Nick Saban and the Inner Workings of His Alabama Recruiting Machine

Lars AndersonSenior WriterFebruary 3, 2015


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Close your eyes and imagine the scene:

The 17-year-old recruit walks into Nick Saban's corner office on the second floor of the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility just off Bryant Drive in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At the sight of the 5-star high school player and his family, Saban rises from behind his massive cherry desk and presses a button on a remote control, which shuts the door.

The coach loves this trick and smiles devilishly. There's a liquid glimmer of mischief in his eyes, revealing a side to Saban the recruit has never seen on television.

The recruit notices that, even in the dim light of Saban's inner sanctum—where the shades are usually drawn, as if to conceal secrets—the three national championship rings on a coffee table gleam brilliantly, like sunshine bouncing off the ocean. Saban guides the player and his family onto an overstuffed sofa. The coach takes a seat across from them in an easy chair. Between them are the rings. Then Nicholas Lou Saban Jr., age 63, lays on his singular brand of the hard sell.

We will win championships here. You see these rings? We'll get more of those. And I will prepare you for the NFL. We've had more NFL draft picks in the last five years than anyone. Anyone. The best come here. You'll have to earn your way onto the field as well as your right to stay on it. We have a process here. It's an everyday thing. We focus on what is directly in front of us, not end results. We want you, but know that we will win with or without you.

According to several former and current Alabama players, this is how Saban seals recruiting deals.

Saban may often appear distant and uninterested in public settings, but here in his wood-paneled office, his face lights up when he talks to a high school player about coming to Tuscaloosa. He sits on the edge of his chair and speaks with increasing animation, like an excited English professor delving deep into a discussion of Chaucer.

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When a recruit is in Saban's thrall, each sell session the coach delivers comes off as the most important and urgent of his career. This is part of the magic of Saban at closing time.

Alabama's Josh Chapman after Iron Bowl win over Auburn in 2011.
Alabama's Josh Chapman after Iron Bowl win over Auburn in 2011.Associated Press

"I was set to go to Auburn, and then I sat in Coach Saban's office, and that changed everything for me," said Josh Chapman, now a defensive tackle with the Indianapolis Colts, who was one of the first players to sign with Alabama after Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in January of 2007. "You just feel he's got a plan for you and that he's the guy who will get you to the NFL. And he's got a presence like no one I've ever met."

Is Saban the best recruiter in college football history? It's a legitimate question to raise, especially now on the eve of national signing day, when he will sign a class that will win the Rivals.com recruiting national title for the fifth straight year—and sixth out of the last seven years.

On Wednesday, Saban is slated to land commitments from Rivals' top running back in the country (Damien Harris), its top-ranked wide receiver (Calvin Ridley), its No. 2 safety (Minkah Fitzpatrick), its second-ranked dual-threat quarterback (Blake Barnett), its third-best guard (Lester Cotton) and its third-ranked defensive tackle (Daron Payne)—just to name a few.

This would be a once-in-a-career haul for virtually anyone who has ever coached college football; for Saban, it's a typical class—just another day at his spacious office.

"Nobody has had a recruiting dynasty like this in college football," said Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals. "This is another great class for Saban. He can now basically go into any state he wants and get its best player. In the last few years, he's done this in Texas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and I could go on and on. Players simply believe that if you can play for Saban, you'll do two things: win a national championship and get drafted into the NFL."

The success of Saban on signing day, of course, is more complex than that. But what is it, exactly, that makes him such an artful recruiter? How has he built this Alabama recruiting machine, which is humming with such ruthless efficiency and shows no signs of slowing down?

"There are no secrets," Saban said. "It's about one thing, man, one thing: hard work."

Indeed, Saban and his staff devote time every working day of the year to recruiting, whether it's writing letters, making phone calls or watching game film. The staff compiles comprehensive reports on every prospective recruit, noting how accurately he fits the physical prototype the team is looking for at his position.

No detail is too extraneous; they'll assess ankle movement, hip flexibility and knee dexterity. They examine how each recruit communicates to his teammates on the field, how he reacts to getting beaten or manhandled by his opponent and how he behaves once he's achieved success on the field. They also probe into his behavior at school, assessing his study habits and his social conduct.

Even before Saban steps into the homes of prospects or invites a recruit to his office, Alabama usually has delved "seven deep" into the player's life, meaning they've contacted his friends, family, teachers, coaches—virtually anyone who has had an interaction with that player and shaped his development.

All-American offensive lineman Barrett Jones.
All-American offensive lineman Barrett Jones.Associated Press

How did Saban, for instance, know to talk to future All-American Barrett Jones about playing the violin when Jones visited Saban's office? Because Saban had read a dossier on Jones' life that detailed how the offensive line recruit from Germantown, Tennessee, had given violin concerts as a child.

But more than anything, the background work by the Alabama staff is aimed at discovering whether a player can flourish in Tuscaloosa.

"We didn't even want to know about a guy's physical ability until we had gone more than a few layers deep into his life to find all the answers about him and see if he had the character to fit at Alabama," said Jim McElwain, the Crimson Tide's offensive coordinator from 2008 to '11 who is now the head coach at Florida. "We wanted to know if he had the drive to succeed and the character to handle all that we were going to demand of him.

"It's hard at Alabama. It's not for everybody. You can't be an ego guy at Alabama. Nick won't tolerate it, no matter how much talent you have. But that's why he goes so many layers deep into a player's life before really getting serious about recruiting him."

In evaluating the physical ability of players, Saban doesn't rely on game tape alone. He (or a staff member) always talks to a high school player's coaches and grills them with questions.

What's the player's character like? Can he digest and understand complex concepts? Is he a team leader? Is he a good teammate? What's his family background? Has he gotten in any trouble at school or with the law? How does he practice? Does he listen? Does he show up on time for meetings and appointments? Does he attend all of his classes? Is he dependable? Is he active in the community? How does he react to adversity? Can he play through pain? How will he perform when 100,000 pairs of eyes will be trained on him?

Saban, in short, wants to know every possible detail about every player.

Alabama's recruiting war room sits close to Saban's office. Only key personnel are allowed inside the room, which has a grease board that covers an entire wall and features the players Alabama is targeting for the next four years; the board includes information such as each prospect's grade-point average and the names of the school or schools each is leaning toward.

What happens in this room every day, to Saban, is nearly as important as what transpires on autumn Saturdays at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"We were constantly revising the athletic evaluations of the players in that room," said Curt Cignetti, Alabama's recruiting coordinator and receivers coach from 2007 to '10, who is now the head coach at Division II IUP in Indiana, Pennsylvania. "We also had character evaluation and academic evaluation."

"Recruiting with Coach Saban never stops...because it's the lifeblood of the program," McElwain said. "Nick doesn't care if a kid has 100 offers or zero offers; he just wants to know if he can fit in the Alabama program. And if Nick offers a kid, his [recruiting] stars will jump up. But no one at Alabama is concerned about stars or what so-called recruiting experts are saying about players. That's just background noise.

Jim McElwain and Nick Saban after a Colorado State loss to Alabama.
Jim McElwain and Nick Saban after a Colorado State loss to Alabama.Associated Press

"The evaluation process Coach Saban has is incredibly exhaustive," McElwain continued. "There are position-specific sets of critical factors that we looked for in a high school player. If the player had many of those critical factors, we felt that physically, he'd have a chance to succeed at that position at Alabama. It's as much a scientific approach as is possible to what is ultimately a subjective matter. I don't think anyone in the nation can evaluate talent better than Coach Saban."

When Saban meets recruits, he's not smooth like an Urban Meyer (who won national titles at Florida in 2006 and '08 and at Ohio State last month) or folksy like a Steve Spurrier (who won a national title at Florida in 1996 and is now at South Carolina) or eccentric like a Les Miles (who won a national title at LSU in 2007 and is still there). Rather, Saban is paternal and authoritative. He has a clear plan not only for his program, but also for each and every recruit.

Saban maps out, down to every hour of every day, the recruit's schedule for his upcoming years at Alabama. He explains in detail how he's going to make each young player perform better both on the field and in the classroom as well as how he's going to help each player grow into a person of substance.

Want to know why Alabama players remove their hats when they shake the hand of the mother of a prospective recruit? Because Saban teaches proper manners as much as proper football techniques.

"A lot of coaches will try to become really close friends with recruits, but that's not Nick. He's matter-of-fact and all business," said Todd Grantham, who was a defensive line coach under Saban at Michigan State in the late '90s and is now the defensive coordinator at Louisville. "When coaches do become buddies with the recruit, and then the recruit gets on campus and the coach is no longer his best friend, that's when problems can occur. But Nick just lays it all out there: 'Here's what we have to offer both academically and athletically. I'll launch you to a NFL career. Take it or leave it.'"

"Nick only hires coaches who have reputations for being good recruiters," said Cignetti. "Every assistant recruits an area, so Nick wants assistants that have relationships with high school coaches in the specific area that he will be in charge of recruiting. Recruiting is information-gathering and sales. Once we get film of the player, the position coach will evaluate it. He then passes his evaluation along to Nick. And then if Nick decides to make an offer, he's very good at giving people attention, which is really what people want. He's good at developing and maintaining relationships.

"He's very, very smart, and he has the recruiting down to science. I think he could have been successful in any business he went into because he's the rare person who is intellectually gifted and extremely driven. He sets the tempo for everything at Alabama. Everything."

