It’s not about the Xs and Os; it’s about the Jimmys and Joes.
That cliché has been used for decades to explain that a coach is only as good as the players he’s coaching. Like most clichés, there’s some truth in those words.
It’s why any college football fan who downplays recruiting rankings is out of touch with how championship teams are built.
But it’s also foolish to ignore the impact a coach, a culture and a program have on the development of a player — even a blue-chip recruit.
A statistic that Alabama recruiters have used to great effect recently deserves some examination.
In the eight recruiting cycles that spanned 2008 – 2015, there were 241 player rated five-star recruits by the 247Sports composite rankings. These are the rankings that combine the opinions of the major recruiting services. That’s just over 30 players per year, which roughly coincides with the number of first-round NFL Draft picks every year.
The reason to begin in 2008 is because that was the first recruiting class for Nick Saban and the new Alabama staff.
The reason players after 2015 are not included is because some members of subsequent classes are still finishing their college eligibility. For instance, five-star players from the Class of 2016 who will still be a part of college football this season include Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson, Washington quarterback Jacob Eason, Auburn defensive lineman Derrick Brown, Alabama linebacker Ben Davis and Georgia wide receiver Demetris Robertson. All of those players except Brown and Davis will play their final seasons after transferring from their original schools.
Five players from the Class of 2016 have already been first-round selected in last month’s NFL Draft, including Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Alabama’s Jonah Williams, Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence.
But we won’t consider any of those players for this discussion. Back to the sample group of 2008 – 2015. Of the 241 five-star players, 50 went on to live up to their ranking and be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. That’s a success rate of 20.7 percent.
That sounds about right. One out of five five-star players become a first-round pick. That’s a much higher percentage than for players who were not five-star recruits.
But here is the money statistic that Alabama has gone to great lengths to publicize. From 2008 to 2015, Alabama signed 29 five-star players. Fourteen of those went on to be first-round picks, for a success rate of 48.3 percent.
The 212 five-star players who went anywhere other than Alabama reached their first-round potential at a rate of 17 percent (36 of 212).
That’s 48 percent if you go to Alabama; 17 percent if you go anywhere else. That’s a significant difference and a significant sample size.
Nick Saban was in Mobile last week supporting Team Focus. I asked him if he had an explanation for why his program has had such a high rate of success compared to all other programs.
“I think what it indicates is that we do a really good job of developing players,” Saban said. “We recruit a lot of good players and we have a lot of good players. But I think the key to the drill is how do we get those guys to play as well as possible for their benefit, for our benefit and for their future. But we try to create value with our players in personal development, academic support and career development and see if they can develop careers as football players. We kind of look at it from a holistic standpoint.
“And I think guys become more responsible and accountable when you create a culture of accountability around them. Because being responsible for you own self-determination is what being a professional is. Somebody is always going to define the expectation of what you’re supposed to do and the standard you’re supposed to do it to, whether you’re playing for the New York Giants or working for Apple computers, and we’re going to have guys do both. So we want to teach things that are going to help them be successful when it comes to some of the values that really create opportunities for their futures,” Saban said.
If the five-star-to-first-round argument was not enough, Saban pointed out the Tide’s overall draft success in the last three years.
“We’re very proud that we’ve had 32 players drafted in the last three years, 22 in the last two years and 10 this year,” Saban said. “We want every guy in our program to get drafted as high as possible, but getting drafted is really just a starting point.”
Statistics show that the best starting point for realizing that dream is at Alabama.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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