ATLANTA, Ga. — Despite claims by rival recruiters, recruits don’t think Nick Saban is retiring any time soon. That was the message Sunday from top prospects at the Georgia tour stop for the Under Armour All-America Game camp series.
The Alabama Crimson Tide are coming off a national title and return a loaded team, but Saban will turn 67 this fall. I spoke with prospects about how teams try to recruit against the Tide by using Saban’s age, and how Alabama tries to combat it. Some of the prospects include uncommitted recruits like five-star center Clay Webb and four-star defensive end Justin Eboigbe, as well as Alabama commits like four-star linebacker King Mwikuta and four-star corner Christian Williams.
None wanted to name schools on the record, but multiple said the two schools most frequently making the claims are coached by former Saban assistants in the SEC. Interestingly, in-state rival Auburn was not mentioned as trying to use Saban’s age against him.
How effective is the tactic? It depends on who you ask.
The prospects didn’t acknowledge being phased by it.
“I’ve heard that from other coaches,” Webb, who is strongly considering Alabama and Georgia, said. “And some people at my school say, ‘Why are you going to Alabama when Saban’s about to leave?’
“I mean, if he did leave, I’m sure someone could follow in his footsteps. But as long as he wants to be there, I think he’ll be there.”
Mwikuta isn’t buying the notion of Saban retiring.
“I hear about it all the time,” Mwikuta said. “I just laugh at it. It’s BS. You don’t do that to another coach. I take offense to it. That’s going to be my head coach.”
But Mwikuta has made his own evaluation of Saban.
“Coach Saban wakes up at 5 o’clock. He’s the first person in there every day. He outworks everybody,” Mwikuta said. “He is still running around, playing basketball, out there running and doing drills with the DBs. Sum that up, and you tell me how long he’s going to be there.”
Eboigbe said that he hasn’t heard the negative recruiting about Saban’s age “at all.”
Alabama, though, does seem to be taking steps to combat the image
Alabama’s 2017 recruiting class might have been the best in history. Six true freshmen played a prominent role in the title game win over Georgia.
The Tide also lost more than half of their assistant coaches off that team. If Saban wanted to retire in a year or two, considering the talent level on the roster, it would have been easy for him to replace the five departed coaches with elite developers and eschew coaches with elite recruiting ability. Come 2021 or 2022, the talent level would have dropped, but if the goal was to coach just another year or two and maximize the current talent on the roster with another title or two, it would have made sense.
Instead, after finishing sixth to Georgia’s first in the 2018 recruiting cycle, Saban focused on hiring strong recruiters. Promotions like Tosh Lupoi to defensive coordinator and Mike Locksley to offensive coordinator are evidence of that, as are hires like Jeff Banks, Pete Golding, and Josh Gattis. That’s not to say they can’t coach and develop, but these are hires prospects immediately connect with.
“It was very clear that they went younger and went outside the box a little bit,” John Garcia Jr., who has covered Alabama and Southeast recruiting for Scout and now 247Sports, said. “They got guys with ties to the Southeast, but also ties to the Northeast, the West, Texas.”
Alabama’s coaches are also using social media en masse for the first time. Insiders think this is a reaction to Georgia’s social media presence.
Coach Kirby Smart has copied the Saban blueprint almost step-for-step, with the exception of social media. Georgia coaches routinely post videos of themselves cutting up, having fun, etc. Alabama isn’t looking to cede its image as the program most resembling the NFL, but it’s now trying to pitch itself as able to have fun as well.
“I think he’s pissed about the perception and narrative that he’s slowing down,” Garcia said. “And I think he’s pissed about finishing No. 6 in the rankings. He won’t say it that way, but every time someone says he can’t do something, there’s a renewed energy.”
Kids are taking notice of the new approach.
“With the social media angle, we’ve never seen that. We’re seeing tweets, graphics, videos,” Garcia said. “The whole ‘Bama Cuts’ thing, you have Julio talking about the Alabama standard. It’s all about recruiting. They’ve always been ahead of the game in every element, except for social media recruiting. And now they’ve jumped up towards the top.”
(Episode 3 of Bama Cuts is dedicated to how Alabama players actually have fun, how freshmen actually do get on the field, and how Saban’s age does not matter.)
“To think they’ll be lower than No. 1 or 2 in the final rankings is probably shortsighted,” Garcia said.
“They just won a national championship and are still grinding for the next one this year,” Eboigbe said.