Sure, when we watch the reigning national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide, defend their title against Notre Dame on January 7th, we will see the handiwork of one of college football’s all-time great coaches. Anyone can see that Nick Saban is a great football coach. However, is he as brilliant as he’s made out to be? Does he have a secret formula to winning football games that no one has ever thought of?
Announcers lavish praise on Saban throughout any televised game (Verne Lunquist would shine the man’s shoes if he was asked), and if Saban ever needed a kidney, he would have thousands of offers from adoring fans of the Tide. The “Cult of Saban” seems absurd, but getting to 3 of the last 4 BCS National Championship games has made him an object of worship to those in Tuscaloosa. His success, however, hinges on a simple idea: recruit the best players in the country.
Like many simple concepts, this idea is easier said than done. Recruiting successfully is hard work, but, before we get mystified by the incredible success Nick Saban has had, just look at the players he has suiting up on the field. Out of the top 25 contributors for Alabama (the 22 starters as designated on the depth chart plus key contributors like leading tackler C.J. Moseley, 1000 yard rusher T.J. Yeldon, and leading receiver Amari Cooper), all but 5 were ranked 4 stars or higher coming out of high school according to Rivals.com.
Of those 5, Kelly Johnson (a blocking TE who earned his spot as a walk on) and DE Damion Square (still rated the #37 DT in the country coming out of high school) were the lowest regarded. Chance Warmack, considered the top guard prospect for this spring’s NFL Draft, was also a 3 star prospect.
Among the astonishing 20 highly regarded recruits, 7 were ranked in the top 2 in their positions (RB T.J. Yeldon, OT D.J. Fluker, C Barrett Jones, OT Cyrus Kouandjio, DT Jesse Williams, LB Nico Johnson, and CB Dee Miliner), and an additional 5 were rated in the Rivals100 (WR Amari Cooper, WR DeAndrew White, LB C.J. Mosely, LB Xzavier Dickson, and LB Trey DePriest).
The resurgency of Saban’s Alabama began with the 2008 signing class (remember, Saban only went 7-6 during the 2007 season) that included, among others, DTs Terrance Cody and Marcel Dareus, LB D’onta Hightower, WR Julio Jones, and Heisman Trophy winning RB Mark Ingram). Following the ’08 class (which has to be considered one of the all-time great classes, Saban signed the #1 Class in ’09, #5 Class in ’10, and the #1 class each of the last two years.
Yes, Nick Saban is a great coach. But, part of his brilliance has nothing to do with how well he can coach the game of football. It starts with getting the right players for his system (which he also did while building LSU into a powerhouse during the first half of the last decade), and getting the best players in the country to want to play for him. Over the last few years, the number of fans who follow recruiting has increased dramatically.
Many will tune in on Friday to watch the Under Armour All-Star game and on Saturday to watch the Army All-American Bowl to see some of the best high school players in the country. While the obsession with the whims and choices of high school kids is quite silly, recruiting observers can point to the success of Nick Saban when dealing with skeptics and channel their inner James Carville and tell them , “it’s the recruiting, stupid.”