Neither Memphis coach wanted to say the wrong thing. Neither wanted to generate the headlines Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher did, even though neither Penny Hardaway nor Ryan Silverfield know exactly what to make of the current college sports landscape.
So yes, Hardaway and Silverfield saw the viral rant by Saban, the incendiary response by Fisher, and the fallout over the past week or two. Of course they did.
“It’s entertainment value at its best,” Silverfield said with a smirk.
“We all saw it,” Hardaway added with a laugh earlier this week, and what he saw convinced him not to say anything else. “I have no comment on that. I promise you.”
This new era of college sports, of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness and what their almost simultaneous introduction to the recruiting process means, has everyone a little skittish.
This isn’t how it used to be, and it isn’t yet how it should be. Not after the NCAA was dragged into this kicking and screaming, begging for an antitrust exemption from Congress it hasn’t gotten instead of formulating a plan it could implement before the farcical amateurism model it unsuccessfully fought to preserve went kaput.
But at least Hardaway and Silverfield understand complaining does no good at this point. Hopefully, that will become a default stance starting this week at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings.
Because contrary to what Saban might think, or Lane Kiffin, or any other football or basketball coach or administrator who has a problem with the chaotic rollout of this brave new world in which all those under-the-table deals are now being done out in the open, nobody much cares that their jobs are harder now.
Sure, fans lament how transient college sports have become. How the player who matures from a freshman to a senior in the same place, for the same team, in front of the same crowd, is seemingly an endangered species. How NIL money has only exacerbated this player movement. So do I.
But it also means veteran basketball players like the Tigers’ DeAndre Williams and Lester Quinones, are realizing they can return to school, even if it’s not the same school as before, and earn money without having to go pro earlier than they should.
This gray area inhabited by NIL money has presumably helped Hardaway land a second No. 1 recruiting class in three years and then sign arguably the No. 1 transfer in the country (Kendric Davis). If Williams and Quinones do indeed pull their name from the NBA draft this week and come back to Memphis, it will give Hardaway another roster capable of making the NCAA Tournament.
Hardaway is a lot like Fisher in this case, which perhaps explains his reticence for diving too deep into the weeds of NIL money. He does, however, seem to be tailor made for this moment in college sports history because he’s a coach who spent years in the seedy grassroots underbelly of basketball dealing with players and their handlers who switched teams on a tournament-by-tournament basis based on a confluence of factors that sometimes had nothing to do with basketball.
It hasn’t necessarily meant anything quite as tangible for Silverfield and Memphis football, but it also hasn’t changed the complexion of the program, either. Though numerous players have come and gone through the transfer portal the past couple years, few seem to be the direct result of NIL money they could or couldn’t earn.
“We hear things that are going on. NIL is happening at some level almost at every college football program, whether it’s $1 or $1 million,” Silverfield said. “I feel like it’s ever-changing and something we’ve got to continue to grow upon. That’s the reality of it.”
That’s also the best way to publicly approach it, whether you like what college sports is becoming or not. Because this new way of operating is not going away, even if it could look different yet again five years from now. Perhaps then everyone is operating under a more uniform set of guidelines, with the most prominent athletes at these schools treated like the employees they have become, instead of using guidelines set by state legislatures.
This is what ultimately irked Saban, and what led to his calculated outburst. For the first time in a long time, he feels like Alabama is at a disadvantage compared to its competition.
Instead of the No. 1 recruiting class, it had the No. 2 recruiting class and the only explanation he was willing to consider is that Fisher and Texas A&M outspent him. So he whined (or if we’re being nice, deliberately complained) to a group of Birmingham business leaders – and as a result, the entire college sports world – who could theoretically help solve the issue with their wallet.
The back-and-forth it inspired, as Silverfield mentioned, was highly entertaining. It also made the greatest college football coach of this generation seem small and, frankly, not as savvy as his competition. So it should also probably serve as a warning to the rest of the profession.
Stop complaining about how much harder NIL money and the transfer portal have made your job because they’re here to stay. Get to work or get out.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto