By Christopher Walsh
Third of 10 Parts
It’s no mystery to peers of Nick Saban why the University of Alabama has consistently competed for the national championship.
“Just check their recruiting,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said before taking his first shot at college football’s biggest prize at the end of the 2015 season.
That’s the starting point for Saban every year, regardless of how the previous season ended. Since 2008, every Crimson Tide recruiting class has gone on to play for the crown, with the 2016 group being the only one that can’t claim one — yet.
Swinney also mentioned Alabama’s top-notch coaching staff, but he had the basic formula correct. Saban is just as good at recruiting as anyone else in the sport, if not better.
Steve Spurrier went so far as to call Saban the “greatest recruiter in the history of college football,” during SEC media days in 2014. “As long as they can recruit like that they’re always going to be the favorites.”
Few would argue against that, but what isn’t commonly mentioned is how Saban’s far-ranging influence has affected the recruiting and player evaluation landscape as a whole.
Specifically, he essentially created a player personnel department, similar to what many NFL teams have, pinpointing what Alabama covets at each position. It’s worked so well, scores of college football programs are desperately trying to copy it.
“You have guys that you’ve never heard of that work at Alabama for a year or two, or three or four years, and have now gone on to other schools or to the NFL, who are part of the Saban genealogy,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who writes about it in his upcoming book with Ray Glier: 4th & Goal Every Day: Alabama’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.
“From a personnel standpoint, he sort of gets zero [recognition]. It’s about the coaches he’s produced. He’s produced a number of these young guys that will end up being the director of recruiting, scouts, or directors at the NFL level.”
Even so, recruiting success isn’t just about identifying and targeting top talent around the state, region and nation. With every major decision he makes, Saban considers the impact.
It’s the real reason why Alabama built a new weight room that’s the envy of even NFL teams. It’s why the football building has been renovated so many times and is currently adding a new dining facility (after the NCAA decided to allow unlimited meals for athletes). It’s a big part of every staff move.
The emphasis on recruiting was also one of the things that led to his being targeted and hired by former Director of Athletics Mal Moore.
“He really knew that Saban was the guy when Saban told him, ‘There are a lot of guys who are good coaches out there, but I’m a guy who can also get good players,’” said Steve Townsend, Moore’s former special assistant and author of the 2014 book: Crimson Heart: Let Me Tell You My Story.
“Obviously, he went out and got them.”
The results have been unparalleled.
With Saban’s latest batch of prospects, who signed in February, Alabama’s string of having the consensus No. 1 class of incoming players reached an unprecedented seven consecutive years.
Saban’s Alabama recruiting classes
The 2017 group might be his best yet, too. Alabama landed 12 players rated a 5-star prospect by one of the major services — 247Sports, ESPN, Rivals and Scout. That includes Elliot Baker, Isaiah Buggs, VanDarius Cowan, Najee Harris, Jerry Jeudy, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses, LaBryan Ray, Henry Ruggs III, Devonta Smith, Tua Tagovailoa and Jedrick Wills.
Six were consensus selections. The 247Sports composite had them listed as 3. Harris, 4. Leatherwood, 13. Moses, 21. Jeudy, 26. Ray and 32. Tagovailoa. Willis just missed at No. 34.
Another 13 were judged to be consensus 4-star talents.
“You know the Alabama name sticks out, and Alabama only recruits the best and gets the best,” said Buggs, one of 16 players in the signing class who enrolled in time for spring practices.
“I know if I’m at Alabama I’m here for a reason. It’s either go hard or go home. It’s Nick Saban. He’s going to recruit the best to get the best.”
It’s been that way since Saban’s first full recruiting class with the Crimson Tide, 2008, which set the tone for the program. Five players went on to be named consensus All-Americans, two twice, and five developed into first-round draft picks. The names include running back Mark Ingram Jr., wide receiver Julio Jones, defensive linemen Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody, offensive lineman Barrett Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Mark Barron.
That’s a tough group to top.
Overall, Saban has landed 41 consensus 5-star players over the past decade, with 17 currently on campus. Not only is that the most in college football by a wide margin, but they account for 20 percent of the 85-man roster.
That’s one of every five players.
The only position groups that don’t have a 5-star prospect are tight ends, where such designation can be rare, and special teams. But Alabama might have the nation’s best punter with JK Scott.
It lends credence to the idea of if you want to be the best, you need to be with the best and learn from the best.
“I think it probably intimidated some people, it probably discouraged some people away,” said offensive tackle Jonah Williams, a consensus 5-star addition in the Class of 2016. “Anyone who would sign here I already have a little bit of respect for because they’re willing to come to an environment like this, where you’re expected to be the best.
“I think that’s what we live for, it’s what we work for here.”