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Welcome to Tuscaloosa: Why NFL Scouts Love Visiting Alabama

NIck Saban has realized that being open and accommodating to pro scouts on their visits boosts the overall image of his program—and helps his players’ draft status. And the more successful he is in getting players into the NFL, the more top high school recruits will want to come to Tuscaloosa. It’s a virtuous cycle that more schools should follow.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — At an Alabama pro day a few years ago, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban addressed the NFL executives, coaches and scouts who had made the trip to check out Alabama’s departing players. Then he asked if anyone had any questions. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert spoke up, but he didn’t have a question.

He wanted to thank Saban for making Alabama the most accessible stop on the trail for NFL teams trying to make draft decisions. The thanks went well beyond pro day and its lavish food spread and five-star treatment, because a lot of college programs put on a show for pro day. It was for those random days in the fall when a scout could come by Alabama’s facility at any time of the day or night and be treated like an honored guest.

“If you call ahead and say, ‘The only time I can watch tape is at 3 a.m,’ they will unlock the facility for you,” says Phil Savage, who was a Browns scout when Saban was Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator in Cleveland in the early ’90s and later became the team’s general manager. After that, Savage ran the Senior Bowl from 2012 to 2018 and spent eight years as an analyst for Alabama’s radio network. He now serves as the general manager of the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football. The experience in the NFL and with the Senior Bowl gave Savage a taste of how schools across the country treat NFL scouts. According to Savage and the former and working scouts surveyed by SI, none treat scouts as well as Alabama.

Alabama may be a fortress when it comes to the media and the general public, but NFL personnel are visiting dignitaries no matter their team or pay grade. Now, you may be asking “Aren’t all major programs wide open for scouts?” And that’s a legitimate question, because it would seem that schools want as many of their players to make to the NFL as possible. But common sense doesn’t always apply when it collides with the paranoia of college football coaches. 

Some schools limit what days scouts can visit the complex. The working scouts interviewed by SI, and granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized by their teams to speak publicly, were open about the schools that treat them well and the schools that don’t. “Don’t use my name,” a scout from an NFC team said. “But please get all this info out there.” They cited Michigan State and Pittsburgh as schools that aren’t always easy to visit. When Bill Snyder coached at Kansas State, there were seasons when scouts weren’t allowed in until November. Scouts complained about Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson but are optimistic that new coach Geoff Collins will make their lives easier because Collins was accommodating as Temple’s head coach. (As was scout favorite Matt Rhule, who continues to earn fans in the scouting community as Baylor’s coach.) Some schools don’t let scouts talk to assistants. Scouts love Penn State’s current personnel staff and consider the Nittany Lions to be gracious hosts, but they’d prefer to be able to quiz position coaches about players.

Scouts thought Mark Richt was restrictive at Georgia but that he loosened up during his three seasons as Miami’s coach. (Richt’s mentor Bobby Bowden wasn’t wide open at Florida State, either.) Since former Saban assistant Kirby Smart took over at Georgia, scouts have enjoyed their trips to Athens more. Ditto for visits to Texas A&M and South Carolina, where former Saban assistants Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp run the programs. Scouts like LSU because they feel they’ll get honest appraisals of players there from the coaches and especially from long-timers such as strength coach Tommy Moffitt and trainer Jack Marucci. Oregon State was a favorite stop when Mike Riley coached there, and Chris Petersen got high marks at Boise State and at Washington. At Clemson, scouts love associate athletic director Woody McCorvey. A longtime SEC assistant who was Dabo Swinney’s position coach at Alabama, McCorvey is the point man for Clemson’s interactions with NFL personnel.

In general, schools are more open than they were in the past. This is thanks in large part to the success that scout favorite Pete Carroll had at USC and that Saban has had at Alabama. Smarter coaches have realized that if those two treated scouts well and won, perhaps that was a system worth copying. One former scout said that Carroll-era USC was so open that the Trojans would provide him with video of the other Pac-10 teams so he could knock out all his video work in Los Angeles and could travel more flexibly to see the players at the other schools in person.

There are few horror stories anymore like the ones from Joe Paterno-era Penn State and Greg Schiano-era Rutgers. When Paterno coached the Nittany Lions, scouts usually were allowed in during one week out of the season. One year, Penn State lost the Saturday going into the designated week. So on that Sunday, the school sent a fax to every NFL team explaining that the program would be closed to scouts that week. Some scouts never got the fax and, after making the never-easy trek to State College, were turned away. Not that they would have gotten much anyway. Current Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who worked for the Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks and Packers during an 18-year NFL scouting career, explained that on the assigned days the Nittany Lions were open, scouts would pile into a meeting room where an assistant would either read from the players’ bios in the media guide or say that every player was a great person who loved football. This was useless information for scouts, who needed to get honest answers to bring back to their teams. College teams may think that hiding flaws makes all their players more desirable, but Nagy explained that this made it impossible for scouts to identify the players that they should be standing up on the table for when their teams were looking at late-round picks or free agents. “When you’re getting the company line on every single guy, you don’t know who that [great] guy is,” Nagy says. “They were hurting the kids who did all the right things.”

