SEC 360: The physics of Nick Saban's recruiting success
Physics is the study of matter and energy. For the past decade, the college football universe has rotated on the axis of Alabama. Much of the Crimson Tide’s success has had to do with Nick Saban’s ability to lure a menagerie of high-line recruits to Tuscaloosa. The following is a brief study of Saban’s recruitment history, as well as a forecast of the obstacles Saban and Alabama face in the future.
Just north of Jacksonville, Florida, in the small coastal town of Yulee, Nick Saban was fidgeting.
It was January 2011, and Saban’s team was coming off a substandard 10-3 season that culminated in a 49-7 waxing of his former team, Michigan State, in the Capital One Bowl. Coaches, far inferior to him, might have been giddy with such high marks on their yearly report card, but not Saban. To make matters worse, Alabama’s archrival and nemesis, Auburn, had marched to a valiant, albeit annoying, national championship run behind the legs, arm, and mouth of Cam Newton.
So to say that Saban was feeling the pressure as he sat in a chair and gnawed on a cup while waited for Yulee High School’s man-child of a running back, Derrick Henry, would be an understatement.
Bobby Ramsay, then-head football coach at Yulee High School, shares the story of Saban’s recruiting visit. “(Saban) was devouring this Styrofoam cup,” Ramsay said. “He was chewing on the edge of it … and he was kind of like rotating it around, like with his front teeth dutdutdutdutdutdutdut, and he was patting his foot. His legs were crossed and he was patting his foot in such a way that I cannot replicate it. I mean … this dude … he had been in Arizona, up in New York … this guy is probably running on God knows what. He had been all over the place and he was pissed off about the way his season went. I’m like, ‘this guy won 10 games this year, and the year before they are national champs.’ I’d be like, ‘Life’s pretty good!’ Oh no.”
At the time, Yulee High was in only its 4th year of existence, and thus the school had not developed a reputation as a recruiting hotbed. Alabama had no prior connection to the head coach, to Yulee, nor Derrick Henry, and because of this, some intentionality was required to get to him on the part of assistant coach Jeremy Pruitt, who was in charge of the Jacksonville area. As Ramsay says, “You had to come looking for him.”
By his sophomore year, Henry had given a verbal commitment to Georgia, but that pledge was shaky at best. Like a lion waiting menacingly in the weeds, surveying its terrain, its prey, Alabama sat back and let the recruiting process unfold. Often, and especially when it comes to big-time recruits, the process can take years and have many twists and turns. Understanding this culture, Alabama seemed to brace itself for such volatility better than the rest. Throughout Henry’s recruitment, Pruitt did not panic and Saban did not panic. “You knew Alabama was just kind of there,” Ramsay said. “They recruit different than a lot of other schools do. They don’t come in and high-five you. They don’t come in and chest-bump the kid. They don’t try to be his best friend. They are very pragmatic in their approach. They are very direct. They’re very professional. And they come in and say, ‘This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what we’ve done. This is what we feel like we can do for you. This is what we feel like you can do for us. If you want to be a part of it, great. If you don’t, somebody else will.'”
That serious approach appealed to Henry, who ate, slept, and drank football. He wasn’t coming to campus to, as Ramsay said, run the bars; just as Bull Hurley in the movie Over the Top had a singular focus outlined in three goals — drive truck, break arms and arm wrestle — Henry had a singular focus outlined in three goals: win a national championship, win the Heisman, go to the NFL.
Henry eventually concluded that Alabama offered the best chance to do all three.
Besides, Ramsay could tell the way Derrick easily melted into the conversation while on his official visit to Tuscaloosa. Imagine this scene: a table at Dreamland BBQ on the banks of the Warrior River where Henry, Amari Cooper, Ryan Anderson and T.J. Yeldon talked shop. “Even though I wasn’t at the table, I got the sense that (Derrick) kind of fit in with those dudes. They were kind of levelheaded, and he fit in well with those kind of players and the kind of approach Alabama had,” Ramsay said.
