His preemptive strike was planned well in advance. He wasn’t waiting to face a single question about the strength of his latest recruiting class at the signing day news conference.
It was too early, Saban said, to claim victory or defeat with the 18 players who faxed their futures to Tuscaloosa that Wednesday morning.
Champions simply aren’t crowned by adding up stars on a website.
“Every year I try to come up with some analogy to sort of put in perspective how you should rate recruiting classes,” Saban said that afternoon. “If we went out to buy a hunting dog and it was a puppy, we would buy it based on its potential, its lineage or whatever you want to call it in terms of breeding, and we would know probably when that dog grew up whether it was a good hunting dog or not. We’d never know until we put him out in the field and saw him actually go hunting, but we would buy it without knowing for sure what that result would be.
“I think recruiting is not an exact science and really it takes about two years to really evaluate whether you had a good recruiting class or not.”
Scott Kennedy, the national director of scouting for Scout.com agrees when it comes to the difficulty of appraising the quality of recruiting classes. In fact, he said he’s never done it in the nine-plus years he’s worked in the business full time.
Using Saban’s model of grading out two years after players sign, teams that topped the national recruiting rankings had mixed results by the time the recruits finished junior seasons using the past five seasons and the team recruiting rankings from Scout and Rivals from two years prior.
Rivals had 56 percent of those viewed as top 10 in the recruiting rankings finish in the top-25 of the final Associated Press poll two years later while Scout’s rankings had a 52 percent success rate. Both were most accurate with the 2004 signing class that had 8-of-10 teams finishing in the top-25 in 2006.
How the 2008 recruiting class figured into the 2010 AP poll proved the least accurate in the five-year window. Rivals had 4-of-10 while Scout was 3-for-10.
In that five-year span, seven coaches were either fired or forced out of jobs two years after landing a top-10 recruiting class including Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville in 2008 and Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer in 2009.
If forced to double-check his work, Kennedy said he’d look more at how the individual players succeeded in college.
Ideally, he said, a 5-star player would turn into an All-American and/or would be a first-day pick in the NFL draft. For 4-star players, landing on an all-conference team would be optimal followed by hearing his name called at the draft. Those who received three stars should turn into regular contributors while 2-star prospects would be more of a “blue-collar role player,” Kennedy said.
Of the 28 players named consensus All-Americans this past season, only two were 5-star prospects as high school seniors in Scout’s assessment and four earned just 2-star ratings. The average member of the 2010 All-American entered college with 3.2 Scout stars next to his name.
The first round of last April’s NFL draft featured six former-5 star players and five 2-star players with an average of 4.1 stars.
How the general public perceives the ratings can be a whole different story. Kennedy said readers often over-emphasize to the star-ratings, attach their own meanings, skewing the true definitions.
“Unfortunately, fans have their own way of looking at stars, and they kind of think of 5-star guys as good players on their team, 4-star guys as starters, 3-star guys as guys they shouldn’t even be recruiting,” Kennedy said.
Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy was two stars shy of elite coming out of Southlake Carroll High School in suburban Dallas in 2006. While he was a late bloomer, not becoming a starter until his senior year when he piled up big numbers in Carroll’s spread offense, he made up for it in college setting school records for single-season passing yardage and touchdowns.
He also witnessed the recruiting phenomenon explode and how it contributed to inflated egos among freshmen.
“The one thing I will say about the 3-star guys, they don’t have that sense of entitlement that a lot of recruits tend to have,” he said. “Recruiting has really changed. My year was really the first year — maybe the year before my year — when it really started to pick up and recruits became household names. I think it’s hard for an 18 year-old to juggle that so they come in with this sense of entitlement.”
The imperfect process means peering into the crystal ball, said Tim Watts, recruiting analyst for the Alabama affiliate of the Rivals network BamaOnLine.com.
“We use the information, compile it and sort it based on who we think is the best player in that class,” Watts said. “It’s not necessarily the best player right now. It could be a guy that we think will be the best player down the road.”
The past two Alabama teams — the 2009 national champions, and last season’s three-loss squad — had contrasting levels experience and potential coming out of high school.
The difference was most noticeable on defense.
The 2010 starters had just one senior but came out of high school with an average of 4.01 stars combining Scout and Rivals ratings compared to the 2009 group that had 3.2. Three players started both seasons.
The group who won the BCS title had seven senior starters including once-undervalued recruits such as linebacker Cory Reamer (2½ stars) and cornerback Javier Arenas (3 stars) who was a second-round NFL draft pick.
At Auburn, the stars turned out to be a lot more true to form.
Offensively, five players — Cam Newton, Michael Dyer, Kodi Burns, Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh — were labeled as five stars by at least one of the two major services. And offensively, the Tigers played like it.
On defense — much like on the field — the Tigers lacked stars. Among its starters, only Demond Washington earned a five-star rating, but even that was split; That 5-star mark came from Scout, while he was tabbed as a 3-star by Rivals.
And at the end of the day, unlike in the sky, stars are grown, not born.
“They’re all 1-stars when they step on campus,” Kennedy said. “It’s a lot more important that you’re losing a 5-star guy going out than bring a 5-star guy coming in. You don’t replace those guys. I don’t care how many stars are next to a name, the 18 year-old kid coming in isn’t going to be what Mark Ingram was at Alabama.
“There could be a 5-star defensive tackle. I don’t care he’s not going to be Nick Fairley. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Charles Bennett contributed to this report.
Michael Casagrande is a sports writer for The Star.