Alabama's Dynasty Igniters: Incredible 2008 Recruiting Class Sparked Turnaround

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 3, 2017

TUSCALOOSA - OCTOBER 17:  Alabama Crimson Tide teammates, including offensive lineman Drew Davis, offensive lineman Barrett Jones #75 and offensive lineman James Carpenter #77, swarm running back Mark Ingram #22 after his fourth quarter, game clinching touchdown during the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 17, 2009 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Crimson Tide beat the Gamecocks 20-6.  (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

At one end of the kitchen table sat Nick Saban, fresh off a failed cameo with the Miami Dolphins. At the other sat Flint Southwestern Academy senior running back Mark Ingram, his mother and his grandfather.

It was 2007, less than a year into Saban's tenure at Alabama. His program, currently the greatest dynasty in sports, was in disarray.

The Alabama of today, an overwhelming winning mechanism, was nothing more than an elaborate dream. The Alabama of old, a program of championships and tradition and a certain standard, had been lost.

In an effort to alter course, Saban made the 820-mile trek to Ingram's home in Flint, Michigan. He had a vision of what this program could be, but he needed help.

He needed players like Ingram, a back labeled as a 3- or 4-star prospect by recruiting outlets, to commit to his vision.

Saban took his time. Despite the urgency to rebuild, he made no promises. Not carries. Not the NFL. Certainly not a Heisman, which Ingram would win a few years later.

"He told me that I had the opportunity to be a great player," Ingram recalled. "And if I came there and I wasn't, that would be on me. I'm not a gambling man, but I was willing to bet on myself."

And then Saban hit the part of the sales pitch that all coaches touch on at some point. It's the part when they guarantee winning and titles and enormous accolades.

All coaches have their version of this speech, many of which fall flat. But Saban's version, even with the program stuck in mud, sounded different.

It felt…real.

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after defeating the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, A
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"We'd be a good team my first year, he told me," according to Ingram. "He also said that we'd probably win the national championship during my second year. My first year we went 12-0 and lost in the SEC championship. The next year we went 14-0 and won the national championship. That man sat in my house and called that."

Saban and his staff shared this same pitch—that vision—in family rooms and kitchens across the country in 2007 and early 2008.

A total of 32 players felt strongly enough about these words to commit to the program. And so, even if they didn't know it yet, a dynasty began. At a time when Alabama was seemingly broken, a giant was being assembled behind the scenes.

"We weren't any good when those guys came to Alabama," Saban said. "We had just gone 7-6, struggled through a season and lost to UL-Monroe. It was a really tough first year. But those guys all trusted and believed in what could be accomplished."

What has been accomplished is approaching historic. With a victory over Clemson in the national championship on Monday, Alabama's dynasty will reach rarefied air. 

Since 2008, Saban's teams have won 112 of 124 games. They've won four national championships with a chance at a fifth. They've captured two Heisman trophies, the first in the program's history.

A total of 55 players have been drafted; many others latched onto NFL squads as free agents. The 2008 class manufactured five first-round draft picks alone, multiple Pro Bowlers and three national championships in five seasons. 

This was the group that made winning a ritual. This was a group that triggered a reign that may not be matched in some time.

"They came to prove something," Saban added. "That's why that group is extremely special to me. There's no question that this was the group that helped us turn the corner."

Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Alabama head coach Nick SabanScott Cunningham/Getty Images

Wearing a bright red tie and a gray suit, Saban was introduced as Alabama's head coach on Jan. 4, 2007, less than a month before signing day.

After two less-than-stellar seasons with the Miami Dolphins, Saban returned to his roots, choosing to take over a team that had seemingly lost its way.

"I want to win every game we play," Saban said amid a slew of now-familiar hand gestures.

At the time, this sounded like nothing more than coachspeak. Over the years that followed, these words held more weight.

The match between program and coach was by no means foreign. Before departing for the NFL, Saban built LSU into a force.

In his five years in Baton Rouge, Saban provided a glimpse of what was to come: the way he recruited, the way he squeezed the life out of the opposition and even a national championship.

His 48-16 record wasn't Alabama-like in terms of constant domination, but it wasn't far off. As was the case at LSU, Saban had some of the elite athletes in the world. This was at the center of his success, as it is with most dominant teams.

His new roster needed to be repaired, although it wasn't completely fractured. Linebacker Rolando McClain was already there, ready for guidance. As was defensive back Javier Arenas. So was quarterback Greg McElroy, a key member of the 2009 title run.

Alabama finished with recruiting classes ranked in the top 25 from 2005 through 2007, according to Scout.com. These were quality classes that needed a new voice to tap into what potential existed. 

"Under [Mike] Shula, they made a run at [Tim] Tebow, they got some guys," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals.com. "But they never were able to keep the top kids in state consistently or recruit out-of-state the way Saban did."

