TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It began with an impromptu press conference hastily called in 2009.
Linebacker Rolando McClain didn’t suspect anything major when he received a phone call the Monday following the SEC Championship Game telling him to be at the football building the next morning; he was scheduled for a meeting with head coach Nick Saban followed by an interview session with media.
However, his suspicions were slightly aroused when told to dress up, which was different because when players are on camera they almost always wear something Crimson Tide-related.
“I was thinking, ‘Why do I need to wear slacks and a collared shirt?’” McClain said. “We don’t do media like that.”
He was still completely surprised when Dick Butkus walked into Saban’s office carrying his namesake trophy that annually goes to the nation’s best linebacker.
What's the real Linebacker U?
“I had no idea,” McClain said. “I’m really at a loss for words. I didn’t expect it.”
“He was really surprised,” Saban said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Ever since then Crimson Tide reporters have been on high alert in early December as the program has repeatedly had players in the running for the award. The only years Alabama hasn’t had a finalist since were 2010 and 2014.
When C.J. Mosley won in 2013, Butkus surprised him at the team banquet, and a strong argument could be made that Reggie Ragland was deserving this past season.
“Anytime you’re a competitor, I always want to win everything,” said Ragland, who used his close second-place finish to Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith as motivation for the playoffs. “A good guy won it. I can’t be mad. I’ll take it with a grain of salt and keep moving forward.”
According to the 247Sports composite rankings, they were the fifth and sixth 5-star linebackers to sign with Alabama under Saban, joining Nico Johnson (2009), Trey DePriest (2011), Reuben Foster (2013) and Rashaan Evans (2014).
Meanwhile, in five of the last seven seasons Alabama has had a consensus/unanimous All-American at linebacker, which easily tops the nation. During that time period only Georgia, Notre Dame and Michigan State have had two, and for the Spartans it was Greg Jones named twice.
NCAA Record Book
On the flip side of that, since the 2010 NFL draft there have been 19 linebackers selected in the first round, led by Alabama with three (McClain, Mosley and Dont’a Hightower, while Courtney Upshaw just missed). Ragland appears poised to be the fourth.
Consequently, it’s time Alabama claims the "Linebacker U" designation.
For years Penn State was known for that under head coach Joe Paterno, and rightfully so. Beginning with Dennis Onkotz, a two-time All-American in 1968-69, the Nittany Lions had the reputation for regularly having outstanding players at the position.
Others included Jack Ham, John Skorupan, Greg Buttle, Shane Conlan, LaVar Arrington, Brandon Short and Paul Posluszny, who were all consensus All-Americans.
Nevertheless, Penn State’s only had the third-most consensus All-Americans at linebacker since 1965, when the NCAA got rid of its rules requiring the use of the one-platoon system, which forced players to play on offense and defense.
The most recent player to join that club was Dan Connor in 2007, when he finished his career as Penn State’s all-time leading tackler with 419.
Yes, that’s the same year Saban landed in Tuscaloosa, and when McClain began his collegiate career. One of the holdovers from Mike Shula’s recruiting efforts, the in-state product started eight of 13 games as a freshman, finishing with 75 tackles, two interceptions and a sack.
That year, safety Rashad Johnson led the team with 94 tackles, while tied for second with 80 were defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry and linebacker Darren Mustin, a transfer from Middle Tennessee State. (Note: Johnson, a former walk-on at running back, now plays for the Arizona Cardinals. Gilberry plays with the Cincinnati Bengals). It's the last time Alabama failed to notch at least 10 wins.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s past includes Derrick Thomas, Cornelius Bennett, Lee Roy Jordan and Woodrow Lowe, who will stand up against any four linebackers in history.
College Football Hall of Fame
All four are in the College Football Hall of Fame, which is one more linebacker than Penn State has had enshrined.
As for Butkus—who played before 1965 and was listed as a unanimous All-American at center in 1963 and a consensus selection in 1964, but was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a linebacker—no one would be surprised if he keeps making return trips to Tuscaloosa.
Foster will attract a lot of offseason hype along with sack artists Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, but down the road there are Davis, Evans, Wilson, Christian Miller, Shaun Dion Hamilton…
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh