The question almost always elicited the same response, no matter who it was posted to. So daunting is the task, so elusive the answer, that all anyone I asked could do was shake their head and let out an exasperated chuckle. How do you recruit against Alabama?
"You don't," a longtime recruiting director told me.
You know about the six national championships in 12 years, and you're probably aware of the nine No. 1-ranked recruiting classes since 2011, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. That Alabama signs the best players and collectively turns them into the best teams is proof of Saban's famed Process.
Alabama's 2017 national championship squad stands as the most talented team of this century, and the 2020 group could be well on their way to matching them. Alabama also out-develops the so-called "developmental programs" that specialize in turning lightly-recruited players into draft picks, ranking No. 1 in 247Sports development rankings.
None of that is groundbreaking, obviously. But Saban's program also excels off the field. The Tide set a program record with a 990 APR score in 2020, the most recent year on record, which beat all but one SEC program. Alabama also regularly brings in A-list guests to speak to the team about topics outside of football, from Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell to NBA on TNT host Ernie Johnson to broaden the players' perspectives beyond the white lines.
It's a program with, truly, no weaknesses. A coach chasing the same player as Alabama has to feel like a resident of an ancient central Asian city, watching as Genghis Khan and his horde prepared to sack your city. At some level, you have to hope Saban Khan leaves enough behind for you to survive upon. For instance, Alabama's No. 1-ranked 2021 class included the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive tackle, center, and linebacker... in Texas. Alabama also regularly scores more blue-chips out of Miami than The U.
"Their timing does not matter. You can be recruiting a kid for a year and a half, be by yourself in the lead, and they are the only program in America that if they decide two months before Signing Day they want to put a full-court press on you, you've got your hands full," a former coach with experience recruiting for and against Alabama told FootballScoop. "When they enter the race, they're tied or in the lead automatically."
And yet, a coach can't simply surrender his first-born child to Saban in hopes he'll spare the remainder of the tribe. A defense must be raised, even one that has little chance of succeeding.
So, what works -- to the extent that it does? To find out a halfway effective recruiting strategy against Alabama, we must first lay to rest a strategy that doesn't.
Don't pitch playing time against the Tide. Even Alabama, for all its resources, can only offer 11 spots on the field at a time. There's still only one football.
Tempting as it may be for rival coaches to point at the Alabama depth chart and gesture to the litany of logjams in between a recruit and a No. 1 spot on the depth chart, don't.
"People aren't stupid," a former SEC head coach said. "If you're talking about playing time, people can look and see, 'He's got two 4-star running backs that had 1,000 yards coming back.' That's not going to work."
There's also the fact that reality is more art than science, and no one can ever truly know how a standout high school player will adjust to the college game.
"If a coach promises you playing time, they're lying to you. No coach can fulfill that promise. If you go to camp and you suck, they're not going to play you," the former Alabama coach said.
Ever the salesman, Saban has engineered a way to make the playing-time pitch backfire on his rivals, turning his depth into an asset.
"Everybody's going to tell you, 'Don't go to Alabama, you can play at our school before you can play there.' I think that's the worst stuff that people can tell you," Saban told a recruit in a Zoom that went viral earlier this year. "First of all, it's insulting. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if you couldn't play here. No. 2, when they tell you you can play at our place quicker than you can play at Alabama, they're just telling you Alabama's better than them."
And when a 5-star recruit arrives at Alabama and inevitably sits the bench for the first time in his life, the Tide's depth becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem. That guy in front of you? recruits are told, he was a 5-star who didn't play when he got here, either. And the guy in front of him was a first-round pick last year.
"You have no choice but to develop. You either develop or you get replaced. That's not always the most comfortable situation to be in, but there are no 5-stars resting on their laurels because they're the most talented guy," former Alabama quarterback and current ESPN analyst Greg McElroy told KTCK-FM this summer. "It doesn't matter; everyone's the most talented guy. You know exactly what you have to do to reach your potential -- the examples are right there in front of you."
Another supposed weakness that Alabama has turned into a strength is staff turnover. Assistants never stay long in Tuscaloosa. Come to Alabama and it's virtually guaranteed you'll have a different position coach when you leave than when you arrived. Depending on what position you play, you may have a different coach every year. Saban has employed five different offensive coordinators in the past six seasons.
Still, it doesn't matter. Churn is built into the system and acknowledged up front. The recruiting process is funneled toward Saban, because he's the constant and he's what matters.
"The best recruiter in the building is the logo," the former coach said. "You can be a terrible recruiter, put on that shirt, and you just became a great recruiter. You get a great recruiter in that shirt and they just became masterminds. Somebody like Mario Cristobal, Billy Napier, they crushed it."
"It’s Alabama’s offense, and that’s what we’re running," new coordinator Bill O'Brien said of the attack he and three fellow new coaches are implementing. Saban is the machine, and the assistant coaches are interchangeable parts.
To beat Alabama, you need to hunt for a specific type of kid. "It has to be a great fit at your university and beyond a bad fit at Alabama," the former coach said. "You're not going head-to-head and beating them. For us to get him (at my former school) he had to be allergic to crimson and hate elephants. There have to be so many things going in your favor to even have a shot."
He's got to be a kid comfortable going against the grain, a guy more motivated by filling an empty trophy case than a full one.
"You're trying to get kids that are being interested in not being the next, but being part of the group that takes them down," a current SEC coordinator said. "At some point, someone is going to take them down. Come be part of that. We can't hide from what they've done but you've got an opportunity to be part of a group that takes them down."
"Ed Oliver is a big example of why you don't need Bama," said a member of Tom Herman's Houston staff that kept the 5-star Space City native out of Saban's clutches. The No. 6 player in the class of 2016, Oliver remains the highest-rated prospect to ever sign with a Group of 5 program. He signed a $19 million contract when the Buffalo Bills selected him ninth overall in 2019. "Ed put his life on cruise control by being the biggest fish in the pond."
But even then, holding off Alabama is tricky. If Alabama is after him, chances are everyone else is, too. Your job isn't done when you fend off the great white shark, because a hammerhead, a tiger shark and a bull shark will be hot on your tail, too.
"That is the hardest part," the former SEC head coach said. "When you're in the SEC, you just know the kids you're on are being sought after by the other SEC schools -- you hope, if they're not you're probably not going to stay very long."
This leads to another problem. How many kids do you have to seriously recruit to get to your 25? If you can expect to lose a certain number of your commitments to Alabama late, how do you keep the kids right behind him warm without stringing them along?
"Man, having those contingency plans with Plan A, B and C, those are so difficult to manage. I think all coaches are having conversations of, 'How do we do this and not hurt ourselves and not hurt or mislead prospects. It's almost impossible," the former SEC head coach said. "If you want to sign three or four O-linemen, how many do you have to make feel wanted to get those three or four? It's a total guessing game."
And even if you do manage to fend off Alabama, Nick Saban has a secret weapon. "He's managed all these years for the public not to really see his personality. They portray him as this screaming, angry man all the time, and he doesn't really fight it. And then when he goes recruiting and he's able to be himself, the kids think they're special because he's being different around them than he is everywhere else, and he's just being himself," the former coach said.
"He probably doesn't want this out there, but he's a really good guy."
Saban will turn 70 this season, his 15th at Alabama. A recent contract extension will take him through his 78th birthday. Though the GOAT has shown no sign of slowing down any time soon, he's still bound by natural law. Even Nick Saban can't coach forever. At some point we'll have our answer: either a rival coach will crack the code, or Saban will retire and we'll know there truly was no way to answer the single most pressing question in college football.
"If you find an answer," a current SEC coordinator told me, "would you let me know?"