That, specifically, was at the center of the plan. The overall mission was simple: Start at the kitchen tables. Secure one verbal commitment after the next and improve the talent of the roster. But securing the state of Alabama was vital.

Knowing it wouldn't have the benefit of the full recruiting cycle in '07, the staff turned its focus to the upcoming batch of players—a potent group, especially within the state.

"That first year, coming in, we struggled to recruit," former Alabama assistant Lance Thompson said. "But that's pretty much always the case in those transition years. But the following year, we signed everybody."

Thompson and Saban won a championship together at LSU. When Saban left the NFL, Thompson pounced at the opportunity to reunite with his former boss.

Curt Cignetti made the jump as well. In the midst of a long, successful run as an assistant at North Carolina State, where he recruited Russell Wilson and worked with Philip Rivers, Cignetti was added to Saban's staff to serve as the recruiting coordinator.

"It was a no-brainer," Cignetti said on taking the job under Saban. "He was starting the program from the bottom up."

To assemble the dream roster, Saban needed the dream staff first. Thompson and Cignetti played integral roles, particularly those first 18 months, recruiting the Southeast.

"It was extremely important to capture Mobile, Alabama," Cignetti said. "That was a hotbed. Julio Jones and Mark Barron were both from Mobile. Courtney Upshaw was from Alabama. Dont'a Hightower was from Tennessee, right across the border."

Jones was unquestionably the gem. There were no doubts he would grow into every bit the player he was hyped to be, if they could land him.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 07:  Julio Jones #8 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes upfield for a 73 yard touchdown against the Louisiana State University Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 7, 2009 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Gett
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The No. 3 player in the country, according to Scout.com, was the most significant piece of the '08 class. A wide receiver with size and strength. A name and body for a billboard. A young man they felt could push others around him.

One could make the argument, given what he represented, that he was the most important commitment of the Saban era.

"If I had a dollar for every time Nick Saban and Miss Terry [Saban's wife] asked me if we were getting Julio, I'd be retired," Thompson said. "That was my guy. Julio was the capstone kid. Good players attract other good players."

But Jones was not the original catalyst. It wasn't Barron, either. Or Upshaw. Or Terrence Cody. Or Marcell Dareus. Or Barrett Jones. Or the meaty list of commits who have logged minutes in the NFL.

No, the initial spark that ignited the dynasty was B.J. Scott, a highly touted defensive back out of Vigor High in Prichard, Alabama.

That name doesn't flow off the tongue like some of the others. Injuries played a role in Scott's lack of playing time in Tuscaloosa, as did an influx of competition in the years to come.

Scott ultimately transferred to South Alabama in 2011, once the pipeline he helped construct was flowing freely. 

His commitment, however, served as validation. When Scott announced his verbal pledge to the school before his senior season in 2007, the state couldn't help but take notice. The rest of the nation did, too.

"There was a lot of talent in the state at the time," Scott said. "And I felt like if I committed earlier rather than later, it would make it more of a reality of what we could do."

Thompson referred to Scott as "a glue guy"—a gateway commitment that could generate a domino effect. "B.J. was critical to the success of the program," Thompson added.

The staff no longer just had a positive message to work with; it had proof to share with the rest of the world that the message was being heard.

"That's something he'll never be remembered for because people don't see that aspect of things," Farrell added. "But he was crucial."

While the message varied depending on the coach and player, the general delivery was similar. There was no way Saban or any member of the staff could avoid what Alabama had become: a shell of its former powerful self.

It wasn't simply the loss to Louisiana-Monroe. It was the four-win season in '03. It was two six-win seasons in '04 and '06. It was the NCAA sanction stemming from free textbooks still lingering, resulting in the vacating of wins.

"When I went and recruited these guys, my message was simple," Thompson said. "They were getting a chance to be a part of royalty. It has dips, good moments and bad moments. But guys like you will make it special. This isn't what Alabama should be.

"Alabama is a special place, and guys like you will make it special again. For the rest of your lives, you'll be the ones who turned Alabama around."

Barrett Jones holding the jersey on Alabama's trip to the White House.
Barrett Jones holding the jersey on Alabama's trip to the White House.Alex Wong/Getty Images

Leslie Jones made lasagna for the occasion. With the head coach of Alabama coming for dinner, this called for one of her signature dishes.

Her son, Barrett Jones, was one of the top offensive linemen in the class of 2007 and uncommitted.

Jones was a natural fit for the rebuild. His father, Rex, played basketball for Alabama in the 1980s. The program was in his blood. Jones also served as a player who could help create a brutish, signature brand of football over time.

