Yes, Saban has one talent that tops even the Bear.
Nobody can evaluate and recruit players like Saban can, and that’s why Alabama stands only one win from a third national title in four years.
“I’ve never seen a stable full of recruits like he gets,” said former NFL All-Pro guard John Hannah, an All-American at Alabama under Bryant. “I don’t see how he does it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Rivals.com ranks Alabama’s 2013 recruiting class as the best in the country. That same Internet service also named the Crimson Tide No. 1 in recruiting in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.
It’s hardly breaking news that Saban can evaluate and recruit, but here’s what’s unusual about him: He still seems to have plenty of drive and energy to do it at this point in his career. Even Bryant wasn’t this focused on recruiting at a similar point in his life.
In Bryant’s autobiography, “Bear,” the Hall of Fame coach said he had grown tired of recruiting and didn’t do it much anymore. That certainly wasn’t a bad thing because his assistant coaches still brought plenty of talent to campus — enough for two more national titles after the book was published in 1974.
In the book, Bryant said early in his career he enjoyed recruiting so much he did it constantly. He wrote he felt bad at how often he left his wife, Mary Harmon Bryant, at home without him there.
He told a story about when he was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt in the 1940s, he bird-dogged an Arkansas prospect so closely the recruit’s mother practically treated him like a member of the family. While other coaches were invited to sit in the living room, he sat in the kitchen and ate cake.
After the recruit went through his high school graduation, he took off his cap and gown and loaded into Bryant’s car. They drove immediately to Vanderbilt’s campus.
In another story, he told about serving as an Alabama assistant in the late 1930s when found a recruit in another part of the country and stayed on him constantly. We got him to agree to enroll at Alabama, he loaded him in the car and drove through the night to get him to campus, nearly falling asleep at the wheel. The Tide head coach, Frank Thomas, graciously allowed Bryant to knock off early the next day and go home to get some sleep.
That Bryant autobiography was published the same year the coach turned 61. Saban turned 61 this year.
Saban doesn’t spend that kind of time on the road, but he still takes a hands-on approach to the process. He doesn’t leave it all to his assistant coaches.
When Saban first came to Alabama, he spent the spring going out to high schools and watching prospects practice and work out. He didn’t believe he could evaluate a recruit properly by watching only film.
He evaluated players so precisely, his first full year of recruiting at Alabama yielded what will go down as one of the greatest classes in school history.
The 2008 class yeilded five first-round draft choices (Mark Barron, Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Ingram and Julio Jones), two second-round picks (Terrence Cody and Courtney Upshaw) and a seventh-round pick (Brad Smelley).
Tide center Barrett Jones, tight end Michael Williams and safety Robert Lester have a chance this spring to improve those numbers.
The NCAA rules committee then made a change — head coaches couldn’t go out in the spring anymore and evaluate talent as Saban had done. He still is miffed about that, because he believes the rule targeted him. (If it wasn’t, the timing remains awfully suspicious.)
Even with spring evaluation out, Saban still spends time making all the contacts he is allowed, including video conferencing. He still gets out to meet recruits and their families. If players are coming to Alabama to play for him, he gives them plenty of chances to get to know him.
It still seems he genuinely enjoys uncovering a player who can help his team, then recruiting him to Alabama. That must be a miserable thought for his SEC rivals.
As long as he enjoys doing it and remains at Alabama, there’s no reason to believe this season will be Saban’s final shot at a national title. As he keeps adding talent to the pipeline, the Crimson Tide will remain in the hunt for a while.