Nick Saban doesn’t say anything without a reason.
Admittedly, it’s been over a decade since I was around Saban with any regularity, beginning with his time as head coach at LSU to his arrival in Tuscaloosa through his first national championship at Alabama.
I never knew him to say something “off the cuff’’ or “on the fly’’ that he hadn’t thought about and had a purpose behind. Those questions where he unloaded on some poor sportswriter in a press conference? Almost always, Saban was looking for an excuse to unload about something, to send a message to either his team, his fan base, his administration or college football at large.
Everything, in his now famous “process,’’ served a purpose.
So, when the most successful football coach in college history – at least from the standpoint of winning national championships – accused Texas A&M and Jackson State of (legally) buying players through the NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rules that has turned the NCAA into the wild, wild west, he did so with a purpose.
Why did he single out Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, a former assistant with whom he has a long history and who has patterned a lot of what he does after Saban? Why Jackson State, coached by Deion Sanders, with whom he does those AFLAC commercials?
It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they knew it was coming. Or, if they didn’t – and they sound like they didn’t – that Saban didn’t know by going after friends, he could mitigate the fallout better than if he went after a coach he didn’t know as well.
But remember: Saban didn’t accuse anyone of cheating. He simply said that A&M and, as a smaller example, Jackson State, found a way to drive a Mack truck through the unregulated tunnel created when the NCAA ran away from its responsibility to properly regulate college football.
If you remember, when the NIL rules were first passed, a number of state legislatures – including Alabama’s – passed state laws that limited an athlete's ability to receive money. The few states that had legislatures that passed such rules soon found their state school football programs were at a disadvantage to those state schools where state legislatures didn’t try to regulate spending on college athletes (like Texas).
It didn’t take long for Saban to explain the situation and the Alabama legislature responded by doing away with any laws governing NIL and college athletes.
As for the usually rules-loving NCAA, I was told at the time that the powers that be didn’t know how to handle the court cases that were ruling in favor of athletes being able to share in the big money that had been the exclusive gold mine of ultra-successful head coaches and the athletic departments that served those coaches’ every whim.
They were hoping maybe Congress, or the Supreme Court of the United States, would step in and regulate it for them. Instead, they got a 9-0 decision by the Supreme Court that said, in essence, that strict NCAA limits on compensating college athletes violated U.S. antitrust law, and the NIL was legal because the courts said it never made any sense for college sports to deny athletes advantages conferred on every other student on campus.
It turned into a free-for-all, because nobody is better than a college coach at exploiting the smallest advantage. I used to laugh when I heard college coaches complain about how thick and unmanageable the NCAA rulebook was, because those were the same college coaches that looked at every new rule implemented by the NCAA and immediately found the loophole.
Can’t visit a prospect during a specific time period (known as ‘dead periods)? Fine. Park your car across the street from his house, call him on his cell phone and suggest he look out the front window, where he’d see Coach waving from the driver’s side window of his Lincoln Navigator.
Or go watch a prospect playing in a summer league basketball game when you can't talk? Just make sure you’re at the water fountain when the prospect goes for a drink. The NCAA rules allowed “inadvertently bumping into a prospect” in the course of normal activities. Amazing how carefully "inadvertent bumping'' could be arranged.
And it always takes new rules to find ways to plug the holes that coaches are so good at exploiting, which is why the NCAA seems so unwieldy.
So, when the courts ruled that college athletes could be paid for being who they are, who didn’t know it would soon become a process that makes NFL contract negotiations look amateur by comparison?
Was Saban really going after Texas A&M and Jackson State (Jackson State!)? Or did he know he would re-start the conversation questioning the sustainability of the current form of NIL rules?
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart – another Saban disciple – said it this way: “I just want to make sure that the game stays at a point where we can control it. I’m all for the players. We’ve had a lot of players getting opportunities with name, image, likeness. I would just like it where a decision isn’t based on where ‘I’m going to the highest bidder.’ If we could control that some kind of way, it would be much better.”
I think Saban is determined to force the NCAA to deal with an issue that is getting way, way out of hand.
Or maybe, as Sanders told Andscape.com, Saban wasn’t really addressing Texas A&M and Jackson State but rather Alabama’s own big-money boosters, to remind them that to compete in today’s world of NIL no-holds-barred recruiting, the Bama crowd needed to come off their wallets to match the A&M good ‘ole boys.
“Coach Saban wasn’t talking to me. Coach Saban wasn’t talking to Jimbo Fisher. He was talking to his boosters. He was talking to his alumni. He was talking to his givers. He was trying to get money,” Sanders said. “That was what he was doing. He was just using us to get to where he was trying to get to.”
See? The people that know Saban know that one way or the other, he is always playing the long game.
And usually, he’s one move ahead of the field.
Ray Melick is Editor-in-Chief of 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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