TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban isn’t a particularly joyous man in front of a microphone. Speaking with the media is more an obligation he suffers through for the greater good. He doesn’t enjoy previewing games; he’s too worried about the process of preparing. He doesn’t enjoy the postmortem following games either; win or lose, he’s too concerned about the next challenge that awaits.
But the 62-year-old head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide does allow himself a respite from the pain of constantly looking ahead at least one day during the year. He is in his element more than ever on signing day. And despite the media hubbub that surrounds the counting of stars and the faxing of paperwork, Saban appears happy, relieved even. A smile shows on his tanned face and he looks like a man who genuinely loves his job no matter its obligations. At least for a moment, he’s willing to take a deep breath and reflect.
Christmas in July? Try Christmas in February, at least in Alabama.
Maybe it was the prospects hung like ornaments on the “Big Board” that created the festive atmosphere at Alabama’s football offices. Derek Kief, a four-star wide receiver from Ohio, was the first to fax in his letter of intent early Wednesday morning. Da'Shawn Hand, the No. 2 defensive end in the ESPN 300, and Bo Scarbrough, the No. 2 athlete in his class, would join him as the 15th and 27th signees, respectively. Eight early enrollees beat everyone to the punch by starting class in January, including the top offensive tackle and the second-best cornerback in the country.
Jacob Coker, a highly sought after quarterback from Florida State, signed his paperwork to transfer to Alabama weeks earlier. By the time signing day was over and all the faxes had rolled in, Saban counted up five five-stars, 17 four-stars and the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for the third consecutive year.
“Certainly great to see everybody here again,” Saban said that afternoon, giving the media assembled for his annual news conference a knowing, sarcastic smile. “I’ve missed you all since Jan. 1. I think you know how much.”
Sporting brownish slacks, a crimson coat and a matching crimson and cream tie, Saban looked the part of a proud University of Alabama salesman, a veteran campus recruiter ready to give a campus tour on the spot.
Before gushing over his prized signees, he allowed himself to look back on the process as a whole, calling the day “an accumulation of a lot of hard work and a lot of time spent by a whole bunch of people.” His laundry list of thank-yous included everyone from the president of the university to the athletic director to the academic support staff. He even thanked fans who come out to games and events, such as A-Day.
It was as though he had to go around the table once and say a few words before digging into a holiday feast. He didn’t want to leave anyone out on a day like this.
“We had a good class and we sort of identified our needs,” Saban said. “I think the key to that is that we satisfied our needs because we identified those needs early on in the recruiting process and evaluated the players we thought fit in best for what we want to do. I think that we did a good job of going out and getting a lot of those players.”
Alabama needed a quarterback. So it went and got Coker to go along with David Cornwell, the No. 4-rated pocket passer in the country.
Alabama needed help on the offensive line. So it put together maybe the best O-line class in school history with not only Robinson, but Dominick Johnson, the top junior college offensive tackle.
Finally, Alabama needed more athletic defensive linemen and outside linebackers to create pressure off the edge. So it signed some of the best pass-rushers available, pulling off a huge coup by nabbing four-star Rashaan Evans out of Auburn’s backyard.
“One of the goals we had was to get a little more fast-twitch, quicker-body-type guys to play on the edges for us,” Saban said. “We're playing against a lot more spread. I feel between the outside backer types we got, as well as some of the more athletic kind of defensive ends we got, that maybe we satisfied that need as well.
“We also needed a punter and we feel good about the punter we were able to attract in this class.”
Whatever Saban needed, he got. Prospects were just waiting for him under the tree as if it were Christmas morning. His haul turned out to be the envy of every program in the country.
But why was Saban so happy? It wasn’t that he won signing day or that he had all the best toys when it was over. No, he has had plenty of wins in his career. He’s not one to bask in a trophy, real or imagined.
Rather, he was pleased because this is what he does year-around. This is what he works for and what the NFL could never offer him: a chance to develop relationships. Getting to know recruits, establishing trust and convincing them to come to his program is the first step in his life’s calling as a college football coach. It’s Part 1 in his beloved “Process” -- the second step being to develop his players and win games. But even winning means recruiting to Saban, who famously said after winning the national championship in 2013 that it took time away from talking to prospects.
He could smile on signing day because it’s the end of something challenging. He can laugh and poke fun at the media because there’s not something dreadful that lies ahead. Instead, signing a recruiting class is both the end and the start of something special.