It was no surprise to see Alabama atop the 2019 recruiting class rankings, since Nick Saban has held the No. 1 class in six of his 12 seasons with the Crimson Tide. Saban has had a class ranked outside the top five only once and has been within the top three 11 times.
What was more interesting, and maybe more telling of why Saban has topped every program year in and year out, were the number of his former assistants turned head coaches who were also dominating the recruiting class rankings.
Saban and his former assistants manning their own programs held five of the top-11 ranked recruiting classes in 2019. Kirby Smart and Georgia were just behind Saban at No. 2 in the rankings, Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M were No. 3, Mario Cristobal and Oregon were sixth and Jeremy Pruitt and Tennessee held on to No. 11.
Of the prospects ranked in the ESPN 300, 72 signed with Saban or his former assistants at those five programs.
“I think he’s a great mentor and a great teacher, some of his best recruiting has taken place in the form of his staff,” Cristobal said. “You look at the list of staff members that he has put together. I don’t think he gets enough credit for rebuilding the Alabama brand, because it’s almost like people forget, people assume that he got there and it was back on track.”
The success of Alabama under Saban certainly resonates with recruits and helps land prospects, but the head coach can’t do it on his own. The success his former assistants are seeing on their own is a testament to his ability to evaluate talent in assistant coaches as well as in future prospects.
Cristobal and the Oregon Ducks had the No. 1-ranked class in the Pac-12 in 2019 and landed the top prospect in the country in defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.
He worked for Saban at Alabama as the offensive line coach from 2013 to 2016 before moving on to Oregon. The Oregon brand in recruiting has skyrocketed under Cristobal, who has a chance to land another top-10 class in 2020.
It’s one thing to be a good recruiter or a good X’s-and-O’s coach, but it’s another to find someone who can do both and that’s part of why Saban’s former assistants are achieving success on their own.
Saban has had seven offensive coordinators in the 12 seasons he has been head coach at Alabama, four of whom would go on to become head coaches. That doesn’t even include his time at LSU.
Take Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, who signed 12 ESPN 300 prospects in his first full recruiting class with the Aggies this year.
Fisher worked for Saban as his offensive coordinator at LSU and Fisher understood that hiring the right people around you can make all the difference.
“It’s critical, because they have to send the message and you can’t do everything,” Fisher said. “You have to have guys that you trust, that you know will send the same message and have a lot of the same core values and beliefs and cultural beliefs and habits that you have.”
Fisher focuses on building relationships and puts a big emphasis on his evaluations — trusting that his evaluation is right over a recruiting ranking or other schools that offered a recruit.
Cam Erving is offered up as an example when Fisher trusted his own evaluation at Florida State. Erving was down to the Seminoles and Georgia Southern and wound up as a first-round pick.
Fisher trusts his evaluation and has to have people around him that he trusts, which is very similar to Saban and his process.
“The other part of that in recruiting, that I think is very critical, the players have to understand, and I think they do, is player development,” Fisher said. “Coaches that develop their players, it’s hard to find those guys. You have to pay them, you have to work at them, you gotta keep them. We’ve been blessed to have that.”
Fisher has been a head coach since 2010 and won a national championship in 2013, proving his process and ability as a head coach to evaluate his own talent.
Smart and Pruitt don’t have the lengthy careers as head coaches, but both are already showing they are woven from a similar cloth on the recruiting trail.
At Georgia, Smart has already landed the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in 2018 and followed it up with the No. 2 class in 2019. He and his staff have landed a top-three ranked recruit for three years in a row and are showing no signs of slowing down. On the field, he’s already made one trip to the College Football Playoff — just missing out on a national championship against Saban and Alabama — and was minutes away from a second one this past year.
Pruitt, in his first full year of recruiting at Tennessee, was able to sign 10 ESPN 300 recruits and secured the No. 11 ranked class in the country. The Vols are building recruiting momentum already in 2020 and could be heading for a top-10 class and an improvement on the 2019 recruiting cycle.
These numbers in recruiting aren’t to say that associating with Saban, or associating with the winning that took place at Alabama, doesn’t help, because it does. But it also shows that some of the best recruiting Saban has done has been off the field with the coaches he has found and brought into his program.
Those coaches aren’t seeing success on their own because they worked for Saban. While they pulled pieces here and there from what Saban does, they’re having success because they have traits Saban identified in them that equate to being a successful coach.
Having a relentless work ethic, an ability to evaluate, recruit and coach the right prospects, and a talent for building relationships has been the winning equation. Finding that can be difficult, but those are some of the biggest factors to determining success.
“I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve had some really good mentors and teachers before arriving (at Alabama) from my own personal standpoint,” Cristobal said. “What you learn from Coach Saban is, he’s just got an unbelievable process for evaluating critical factors. His system has obviously stood the test of time and he has a masterful use of resources in terms of where to place player development people and personnel people.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have a very similar blueprint (at Oregon) with some wrinkles here and there.”