The trip from Fordyce, Arkansas, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, covers about 325 miles on modern maps. There are no cities on the route, cutting across Southern Arkansas, across Mississippi and through Starkville, down into Tuscaloosa from the north. It's a nondescript rural path, but it's a path that changed the course of Alabama football history.
By the time Bear Bryant hopped in the car of Crimson Tide assistant coach Hank Crisp and made the six-hour journey in 1931, Alabama had already put itself on the national college football map, winning three national championships with three Rose Bowl appearances under Wallace Wade. But it was only the beginning. As a senior, Bryant helped lead coach Frank Thomas' 1934 squad to the Rose Bowl and a national championship, and after head coaching stops at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, he returned to his alma mater in 1958, where he would go on to become the greatest coaching legend in a sport filled with coaching legends.
For a long stretch, Bryant was a bit of a rarity as a recruit lured to Tuscaloosa from two states away. Much has changed in recruiting since then, but Alabama is in a familiar spot: Under Nick Saban, there is no more dominant recruiting force in college football. As Alabama prepares to sign what is likely to be an unprecedented fifth straight No. 1 rated class on Wednesday, he has evolved Alabama's recruiting to the point where the wealth of talent within the state is not nearly enough for what he's built.
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1965 Roster (Bear Bryant)
"Much to the anguish of Bryant's coaching competitors, he is personally popular, a major factor when he and his 10 (yes, 10) assistant coaches recruit. 'You've got to have chicken to make chicken salad,' Bryant says of recruiting, and nowadays Alabama is a veritable poultry farm." -- Sports Illustrated, 1960
This map plots the entire roster of the 1965 Alabama football team, which won Bear Bryant's third national championship after he started on the job in 1958 and found immediate recruiting success:
Any discussion of a pre-1970s Alabama roster must come with one big alarming caveat: Alabama did not sign its first black player until Wilbur Jackson in 1970. Its roster had no diversity, and two-thirds of the team could accurately be described as "white players from Alabama."
While Bryant was from rural Arkansas, he and his staff didn't branch out far from home. Only three players on the 1965 team came from states that do not border Alabama -- North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia -- with 42 of 63 hailing from inside the state and no players from farther west than Memphis. It should be noted, of course, that arguably the biggest star in school history, Joe Namath, came all the way from Western Pennsylvania and led the team to the '64 national title. The '65 season marked a post-Namath transitional phase in many respects: Substitution rules were further relaxed, leading to the death of one-platoon football, allowing teams to have players specialize as offensive or defensive players. In some ways, Alabama was slow to change, with a roster that proved to be undersized, a relic of the days when players were expected to play entire games.
While the Crimson Tide won a national title in 1965, momentum would shift against them. Despite going 11-0, they were denied a share of the national title the next year, before a downturn that saw them drop from third in 1966 to eighth in '67 to 17th in '68 to unranked in '69 and '70, two of only four times that Bryant's Alabama teams finished outside the top 20, joining his first and last seasons.
"My recruiting hasn't been what it should be," Bryant told Sports Illustrated in September 1969, just before his worst two-year stretch as Alabama's head coach. "We haven't got as many players as we should have. I hope we have more next year. A year ago I thought we'd have a terrific football team, but some people I thought would be great aren't even here and some who are here aren't great. No, I don't think we belong in the Top 20, and you know what? If I were the president of this school and Alabama wasn't in the Top 20, I'd fire the coach."
Obviously, that was never going to happen. Alabama began recruiting black players, and Bryant decided to learn the wishbone from Darrell Royal at Texas. His tenure at Alabama caught a second wind in the 1970s, with national titles in '73, '78 and '79.
1979 Roster (Bear Bryant)
"Bear Bryant has been traveling a lot since Alabama's football season ended. He has been recruiting -- successfully, one assumes -- and he has been accepting with grace, and pleasure, the acclaim that accrues to a living legend (a double standing ovation at the Heisman Trophy banquet, for example). Also, being on the road gives him the opportunity to cadge a favor now and again." -- Sports Illustrated, Dec. 1978
This map plots the entire roster of the 1979 Alabama football team, which won Bryant's sixth and final national championship before retiring after the '82 season:
By this point, Alabama had joined the 20th Century, with a fully integrated football team, and a rarity for college football, too, with an international player. The 1979 map stretches halfway around the world to Syria, as kicker Georges Mardini bounced around between schools after coming to the United States from Syria and ended up in Tuscaloosa. With rosters increasing to over 100 players in the '70s, Alabama's reach also expanded, particularly to the north. No player came from farther west than Alexandria, Louisiana, with 71 of 109 players from Alabama. Instead of Tennessee and Mississippi, neighboring recruits mostly came from Georgia -- a trend that continues today -- and the Tide's reach in the late '70s extended deep into Big Ten country as it battled Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame for a handful of Rust Belt recruits, as well as some in the Washington, D.C., area.
When Bryant left, however, Alabama's identity changed forever. Sure, the program remained one of the most prestigious in the sport's history, and by this point Bryant had long delegated much of the day-to-day coaching to assistants -- in his autobiography, he specifically mentioned hating recruiting by that point in his career -- but no coach has ever acquired and wielded power quite like the Bear, whose personality dominated the sport. There was no replicating his presence. It's why the "successfully, one assumes" aside from the Sports Illustrated quote above wasn't out of place. Bear Bryant signed great players because of course Bear Bryant signed great players.
1992 Roster (Gene Stallings)
"If you want to learn football, there are only two places you can consider: Alabama and Texas A&M. And I think Alabama is too far away for you. But let me say this. If you don't want to be a one hundred per cent Aggie, don't come to our place." -- then-Texas A&M coach Gene Stallings, 1968
This map plots the entire roster of the 1992 Alabama football team, which was the one national championship oasis, under Gene Stallings, amid the long search to find a suitable replacement for Bryant.
While Stallings didn't play at Alabama, perhaps it's fitting, given the above quote, that he's the one to first win a championship in the post-Bear era. Rarely does a head coach help another team recruit. The Crimson Tide won the 1992 national championship -- their only title between 1979 and 2009 -- under Stallings, who played under Bryant at Texas A&M, then joined his Alabama staff when he left for Tuscaloosa in '58. Stallings coached the Tide from 1990-96, compiling a 70-16-1 record, although NCAA sanctions incurred near the end of his tenure hurt the program for several years. Given that he got the Alabama job in '90, many of the key players on the '92 championship team were recruited by Bill Curry, who went 10-2 in '89 but committed the unpardonable sin of going 0-3 against Auburn.
The combined efforts of Curry and Stallings produce a map that looks a lot like the past: There is a little bit more of a western push, along with forays into Florida and the Northeast, but the roster is loaded with talent from Alabama, centered around the northern part of the state and Mobile. Of the 110 players on the roster, 72 (65.5 percent) came from Alabama, a number very much in line with the Bryant era.
2008-14 Recruiting (Nick Saban)
"That damn game cost me a week of recruiting." -- Nick Saban to friend Steven Rumsey in January 2013, referring to Alabama's 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship, according to a GQ profile written by Warren St. John
This map plots all the players who signed letters of intent with Alabama out of high school from 2008-14, according to 247Sports, covering Saban's first full recruiting class (while he signed a class in 2007, he was in the NFL for most of the cycle) and not including junior college transfers. Many of these players became stars, many became role players and some never actually played a down for Alabama. Regardless, it's a look at where Saban has recruited while at Alabama. Using 247Sports' composite rankings, five-star prospects have blue pins, four-star prospects are red, three-star prospects are green and anything below that is yellow.
Not surprisingly, as population trends have shifted toward the entire Southeast from Texas to Florida, Alabama's reach has grown significantly. There's always an emphasis on recruiting in-state, of course, but only 37.4 percent of recruits signed by Saban from 2008-14 come from Alabama. The next most popular homes aren't surprising: Georgia at 15.5 percent, followed by Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas in the single digits.