Saban might have been fidgety, but he was also focused. For Saban, 20 minutes with a recruit meant being utterly consumed in the moment and having the discipline to not let his mind drift from the individual in front of him. If Henry had Saban’s attention, Ramsay perceived that Saban also engendered mad respect in return. “Derrick just kind of looked at him differently than he looked at other coaches,” Ramsay said. “Not like a god, but kind of how you would look at your dad when he was teaching you a lesson or a teacher you really respect. Someone you know that what they’re saying is wisdom. And I just definitely got the sense that connected with Derrick … that Derrick thought, ‘I’m going to benefit from his wisdom.’”
In the end, it was Alabama’s overall attitude, Pruitt’s consistency, and Saban’s sagacity and directness that helped Henry feel most at home. In Ramsay’s mind, Alabama was good at shaping its recruitment of Henry in a way a tailor might fit someone with a custom suit. “(Alabama) still understands that recruiting is a very personal, one-on-one thing with each player,” Ramsay said. “They know how to recruit each player individually, if that makes sense. They figure out who do they have to recruit around the kid. Who are the people that are going to be influential with him? Who can I build a relationship with? And then they sit back and kind of let things settle down … and as great as they are, they don’t show off.”
As complex as modern college football recruiting can be, this microcosm demonstrates why Alabama has dominated the recruiting trail for the past 12 seasons. An extension of Saban himself and his overall philosophy, Alabama attacks recruiting with uncanny maturity, personalization and excellence. Though, sure, others have won the national title during the Saban era in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has been the only consistent game in town and has retained the ability to fend off upstart dynasties.
But now a new dynamic seems to be emerging, and with the rise of Georgia and Clemson we seem to be seeing the end of the unipolar state. In other words, those programs don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Questions abound leading up to the 2019 college football season, but the most glaring one is, “Can an aging Nick Saban hold off the youthful and exuberant duo of Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney and remain the top coach in college football?”
Does the old soldier have one last run in him?
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Friction – n. is the force resisting the relative motion of solid surfaces, fluid layers, and material elements sliding against each other
Long before Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross made the Alabama secondary look like Ned in the First Reader in the 2019 College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship in Santa Clara, California, Dabo Swinney was laying the groundwork for the freakish wide receiver in Phenix City, Alabama. To extend early pleasantries toward Ross, Swinney had dispatched Clemson lieutenants Todd Bates and Jeff Scott to tag-team the sought-after recruit before the closer — none other than Swinney himself — arrived to seal the deal with the famous pinky-swear-heard-round-the-world.
In the mental war for Ross, Clemson had planted in his mind that it — and not Alabama — had been the better factory for receivers, churning out more studs who played on Sundays. Yes, Alabama was the home of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, but it was the volume of receivers Clemson developed that seemed to stick in Ross’ mind. Just as Alabama might have branded itself as RBU (Running Back University) to Derrick Henry, Clemson was branding itself as WRU (Wide Receiver University) to Justyn Ross. Such is the nature of college football recruiting.
According to Jamey Dubose, Ross’ high school coach at Central-Phenix City, Ross approached his choice of schools as a “3-year business decision,” and ultimately a lapse period between coaches at Alabama might have tilted the verdict in Clemson’s favor. “I think, in the end, it had to do with stability,” Dubose said. “I think Alabama had an in when (former assistant) Derrick Ansley was there … in a turnover of coaches, I think Clemson took the lead a little bit with their stability. Had Alabama had stability there for Justyn, he may have chosen Alabama because they made a great push at the end, and I know the final visit he took was to the University of Alabama.”
So what happened in the national title game, what the public saw — Ross’ coming out party — was a culmination of months of work. Not knowing that backstory, it’s easy to see how ‘Bama fans were bewildered after Ross’s 74-yard touchdown reception followed by an acrobatic, one-handed grab in the third quarter, as they collectively wondered, “How in the world did we let Ross — a Phenix City native for Pete’s sake! — slip through our fingers?”
