Ninety minutes after Tua Tagovailoa threw the last pass of the college football season, Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News said: “I know some people think recruiting doesn’t matter. This game showed that recruiting matters.”
Having known Cecil a long time, I wouldn’t describe him as someone who agonizes over the destination of every high school senior. I’d put myself in the same category. As tempting as it is to make light of an overstuffed signing day – there are now two! – and those hyped-to-the-heavens 5-stars who, three years hence, have faded from memory … it cannot be denied that the greatest coach in college football history also is the greatest recruiter in college football history.
In the four-plus decades I’ve been doing this, I’ve met one major-college coach who seems to believe recruiting is little more than a necessary evil. He works at Georgia Tech and, in this as in many things, Paul Johnson is the exception. After his third victory over Georgia in Athens, he said, “Not bad for a bunch of 80th-ranked recruiting classes – huh, Mark?” I laughed. The man did have a point.
We stipulate that, if we use 247 Sports’ composite index, Johnson has had no class ranked in the 80s; his lowest was 70th in 2014, the year that would end with the Yellow Jackets winning the Orange Bowl. Neither, however, has Tech under Johnson had a class ranked in the top 40. His average class would rank 51st. (This year’s class is 55th.) As well as this coach has done, I wonder how much better Tech might have been with, say, a bunch of 35th-ranked classes.
Tech’s first regular-season game after that victory between the hedges showed the limits of so-so recruiting. Johnson’s Jackets opened the 2017 in the building where, four months and three days later, Tagovailoa would throw the pass that won the national championship. Johnson outcoached Tennessee’s Butch Jones from here to eternity. (This tended to happen to Jones.) Johnson’s team also lost -- despite outgaining the Volunteers by 286 yards. When finally Tennessee’s playmakers began making plays, the Jackets couldn’t stop them.
After beating Notre Dame for his fourth national championship – he has won two more – Nick Saban famously groused: “That damn game cost me a week of recruiting.” History will recall Saban’s greatest in-game decision as the choice to replace Jalen Hurts, who had presided over two losses in two seasons as a starter, at halftime of the College Football Playoff final with the freshman Tagovailoa, who had scarcely played, but the great man could have played no tactical trump card had Alabama’s No. 2 quarterback not been the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback of his class.
That was Cecil Hurt’s point. Tagovailoa, who threw the winning touchdown; DeVonta Smith, who caught the winning touchdown; Henry Ruggs III, who caught Alabama’s first touchdown; Najee Harris, who supplanted Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough to finish as Bama’s leading rusher; Alex Leatherwood, who replaced injured left tackle Jonah Williams – all were freshmen, all big-time recruits, all difference-makers in the national championship game. Saban’s first-teamers were roundly outplayed by Georgia’s; Saban’s reserves were of a quality the Bulldogs couldn’t match.
That’s an issue Kirby Smart labors to address. Having worked alongside the best ever in Tuscaloosa, Smart knows what Saban knows. The three best recruiting head coaches are Saban, Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney. It’s no coincidence that those three have claimed all four CFP titles. In stacking this year’s top-rated class -- last year’s was No. 3 -- onto a program that just played for the national championship, Smart has positioned Georgia to keep playing for such prizes.
Football is a volume business. One big signing day doesn’t mean a program is bound for glory, but a succession of bumper crops can afford that chance. It would be wrong to suggest that coaching doesn’t matter. We all know better. But that old line about Bear Bryant – “he could take his’n and beat your’n and your’n and beat his’n” – no longer applies. Saban couldn’t take Johnson’s recruits and win a national championship. Heck, it just took every Saban trick to beat a team coached by his former deputy coming off an 8-5 season.
Great coaches make good players better, but there has never been a great coach with mediocre players. Cam Newton made Gene Chizik a champion, not the other way around. We might tire of the staged-for-TV signing announcements, but there’s a reason the coaches who recruit at the highest level keep gracing our TV sets in January.
In Smart, Georgia has such a coach. It will have more chances at Bama, and maybe soon the Bulldogs will have the depth to hold back the Crimson Tide. Maybe Smart really is the next Saban. More to the point, maybe Justin Fields is the next Tua.