TUSCALOOSA | Mark Barron reserved his seat in August 2007, more than a year before the University of Alabama began a four-year stretch of 48 wins in 54 games that will continue into 2012.
Courtney Upshaw reserved his spot more than a month before Barron.
Recruiting elite talent has been a cornerstone of the Crimson Tide's five-year rise to two-time Bowl Championship Series national champions. But that recruiting success began before the top recruits had a winning program to go to in Alabama. UA coach Nick Saban had secured commitments from two Rivals.com five-star recruits before he'd coached his first game at UA. The heart-and-soul leader of Alabama's 2011 national championship defense - linebacker Dont'a Hightower - boarded the Saban train in the middle of a four-game losing streak in 2007, just days before a low-point 21-14 loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
On National Signing Day, Alabama collected 26 signatures comprising the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class - Alabama's fourth No. 1 finish in recruiting in the last five years, according to Rivals.com. A number of factors other than winning, however, contributed to that success.
"If I had to pick a recruiter to just go into a living room and close a deal, it would be Urban Meyer," Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said. "But if I had to pick a head coach that represented everything a kid wants - winning a championship, discipline, hard work, getting to the NFL - then it's Nick Saban."
The NFL way
From the offensive and defensive schemes, to the way in which practices are conducted, to the rigorous offseason workout program, the National Football League's fingerprints are all over the routine an Alabama player settles into for four or five years. And while the vast majority of college football players will never play an NFL down, it is a primary goal for many high school recruits to play well enough in college to get that chance.
"I think the fact that he'd already won a national title, people knew he was a big-time college coach, plus he was always seen as an NFL guy," Rivals.com regional analyst Keith Niebuhr said. "To kids, they saw a guy who would not only win, but also help them get to the next level because he knows what it takes to get there."
Saban's NFL coaching stops with the Houston Oilers as a secondary coach, the Cleveland Browns as a defensive coordinator and the Miami Dolphins as a head coach give him instant credibility with recruits as a coach who has been in the league to which so many of them aspire.
Alabama runs a pro-style offense, with heavy a use of tight ends and a physical rushing attack, and recruits know they'll learn an offense that is NFL-like in almost every way. Top defensive recruits know Saban's reputation for a strong understanding of that side of the ball, particularly in the secondary, and flock to be a part of a flexible 3-4 defense that is employed by roughly half the teams in the NFL. And while recruits find Alabama matches what they are looking for, Saban seeks a match of his own. The UA coach staff evaluates recruits based on a series of criteria that include everything from physical skills to off-field maturity.
"I think when we recruit players that fit our criteria, they have a better opportunity to be successful, and I think we have a better opportunity to be successful in what we do," Saban said.
Just about every major college football program is willing to recruit on a national level, but for all the miles that separate a Southern school from the West Coast, or vice versa, willingness just isn't enough.
In short, it's hard.
And often hardly worth it.
Alabama generally sticks to recruiting players who live roughly within a five-hour radius of Tuscaloosa, a circle that encompasses such recruiting hotbeds as Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans and Mobile. But Saban's staff also has proven itself capable of recruiting all over the map. Redshirt freshman lineman Isaac Luatua came from California.
Two other offensive linemen, brothers Arie and Cyrus Kouandjio, came to UA from Maryland. Seven UA players come from central or south Florida; another five from Texas. With two national titles in the last three years, Alabama's recruiting footprint is as big as any in the nation.
"Now, Alabama is the dream school for everybody. This phenomenon occurs every few years, and shifts every few years," Farrell said. "In the mid-2000s, it was USC with Pete Carroll. Every kid you talked to told you USC was the dream offer. When they would call us or text us with offers, if they got USC at that time, it was a celebration. Then it was Florida - that was the offer every kid went nuts over. Now, it's Alabama."
As an example, Farrell said a five-star recruit for the 2013 class, Southern Cal commitment Kenny Bigelow of Delaware, was elated last week to receive an offer from Alabama.
"They can go anywhere in the country, and they won't win every battle, but they can go any place in the country and have a shot at a kid because the brand name of Alabama is so big right now," Farrell said.
Juice from the JUCOs
The production speaks for itself.
Terrence Cody was a two-year starter at Alabama, as were James Carpenter and DeQuan Menzie, and all three were signed by UA from the junior college ranks. That's six years of starting production in six years of eligibility, and three national championship rings between them. As well, Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams made immediate impacts for Alabama in 2011 as junior college transfers.
Saban's history for hitting home runs when it comes to junior college recruiting has allowed the Crimson Tide to seamlessly fill the occasional gap in its lineup, and it has made a major difference on the field.
"We only usually recruit junior college guys here if we have a need, and most of those guys have been very successful," Saban said. "It gives us a little more experience, a little more mature player to play at a position that we have a need created by the guys we lost."
Recruiting junior colleges too heavily, however, can be a dangerous proposition. Coaches who have done so - Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State, Dennis Erickson at Oregon State, Bill Snyder at Kansas State and Lou Holtz at South Carolina, to name a few - found success in varying degrees. But they all found that success was difficult to sustain. With just two years of eligibility in most cases, junior college talent is a short-term solution.
"Saban does a good job of picking his spots with those guys, just here and there," Farrell said. "Kids go to JUCOs for a reason ... something other than football, academics, discipline, whatever. A lot of them haven't had a lot of structure. What (Saban) does is provide structure immediately. That's difficult to do with JUCO kids because they're older, and they're less impressionable. It speaks to the respect that everyone has for him."
Taking back Mobile
Mobile and its surrounding areas - Prichard to the north, Daphne across Mobile Bay and to the south - are some of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the state. Upon Saban's arrival at Alabama in 2007, rival Auburn had recruiting control of that territory.
"I think the biggest factor was (former Auburn assistant coach) Joe Whitt. Alabama had gone through changes of coaches and recruiters in certain areas. Joe Whitt, he just smiled every time a new one came down," Daphne coach Glenn Vickery said. "He was a wonderful man, and the soil was fertile for him."
Saban wasted no time establishing Alabama's presence in the Mobile area, however, securing commitments in his first year from the likes of Julio Jones, Mark Barron and even B.J. Scott, who played sparingly at UA but was a coveted five-star recruit at the time.
Assistant coach Lance Thompson, who later left UA but has since returned, was regarded as Alabama's top recruiter and was the designated recruiter for the area. Soon enough, the ice that had previously frozen UA out of some of the state's top talent began to melt.
"It really started with us when he first got there, and he recruited a running back by the name of Reggie Hunt. That was the first time Coach Saban came by," said Vickery, whose top two players - Ryan Anderson and T.J. Yeldon - were part of Wednesday's UA signing class. "I've always been impressed with his desire to do things the right way. The business side of Coach Saban always comes out, and the kids can sort of feel the confidence he has."