Fans assume — and rightly so — that if a top-of-the-line recruit is coming out of the state of Alabama, the Crimson Tide is supposed to get him. After all, the state’s top players from 2008-16 all chose to take their talents to Alabama (that is, except Jameis Winston, who notoriously went to Tallahassee instead) rather than elsewhere. Alabama dominates in-state college football recruiting like a plumber dominates a Golden Corral buffet, in large part because Saban’s ceremonious arrival in Tuscaloosa in 2007 sent a message — enter the state of Alabama at your own risk. That message was received, and for a while, few coaches from bordering states dared puncture that veil. It was as if a sign had been posted along the state’s borders, reading Never Mind the Dog: Beware of Owner. Andrew Bone, recruiting coordinator for BamaInsider.com, lends a bit of insight into this dynamic. “It’s tough to say people were scared to recruit against Nick Saban — I don’t think people wanted to compete against him, outside of Auburn,” Bone said.
Not only did Saban rope off Alabama so he could feast unabated on the platter of recruits, he conversely demonstrated zero fear in trespassing onto enemy territory. In his mind, Louisiana, Florida, Texas — or any other state for that matter — was his as much as it was anyone else’s. In 2007, Saban’s flip of Luther Davis, an LSU commit, set the tone and sent a message that rang loudly in Baton Rouge: I’m coming for your recruits.
Since then, Alabama’s cupboard has been stocked with Louisiana products, players like Eddie Lacy (Geismar), Kenny Bell (Rayville), Landon Collins (Geismar), Tim Williams (Baton Rouge), Cam Sims (Monroe), Irv Smith Jr. (New Orleans), DeVonta Smith (Amite) and Dylan Moses (Baton Rouge).
This season, 10 players on Alabama’s roster hail from the Bayou State.
That fearless recruitment was not limited to just Louisiana, as Saban developed a reputation for stealing top recruits out from under head coaches’ noses. The brazen plucking of future All-American safety Collins from Geismar, just 24 miles south of Baton Rouge, was followed with the glorious nab of 5-star linebacker Reuben Foster, living, in all places, Auburn, Alabama. (At the time of his recruitment, Foster even had the Auburn logo included in the tattoo gallery on his left forearm!). Saban then parlayed that experience into the signing of fellow Auburn native Rashaan Evans, who had every motivation to stay at home: his father was a former Auburn player. He also went into Tallahassee and got Ronnie Harrison; he then went back to Baton Rouge and pirated Dylan Moses and Tim Williams from the purple-and-gold-claimed bounty.
All of this rolls up into unprecedented success. For a moment, let’s gawk at the numbers.
Since 2008, Alabama has landed a 5-star recruit in every single signing class, according to 247Sports.com’s composite. The following is a list of Saban’s 5-star recruits and the number in each class in parenthesis:
2008 (3): Julio Jones, Burton Scott, Tyler Love
2009 (4): Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Nico Johnson, D.J. Fluker
2010 (2): Dee Milliner, Phillip Simms
2011 (3): Cyrus Kouandjio, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Trey DePriest
2012 (3): Landon Collins, Eddie Williams, T.J. Yeldon
2013 (6): Reuben Foster, Derrick Henry, Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard, Robert Foster, A’Shawn Robinson.
2014 (6): Cam Robinson, De’Shawn Hand, Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey, Rashaan Evans, Bo Scarbrough
2015 (6): Calvin Ridley, Kendall Sheffield, Blake Barnett, Daron Payne, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Damien Harris
2016 (3): Ben Davis, Mack Wilson, Jonah Williams
2017 (6): Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood, Dylan Moses, Jerry Jeudy, LaBryan Ray, Tua Tagovailoa
2018 (2): Eyabi Anoma, Patrick Surtain
2019 (3): Antonio Alfano, Trey Sanders, Evan Neal
According to 247Sports, Alabama has landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in 8 of the past 9 seasons, including 7 consecutive from 2011-2017. After the streak ended in 2018, Alabama reclaimed the top spot in 2019. Impressive figures.
Nothing seems to be slowing down.
But could coaches like Kirby Smart, Dabo Swinney and even Jeremy Pruitt — all who have significant Alabama connections — begin to poke holes in Alabama’s hot air balloon?
After the Justyn Ross show, ‘Bama fans learned in February that the state’s top 3 high school seniors in the 2019 class would not be attending Alabama. Two — George Pickens, a wide receiver from Hoover, and Clay Webb, a center from Oxford — chose Georgia, while Pinson Valley quarterback Bo Nix inked with his father’s alma mater, Auburn.
