At an exclusive golf event featuring a who’s who of college coaches and celebrity partners last month at Georgia’s Lake Oconee, Nick Saban was playing as if he had somewhere to be.
Paired with former Alabama and NFL quarterback Kenny Stabler, the Crimson Tide coach marched briskly down the fairway — three holes ahead of the next group, which included Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville.
The small gallery watching Saban hustle through his round probably figured he had a host of high schools to visit along I-20 on his way back to Tuscaloosa.
Actually, Saban and his peers have more down time this spring because of a new NCAA regulation — known as the “Saban rule” — that bans head coaches from making recruiting trips to high schools during the evaluation period that ends this month.
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“It’s ridiculous we’re doing what we’re doing,” Saban said recently. “I think we’ve really limited ourselves, and I totally disagree with it.”
But Saban has discovered a way to stay connected with recruits from today’s wireless generation. With a few clicks on a keyboard, Saban appears on a prospect’s computer screen and the two can chat via Web cam.
“Is that legal?” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier asked when learning of the latest recruiting wrinkle.
The NCAA says videoconferences are permissible, but they are subject to the same rules that govern phone calls between coaches and recruits. So while their assistants are fiddling with the GPS navigation systems in their rental cars as they travel back roads to scout players, Saban, Tennessee’s Phillip Fulmer and LSU’s Les Miles are kicking back in their offices waiting to go face-to-face with recruits in cyberspace.
“You get a lot more personal feel than you do just making a phone call. Most of the time they call us, which works out great and we don’t even use our one phone call that we have,” Saban said. “We asked the NCAA if it’s legal and all that, and it was. We’re just taking advantage of technology.”
But critics say Saban again is pushing the boundaries of the NCAA rulebook, much as he did last year when he was accused of committing recruiting violations in south Florida. That prompted the SEC to propose the Saban rule, which the NCAA adopted.
Before this year, head coaches were permitted to visit high schools during the April 15-May 31 evaluation period to watch recruits in spring practices and talk with their coaches and teachers. Coaches were not allowed to speak with recruits other than to exchange a few brief comments if they bumped into players at the school.
But Maryland’s Ralph Friedgen said the “bump rule” was difficult to enforce.
“Every high school coach grabs the kid and brings him out. And some guys stay an hour and a half with the kid and some guys just say hello and treat it like a bump,” Friedgen said after the Chick-fil-A Bowl golf outing in Georgia. “But it’s not fair. So to me, now it’s fair.”
Bobby Johnson, the Columbia native entering his seventh season at Vanderbilt, believes that keeping head coaches out of the high schools is a good idea.
“That’s the only way to keep that rule enforced,” Johnson said. “Especially when some of the high-profile coaches go out, it’s just like an event. Everybody’s waiting for him, then everybody comes by.”
Not everyone believes the rock star treatment some coaches receive when arriving at a high school is a bad thing.
“It does a lot to promote the game to the high school kids whether you’re recruiting them or not,” Saban said. “Any head coach at any major institution goes and watches them practice, I think it makes what they do important to them, and I think it’s important for our game. I think we need to promote our game every opportunity we get.”
Saban and Fulmer say the new rule will slow the evaluation process and make it harder for coaches to get to know recruits and identify possible character issues.
“Sometimes you’re even offering scholarships to guys you’ve never met,” Fulmer said.
During his 12-year tenure at Florida, Spurrier seldom went out in the spring when it was legal to do so, preferring to devote his time to the players on campus.
In contrast, Saban and others try to get as much digital face time as they can. Saban uses videoconferencing at Alabama — as he did when with LSU and the Miami Dolphins — as a way for his players to communicate with physicians or sports psychologists without an in-person appointment.
With Saban talking to a handful of recruits a day on the Web, other coaches might have to embrace the technology or risk falling behind.
“I don’t know if that’s what we need to try to do or not,” Spurrier said. “But we’ll try to keep up with whatever it takes.”
Of course, the NCAA, which last year passed legislation prohibiting coaches from text-messaging recruits, also could enact its next Saban rule.
“Maybe they will, I don’t know,” Saban said. “I’m hopeful that they’ll change the rule back that we can go out in the spring and recruit.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.