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The Magic Of Nick Saban: Everyone Wants To Go To Alabama

Forbes

As a high school senior from Woodbury, Long Island, some 30 miles east of New York City, Daniel Machover’s top choice for a college might strike some as curious: the University of Alabama.

A big college football fan, Machover paid a visit to Tuscaloosa, where he had already applied and been accepted, and found the “rah rah” atmosphere of Crimson Tide country everything he expected. But while it was football that had initially piqued his interest, he found much more to ultimately sway him: Beautiful campus, warm weather and friendly people.

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“There was no culture shock at all, everyone was just real nice,” he says.  Alas, Machover won’t get to live the southern dream. At least not this year. As decision time neared, his dad Geoff decided that for his college visits and his son’s treks back home, road trips beat flights. He nixed Tuscaloosa in favor of the University of Delaware. “I’d pick Alabama,” says Daniel. “But he’s paying the bill.”

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Nick Saban smiles as he walks onto the field before Alabama's spring game. (AP)

What’s notable about Machover’s first college choice is that, as a non-southeasterner these days, he’s far from alone. Head football coach Nick Saban has done the near-impossible at the University of Alabama:  orchestrated a seismic shift in the meaning of “Roll Tide.” The longtime motto used by the locals to exhort its college football team to victory has spread across the school’s campus to the registrar’s office, to new buildings for science, engineering and nursing students, and on to the wallets of increasingly generous alumni.

Powerhouse football is nothing new at the school, of course. But powerhouse football in the modern media age means, thanks to games beamed across the country on a regular basis, a national marketing platform unlike anything Bama enjoyed in Bear Bryant’s day.

You basically know Saban’s record on the field: 68-13 since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007, with three national titles. The athletic department money has followed suit: 2012 produced revenue of $124.5 million and profit of $19.4 million, according to data from USA Today, up from $67.7 million in revenue and $7.1 million in profit in 2007. Football accounts for about two-thirds of all revenue and $45 million in profit, while the school’s other sports teams collectively lose money.

But the money flowing directly from Bryant-Denny Stadium is just the start. If you think that a top college football coach earning seven figures is overpaid, think again. To appreciate just how modest Saban’s $5.3 million salary is, take a wider look around campus. Since 2007, Tuscaloosa has swelled its undergraduate ranks by 33 percent to over 28,000 students. Faculty count has kept pace: up 400 since 2007 to over 1,700. But it’s more than growth – it’s where the growth is coming from. According to the school, less than a third of the 2007 freshman class of 4,538 students hailed from out of state. By the fall of 2012, more than half (52 percent) of a freshman class of 6,397 students did. Various data from US News and the New York Times shows that the school’s out-of-state tuition cost – nearly three times higher than the rate for in-state students – rose from $18,000 to $22,950 a year during that period.

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Add it all up – more students from outside Alabama paying ever-increasing premium tuition bills – and the school realized $50 million more in out-of-state tuition revenue for last fall’s incoming class than it did for the same class in 2007 ($76 million vs. $26 million). Kick in the additional $8.5 million in in-state tuition, which rose to $9,200 a year from $6,400 over the same period, and overall tuition revenue rose to $104 million from $46 million for the respective 2012 and 2007 freshman classes. And to boot, the school’s most recent capital campaign (i.e. donations from alumni and others) raised $600 million for scholarships and facilities, the most ever.

For the admissions office, more applications mean more selectivity. Six years ago, 64 percent of students applying to the University of Alabama were accepted. By 2012, the acceptance rate had dropped to 53 percent. About one in four students from the 2012 freshman class carried a 4.0 high school GPA. The class also includes 241 National Merit Scholars, more than any other public university in the U.S.

“The quality of our students has never been higher,” says Mary Spieigel, executive director of undergraduate admissions. “Our recruiters across the nation emphasize all aspects of the University.”

That comes from tapping the cash to build and renovate around campus. The final phase of a four-building Science & Engineering complex, first begun a decade ago, is scheduled to be completed this summer. In 2010, the school opened the Capstone College of Nursing building, which features classrooms, labs and an auditorium. Campus housing has also been upgraded: a new facility called Presidential Village, which holds nearly 1,000 students, opened last summer. A second phase that includes a rec center is slated to open in 2014. There’s more, but you get the idea. The administration’s strategy to leverage Saban’s program into additional selling points is working like a charm right now.

Machover, meanwhile, isn’t complaining as he prepares for Delaware, a good school and the alma mater of 2013 Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco. But he hasn’t given up working his dad for a move south. “I asked if I get straight A’s can I transfer,” he says.

And?

“We’ll see.”

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