Last spring, there was no burgeoning rivalry more relevant than that between Alabama and Texas A&M.
However, the fight was not between the two football programs that took place on the gridiron. Rather, it was a war of words between the head coaches of both teams.
In a corner of the metaphorical ring sat Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. It was Saban’s remarks at a World Games promotional event that sparked the dispute.
“We were second in recruitment last year,” said Saban. “A&M was first. A&M bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, image and likeness. We didn’t buy a single player. But I don’t know if we’ll be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it.”
In the other corner you had Aggie’s head coach, Jimbo Fisher. Understandably upset by the allegations hurled at him by Saban, Fisher held an emergency press conference that passed as one for the ages.
“It’s a shame we have to do this,” Fisher said. “It’s really despicable. It’s despicable that anyone can say anything about anyone, especially 17-year-old kids. They shoot 17 year old kids and their families that they broke state laws we all bought players in the group?
“It’s despicable that a serious head coach can come out and say that when he doesn’t get his way or things don’t go his way. The narcissist in him doesn’t allow these things to happen. It’s ridiculous when he’s not on top.”
Now, almost five months later, there is calm on both fronts as the two teams prepare for this weekend’s game.
Or are you?
Since those fateful events happened in May, Saban and Fisher seem to have reconciled their hurts. Saban has now issued repeated on-file apologies for specifically calling Texas A&M, while Fisher – later this week – has vehemently insisted there is no water under the proverbial bridge between himself and his former boss.
“It’s over,” Fisher said during his press conference Monday. “He and I are in great shape. We are great things and we have evolved.”
While the two head coaches may have moved on from their feud, the fan bases of the two teams certainly haven’t. While Crimson Tide fans are still hurt by their team’s last-minute loss at Bryan College Station, Aggies fans are just as upset by the ongoing allegations made by Saban months after the season ended.
The fur may have stopped flying between the two carriages, but their silence is louder than if the two were still at each other’s throats. But why is it like that?
Early in the second quarter of his game in Arkansas last weekend, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young suffered a shoulder injury and was unable to return. Later that same afternoon, approximately 350 miles away in Starkville, Miss., Texas A&M quarterback Max Johnson walked out of the game with an injury to his non-shooting hand.
There was no injury at the end of the season. However, that hasn’t stopped both coaches from jumping at the opportunity to keep their quarterback situation as close to their chests as possible.
In their press conferences on Monday, both coaches’ injury reports sounded remarkably similar.
“We’re going to go from day to day,” Fisher said. “We will evaluate him later in the day.”
“He’ll be day after day,” Saban said. “If he can throw again – we just have to evaluate it from day to day.”
The same similar statements occurred on Wednesday.
“We walk with him every day,” Fisher said. “I’m sure it will get better every day, hopefully.”
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“He does some things in practice and is still listed as day by day,” Saban said.
Both coaches may simply refrain from showing their hands too early. Or maybe there are more at work here. Both coaches might really have said goodbye to their beef, but maybe — just maybe — they both play a game of chess, not checkers.
None of the coaches want to make the first move. Neither Saban nor Fisher want to move their characters too soon. Both hold back silently, waiting for the other to make the first mistake. First, it was the subtle remarks that both parties were forgiven for everything. Now that same subtlety has morphed into silence about their respective teams’ quarterback situations.
These two coaches want to win this football game more than they would ever admit.
Let’s face it: no matter how much Fisher and Saban claim to have moved on as of this year, they haven’t. Your players don’t. Your fans don’t. Earlier this season, the game between the Crimson Tide and the Aggies was scheduled as a regular season marquee game. And now that we’re so close, it’s been downed by many fans and media alike as a speed bump in Alabama’s path to a seemingly inevitable appearance in the playoffs.
Texas A&M’s losses to Appalachian State and Mississippi State didn’t help spice up the matchup, but let’s not forget: The Aggies also lost two games before upsetting Alabama last year.
And let’s not forget that Fisher was the first former Saban assistant to overthrow his former boss.
Saban hasn’t forgotten that, and Fisher hasn’t forgotten the spring notes. While the game’s hype may have waned due to on-field action that’s completely unrelated to the growing wickedness of the two programs, the stakes remain the same.
For Saban, it’s a chance to reset what has become the norm during his tenure in Alabama. To maintain balance in an otherwise chaotic SEC West. For Fisher, this weekend’s game symbolizes a means to regain his footing in the division while seeking a semblance of revenge for his rival’s offseason remarks.
Just minutes after Alabama beat Arkansas, Saban was already keeping quiet about the status of the preparation of various game plans depending on the quarterback under center.
“I don’t know, I was going to call Jimbo afterward and tell him exactly what we were going to do,” Saban joked. “So if he can hear it in the press conference then I don’t have to call him.”
Fisher echoed Saban this week regarding his own team’s quarterback situation.
“What should I do, call Nick and tell him?” Fisher said jokingly. “I mean, guys, come on man.”
That doesn’t sound like two coaches who have moved on.
While the game may not be as significant to the wider college football world as many believed just a few months ago, it is still serious business for both coaches, players on both teams, and both fan bases. This game is just like the SEC slogan says: It just means more.
The game could be played under the lights of Bryant-Denny Stadium this weekend, but this feud is likely far from over.
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