ATLANTA — On Dec. 3, Nick Saban led Alabama to its fifth SEC championship in his 10 seasons as head coach.
Since 2007, the Crimson Tide have won four national championships and are two wins from capturing a fifth. Alabama has lost only 18 games, and one-third of those came in Saban’s first year with the program.
Through the 2015 season, Alabama had 24 consensus All-Americans, 14 of which were unanimous selections. After 116 seasons without a Heisman Trophy winner, the Crimson Tide have had two in the past eight years.
Alabama has claimed the nation’s top recruiting class six times in the past ten years and the top class in the SEC seven times.
Under Saban, the Crimson Tide have enjoyed a decade of dominance in an age of parity. But it all began with the help of one of college football’s greatest recruiting classes.
Today, Julio Jones (below), Dont’a Hightower, Mark Ingram, Marcell Dareus, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw are some of the most recognizable names in the NFL. Before they were stars at the highest level, however, they were members of Alabama’s 2008 recruiting class.
“It was just good,” a smiling Jones told Saturday Down South while reminiscing about those days at the beginning. “The class we had, Courtney Upshaw – he’s here with me now at the Falcons – played a great role from the defensive side of the ball. Dont’a Hightower, Mark Ingram, I mean all of us. The list goes on.”
The Crimson Tide ended National Signing Day with a No. 3-ranked class that fans hoped could recapture some of the glory of the Bear Bryant Era. The haul of talent landed Alabama on the front page of USA TODAY with the headline “A red-letter day for Alabama recruiting.”
Unknown at the time was that the 2008 class wouldn’t just recapture some of the program’s former glory, but usher in a new Golden Age for Alabama football.
From 2008-12, the years in which members of that class were on the roster, Alabama won 61 games and lost seven. The Crimson Tide won three SEC and national championships. Their worst season came in 2010, when they dropped three games.
Members of the 2008 class surely wanted to compete for championships during their time, but Jones said that wasn’t the early focus. Bent on creating a culture of hard work and competition, the players knew they would eventually achieve their higher aspirations.
At the beginning, however, the goal was a modest one.
“It all really started with the whole Auburn thing,” Upshaw, a 4-star prospect in 2008, told Saturday Down South. “You know, Auburn beat (Alabama) like five, six times straight. We basically wanted to be that class to get Alabama back to basically beating Auburn.”
Of course, that mindset helped the Crimson Tide achieve a perfect 12-0 regular season in 2008, Saban’s second year. Five true freshmen played meaningful snaps that season, including Jones and Upshaw.
The young talent propelled Alabama to its first SEC championship game appearance since 1999, but it wasn’t enough to upend Florida and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Although the Crimson Tide didn’t win the championship game — and subsequently lost its bowl game to finish 12-2 — they gained valuable experience and motivation for the future.
“Just being there my freshman year, the whole atmosphere and going undefeated and actually getting to the SEC championship game only to lose to Florida, that’s when it really started,” Upshaw said. “We realized we can make it to the big stage and we’ve just got to execute when we get there.”
Coach Saban was like, ‘Show me’
Throughout the history of college football, there have been innumerable teams with the talent to compete and win at the highest level. What set Alabama apart was the mindset Saban instilled from the beginning.
Managing the egos of some of the nation’s top players is no easy feat, yet few programs embrace all-for-one quite like the Tide. Saban’s brand of de-recruiting was apparent early on, even with his biggest star.
“When we got there, nothing was given to us,” Jones recalled. “We had a bunch of 4- and 5-star recruits come in, and to coach Saban, it didn’t matter. I think he had me at like third or fourth receiver and everybody else was telling me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna come here and you’re gonna start, you’re gonna play.’ Coach Saban was like, ‘Show me.'”
Jones was the crown jewel of Alabama’s 2008 class. He was the nation’s top wide receiver prospect and the No. 3 overall player coming out of Foley (Ala.) High School. Now one of the NFL’s premier players, Jones’ talent was apparent from the beginning. He led the Crimson Tide in receiving his freshman year, but Saban made him work every step of the way.
That philosophy continued throughout the decade. It wasn’t a manifesto for one class, but instead a foundation for this Crimson Empire.
The SEC has reigned as the top conference in college football with Alabama at the pinnacle. Over the years, the landscape shifted and changed, largely due to the shadow cast by the Crimson Tide.
“They’re a really good team,” former Florida safety Keanu Neal said when thinking back to last year’s SEC championship game. “They are a very well-coached, powerhouse team.
“We knew we had to play our ball, but we knew they were a very well coached team and a great technical team.”
How good do you want to be?
Around the SEC, schools have struggled to replicate Saban’s success at Alabama. No head coach survived the Crimson Tide’s run.
Georgia parted ways with Mark Richt in an effort to become more like Alabama, hiring Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to help it achieve that goal. Les Miles entered the season as the only SEC coach remaining from the pre-Saban Tide, but he was let go after another slow start with LSU.
The Crimson Tide didn’t just regain prominence, they rose to the top and have not come down. Unlike most programs, which have valleys to go with the peaks, Alabama has stayed aloft and provided very little hope for the rest of the conference.
Because Alabama’s primary focus is accomplishing the goal at hand, it rarely falters. Saban demands that his team play up to its standards, not those of its opponent. It’s why he regularly finds faults in the 30-point blowouts. The Crimson Tide’s technique must be flawless and their energy unfaltering, despite the caliber of team on the opposite sideline.
In 2005, years before arriving in Tuscaloosa, Saban wrote a book entitled “How Good Do You Want to Be?” In this book, Saban explains his coaching philosophy. He shed light on the process he employs to keep a team full of elite prospects focused on a single goal.
“The players and coaches were focused on the daily practices and game planning, not who was on our scheduled, where we were ranked, or who on the team was going to the NFL after the season,” Saban wrote about his 2003 LSU national championship team. “To the team’s credit, the focus on the process of being champions never wavered.”
At Alabama, that process started taking shape with the 2008 class, which bought into the message and created a culture that will last until Saban leaves.
He always preached about the process
Upshaw remembers that message clearly. It wasn’t complicated. In fact, it’s written right there in Saban’s book. He wanted his players to focus on the process.
“Honestly, he always preached about the process,” Upshaw said. “I think he did a good job of just preaching to the guys that were being recruited or had been brought in already that we’ve got this standard here and this is how we’re going to do things.
“I feel like Saban is one of the most genuine guys out there, and he’s a great coach. I feel like I made the best decision for my college career.”
Not all of the work was easy, but the end results were sweet. Players like Upshaw, Jones, Ingram and Hightower helped pave the way for other memorable Alabama players.
Jones’ decision to play for the Crimson Tide had a ripple effect he could not have predicted. Amari Cooper, Alabama’s all-time leading receiver, idolized Jones and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Calvin Ridley, who broke Cooper’s freshman receiving record, grew up 30 minutes from Cooper and was very aware of his predecessor in high school.
But that chain reaction began when one of the nation’s top prospects chose the Tide and solidified the program’s foundation-building recruiting class.
To this day, Jones remains the second-highest graded prospect to arrive at Alabama. He came at a time when there was little talent and even less depth, but he still found himself buried on the depth chart.
Instead of taking that as a slight to something he could have felt entitled to, Jones appreciated the challenge and he respected the work it took to claim a starting job. Indeed, he showed Saban. Looking back, that’s what stuck with him.
“The legacy we set there was hard work,” Jones said.
Because of that hard work, Alabama’s legacy has become something much greater.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama for Saturday Down South. For insight on these two SEC powerhouses, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.