HOOVER, Ala. — Fans of a rivalry as intense as Alabama-Auburn couldn't imagine switching sides. However, for a handful of the nation’s top recruits participating in last weekend’s Birmingham Nike NFTC camp, choosing between the Tide and the Tigers is all business.
You don’t need to look far for reminders about the intensity of the rivalry between Tide and the Tigers. A quick glance at the car tags in the parking lot outside Spain Park High School indicates the allegiances of the fans at the camp.
Just how tough is it to choose between the SEC powers?
A few recent examples of top-tier recruits who reneged on early commitments to one school in favor of their most hated rivals offers a glimpse.
Tide star running back T.J. Yeldon was committed to the Tigers for more than a year before switching to Alabama weeks before his enrollment. Similarly, 2014 Auburn corner signees Stephen Roberts and Kalvaraz Bessent were longtime Alabama commitments who switched to Auburn late in the process.
As detailed by ESPN.com, the saga of Auburn native Rashaan Evans—who spurned the hometown Tigers in favor of the Tide—was one of the biggest stories on national signing day two months ago.
Despite the thrill of earning offers from prestigious schools, choosing between rivals can be draining for players who don’t quite grasp the intensity.
While fans from both sides are immersed in the daily happenings, players don’t approach it with the same fervor.
In fact, a number of players attach themselves to specific players more so than a school.
Joshua McMillon, a 4-star linebacker from Memphis, has Alabama and Auburn among his lead group of schools, but his connection to each program came in the form of admiration for star players.
“I grew up being a fan of both Heisman Trophy winners, Mark Ingram and Cam Newton,” McMillon said. “My dad is a big Cam Newton fan and a Mark Ingram fan. It’s kind of iffy, but we both love both schools.”
Malik Miller, a talented athlete in the 2016 class who counts the Tide and Tigers among his early offers, can identify with McMillon’s viewpoint.
“I just really grew up following the athletes,” Miller said. “It wasn’t like ‘go Auburn’ or ‘go Alabama,’ it was more like ‘go Cam Newton’ and ‘go Mark Ingram.’”
Even players who declared their rooting interest at an early age are not letting that determine the end of their recruitment.
Tyler Carr, a 4-star offensive lineman from Gadsden (Ala.) grew up an Auburn fan. However, after earning an offer from Alabama and visiting the Tide’s campus, a program he grew up cheering against is a legitimate threat to earn his signature.
“Sometimes you have to grow up and just make the best decision for you,” Carr said. “I feel like Auburn and Alabama are both great decisions, so I couldn’t go wrong with either one of them. But sometimes you just have to step back from stuff and look at it and find what best suits you.”
Carr realizes that should he choose either school, it will only be the beginning of his role in the never-ending saga between the in-state powers. While he understands the implications of his decision from a fan’s perspective, he also realizes that he has to let go of that in order to make the best decision for his future.
“Obviously, there’s fans from both sides that want to see you go to here or there,” Carr said. “I’m sure once I commit to wherever I go, I’m sure I will hear it from the other side. It’s just something that you have to have thick skin about.”
Daron Payne can identify with what Carr is going through. Like Carr, the 5-star defensive tackle and Birmingham native is considering both in-state schools.
According to Bryan Matthews of Auburn Undercover, Payne shed some insight on his dilemma by naming Auburn as his “dream school.”
He expanded on that statement before taking the field for the camp.
“I grew up an Auburn fan, so I’ve been wanting to play for them all of my life.” Payne said. “Then I got the Alabama offer, and then (it’s like) everybody wants to play for ‘Bama.”
For players such as Carr and Payne, the manner in which they approach the recruiting process changes after their options and exposure begin to increase.
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“A lot of kids grow up fans of one school or another,” 247Sports recruiting analyst Keith Niebuhr said. “But as they get closer to the point where they start getting offers and visiting more schools, their mindset changes a bit. At that point, most kids decide to take a step or two back to really fully evaluate the situation.”
With increased media coverage and even fan interaction through social media adding extra layers to the recruiting process, arriving at a decision without any distractions or bumps in the road is nearly impossible.
“I think it puts more pressure on the kid than the kid really should have,” Niebuhr said. “This is a great time in a kid’s life. A kid with an Auburn and Alabama offer, he should be relieved because he’s got the hard part over with.”
Instead, in a state such as Alabama where the spotlight on the rivalry is so big, that pressure gets transferred to recruits caught up in deciding between the two powerhouses.
Daron Payne. Oh my. https://t.co/BwMQuF8OQ4— Matt Scalici (@MattScalici) March 30, 2014
Many recruits at the Birmingham NFTC camp referred to their ultimate choice as a business decision, with their fit at the school and relationships with the coaches cited as the two biggest factors.
That doesn’t mean the team they rooted for is eliminated. Instead, separating fanhood from the equation is the first, and perhaps most critical, step in allowing them to properly evaluate each school.
“The decision could lead back to where the heart initially was, but it may not,” Niebuhr said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at the big picture for such an important decision.”
While fans never think in a rational matter when assessing the strengths of their most hated rivals, recruits cannot afford to look at it that way.
Viewing things from the prism of a top-notch recruit, both programs have similar selling points.
For athletes such Murfreesboro, Tenn., quarterback Jauan Jennings—who has Alabama and Auburn in his final group and will make his choice next week—fans are missing the point.
“All they (fans) really see is the games and who wins and who loses,” Jennings said. “One thing they don’t understand is that both programs are trying to win. That’s the similarity that you can’t fault either program for because both programs are winning programs.”
Considering that the Tide and the Tigers have either won or played for the national title in each of the last five years and the quality of the staffs assembled by Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn, there are more similarities between the programs than most fans would care to admit.
For most players, their appreciation for the intensity of the rivalry doesn’t materialize until they step foot on campus.
Passionate fans are part of what makes rivalries so memorable, and none arguably match the zeal that is displayed on each side of the Iron Bowl. With these two fanbases, the recruiting trail is simply an extension of their annual meetings that play out on the field in November.
For recruits, the pressures that come when considering rival schools is simply part of the beast. But in the end, rivalries have minimal impacts on their eventual choice.
“At the end of the day, they are just young guys,” Niebuhr said. “More than anything, they are trying to make as many people happy as possible. It’s probably undue pressure, but I think a lot of them are savvy these days, and I think they understand that it’s just the nature of things.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.