FROM THE OUTSIDE, what happened a year ago this week looked like a bruised ego lashing out. Alabama coach Nick Saban couldn't abide not having the top-ranked recruiting class in the country, so he took aim at No. 1 Texas A&M, claiming it "bought every player" via name, image and likeness deals.
Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher was so incensed by his former boss' comments that he called a news conference for the following day. He said, among other things, that Saban was a "narcissist" who should have been slapped.
Opposing coaches said while Fisher made it unnecessarily personal, it was Saban who started the war of words by crossing a line and singling out Texas A&M.
"Nick lost on the field," said one SEC head coach, referring to Alabama's loss to Texas A&M during the regular season. It was the first time Saban had ever been defeated by a former assistant. "But worse than that, he'd lost some recruits he doesn't normally lose."
But it also didn't add up that an 8-4 Texas A&M team with an outdated offense could sign all those four- and five-star prospects, the SEC coach said. "One thing changed," he said, referring to the NCAA's decision in June 2021 to allow players to profit from their name, image and likeness for the first time. While perhaps not its intended purpose, NIL has shifted the dynamics of recruiting more than at any point in college sports history.
And it turns out that even a juggernaut like Alabama -- which has dominated recruiting since Saban arrived in 2007 -- was caught unprepared.
If you want to understand why Saban said what he did last May, start there. Sources close to the program say it was never about Texas A&M or Jimbo Fisher. It was all about Alabama.
It was about the people in the room that night -- at an event in Birmingham promoting the World Games of all things. Media access was supposed to be limited for a "fireside chat" featuring Saban and Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats. Neither coach took questions from reporters. Cameras should have been shut off by the time Saban launched into a 7-minute diatribe on NIL.
Only no one enforced the rules and everyone got to hear Saban's unvarnished talking points, which he'd only shared privately before.
"It was a challenge to those that were in the crowd that night, mostly consisting of deep-pocketed Bama boosters in what was a relatively intimate event," said former Tide QB Greg McElroy. "It was a shot in the arm like, 'Hey, man. I know you've really enjoyed the championships that we've brought home in the last 12-13 years. And if you want us to continue to compete, you better get the checkbook out.'"
For the longest time, those same boosters had poured money into the athletic department. But now that wasn't enough. To stay at the top, Saban needed them to embrace NIL and start spending.
"That was Coach's call to action," McElroy said. "He's saying, 'Guess what? The world is changing, and we better get ready.'"
FANS WHO CAME to Tuscaloosa for the spring A-Day scrimmage last month were able to visit The Authentic. Located inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium, the shop is a first-of-its kind partnership with Fanatics where people can purchase player-branded NIL merchandise.
To the left of the main register is an assortment of player-specific items. A crimson short-sleeve shirt with the last name and number for cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, safety Malachi Moore, outside linebacker Dallas Turner and others. A few yards away a framed photo of wideout Ja'Corey Brooks sells for $199.
A portion of sales goes to the players.
None of this existed a year ago. The Authentic wasn't announced until July. It didn't open until Oct. 8 -- which just so happened to be the day Alabama hosted Texas A&M in football.
High Tide Traditions was Alabama's primary collective when Saban and Fisher got into it last year. It was barely a month old, trying to raise awareness and money. As one source described the situation: "Everyone was scrambling."
The school's NIL offerings were lagging behind other top programs in the country because of the athletic department's cautious approach to future legislation and sustainability, as well as boosters' contentedness with the status quo.
"The Tennessees, the USCs, the A&Ms, the Texases, the Miamis, they're desperate fan bases that are willing to throw their money away at [NIL]," a source familiar with Alabama's NIL fundraising said. "If all of the sudden they won six national championships, I guarantee you those donors would tell them, 'Find someone else.'"
The result was a recruiting powerhouse that was loosening its grip -- ever so slightly, but enough to make a difference.
It's a reality Saban has acknowledged in private. At a booster gathering last month, he addressed NIL. High Tide Traditions had dissolved in February and was replaced by Yea Alabama, which Saban publicly endorsed. Boosters in attendance were given pamphlets on the new collective, showing how they could get involved. Saban told the crowd they were still playing catch-up. But, he said, they were closing the gap fast.
For proof, look no further than the newcomers who took the field at A-Day, including members of a freshman class that ranked No. 1 nationally, according to ESPN. Saban and his staff signed a record eight top-25 prospects. Four of those eight signees -- offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor, defensive back Caleb Downs, running back Justice Haynes and defensive tackle James Smith -- participated in a meet-and-greet at The Authentic in February.
Haynes was the star of the open scrimmage with three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving). This summer, he'll be joined by the No. 1-ranked running back in the class in Richard Young.
Also featured for the first time were transfers Trezman Marshall from Georgia, who had four tackles, and tight end CJ Dippre from Maryland, who caught one pass.
Without a more aggressive NIL approach, are all of those players in Tuscaloosa? Maybe not. A source connected to the program said Alabama lost out on signing a star receiver in the transfer market a year earlier because it was unwilling (or unable) to get into a bidding war.
In the weeks after A-Day, Alabama added to its quarterback room by signing former Notre Dame starter Tyler Buchner. And it created some much needed depth in its secondary by bringing in Trey Amos from Louisiana and Jaylen Key from UAB.
Saban was asked in December about how NIL played a role in the team's 2023 signing class, which featured four more ESPN 300 players than the year before.
"It did have an impact on recruiting with some players," he said.
