— Reporting by Brody Miller, Bruce Feldman and Matt Fortuna
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional reporting.
It often felt to some observers that there were two groups at SEC coaches meetings — the Nick Saban guys and the others.
“Everybody’s kissing Saban’s ass like a big fraternity,” said one former SEC coach. “In the breaks (between meetings), all the Saban people are laughing and joking like they were brothers.”
Many believed that Jimbo Fisher and Saban had that sort of dynamic, the master and apprentice who worked together to build LSU into a national champion in 2003, before Fisher went on to win a championship as head coach at Florida State 10 years later and become one of the highest-paid coaches in the game. From the outside, there appeared to be a healthy dynamic between two powerful college football elder statesmen.
And then one of the ugliest public coaching rifts in SEC history erupted Thursday, and the reality of that relationship became a little clearer.
“Man, that was crazy watching that,” the SEC coach said. “Obviously that was something personal right there.”
What that referenced — Fisher calling Saban a “narcissist” and saying that somebody should slap the 70-year-old Alabama coach after Saban said Wednesday that Texas A&M “bought every player on their team” — was a fascinating window into the prickly relationship between the most successful coach in college football history and one of his proteges.
“There was (friction) all the time,” said one staffer who worked with both coaches at LSU. “Will (Muschamp) and Kirby (Smart) and all the defensive guys all bowed down to Nick, but Nick depended on Jimbo a lot. But Nick is so hard on his (offensive coordinators). They were always at each other’s throats.”
In talking to more than a dozen people with knowledge of their relationship the past two decades, most described it as one of respect — and competition. The two worked together to build winners at LSU but consistently butted heads over program details and practice structure and how to construct LSU’s offense around its dominant defense. Fisher was a young, rising star coach frustrated with his demanding boss and trying to break out through his own ambition, and Thursday’s events portrayed a man still feeling put down despite his accomplishments.
“They’re so similar personality-wise, both are from similar areas when they grew up with that whole West Virginia mentality,” said one staffer who worked with both coaches at LSU. “It’s that West Virginia grind-it-every-day super-hard-worker thing that lives with them forever. They feel like people are talking down to ‘em. And those guys were so competitive with each other.”
Seventeen years later, Fisher’s Texas A&M beat Saban’s Alabama in the regular season and then beat them again for the No. 1-ranked recruiting class nationally. After all these years, sources close to Fisher say he simply felt hurt by Saban’s remarks about the program he’s attempting to build.
“Oh, it ain’t like Nick and Kirby,” one former LSU position coach said. “There is no love lost between Nick and Jimbo — at all.”
Every Saturday morning, whether they were in Baton Rouge or Florida or a high school parking lot about to meet a recruit, Saban had a mandatory recruiting meeting for his assistants. He would bring the old speakerphone from his office, place it in the center of the table, and anybody not in attendance would call in.
“That drove Jimbo crazy,” a high-ranking former LSU staff member said.
Saban is a man built on process and details. And some of those didn’t sit quite right with Fisher. “Jimbo complained about everything Nick wanted to do,” said one staffer.
“Jimbo would complain about things Nick would say or do and always talk about the Bowdens,” another staffer said. “Jimbo was big on the Bowdens, and he just couldn’t stand what Nick was trying to do.”
Fisher played and coached under Terry Bowden at Samford and later followed him to Auburn. He left LSU in 2007 to be Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden’s “head coach in waiting” at Florida State.
Saban wanted to hire Fisher from Cincinnati, where the 34-year-old was the offensive coordinator in 1999, even before he met him. Starting in 2000 at LSU, that partnership became an undeniable success, with Fisher helping develop Josh Booty, Rohan Davey, Matt Mauck and JaMarcus Russell at quarterback while Saban’s defenses stole the show.
The tension between the two stemmed from Fisher’s belief that Saban’s philosophy limited his offense. Saban is also a notoriously demanding boss.
Mauck — the quarterback on LSU’s 2003 national championship team — recalled many practices where Fisher would run out to the field disheveled. Mauck would ask what was wrong, and Fisher would say Saban spent all day scripting the practice and then gave Fisher 10 minutes to script 80 plays. “Sometimes Jimbo didn’t know his place and would get upset about how practice was organized,” a former staffer said. Former LSU linebackers coach Mike Collins laughs remembering how Fisher had to give the offensive script to Saban and then the defense got to run the entire series knowing the offense’s script.
“I can only imagine if I was offensive coordinator under him that you kind of just feel like the unwanted stepchild,” Mauck said.
That’s where the competition came in. Whenever it would be offense versus defense, Fisher did everything in his power to win. He’d draw up trick plays or adjust outside of the purpose of the drill.
“Jimbo would try to pencil-whip Nick to win the drill,” a staffer said. “And Nick would say, ‘That’s not what it’s about. We’re trying to get better getting ready for an opponent. That’s not how they’re gonna do it in a game.’”
Then there was the offense itself. Saban’s offensive philosophy in those days was about shrinking the game, reducing mistakes and allowing his defense to win it. And Saban likes to manage every little detail. They’d often agree on the amount of snaps for a certain formation or a certain amount of runs, and sometimes Fisher would stray from that. The problem was Saban could remember exactly what they were supposed to do.
“If it didn’t happen, you could hear him chirping in the back,” Collins said. “Well, he wasn’t chirping. He was barking and growling.” Because while Saban stressed thinking about the larger game and the best use of players, Fisher was trying to prove his abilities.
“Jimbo wanted to run all these fancy plays,” a staffer said. “Jimbo is an ‘offensive guru.’ … He wanted to showcase his playbook, and that was the biggest argument between those two.”