Sal Sunseri
Sal SunseriGetty Images

"When you work for Coach Saban, you better make sure you are on top of the guys you are in charge of recruiting," said Sal Sunseri, who was the linebackers coach at Alabama from 2009 to '11 and recently became the Oakland Raiders' linebackers coach. "Persistence is what makes Coach Saban such a good recruiter. If he wants a guy, he'll make that guy feel like no one wants him more than Alabama. That's why you have to be very prepared to respond to Coach Saban when he asks you about a player you are recruiting.

"It's all about developing relationships with high school coaches, with parents and with the players. Really, those relationships are the key, and Coach Saban is always making sure that his assistants are keeping up with those relationships. Saban has more drive than anyone I've ever met."

The source of Saban's relentless nature—the key component to his recruiting success—can be traced to his childhood. At the age of 11, Saban began working at his father's gas station in tiny Monongah, West Virginia, only weeks after his dad had started coaching a Pop Warner team. At Saban's service station, father and son would throw a football to each other in front of the pumps until a car pulled in. One of them would then grab the nozzle and pump the gas while the other would check the engine oil and clean the windshield.

Young Nick did a little bit of everything at the station: He checked tire pressure, washed cars, collected money, made change, did grease jobs, changed oil and air filters and replaced oil. One time, his father, known locally as "Big Nick," asked him to clean out a drain in the floor of the station. By the time "Little Nick" finished hours later, it was as spotless as fine dinner china.

"The biggest thing I learned and started to learn at 11 years old was how important it was to do things correctly," Saban said. "There was a standard of excellence, a perfection. If we washed a car—and I hated the navy blue and black cars because when you wipe them off, the streaks were hard to get out—and if there were any streaks when [my father] came, you had to do it over."

That standard of excellence extended to the football field, where Saban became the starting quarterback for the Idamay Black Diamonds at age 11. The coach, Big Nick, cared deeply about his boys.

With what little extra income he had, he purchased a used bus that he drove to pick up his players for practice and drop them off afterward. After painting the bus orange to match the team's color, his wife plastered positive sayings, inspiring quotations and affirmations on the inside of the bus—such as "when the going gets tough, the tough get going"—for the boys to read as Big Nick drove 40 miles daily along the narrow, winding roads chiseled into the West Virginia mountains, traveling up and down the hills and hollows to the four different towns where his players lived.

He considered them his own blood. In return, not wanting to disappoint the man who had given them so much, they played their hearts out for Big Nick. Little Nick carefully studied it all.

Big Nick was a natural-born perfectionist, and his attention to detail was rare among Pop Warner coaches. He wasn't as concerned with results as much as he was with his players performing at their maximum potential, which was something he reminded his players of nearly every practice. Little Nick soaked it all in. Many of the phrases his father used—"Invest your time, don’t spend it"—the son still utters today.

The Idamay Black Diamonds strung together winning streaks of 26 and 33 games. Though Big Nick's team didn't possess the most talent, they had something more powerful: desire, toughness and strength.

"He took these country kids that didn't have an opportunity to play, taught them how to be successful, how to compete," Saban said of his father. "That certainly is something that stuck with me as a person and as a player. ... It made me better. The work ethic he taught, the standard of excellence, the integrity that you do things with, the attitude that you carry with you and the character that you carry with you, what you do every day. Those kinds of values affected me."

And they have shaped him into the recruiter he is today.

Jamie Martin/Associated Press

The tale of how Saban landed future New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower is instructive because it reveals two more keys to Saban's recruiting prowess: his eye for spotting talent (especially talent that fits into his system) and his high-revving internal motor that can power him through the longest of recruiting trip binges.

On a spring day in 2007, Saban and Cignetti were scheduled to leave Tuscaloosa at 7:30 a.m. in a private plane and fly to Huntsville, Alabama, to check out a few players. Then they would jet to Nashville, Tennessee, to see more recruits, then swing by Lewisburg, Tennessee, to watch Hightower practice, then return to Nashville to view another potential recruit compete in a track meet at Brentwood Academy.

Finally, after more than 12 hours in the air and on the road, they would return to Tuscaloosa, weary but wiser about the talent in the region.

By the time Saban and Cignetti arrived at Marshall Country High in Lewisburg, Hightower and his teammates were in the indoor practice facility for the first day of spring practice. As Hightower performed various drills with no pads, he noticed that a man on the sideline was following his every move. Confused, he asked a teammate, "Is that one of our new coaches?"


"Then who is it?"

"That's Alabama coach Nick Saban," the teammate replied. "Um, he's here to see you."