He paused and then shrugged.
"I don't know how you make comments about a crazy situation right now," he said.
Nick Saban says he and his players are very pleased thus far with new Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Tommy Rees after the first spring scrimmage.
FROM THE BEGINNING, Saban has been up front about his reservations regarding NIL. While he has repeatedly said he's in favor of players making money, he has also expressed concerns about how it might become the end-all, be-all in recruiting, creating a "pay for play" model.
That night in Birmingham, Saban told the audience what recruits were asking him: "Well, what am I going to get?" He said prospects in the state who grew up wanting to go to Alabama wouldn't commit if the Tide could not match another school's offer.
While the Tide could coast on reputation for a while -- internally, the consensus was they wouldn't experience a significant dip for another one or two recruiting classes -- it was clear the old way of doing things was over. And it wasn't just Texas A&M setting the pace. Saban also brought up Jackson State and Miami for reportedly paying exorbitant amounts for players. He didn't mince words when he said, "I know that we're going to lose recruits because somebody else is going to be willing to pay them more."
"He had a structure. He had a system. He was nailing college football," one SEC coach said. "Why would you want something new? Just like he didn't want the new-age offenses around, he didn't want NIL."
Right or wrong, another source said, "The anger and frustration was that there were other people out there not playing by the rules." Specifically, Saban has brought up the notion that NIL isn't supposed to be used to "entice" a player to a certain school. But that's an awfully fine line that no program has been publicly accused of crossing by the NCAA.
Former staff members recalled a similar situation when Saban underestimated the impact of the early signing period when it began for the 2018 class. Saban was frustrated by Alabama's lackluster sixth-place finish in the recruiting rankings that year, but he adjusted and the next year the Crimson Tide were No. 1 again.
Just like his public opposition to up-tempo offenses a decade ago -- he famously asked if this was what we wanted football to be? -- it's a mistake to interpret his comments as coming from a place of fear. After losing to the more advanced offenses of Ole Miss, Auburn and Texas A&M, Saban went out and hired former USC coach Lane Kiffin after the 2013 season to bring the spread and up-tempo to Tuscaloosa. The result was national championships and a string of pro quarterbacks in Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young.
Even if he starts a half-beat behind sometimes, Saban has proved he can catch up and often get ahead of the curve. As a former assistant explained, "He's not afraid of change."
Making things easier was the NCAA's revised guidance on NIL in October, which included this key point: "Institutions may direct donor funds to collectives when fundraising, but they may not specify which student-athlete or sport these funds should be directed to."
In January, Alabama announced another landmark deal, this time with multimedia rights giant Learfield. The pair planned to create an "epicenter of support for name, image and likeness" right next-door to The Authentic, providing players resources like a dedicated staff, meeting space and even a studio.
The Fanatics and Learfield deals, along with others, put Alabama on solid footing. Athletic director Greg Byrne recently told the Sports Business Journal, "We have tried to be slow and steady from an NIL standpoint. We have tried to not have a whole lot of shock and awe."
DON'T BE SURPRISED if Alabama still gets outbid on occasion.
Just because the school has more money to commit to NIL now than it did before doesn't mean it has the most. Its donor base is still relatively modest compared to larger, more well-funded alumni bases like Texas A&M's.
"Miami, Texas, Oregon," said one Power 5 head coach. "They have more money than Alabama's donors do."
A leader of a Power 5 collective in the South said Saban's original vision for NIL made sense. Essentially, Saban wanted every player to earn the same amount -- a base salary of sorts -- and from there they could earn more in the marketplace based on performance and exposure. The problem, according to the leader of the Power 5 collective, is that the base salary was too small for some higher-end recruits and Alabama was getting outbid by two and three times.
Sources say that's changed and Alabama has become more competitive thanks to better NIL funding. Which in turn has allowed Saban to make up the difference by pitching the national reach of the program -- read: lucrative marketing opportunities -- and the ability to compete for national championships.
Saban then uses another three-letter acronym to reinforce Alabama's value: NFL.
His pitch to recruits, according to multiple sources, is simple yet effective: Do you want to make an extra $30,000 in NIL somewhere else, or do you want to come here and make an extra $30 million by going to the NFL?
Alabama has produced more than 40 first-round picks since Saban arrived in 2007. Its creative team is fond of trotting out graphics with the total amount of money earned by players in the NFL since that time. The latest tally: $1.94 billion.
Saban says playing for national championships and developing for the next level should trump upfront NIL money. He can look no further than Texas A&M's highly touted classes of 2021 and 2022, which have seen 15 departures following a 5-7 season with just two wins in SEC play last season, for evidence that winning matters.
But to be in the conversation with top prospects, NIL money has to be competitive. In the beginning, Alabama was too far apart from other schools. Now, according to sources, Alabama is close enough in NIL for the rest of Saban's pitch to matter.
Complacency will always be a concern. A program insider pointed to Florida's downfall after Urban Meyer -- how the program relied on its reputation for too long, didn't invest properly in facilities and fell behind.
But the difference is that Saban is still at Alabama. And he still clearly has a sense of urgency when it comes to staying ahead of the competition.
Losing to Texas A&M stung. Losing to the Aggies in recruiting was something he couldn't stomach.
The result was a messy back-and-forth the SEC brass surely wishes never happened. But from Alabama's perspective, it might have been the wake-up call boosters needed.
Saban and the Tide might have been a step slow when it came to the NIL arms race, but they've caught up in a hurry.