Some wonder why Alabama seems to be falling off in its own state, but Bone says it’s not quite time to push the panic button. “I think the last couple of years was just circumstance,” Bone said. “I think some coaching changes, Alabama losing its offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, and wide receivers coach played a little bit of a role in losing some of those recruits over the last few years.”
Smart’s, Swinney’s, and Pruitt’s ability to come into Alabama and pilfer through Saban territory could affect Alabama’s recruiting portfolio moving forward, and because of the strong ties of these young lions to the state of Alabama, expect more recruiting success in the future. To what extent will be based largely on wins, losses, and dozens of factors that could sway a recruit one way or the other.
The most critical narratives against Alabama remain coaching turnover and Saban’s age. He turns 68 on Oct. 31. And never fear ‘Bama fans, they will certainly be used against the Crimson Tide in the upcoming months. Saban can’t pull a Benjamin Button and reverse time, but whether he can establish consistency and longevity among his assistants could ultimately mitigate the negative effects of these narratives.
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Magnetic fields: n. A mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials.
Historically, Alabama football has relied largely on in-state recruits to build a powerhouse program, but from time to time it would score an out-of-state wonder such as Pennsylvania’s Joe Namath or Miami’s Derrick Thomas. Things have been different, however, under Saban. Because recruiting outside the Deep South has become commonplace, Saban has truly cemented a national recruiting footprint. In all, Saban has signed players from 32 states (though Saban has not snagged anyone from the Dakotas, don’t put it past him. If there’s a 5-star loitering around the Black Hills or Pierre, chances are he’s on the Crimson Tide coach’s radar) as well as the continent of Australia.
Unlike years past, no longer is the complexion of Alabama’s team defined almost exclusively by Alabamians. Since 2008, Saban’s recruiting classes have boasted players from no less than 8 states, reaching a high water mark of 15 states in 2014 and 2015. Many of Alabama’s best players of the Saban era did not hail from Heart of Dixie. Josh Jacobs arrived from Oklahoma. Kenyan Drake from Powder Springs, Georgia. The Kouandjio boys, Cyrus and Arie, from Maryland. The list goes on and on.
Analyzing the fields of recruiting in which Saban has trod, certain hotbeds have yielded more return than others. For example, Alabama has done extremely well in the areas around Monroe, Louisiana; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Miami, Florida. Saban has essentially owned the I-20 corridor around Monroe, fishing out players like Cam Robinson, Cam Sims, and Kenny Bell.
Arguably the most important state for the Crimson Tide, outside of Louisiana, has been Florida. Saban has taken a recruiting metal detector to the Sunshine State and found gold, and because of his high yield in the state of Louisiana, Saban’s feats in Florida have been a bit understated and undervalued. Punctuating the already lush recruiting territory is the unremitting gravitation of top-shelf talent to IMG Academy in Bradenton, a trend that has helped make the state of Florida the modern epicenter of college football recruiting. Bo Scarbrough and Trey Sanders played there. Texas and California, traditional centers of recruiting, remain fecund, but the Sunshine State has boasted the most recruits (15 in 2019 and 24 in 2018) in Rivals.com Top 100 list for the past two seasons.
Notice the success Saban has had just in the fertile real estate between the cities of Miami and Boca Raton. It’s almost as if he’s bounced down the eastern seaboard and pickpocketed receivers Amari Cooper (Miami), Calvin Ridley (Coconut Creek), and Jerry Jeudy (Deerfield Beach) from the linen trousers of Miami, Florida, and Florida State. This is no coincidence, of course. Saban’s Miami connections, plus the fact that former Saban assistant and now Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal had serious Miami ties, were some of the factors that led to Alabama’s success in that region.
Now consider how important Saban’s ability to score Florida recruits at the running back position has been. Eliminate natives Trent Richardson (Pensacola) and the aforementioned Derrick Henry from Alabama’s roster, and you’ll probably have at least 2 fewer titles in the Tuscaloosa trophy case.