Former LSU and Tennessee quarterback Rick Clausen said: “Let’s call it what it was: It was a dominant defense with a sound offense for the most part that was really, really good. And that’s how (Saban) builds his teams. That’s how he builds his organizations. And I’m sure for the offensive coaches, shoot, there were times where we would go into a scrimmage and we’d have certain stuff, we had certain rules we had to abide by.”
Mauck, who remains close with Fisher, understands those years were essential for Fisher even if he was frustrated: “Jimbo would probably tell you, especially early on, (that he) was kind of like a squirrel. He looks over and he’s easily distracted. It was probably a good thing Nick held the reins back a little bit and said, ‘Hey, be creative, but let’s have a method to the madness.’”
But many of the same people pointing out Fisher’s flaws in those years are the first to say they love him. He’s a polarizing person in the profession, one who some call a “phony” and who others call one of the “highest-character people” in the business.
“He was fun to be around and once you got out of the building you wanted to have some fun because Nick made it so miserable there back then,” said a former staff member. “It just wore on everybody.”
And therein lies the part of this story that isn’t unique to Fisher. When asking former staffers what Fisher was referencing when he said in Thursday’s rant, “Just go ask the people that work for him; you’ll know exactly what he’s about,” many say he was referring to the demanding lifestyle of working for Saban.
Assistants had to be there before Saban and were expected to be there until after he was gone. It was a constant grind of recruiting and coaching, and then they’d sit in the film room after practice as Saban listed all the things that could be corrected or improved upon. One assistant coach said his son played high school football in Baton Rouge and he saw him play a total of one and a half games.
“Everybody has a tremendous amount of respect for him, but that’s why most guys can’t work for him more than two years,” the coach said. “They all say that shit about, ‘He wants you to only work two years.’ Bullshit. That’s about all you can take.”
When Saban left LSU in 2005 for the Miami Dolphins, he tried to bring Fisher with him. While one source says Saban didn’t actually offer him an on-field coaching role, Fisher decided to stay at LSU as Les Miles’ OC.
But through all the years after both left LSU, their relationship wasn’t hostile. At least it never seemed that way. On the “All Things Covered” podcast with Patrick Peterson and Bryant McFadden in 2020, Fisher described the extreme organization he learned from Saban and how he was way ahead of the game on mental health efforts for players. At those SEC meetings they’d always seem chummy, and when Saban came back from down 13-0 at halftime to beat Georgia in the 2017-18 national championship game, Fisher was waiting outside the Alabama locker room to congratulate him.
Then came Wednesday, when Saban said Texas A&M “bought” its recruiting class, and Thursday, when Fisher fired back.
“We’re done,” Fisher said.
Pete Jenkins answered the phone with a sadness behind the 80-year-old Georgia man’s voice. He’s known both these men a long time, coaching with Fisher at Auburn and LSU and working off and on with Saban for two decades as one of his favorite defensive line advisers. He had more than 10 people reaching out to him Thursday about the back-and-forth exchange.
“First of all, I feel disappointment,” he said. “Just really disappointed … I hate to see people get turned inside out like that.”
The shock from Thursday exists from both sides. Some were frustrated with Saban. “Glass houses,” one coach said. “Don’t throw rocks.” Another said: “C’mon guys. It’s like the mafia. Don’t go out there and talk about it. And he was wrong for making those broad-stroke accusations.” Mauck said, “It seemed like a low blow, in my opinion.”
Others were annoyed by Fisher’s emotional rebuttal. “It’s just Jimbo being Jimbo,” a former coach said. Another said: “It was all so predictable. He just couldn’t let it go and think like, ‘Ha ha, screw him. I got his ass.’ As funny as it was to America, it was childish.”
“They were acting like two 12-year-olds,” one person with knowledge of both coaches summarized.
Thursday sent shockwaves through the sport, two of the biggest names in the game throwing down a wrestling-style gauntlet and setting the stage for one of the most anticipated games in recent memory on Oct. 8 in Tuscaloosa. But one coach said he thinks this started the day Fisher went to work as Saban’s OC and has been bubbling ever since.
The other question: Why did Saban feel compelled to make the comments at all? Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told Sports Illustrated: “I don’t know why Nick Saban would say what he said except he’s threatened.” Multiple sources told The Athletic they think Saban was making excuses for being beat in recruiting.
A former LSU colleague agrees that this blow-up stemmed from Saban not being able to handle his protégé beating him.
“It’s like a code, and Nick crossed the line,” said the staffer. “It felt like ‘A Few Good Men.’ Nick’s always gonna make an excuse. He should’ve just said, ‘Maybe we need to do better job with NIL.’ But he’s now done that twice to Jimbo. He did it also after signing day. When Nick does that, he’s attacking someone’s character.
“Saban doesn’t expect any of his underlings to ever say anything back. (Jimbo) is the first one to punch back. A lot of these coaches are so careful that he controls their career. (Saban and Fisher’s agent Jimmy) Sexton handles all these coaches; he can sell any guy he wants when jobs open. It’s such an intertwined mess.”
Mauck spoke to Fisher on Thursday, and while he didn’t want to speak for Fisher, he said, “I think why those comments hurt so bad is he really looked up to Nick in teaching him some great things and (he felt) like this was a low blow.” He said every time he’s ever spoken privately with Fisher about Saban in the past it was with nothing but respect.
Nearly every person The Athletic spoke with acknowledged Fisher likely wouldn’t be the coach he is without those years with Saban. Fisher has mentioned that many times.
Many hope the two will repair their relationship (Saban apologized Thursday; Fisher has had no public comments since his news conference). There’s a lesson, one of the former staffers thinks, that we should all take away from this week:
“Some things are just better left unsaid.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Getty Images