been dominated by just a handful of schools the last decade and a half.
That’s all a debate for another day.
Sliced Bread Saban spoke loudly Wednesday night and the reverberations and rivalries will be considerable.