Schiano, meanwhile, sequestered scouts in a tiny area near the practice field and wouldn’t allow them to get near players but for a few minutes of practice. The reason? Paranoia. Many of the coaches regarded as scout-unfriendly are that way because they believe a scout might call his alma mater or a buddy on another college staff and tip them off on schemes that might be used in games. Nagy once got thrown out of a school while working for the Patriots. Former New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had just taken the Notre Dame job, and Nagy was visiting a school that played Notre Dame that week. As Nagy watched video of players, the program’s operations director walked in the room and apologetically asked Nagy to leave. The coaching staff was nervous that information would get back to Weis. “It’s almost delusional the paranoia at some of these places,” Nagy says. “It’s just ridiculous. Scouts don’t have time for that.”

Nothing makes scouts more furious than the notion that they’re spying for someone, because it shows a true lack of understanding of their jobs. They care about personnel, not scheme, and they aren’t about to risk their jobs to pass along someone’s two-point conversion trick play. They want to get their information and get on the road to the next stop, because they have dozens of schools that they must visit as many times as possible during the season. That’s also why they hate when schools limit the days they can visit. Fitting together the travel puzzle for a season is difficult enough without having schools dictate which days or weeks scouts can visit.

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Scouts would love if every school was as open to them as Alabama is, and here’s the kicker: Programs that aren’t as open as Alabama are only hurting themselves. Tyson Summers got himself fired in 2017 as Georgia Southern’s coach by going 5-13 in a season and a half, so he clearly didn’t make a lot of correct decisions. But one of the more head-scratching ones was limiting scout visits to Mondays. At Georgia Southern’s level, scouts should be welcome 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Anything that helps the players get noticed by the NFL should be paramount.

Saban, one of the most accomplished coaches in college football history, understands this better than most. Why does he win so much? Because he usually has the best players. Why does he usually have the best players? Because top recruits care most about whether the program they’re considering can get them into the NFL—as high in the draft as possible. So common sense would dictate that the program should make life as easy as possible for the employees of NFL teams who might contribute to that player being drafted and drafted high.

This, from 2015, is the most effective recruiting graphic in college football history.

This, from the next day in 2015, is the second most effective recruiting graphic in college football history.

The first shows that every starter on Alabama’s 2012 offense made it to the NFL and stayed at least a little while. The second shows that every starter on Alabama’s 2012 defense made it to the NFL and stayed at least a little while. This is basically all that top recruits care about, and it’s a big reason why Alabama is so welcoming to scouts.

The other major reason? It’s a quid pro quo situation. “We’ve always had a significant number of juniors that have a business decision to make about whether they stay in school or come out,” Saban says. “My philosophy has always been that I want it to be as open as possible and treat everybody as well as possible. Because we need them to get their information for the player to make a good business decision. Where would you pick this guy?

Saban’s philosophy is that a junior expected to go in the first round should leave and that a junior expected to go in the second round without the possibility to jump to the first with more seasoning should also leave. Everyone else could benefit financially by staying. And the Tide have testimonials from players such as linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive end Jonathan Allen, who stayed and made more money the next year than they would have by leaving early, to back up that assertion. That’s why an honest assessment from NFL people is so critical, and the best way to get an honest assessment from the scouts and executives is to be honest with the scouts. “That’s been very, very helpful to a lot of our players,” Saban says. “So that goes both ways. We need to be accommodating with them when they come here, and then they’re very forthcoming with us when we need to get that information.”

At Alabama, position coaches are available to speak to scouts about players. And they’ll be honest about their strengths and their weaknesses—just as they’d expect a high school coach to be honest with them about a recruit’s strengths and weaknesses. The long-term relationship matters more than one player’s draft position, because a healthy relationship with the NFL plus good players equals more NFL players whose success will help lure more good recruits.

The scouts understand that as well. If they’re willing to share, the smarter college coaches will make their lives much easier and help them do their jobs. That means they must hit the road and put in the time—usually at the schools that will welcome them. “For the most part, the visits are what you make of them as a scout,” Nagy says. “You can’t expect to roll into a school one or two times a year and expect them to give you information. It’s about relationships.”

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