Alabama’s Secret Recruiting Advantage: Phil Savage
Nick Saban and Phil Savage have been friends for a long time (photo: by Vasha Hunt/al.com)
In the first few years of Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure it was commonplace to chalk up another National Signing Day victory to “Saban and the Tide are cheating. They have to be paying players.” When an Auburn fan makes a comment like that, it is typically laughed off as jealousy because it usually is.
In Saban’s early years at Alabama it was baffling to see what he and his coaching staff were doing on the recruiting trail. Their mastery of both recruiting and the manipulation of ESPN, 247Sports.com, Rivals.com and, essentially, anything recruiting-related transformed them to the national powerhouse they are today.
Of course, there have always been rumors about the different recruiting websites that drive the National Signing Day fervor and, perhaps Alabama’s early success, being linked to Nick Saban.
The rumors are buttressed by fact. Scout.com and Rivals.com were both started by James Heckman, whose father in law is legendary coach Don James, winner of the 1990 National Championship with the Washington Huskies. Before he coached the Huskies, James coached at Kent State from 1971–1974 and hired Nick Saban for Saban’s first coaching gig.
Maybe this was a reason that Alabama began its run of consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes. Once dominance was established, maintaining the status quo was easy. With the caliber of players signed by Alabama, it was no surprise that Alabama began winning championships and Saban began to be hailed as the best to ever coach the game. This, despite the fact that he is not regarded as one of the best on-field coaches in his own conference much less college football.
The point of this article however, is how Alabama is doing something that every dynasty before them has failed to do: keep the momentum going by bringing in quality depth year after year. Why would so many blue chip players go to the same school? There are only 11 players on the field at a time, and while depth is great, the four- and five-star guys are stacked three deep at nearly every position on the field for the Tide. In other major dynasties, rosters eventually deteriorated because the true quality players didn’t want to wait in line.
How does Saban convince players who are likely never to start but still have NFL dreams to stay at Alabama? Enter Phil Savage. Savage sits along side Eli Gold as the game-day announcers for Alabama football. Gold is the class of college football announcers, and he knows what to say, when to say it, and when to shut up. As elite as Eli Gold is, Savage is on the other end of the spectrum. He is frequently lost, offers little in terms of quality, and frequently ruins great Eli moments with emotional outbursts. So why is a guy like Savage in the booth for America’s most storied football program? It’s what he does on his off time.
Savage is the executive director for Reese’s Senior Bowl, the most prestigious of the exposure bowls. In the Senior Bowl’s week of practice, players are paraded in front of scouts from every NFL team. Typically, early round NFL talents skip these, games which gives players who have something to prove the opportunity to convince scouts to take a hard look at them. These are guys like the plethora of high school blue chippers from Alabama who never started for the Tide or didn’t play enough to put convincing tape together.
Since 2012, when Savage became the director, Alabama has blown away every other team in college football with Senior Bowl invitees. The Tide have had 26 invitees. Auburn and LSU come next with 17 apiece. NFL Player powerhouses like Ohio State (14), Florida (12), Clemson (14) and USC (7) round out the pack. That’s a significant disparity, but Alabama has a solid pedigree that’s hard to deny. It’s especially interesting when comparing the invitees to NFL draft picks. In the last ten years, Alabama is tied with LSU at 65. USC has 62, Ohio State 56, and Florida 55. In other words, there is no relationship between Reese’s Senior day invitees per team and how the NFL picks on draft days. So why the heavy bias towards Alabama?
Teams pitch all kinds of things to get recruits on campus. There are the things that matter like tradition and education. There are things like facilities. Then there are the darker reasons and while offering incentives is heavily scrutinized, the ability to tell a player, unequivocally, that even if he doesn’t start a single game for the Tide, he will still get his day in front of the NFL is a benefit that could slip between the cracks. Alabama has that with Phil Savage, executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl and game-day announcer for the Crimson Tide.