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Theatre of the Absurd: NIL Madness, Saban vs. Fisher, Money Wasted. Hats Off to Warriors' Defense

The dawn of NIL player compensation and the transfer portal has led to a brave new world in college football and basketball, where old-fashioned recruiting methods have given way to six and seven-figure inducements.

Schools are luring high school prospects and transfers with the aid of booster "collectives" that pony up big NIL (name, image and likeness) deals.

The NCAA, fearful of more anti-trust lawsuits, has offered few restrictions and no enforcement to date. The politicians in Washington have also punted.

Sadly, we’ve reached the point in college football and basketball where the only things that matter are money and winning. Winning at all cost. That’s why we have $9 million coaches, $3.7 million recruiting budgets, and $8 million NIL contracts for top recruits.

It’s business. Big business. Academics and integrity be damned.

In what seemed like a nanosecond, the long overdue compensation for college football and basketball players morphed into multi-million dollar free agency and high stakes bidding wars.

I have a number of old friends—including former sports editors, publicists and players, and several lifelong fans—who have been completely turned off by the madness.

With good reason.

Saban vs. Fisher: Coaches and athletic directors throughout the country have done a lot of grumbling about the obvious NIL abuses, fearful that they're only going to get worse, without finger pointing or naming names.

That all changed last week with some nasty verbal sparring between Alabama coach Nick Saban and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher (above), two gentlemen who each make almost $10 million per year.

It started with Saban accusing Fisher (and others) of using NIL deals to "buy" players and noting that A&M “bought every player on their team.” Fisher immediately responded by calling a press conference, blasting Saban’s “despicable” comments, proclaiming his school innocent of all charges, and advising reporters to look into the Alabama coach's past, strongly implying he'd been cheating for several decades.

Both coaches came off looking like petulant schoolboys. Saban, still smarting from his loss to Texas A&M last fall and the fact he finished No. 2 behind the Aggies in this year's recruiting rankings, whined like a sore loser. Fisher, as Shakespeare might say, doth protested too much.

Apart from the obvious animosity between the two high-profile coaches, the dialogue was interesting on two levels.

First, in the "everybody cheats" world of college football (note: there are a few who don’t, one is located in Palo Alto), there's an unwritten code that one coach will not call out another, knowing that the accused could immediately retaliate with charges of his own. This episode blew the coaches’ détente to smithereens.

Second, the sheer absurdity of some of Fisher's comments was amusing. He said "You can call me anything you want to call me; you can't call me a cheat." This from a man who just two years ago was sanctioned by the NCAA for multiple violations and banned from contact with recruits and off-campus recruiting activities.

Fisher also claimed the key to his recruiting success was the quality of the education at Texas A&M and that "there ain't a better university in this country."

This might come as a surprise to the folks at Stanford, Rice, Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Michigan, Cal, UCLA, the Ivy League and dozens of other schools. For the record, the latest US News & World Report rankings of U.S. universities had A&M at No. 68.

Money Wasted, Part 1: The most recently available NCAA tax return revealed that outgoing president Mark Emmert earned $2.99 million in 2020 and that the organization spent $52.5 million on outside legal fees.

Over the past seven years the NCAA spent $304.5 million for outside help in losing legal battles and another $79 million reimbursing the prevailing parties for their legal fees.


Wasted Money, Part 2: Perhaps the most pathetic example of money being poured down the drain is the amount of money being paid to fired football coaches.

An analysis of buyout figures from 52 public Power 5 Conference institutions for fiscal 2021 revealed that the schools spent $105 million on severance payments to coaches and administrators across all sports. The bulk of the money—some $77.6M—went to college football coaches’ buyouts.

Even more ridiculous.

Wasted Money, Part 3: The Pac-12’s tax return for fiscal 2021 revealed $344 million in revenue, the conference’s lowest total since 2013, in part due to COVID’s impact on football revenues. Each school’s payout was $19.8M, roughly half the payouts for Big Ten and SEC members.

One big drain on the conference coffers was the Pac-12 Network, which brought in $43 million against $57 in expenses, for a loss of $14M. The network has been a failure since its inception. Former commissioner Larry Scott (who was paid 3.7M in 2021) made a series of fatal errors and misjudgments—going it alone rather than in partnership with ESPN or Fox, insisting on seven separate feeds throughout the conference footprint, and failing to work out a deal with Direct TV, then alienating them with an ill-advised ad campaign—that doomed the network.

New commissioner George Kliavkoff has been an improvement, despite his inexplicable vote against College Football Playoff expansion, by actually listening to his presidents and athletic directors, instituting a “work remote” policy for employees that will save the league millions of dollars by leaving its palatial offices in San Francisco, and changing the Pac-12 football championship format. The game will now match the two teams with the best conference record, rather than the division winners.

Kliavkoff’s next challenges will be to renegotiate the media rights deals that expire in two years and to figure out what to do with the Pac-12 Network.

Good luck with that.

Warriors’ Winning Formula: Say what you will about the Warriors' incredible array of offensive weapons, but the real reason they are up 3-0 against the Dallas Mavericks is defense. Coach Steve Kerr and his assistant, Mike Brown (recently named head coach of Sacramento), have done a masterful job of switching up their defenses and giving the Mavs a series of different looks—man to man, zone, box and one—and changing individual matchups.

Kevon Looney, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins have led the way.

Yes, you have to have great shooters and players who can create shots, like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole. But great defense always wins.

That was the key to the Boston Celtics winning 11 titles in 13 years. With all due respect to Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, et al providing the offense, the main ingredient in the Celtics' dynasty was Bill Russell, the greatest defensive player in NBA history.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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