TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban likes to refer to the NFL draft as a “business decision.” Of course he’d love it if his most talented players finished out their eligibility at Alabama, but the promise of long-term financial security is enough to sway even his most selfish ambitions.
He stood on a podium last year and applauded as juniors Dee Milliner and D.J. Fluker declared for the draft. Both were taken in the first round and both received four-year contracts that topped $10 million. Their paychecks were the focus of promotional materials Alabama sent to recruits, one asking “Are You Next?” and the other declaring that “The Process Pays Off.”
But there’s a line in the sand for Saban, one he doesn’t advertise on fliers but will admit to publicly: If you’re not a first-round pick, you shouldn’t go pro early.
That’s an awfully hard line to draw in a day and age where patience is neither sexy nor palpable. Recruits want to hear how they’ll start from Day 1. They want to be told how they’ll ascend the depth chart, win a Heisman Trophy and move on to make millions of dollars in the NFL after three short years in school. They don’t want to be told that the process of developing as an athlete -- yes, even Saban’s “Process” that looks more and more like an NFL farm system -- could take longer than that. They don’t want to be told that their four- and five-star rankings won't translate to the pros.
Saban’s hard-line stance toward staying in school has held up well in the past. “We’ve had 13 guys go out early for the draft. Eleven were first round draft picks, one was a second, and one was a third,” he boasted earlier this month. But that statement isn't holding up so well now. A few moments later at the same news conference, he handed off the microphone to four underclassmen who would declare themselves eligible for the draft, only two of whom -- safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio -- were regarded as a first-round prospects. The other two, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan, will be lucky to be taken in the second round.
A fifth underclassmen, safety Vinnie Sunseri, declared for the draft as well. There was no news conference for him, though. Alabama didn't even send out a statement informing the media of his decision. His name just happened to be among the record 98 underclassmen to officially turn pro last week. He'll likely be a late-round pick, but rather than stay and improve his stock, he fled Tuscaloosa. Sources close to the situation cited a rift between him and the coaching staff dating to his sophomore season, but Sunseri hasn't addressed the situation publicly. Rather, he's viewed as just another underclassman hoping to strike it rich, ignoring some recently troubling statistics.
Of the 73 underclassmen to turn pro last year, 21 went undrafted. Of the 52 players who were drafted, 25 were taken in the first two rounds. That's "not a very secure future for you in terms of what your career might bring, the number of years you might play, as well as how much money you might make,” Saban told reporters at the Senior Bowl earlier this week.
More and more, college football is beginning to take on the mentality of college basketball, Saban said. Rather than one-and-done, he cited a three-and-out mindset shared by players and their parents.
"I don’t think the NFL really wants this. I don’t really think the colleges want this," he said. "I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the players. And I don’t know what the solution to the problem really is."
Maybe Saban should look at his own program to find out what answers there might be. Alabama's success sending underclassmen to the draft certainly hasn't helped dissuade others from trying the same path. The type of advertising Saban has targeted at prospects doesn't exactly scream to come get a four-year degree, either. Amari Cooper, who was a Freshman All-American in 2012, had to be corrected by an Alabama staffer when he told reporters this past preseason that he had "two more years here." And it's absurd to think he's the only one eyeing a shortcut to the NFL.
The "epidemic" of underclassmen turning pro, as it has been called, might not have started at Alabama, but it has finally reached its shores.
Saban's attitude of "first round or try again" is showing signs of crumbling. His line in the sand, much to his dismay, is being crossed all too often. He either must dig deeper and retrench, or watch it disappear entirely.