Other states have produced suitable crops for Saban. Iowa brought Ross Pierschbacher. New Jersey brought Minkah Fitzpatrick. Hawaii brought Tua Tagovailoa. Virginia brought Jonathan Allen. Michigan brought Mark Ingram. And Kentucky brought Damien Harris.
And with the growing tendency of West Coasters to think East, it’s easier than ever to convince kids (think Najee Harris and Jonah Williams) to choose Title Town over the razzmatazz of Califor-NI-a where football, let’s face it, isn’t taken as seriously.
But how does Saban lure a kid like JK Scott, a native Coloradan, to come to Tuscaloosa over, say, Boulder or even Lincoln?
Often, the answer is relationships.
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Synergism: n. the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.
Ask anyone who’s made even the slightest stab at persuading a 17-year-old kid to come to campus and they’ll tell you that success is not osmotic, nor accomplished by skill alone. It should be no mystery, then, that Saban, over the last half-century, has established significant relationships that have helped him to receive his black belt in recruiting.
Like a spider constructing his web, a recruiting network has been systematically built as Saban toured America on his various coaching stops, beginning in Ohio and passing through New York, West Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, generating the recruiting waves that would eventually echo the loudest in the championship town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In other words, Saban’s ability to recruit nationally has to do, at least in part, with his history of coaching nationally.
But it’s a misconception to think Saban does this alone. Yes, he possesses the skill, the ability, the tenacity, and the wisdom to close recruiting deals, but he also has to rely on help. Add in his capable and hardworking assistants and their own micro-networks to the recruiting recipe, and, voila, a juggernaut pops out of the oven.
Let’s take the recruitment of JK Scott as an example. How does a Denver suburbanite end up in Sabanland? On its face, it seems that Scott’s recruitment was the product of a little Saban magic, a wand-waving exercise that produced arguably the best punter in Crimson Tide history. But dust off the situation with a brush and you’ll see the fingerprints of Saban’s lieutenants all over it. Tom Thenell, who coached Scott at Mullen High School in Denver, says that his connection to former Alabama assistants Joe Pannunzio, a Pueblo, Colorado, native, and Greg Brown, a former assistant at Colorado under Bill McCartney, was a critical element in Scott’s signing with the Crimson Tide.
“I never saw (Saban) once,” Thenell told SDS. “Any communication I had with the school was with Joe or Greg.”
Those connections eventually paved the way for Scott’s campus visit, which, as they say, sealed the deal. “When (JK) came back from Tuscaloosa, he kind of had that look in his eyes like, ‘that’s where I want to go,’” Thenell said.
Stir in a 101,000-seat stadium, the finest athletic facilities money can buy, a history of winning, and thousands upon thousands of pretty co-eds to the potion and, shoot, what’s not to like?
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Current – n. exists when there is a net flow of electric charge through a region.
So what’s the future for Saban and football recruiting at the University of Alabama? For recruiting in general?
First, expect the cries and cacophony of “Saban’s getting old” and “The dynasty is over” and “There’s too much coaching turnover at Alabama” to resound on the recruiting trail from opposing coaches. Expect Saban to address these questions while broadening his recruiting horizons and remaining on the cutting edge. Expect to see Kirby, Jeremy and Dabo pumping gas and eating at meat-and-threes in Alabama towns this coming winter. Expect more West Coast recruits to choose SEC schools while the Pac-12 remains weak. Expect social media to continue to have a massive impact on college football recruiting. Expect the continued presence of LSU, Clemson, Georgia and Texas A&M at the top of national recruiting rankings. Expect the states of Florida, Georgia and Texas to continue to be fertile recruiting grounds (and watch to see if Florida and Florida State can prevent in-state recruits from slipping away as in past years). Expect most of the top in-state recruits to go out of state.
And expect the number one recruiting factor to be winning.
Don’t expect a lot of sobbing from Saban and lying on the canvas in the fetal position. He’s a fighter, and he’s going to go down swinging.
Instead, expect a lot of traveling in private jets. Expect Styrofoam cups to be gnawed on. Expect foot patting and fidgety behavior.
And expect Saban to raise a championship banner at least one more time in Tuscaloosa.