It's the push west and along the Gulf Coast that mostly stands out. Look at the above maps from earlier years, and the pattern is clear: The rosters have a distinct Alabama flavor, stretching North-South from Nashville to Mobile, and not straying too far away, aside from the occasional ventures after touted prospects up north. Now, Alabama recruiting can best be illustrated by three lines, via the Interstate highway system: north-south along I-65 still, from Nashville to Mobile and passing through Birmingham and Montgomery remains important. But under Saban the recruiting mission has grown to greater emphasis on west-to-east lines. There's a long stretch of I-20 from the Dallas-Fort Worth area (A'Shawn Robinson) to Atlanta (Chance Warmack, Kenyan Drake), which cuts through Northern Louisiana (Cameron Robinson), Mississippi and Birmingham; and there's I-10 hugging the Gulf Coast from Houston (DeAndrew White, Tony Brown) to Pensacola (Trent Richardson), cutting through enemy territory in Southern Louisiana (Landon Collins, Eddie Lacy), plus the historical stronghold of Mobile (AJ McCarron, Jalston Fowler, Mark Barron).
This is Saban's domain. Beyond some struggles in the state of Mississippi, Alabama owns it.
Saban is certainly different from Bryant, from appearance (nine inches shorter than the Bear) to personality, although a recruit saying that a visit from Saban was "almost like talking to God" shows that the effects of their presence are similar. We can't measure exactly where Bryant's recruiting classes would have ranked when they were signed in his 25 years at Alabama, but we know the results showed that he was as good of a recruiter as college football has ever had, even if he eventually admitted to loathing the process. Saban's results -- both when classes are signed and when they leave -- say the same, and his attitudes toward recruiting are much different. He's in his element.
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A mild panic enveloped Alabama on Thursday. Three verbal commitments to the Crimson Tide's class of 2015 decommitted, leaving behind a brief period of confusion. This is Alabama, and Alabama doesn't lose recruits -- especially so close to National Signing Day.
But there are only so many spots available, and at a place like Alabama, it has to be recognized that recruits leaving might simply mean making room for more acclaimed recruits to join the fray. There is no panicking, because Alabama is in the middle of one of the greatest recruiting runs ever, and it's showing no signs of abating. The Crimson Tide entered the week still in the mix for a few more blue-chip prospects, even though they already hold a commanding lead in national team recruiting rankings with 23 players verbally committed, 19 of whom are rated five- or four-star recruits. Seven are from Alabama.
There is plenty of drama to play out on Wednesday's signing day, but there is no drama at the top of the team rankings. No matter what source you use, Alabama's class of 2015 will be rated the best again.
Alabama does not have a particularly strong connection to any of the three biggest recruiting states (Florida, Texas, California), although it continues to be located in a solid state for prep talent. According to research by Athlon Sports, the state of Alabama has produced the seventh-most top-200 talent over the last five years, behind Florida, Texas, California, Georgia (Alabama's biggest home away from home), Ohio and Louisiana.
Of the 121 players on the 2014 Alabama roster, including walk-ons, only 44 (36.4 percent) list an Alabama hometown, which is nearly a 50-percent decrease from the 1992 national title team. Compare that to in-state talent for the other playoff teams: 72.4 percent of Florida State's roster is from Florida, 60.1 percent of Ohio State's roster is from Ohio -- by far the best Midwest state for talent, with no other Power Five teams there either -- and a paltry 18.5 percent of Oregon's roster is from Oregon. Florida State and Ohio State are both well-coached, premier programs in talent-rich states. Oregon succeeds because it has a specific, acclaimed identity that's able to lure talent to Eugene.
Alabama finds a way to check all the boxes: There is elite talent available in-state. Auburn is the only other Power Five competition, and Saban has rebuilt Alabama into one of the most attractive programs for recruits in the history of the sport. While recruiting nationally has become much easier for everyone over the years because of the fact that nearly every game is televised and travel is much easier, nobody has taken better advantage than Saban.
Alabama could build a very strong team based mostly around in-state players. But for Saban, it's not enough. For what he's built in 2015, the entire Southeast might as well be considered in-state, from Miami to Fordyce.