Saban liked what he saw in Hightower, whose only scholarship offer at the time was from Ole Miss. Saban covets big players. He repeatedly tells his assistants that "heavyweights knock out lightweights." And Hightower was big for a linebacker: 6'4," 240 pounds and capable of running a 4.6 40.

After watching him for a few minutes, Saban turned to Cignetti.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"We need to offer him," Cignetti replied.

Nick Saban and Dont'a Hightwower at Alabama.
Nick Saban and Dont'a Hightwower at Alabama.Associated Press

Hightower didn't talk to Saban that afternoon, but later that night, the coach called Hightower's home. Though Saban had not personally seen Hightower play in a game, he offered him a scholarship. At the time, Hightower wasn't pegged by most recruiting services to be a blue-chip player, but Saban trusts what he sees more than what he reads when gauging a player's potential.

"What I saw that day in the indoor practice facility at his school was probably the most athletic linebacker in the country," Saban recalled. "I was blown away. I knew right away he could be a perfect fit for what we want to do."

Hightower didn't immediately accept Saban's offer, but he couldn't stop thinking about how Saban had flown all the way to his small Tennessee town just to watch him practice. He must really care, Hightower thought, and he must really, really want me. (Hightower would commit a few months later.)

When Saban and Cignitti left Marshall High, they stopped at a 7-Eleven convenience store. Neither had eaten all day. Cignetti purchased a candy bar. "What, do you have a sugar problem or something?" Saban joked.

Saban wouldn't eat until the coaches returned to Tuscaloosa at 8 p.m. that Friday evening. As the pair walked off the plane at the Bama Terminal, Saban looked at Cignetti, who was exhausted. The head coach, grinning wickedly, said, "Just another day in the NCAA."

At that very moment, in the gathering darkness on the tarmac, Cignetti didn't know if he'd ever seen anyone look as blissfully content as did Saban. 

Another one of Saban's favorite sayings is, "Right is never wrong." This means, in Saban's world, the right thing must always be vigorously pursued. When it comes to recruiting, "right is never wrong" means pouring as much energy as possible—both physical and intellectual—into getting the best players on his team.

But what makes this philosophy work is the full-blast, crank-it-up-to-10 intensity of the man who espouses and teaches and lives it.

"When you work for Nick, you always feel like it's 4th-and-1 on the goal line and the Super Bowl is on the line," said Phil Savage, who coached with Saban at the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s and remains a close friend. "He's the pacesetter. Players at Alabama today will swear to you that they've never seen him close his eyes in meetings and that they've never seen him yawn.

"He's got a lot of firepower in that engine. You feel like if you don't get something done, then you're letting him down. It's intense with him. ... More than any coach in America, Nick understands that the jockey doesn't carry the horse, it's the horse that carries the jockey. He knows he needs talent to win, and that's why he'll never get out-recruited by anyone."

Terry and Nick Saban.
Terry and Nick Saban.Associated Press

The final weapon in Saban's recruiting arsenal is his wife, who was once a cheerleader for the Idamay Black Diamonds. When a prospect takes an official visit to Tuscaloosa, he and his family will typically spend time with Terry Saban, or "Miss Terry" as everyone at Alabama calls her, including Saban himself.

Elegant, refined, an adept conversationalist and as warm as a living room fireplace on a winter's night, Miss Terry is the maternal figure over the entire program. She hosts a recruiting party after the A-Day game each spring at the Sabans' sprawling home on Lake Tuscaloosa, which is a few miles north of campus.

While Saban works the grill and talks X's and O's with the recruits, Miss Terry will open the windows and doors to let the spring breeze refresh the house, and she'll move from family to family with the skill of a royal. Terry spends countless hours with the players once they arrive on campus, and in many ways she's Saban's ultimate closer—the person who makes the parents of recruits feel that their child will be taken care of in Tuscaloosa.

"Terry does a fantastic job, I think, of being very supportive, not only in the things we do, or try to do, in terms of recruiting and getting to know and develop relationships with people that are important to feel comfortable when they come and visit our university," Saban said. "... She's quick to tell me when we're running it too much up the middle, when we're not passing enough, when we don't blitz enough on defense. I get lots of feedback on all those things. So I would say that she's probably as big a part of the program as anyone in terms of her time, her commitment."

Terry Saban may cringe at the thought of being cast as a key player in her husband's vaunted recruiting process, but she is. In fact, she was his original recruit, falling for his charms as a dimpled-cheeked teenager on their first date in 1968 when Saban took her to the Lee Movie Theatre in Fairmont, West Virginia, to see Gone with the Wind.

Yes, even back then, there was something about Nick Saban that attracted 5-star talent.

Lars Anderson is a senior writer at Bleacher Report and the author of The Storm and The Tide, a book about the tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa and what the Alabama football team did to help the city recover. This story is a combination of original reporting and reporting done for that book.

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