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December 30, 2008
Tradition, an exciting gameday atmosphere and statewide celebrity status are just a few attractions that could lure a heralded high school football star to the University of Alabama.
All those factors surely contributed to Alabama recruiting classes that Rivals.com ranked among the nation's top 10 in 2007 and 2008, and an "in-progress'' 2009 class that currently is ranked fourth.
Those same factors were in place the previous five years, too.
But in that span Alabama never assembled a top 10 class. In fact, from 2002 to 2006 Alabama signed just three players who were five-star prospects and 28 who were four-star rated.
Yet, the last two classes and this year's commitment list include five five-star and 39 four-star prospects.
The difference is easily traced.
In 2002 Alabama was placed on five years' probation by the NCAA, which included a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 21 scholarships over three years.
But judging by the opinions of several high-profile prospects who are participating in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, the difference can also be attributed to the presence of second-year coach Nick Saban.
Some perceive Saban as surly, rude and aloof. He may be viewed as a control freak, a dictator or an ill-tempered butt-kicker. But the fact remains that throngs of high-profile prospects like his no-nonsense, hard-nosed approach and want to play for him.
Four-star quarterback AJ McCarron from Mobile, Ala., is from a family of Alabama fans. His father attended Monday's practices wearing Alabama gear.
"I think probably 80 percent [of my decision] has to do with Coach Saban," McCarron said. "Anytime you have a big-name coach it gets your attention and makes you look harder.
"The other 20 percent is the tradition of Alabama. The fans love their football program and the players. It's special. I don't think any team in the country has fans with the same passion.
"But if he wasn't there I would have to say I'd probably be headed to LSU or Oklahoma. Oklahoma was my second choice after Alabama because I liked the coaching staff."
Saban has posted a 110-49-1 record as a collegiate head coach and won a national championship as head coach at LSU in 2003. He also has coached in the NFL as an assistant and a head coach.
So far in two seasons Alabama has a 19-7 record under Saban and this year posted its first undefeated regular season since 1994 and will make its first Sugar Bowl appearance since 1993.
But there are a number of successful head coaches in college football. Indeed, three other head coaches in the Southeastern Conference ? South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, LSU's Les Miles and Florida's Urban Meyer − have won national championships.
But Saban assembled the nation's No. 1-ranked recruiting class last year and is putting together another tremendous class.
Alabama already has 20 commitments thus far and a dozen are four- or five-star ranked. Also, five-star prospects cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, wide receiver Rueben Randle and offensive lineman Bobby Massie are seriously considering the Tide.
Obviously, Saban's track record will attract players, but some say they appreciate his straightforward approach.
"He's a good coach and he's a down-to-earth businessman," said D.J. Fluker, a 6-foot-7, 325-pound five-star offensive tackle who has committed to the Tide. "He tells you what you need to know, what you need to do on the field and what you need to do in the classroom."
Still, Saban's presence isn't always the deciding factor.
"It was one of the reasons [to commit to Alabama]," four-star linebacker Nico Johnson said. "But it was academics more than anything. [Alabama] has a great criminal justice department. I'm going to try to be an FBI agent. That's something I've always wanted to be."
He also always wanted to be on the Crimson Tide roster, which is why he likely would have signed with Alabama even if Saban wasn't the head coach.
"I'd probably have still gone to Alabama," Johnson said. "I've been an Alabama fan all my life."
Fluker, who grew up in New Orleans, wasn't as sure that he'd be going to Alabama if Saban wasn't there.
"I don't know," he said. "I'd probably still go, but I'm not sure."