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August 20, 2012
TUSCALOOSA | If you think Nick Saban hasn't enjoyed recruiting football players, you haven't heard Pat Perles tell the story of Kevin McKinney from Downriver Detroit.
While recruiting for Toledo, Perles and Saban paid a visit to McKinney's high school during a stormy mix of sleet and snow, and upon leaving the school found their car windshield totally iced over. Without a scraper, Saban, as Perles recalls it, removed his dress shoe and took to scraping the glass with the heel.
"It was pretty funny," Perles said.
Kirk Heidelberg once witnessed a recruit's mother accidentally splatter a pot full of chicken grease on the head coach's clothes during a home visit-turned-dinner, and said Saban - ever the recruiting ace - had the presence of mind to have a sense of humor about it.
Saban assistants say the recruiting trail is where a lot of the lighter, at-ease moments occurred in their time under the coach.
"He really enjoys recruiting. You see a different person when he's able to get away from the office and recruit," said Leroy Ryals, who coached under Saban at LSU. "You see Nick out there, more than Coach Saban. He'll talk about fishing, the weather, anything. I remember picking him up from the airport in Tampa one time, and we were going across the bridge to St. Petersburg, and he was talking about the different types of trees that grow down there in the spring. I'm thinking, 'This guy knows football the way he does, and he knows about the trees that grow in Florida?' "
And the smiles, somehow, seemed to filter down. Right down to the recruits, who generally have flocked to Saban coaching staffs and often from long distances. Greg Colby remembers the day Robert Newkirk - a highly regarded defensive tackle from talent-laden Glade Central High in Belle Glade, Fla. - got off the plane in East Lansing, Mich., for his official visit to Michigan State and laid his eyes on snow for the first time.
"The recruiting coordinator told me the first thing he did was make a snow angel, so we knew the weather wasn't going to scare him off," Colby said.
Far closer to home, Florida and Georgia both offered him scholarships, but he signed with Michigan State.
The business side
Still, Saban's attitude toward success in recruiting is anything but casual.
"Most people are a lot more casual about recruiting than I am," Saban said. "They let it control them and roll along, and if you get a good player, you get one. I'm not like that. I think you have to be really intense. ... There is nothing casual about it - the evaluation part of it or anything else."
"If you're driving to the (recruit's) house with him, you'd better know where the house is," said Dean Pees, who was part of two Saban staffs. "Don't make five wrong turns."
L.C. Cole once found himself driving Saban to a recruiting visit through a Cleveland area that Saban was more familiar with from his days coaching at Ohio State, and the head coach took over the wheel and began saving time with short cuts through "side streets and little alleys."
Mel Tucker made what he called "dry runs" to homes of recruits in the Dallas area - his designated recruiting territory - to make sure.
"I just didn't want to let him down. He was so efficient and so organized, you didn't want to waste his time, because he had everything mapped out," Tucker said. "I'm driving around Dallas keeping track of left turn, right turn, where is the gas? Where is the food? All that."
A little bad luck on the recruiting trail can lay even the best plans to waste, however, and nobody knows it better than Pete Jenkins. He was at the wheel driving Saban to a high school practice in New Orleans when he merged from state route 610 onto Interstate 10 and immediately had a sinking feeling.
"It was taillights as far as I could see. Six lanes of traffic not moving an inch, and we were in a real hurry to get to a practice, and we're stuck," Jenkins said. "Behind me, they were bumper-to-bumper, so I couldn't back up and go another way. There had been a chemical spill or something, and they had stopped traffic for it. I sat there an hour and 57 minutes with Nick, and you know he's a little impatient. I felt miserable because there was nothing I could do. I wanted to crawl into the cupholder. I would have given anything for a helicopter. I was burning his daylight."
When it came to the sales pitch in the home, Pees knew he needed to be armed with plenty of information.
"He wanted mom and dad's name, the girlfriend's name, everything I could know that maybe some other head coach may not know," Pees said. "If the girlfriend's name was Judy, he wanted to know that and how long they had dated, too."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.