FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Defensive tackle Antonio Alfano fits the archetype of the modern Nick Saban blue-chip recruit. He’s the top-ranked player in the state of New Jersey for the class of 2019, the No. 2 player at his position nationally and a top-25 overall recruit in the Rivals.com rankings. He committed to the Crimson Tide over blue bloods like Penn State, Georgia and USC.
Alfano’s recruitment to Alabama offers a window into one of the more telling characteristics about Saban as a recruiter and communicator. In an era where interactions with teenagers flow through text messages, Instagram DMs and Snapchat, it stood out to Alfano that Saban recruited him exclusively and personally by telephone and face-to-face meetings. Of most significant note: Saban didn’t send a single text message.
Alfano said that he spoke to Saban approximately 25 to 30 times over the course of his recruitment, double the amount of coaches like UGA’s Kirby Smart and Penn State’s James Franklin.
“I talked to Coach Saban by far more than other coaches,” Alfano said in a phone interview last week, noting the calls began his junior year. “It was a lot. It was straightforward. He’d tell me, ‘This is what we do and how we win.'”
With No. 1 Alabama playing No. 2 Clemson in the College Football Playoff title game next week, Saban is on the precipice of his seventh national title as a head coach. And that means another opportunity to deconstruct the tactics and methods of how Alabama wins, including an old-school affinity for talking on the phone. Alabama has lured the No. 1 recruiting class in two of the past three years and appears destined to end up No. 1 again in 2019. The signing day victories for the Tide are almost a given, much like their dominance on the field.
In an era of booming personnel departments, flashy graphics and waves of recruiting hostesses, Alabama’s best recruiting asset remains the aura of Saban. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of both his traditional and FaceTime calls. That’s one reason why Saban is defiant about not texting, although coaches on his staff say he’ll read them, as he refers to himself as “old-fashioned” with a smile. He prefers communicating in person, on the phone or not at all.
“I really don’t email, I don’t have Twitter, don’t have any of the social-media type stuff, which I think is a great way to communicate,” Saban said. “I just like to make it a little more personal.”
Saban’s throwback methods make his phone calls, in-person visits and high-school stops some of the most effective recruiting tactics in the sport. And it doesn’t go unnoticed by recruits, who consider the call from Saban the ultimate compliment in their recruitments.
“When recruits see his number pop up on their phone, it’s a very special moment,” said Woody Wommack, the Rivals.com Southeast recruiting analyst. “Most describe it as surreal – knowing the best coach in college football believes in their ability.”
Saban’s doggedness and consistency help his approach, as he’s devout about making phone calls. And in those interactions, he shows personal touches that bely his monotone voice and perpetual sideline scowl. To the Alabama assistants in charge of both areas and position groups, using Saban as a trump card looms as a huge advantage.
“From a communication standpoint, actually on the phone and talking to the head coach, he’s going to do it more than anyone else that’s recruiting them,” said Alabama co-defensive coordinator Pete Golding. “That’s how he was raised, that’s how he wants to do it. I mean, he’s relentless in that. He talks to a lot of guys every week.”
Saban is able to disarm recruits and families with his in-person demeanor being so different than his persona. Alfano took an unofficial visit to Alabama early in his high school career and met with Saban for the first time. Alfano is 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, and early in high school his frame showed the promise to fill into a high-end prospect. He jokes that Saban’s “eyes lit up and got real wide” when he walked into his office for the first time. Saban doesn’t need to put on a show for recruits, as his pedigree and success allow him to stay in character.
“It’s different,” said Alabama secondary coach Karl Scott when asked about Saban’s communication methods. “When everyone is trying to be the same, he’s trying to be himself. He’s not going to try and be something he’s not. Whether it’s recruits or parents, people pick up on when you’re not yourself, when you’re phony. People love when they sit in the office with him. They said, ‘Oh man, he’s just a regular person.'”
Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne learned Saban’s communication preferences when he was in town interviewing for the job. He was chatting with Saban at his house when Saban excused himself to take a phone call. Byrne asked Saban if he texted, and the coach responded: “They made these phones to talk on.”
And that’s how Byrne communicates with Saban, who will occasionally engage in some small talk about golf. Mostly, the conversations are quick, direct and reach a clear conclusion.
Three different Alabama staff members told Yahoo Sports the same truism about Saban’s communication methodology. “There’s no gray with him,” running back coach Joe Pannunzio said. “Everything is black and white.”
In recruiting, there’s also clarity about who is on the other line when Saban calls. For a decade now, coaches and assistant coaches have handed their phones to recruiting assistants and graduate assistants to send texts, GIFs and graphics to communicate with recruits. When Saban calls, it eliminates that notion.
“The guys on the other end of the line know they’re talking to Nick Saban,” Byrne said. “They know it’s not an intern sending the texts on behalf of the coach, which happens all the time.”
It annoys Saban when his own communication preferences aren’t used. While Saban has been open-minded to evolution on offense and with Alabama’s pace of play, he’ll hang up on anyone who suggests he ditch calling somebody as his primary method of communication.
“I hate it when someone says, ‘I texted him to be here at 9:30, but he’s not here,” Saban said. “I’m saying, ‘Why didn’t you just talk to him? Why didn’t you tell him to be here at 9:30? How do you know he even got the text?’ So I guess [I’m] a little old-fashioned, but [it] works for us.”
You can count on Saban continuing to phone it in.
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