SEC getting richer by winning recruiting wars

How do you win six straight BCS championships? By consistently showing up with the best players, that’s how.

And you consistently field the best players by winning the recruiting wars year after year, something schools throughout the Southeastern Conference have become extremely adroit at doing for more than a decade. It doesn’t look as if that is going to change.

With National Signing Day looming Wednesday, the college football recruiting battles look, once again, remarkably similar to the BCS polls. The SEC is in a league of its own.

According to most rankings, Alabama will end up with the top recruiting class of 2012, not a surprise given that the Tide has two national championships in the past three years. But Alabama has advantages beyond the titles. Tuscaloosa is a great college town – small and close-knit with all the typical food, beverage and party options on College Street and most of the major fraternity and sorority houses within a stone’s throw of Bryant-Denny Stadium.

There’s the tribalism of the hounds-tooth, and the ubiquitous, looming legacy of Bear Bryant that can be found in everything from the mumbling speech broadcast before every home game to the statues, street names and portraits that hang in almost every building like Mao on the gates of the Forbidden City.

Because the state has no professional teams, players at Alabama are treated like the Sun King, with screaming autograph seekers often lined up by the hundreds to get a scribble on a program. That’s heady stuff for an 18-year-old.

But more than anything, Alabama has Nick Saban, whose recruiting prowess puts his coaching skills to shame. And he’s, arguably, the best coach in the country.

Saban can turn on the charm like a country salesman with a trunk full of encyclopedias. As Michael Lewis so vividly pointed out in “The Blind Side,” Saban can come into a living room and have a mother eating out of his hands in seconds, complimenting her on her color schemes and the quality of her window treatments. Not drapes or curtains: window treatments, the right word at the right time under every circumstance.

“When you’re getting recruited, you go around to a lot of different places and you hear every coach sitting in their office tell you that they’re going to win a lot of games and you’re going to be a big part of that,” Alabama offensive tackle Barrett Jones said. “But when Coach Saban tells it to you, you believe him.”

Saban has upped the ante in the SEC, which was already one of the best recruiting conferences in the land. Before Signing Day, most observers have nine SEC schools ranked in the top 25 in recruiting. Georgia and Florida are in the top 10 in most rankings with LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M in the top 15. Even Vanderbilt comes in between 22 and 24, depending on the outlet.

But beyond the charm of the coaches and the winning records of the teams, and the chance to play in the leading conference in the country, things like culture and weather also play a big part in attracting high school superstars to the SEC. From Gainesville to Fayetteville, Oxford to Athens, towns and cities throughout the SEC live and breathe college football. Players are gods on campus and off. And although the pressure to perform is greater than at other places, the perks cannot be overstated.

Also, SEC schools have produced more Miss Americas than any other conference in the country (with Mississippi leading the way). Don’t think for a second that an 18-year-old young man doesn’t factor “good-looking coeds” into the equation when making his final choice.

Plus, if you’re a skill player in the some grim, cold high school in Gary, Ind., and you make a couple of official trips to Gainesville, Fla., Athens, Ga., or Auburn, Ala., in January, are you really going to choose a school in Michigan or Ohio?

Even other coaches know the drill. Long before he was the darling of Columbus, Ohio, Urban Meyer was a receivers coach and recruiter for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. During that time, he made a trip to Florida for a clinic and toured the University of Florida as Steve Spurrier’s guest. After walking onto the field at the Swamp, Meyer called his wife.

“I understand now why we can’t get these kids,” he said.

He still understands. For those competing against the SEC for the best high school athletes, it’s always going to be an uphill battle.