'I'm nothing without my players': The recruiting magic of Alabama's Nick Saban
On the third day of 2007, on a flight from South Florida to Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s brand new football coach, Nick Saban, dropped a surprising question on his seatmate, then-Crimson Tide athletic director Mal Moore.
“Do you think you’ve hired the best coach in the country?” the 55-year-old Saban asked Moore.
By this time, with Moore’s agonizing, month-long quest to pry Saban away from the Miami Dolphins having finally come to fruition, the AD was feeling a bit punch-drunk. He still didn’t know his new coach very well, still found him hard to read.
“Why, Nick, of course I do,” Moore said, while thinking to himself: For $4 million a year, I sure as hell hope so.
“Well, you didn’t—I’m nothing without my players,” Saban said, locking eyes with Moore. “But you did just hire a helluva recruiter.”
That, to the immense delight of Alabama’s fans, has turned out to be an understatement. Saban, who will turn 64 on Halloween, is perhaps the finest recruiter of the modern era. His 2015 class of signees was regarded, by consensus, as the best in the country, the fifth year in a row that the Crimson Tide topped the recruiting rankings. Saban’s ability to recruit propelled him up the professional ladder as an assistant coach at six different stops early in his career, and, as a head coach, it helped him turn around programs at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU and, of course, Alabama. It has helped him to win four national titles, has sent 119 players to the NFL and is the biggest reason that he is better suited to the college game than the professional one.
“In the NFL, you only get one first-round draft pick, and that’s if it hadn’t already been traded away,” Saban once told me. “In college, I could recruit ten players with first-round talent every year.”
The keys to Saban’s recruiting success are his uncanny ability to evaluate talent, his relentlessness, his organization and, perhaps most surprisingly, his personal charm and charisma. It helps, too, that he got an early start.
Saban began recruiting at age 10, working on behalf of his father, Nick Sr., who was his first football coach. The younger Saban canvassed the elementary schools surrounding his hometown of Monongah, W.Va., appealing to the hearts of his peers: We’ve got football, cheerleaders and ice cream. The approach worked. The team became a Pop Warner dynasty, and, in one memorable stretch, won 39 games in a row.
Though Saban has learned something about talent evaluation at each of the 13 stops in his coaching career, much of his gift for recognizing good players is innate. “He’s like someone who can identify a thoroughbred racing horse at a young age,” says Glen Mason, Saban’s fellow assistant coach at Ohio State in the early 1980s. “He can just look at a high school player and say, ‘That guy is a winner.’ ”
Curt Cignetti, Saban’s recruiting coordinator with the Crimson Tide from 2007 to ’10, says that Saban’s ability to evaluate talent was particularly sharp when and if he could actually see a recruit play in person. “If we could evaluate a guy in a camp, we were right about 90% of the time,” Cignetti says.
Saban has rarely paid much attention to the player rankings produced by recruiting services. Instead, he has trusted his own eyes. While at LSU, he found an undersized player named Jacob Hester—rated as a two-star prospect by most agencies—who became a college star. At Alabama, he went hard after a linebacker named Dont’a Hightower, who was only lightly recruited by most other schools. Hightower became an All-America for the Crimson Tide and is now entering his fourth season with the New England Patriots.
The ability to identify talent, though, means little to a coach if he can’t actually land the recruit. Saban has gone to great lengths to reel in prospects. In 1984, when he was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Saban skipped his mother-in-law’s Christmas Eve party to hang out with the grandmother of a highly touted wideout named Andre Rison. Saban drank beer with her until 3 a.m. While he didn’t earn any points from his family, Saban did land Rison, who excelled for the Spartans and, later, for the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL.
Saban does all he can to learn absolutely everything about a recruit. “He’s out there prodding the aunt, the uncle, the mom, the coaches, the kid himself,” says Dallas Cowboys wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, who was Saban’s recruiting coordinator in Baton Rouge. Saban has secretaries who keep him updated on each individual recruit, who have been known to drill down to such granular details as a recruit’s most recent score on an English test. Gary Tranquill, Saban’s offensive coordinator at Michigan State, says that Saban was so prepared for some recruiting interviews that “he literally knew what brand of chewing gum that kid preferred.”
Saban was so aggressive on the recruiting trail that, in 2008, his peers had finally had enough. That’s when they successfully lobbied the NCAA to stop recruiting in the spring—when coaches were allowed to go on the road and evaluate talent—something at which Saban excelled. The new bylaw was dubbed the “Saban Rule,” which outraged its namesake.
Where Saban shines the brightest, though, is in the living room, with a recruit and his parents. Early in his career, he used anything he could to get an advantage. While recruiting for Buckeyes in the early 1980s, Saban would conspicuously twirl a large Ohio State ring on his finger when talking to a recruit. Later he developed a warm and charismatic recruiting style that is in stark contrast to his reputation as an unfriendly monomaniac. He is particularly good at charming mothers. “When he left the room, those mothers would turn to their kids and say, ‘You go with him, he’s so nice,’ ” says George Perles, Saban’s boss during his stint as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator in the mid-1980s.
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Saban can still be stern—at Toledo, he once put a kid he was recruiting on probation before he actually signed him—but recruits and parents eat his act up. The way he carries himself has differentiated him from his peers. “The other coaches sometimes come off as used-car salesmen and Baptist ministers—he’s not like that,” says a former Crimson Tide offensive coach. “A lot of these parents aren’t making a lot of money, and they see this guy come in, just off the plane, wearing a suit, a guy with a plan. They don’t see many people like that. What they saw in him was a man who was blunt, straightforward and successful.”
It isn’t too difficult to see how Saban can be such a convincing recruiter these days. His résumé speaks for itself. But there was a time at Alabama when Saban was not exactly at the height of his powers. In early 2008, Saban was coming off of three straight subpar years—his two seasons with the Dolphins and his first year with the Crimson Tide (combined record: 22–23). He also found himself getting pilloried by the media for the way he left Miami, when he had repeatedly denied any interest in the Alabama job. Rival coaches were taking shots at him, too. “On the recruiting trail that year we were getting hit with, ‘He lied about Miami and he’ll lie about Alabama, too,’ ” says a former Crimson Tide coach.
Of course that was the year that Saban signed his famous 2008 recruiting class, which included the likes of Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. Many recruiting experts consider that class the best in college football history, and it became the foundation of Alabama’s run of three national titles in four years.
Saban, who is now in his ninth year as the coach of the Crimson Tide, has never strayed from his own self-assessment: “I’m nothing without my players.” Shortly after last year’s loss in the College Football Playoff semifinals, he was back out on the road, sealing up commitments for 2015—including such potential stars as receiver Calvin Ridley and cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick—in a class that more than one prominent analyst would describe as one of his best yet.
Monte Burke is the author of, Saban: The Making of a Coach, from Simon & Schuster.