Monday, August 13, 2012
By Alex Scarborough TideNation
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- An official visit to the University of Alabama begins like any other.
First, prospects tour the athletic complex on the corner of Paul W. Bryant and Coliseum Drive, then go on a five-minute jaunt to the campus recreation center. After taking in the swimming pools and tennis courts, they hop in the car for another short drive to the Bryant Hall Dorms, followed by a quick walk through the dining hall. With their glimpse at campus life complete, it's off to Bryant-Denny Stadium to close the circuit.
Nick Saban has turned Alabama into a recruiting juggernaut.
Total drive time on the official visit course: 15 minutes.
Sure, there may be a pit stop somewhere along the route, a drop-in from a player or coach, a moment of listening to the music coming over the loudspeakers at Bryant-Denny, imagining the stadium filled with 100,000 screaming fans.
But those events are replicated across college football campuses on a weekly basis. Some schools have bigger scoreboards, better dorms or more impressive cafeterias than Alabama. Oregon's player facilities look like the Four Seasons with an underwater treadmill and a sparkling waterfall. Tennessee's new weight room has an MMA cage. In the end, though, it's splitting hairs. Frills like fully ventilated lockers and customizable iPod decks cancel each other out.
If you're still looking for a silver bullet to explain Alabama's recruiting success, there isn't one.
The truth is Nick Saban and the Alabama coaching staff recruit with simple facts and statistics: one SEC title, two national championships, 18 first-team All-Americans, 24 NFL draft picks -- 11 coming in the first round. All that since 2008.
The sales pitch has produced remarkable returns. Alabama is the only school to finish among the top three of the ESPN class rankings in each of the last five years. Not coincidentally, the run started when Saban was able to work on his first recruiting class from start to finish.
His arrival in Tuscaloosa was a case of perfect timing. Mike Shula ran out the clock on NCAA sanctions that stripped the Crimson Tide of scholarships, yet still left behind a fair amount of talent. Players such as Le'Ron McLain, Andre Smith and Greg McElroy could keep the program afloat until reinforcements arrived.
And arrive they did.
In 2008, Alabama signed the No. 1 prospect in the country at three different positions. One of those players turned out to be Julio Jones, the No. 2 overall player in the class.
The following year, Alabama went to the well once more, landing the No. 1 cornerback in Dre Kirkpatrick, the No. 1 running back in Trent Richardson and the No. 1 offensive tackle in D.J. Fluker. Both Kirkpatrick and Richardson went on to be first-round draft picks and Fluker is well on his way to doing the same.
The success on the recruiting trail can be linked to two keys: Saban's attention to detail and the support of the university administration and alumni have given him from the start. At Alabama's spring scrimmage in 2007, more than 90,000 Alabama fans came out in a show of support for their new coach.
"That positive energy that the crowd shows and has shown for five years here and the support that they have shown for our players and our team has contributed tremendously to our success in recruiting as well as the success that we've had on the field," Saban said.
According to National Recruiting Director Tom Luginbill, there might not be a school in America that supports its football program more than Alabama.
"You take Saban's approach, work ethic, the blue rint and player evaluation, and you couple that with the administrative support, the community support and the financial support to actually get it done, and it's a perfect-world scenario," Luginbill said.
On Aug. 1, Alabama approved the construction of a $9 million athletic training facility. Workers had already begun clearing the land weeks before the board of trustees ever cast a vote, the answer already a forgone conclusion.
"If it's going to help the team win, he's going to be able to do it," Luginbill said.
That includes hiring support staff.
Since Saban came to Alabama in 2007, the amount of money paid to non-coaches and administration has increased 31.7 percent, or $4,366,308, according to figures obtained by ESPN.
That money goes to support a team of 146 non-coaches in the athletic department, many of whom are devoted heavily to assisting in recruiting efforts: gathering, cutting and classifying tape, and most importantly, evaluating prospects.
The process of player evaluations have taken on an NFL style of professionalism since Saban took control.
"The one thing about Coach Saban's staff that they do better than anybody is player evaluation," Luginbill said. "They treat it like pro personnel. It is a very defined blueprint of exactly what they're looking for."
Take a look at the roster and it's clear there's a plan for every position. The result is almost machinelike.
When Alabama lost Courtney Upshaw, the 6-foot-2, 265-pound linebacker was replaced by a teenage version of himself: Ryan Anderson, a 6-foot-2, 252-pound hybrid defensive end/linebacker from Daphne, Ala.
More on Alabama
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When Alabama lost nose guard Josh Chapman to the NFL draft, the coaching staff substituted one 300-pounder for another. When true freshman Darren Lake (6-foot-3, 315 pounds) puts on his No. 95 jersey and his belly goes to work stretching its fabric, the resemblance to Chapman is uncanny.
The freshmen don't just look like their predecessors, though, they also have shown they might be able to play like them, too.
"We look at it as, whoever is capable of filling those spots and ready to play, they're going to go out there and play," safety Robert Lester said. "The talent''s there. We're not worried about the talent. Coach Saban has recruited great classes."
When the Tide kick off against Michigan on Sept. 1, the majority of the players on special teams will be four- and five-star recruits. Scroll through the depth chart, and it starts to resemble a state high school all-star game.
"That's the difference right now between Alabama and everywhere else," Luginbill said. "Somebody else may rotate another guy in there and it's not the same guy talent-wise. Alabama rotates guys in there and it's like, All right, here comes another crew.' "
Said senior defensive end Damion Square: "We have a facility full of five-star guys, so when you come in you better humble yourself."
That fact isn't lost on players. When Chris Black signed with Alabama, he called it an honor to be playing at a place with so many talented players.
"As you can see, consistently it's one of the top programs," Black said. "It's definitely an honor. Just having a lot of guys around me that are explosive, impact players, it makes me feel good."