"I think he talked for 30 minutes straight," Jones recalled of the visit. "I was engaged the whole time, looking him straight in the eye. He never promised me anything, and that was appealing. I'm a competitive guy, and I bought in."

Jones had his own vision of what the Alabama rebuild would look like. He knew there was sizable work to be done given the results of the 2007 season and those before it, although he believed in the plan.

Four years, he thought. That's how long it would take to lift Alabama back to where it belonged.

He could see it in his mind. As a senior in 2011, Alabama would rise from the ashes and win a title and officially declare its return. He would then ride off into the football sunset as a senior, leaving a foundation in place for classes to come.

"Once I saw the class in person," Jones said. "I re-evaluated that."

It was the way Julio Jones sprinted past everyone at the end of each practice, despite some of the older players' hopes that he would slow down.

"He never did," Barrett Jones said of the wideout. "He set the tone. I don't think I ever saw him lose."

It was the way a relatively unknown running back from Michigan—an outsider in a class made up almost entirely of players from the Southeast—wove his way through the line with a football in his hands.

"The first time we saw Mark Ingram carry the ball in practice," Barrett recalled, "we were absolutely amazed."

Running back Mark Ingram with his Heisman.
Running back Mark Ingram with his Heisman.Kelly Kline/Getty Images

It was his endless reps against defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, a man who moved far too fluidly for someone his size.

Each day, it was something different: a player, a play or a moment.

There was a sense, even before the '08 class played in a game, that it was different. There was a belief, long before a national championship was won two years later, that this was sustainable.

"We hit on a lot of kids that particular year," Cignetti said. "Everybody knew Julio Jones was going to be a great player. But some of the other guys that developed weren't necessarily national recruits."

Barrett Jones' vision came true two years ahead of schedule. After redshirting in 2008, Alabama won the 2010 BCS National Championship with Jones starting at right guard.

In the years that followed, Jones played tackle and eventually center. He won three national championships, playing at a different position each time.

Jonathan Allen makes a tackle against Washington.
Jonathan Allen makes a tackle against Washington.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Jonathan Allen sat at a table by himself in the Hyatt Regency Atlanta ballroom.

It was Dec. 27, 2016, days before the senior defensive end and likely top-five pick in the upcoming NFL draft smothered Washington in the Peach Bowl, his third semifinal playoff game in as many seasons.

"We want to be successful and add onto the Alabama dynasty," Allen said. "That's something that drives us behind closed doors, to add on to what has been done in the past."

This is the new normal. The standard has been set. Winning is no longer good enough, not with all the winning that has taken place.

For those living it now, there is immense pressure to keep the assembly line functioning and the dynasty operational. For those who helped create this unbelievable force from the ground up, there is a sense of everlasting pride.

"Alabama will always be home to us," Ingram said. "The accolades people received, the championships we won; a lot of us are still living out our dreams and playing football today."

The 2008 class that started it all produced three top-10 NFL draft picks: Dareus (No. 3 overall in 2011 to Buffalo), Julio Jones (No. 6 overall in 2011 to Atlanta) and Barron (No. 7 overall in 2012 to Tampa Bay).

Ingram was drafted with the No. 28 selection in the 2011 class by the New Orleans Saints. A year later, linebacker Hightower was taken No. 25 overall by the New England Patriots.

Nearly one-third of the 2008 recruiting class, which was rated the No. 1 class in the country by Scout.com, was drafted. Other players in this class latched on with NFL teams after exhausting their eligibility. Some are still on rosters today.

"If you look at it after the fact and you evaluate the quality and the number of players that have done extremely well," Saban added, "It's one of the best ever."

Julio Jones and Mark Ingram celebrate.
Julio Jones and Mark Ingram celebrate.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

There are other classes in this conversation, of course. Florida signed Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes and others in 2006. USC's 2003 class, headlined by Reggie Bush, was ripe with NFL talent. The 2002 Ohio State class featured Troy Smith, A.J. Hawk, Santonio Holmes and other professional mainstays.

Heck, Alabama's classes since, many of which are regarded as one of if not the top-rated class of a given cycle, are always in this picture.

But none were as vital as this one. While these classes helped generate championships, none propelled nearly a decade of unmatched greatness forward the way the '08 class did.

Its true value is not only in star power or draft picks, but the value of starting something that may not be seen again for some time, or least until this dynasty ends.

Although great players come and go, the greatness carries forward in new forms. Replenishing the talent well has become a yearly ritual. Much like winning, this part of Saban's process is assumed.

Such has become the recipe for the program on the cusp of its fifth national championship in the last eight seasons. Add talent, develop talent, win, add more talent, develop talent and so on.

These days, it all makes perfect sense. But it wasn't always that way. It had to start somewhere.

"It's easy now," Thompson said. "Alabama is Alabama. But back then, it wasn't. We established what Alabama should be."