By Ray Glier – for The Athletic
February 6, 2018
In early 2009, on the second floor of the Alabama football headquarters in the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility, there was a windowless room, approximately 12 feet by 12 feet. This room, which had one door, was down on the left in an interior hallway. The walls of this room were stark white. There was no clock.
There were several small desks and three computers for the nine workers, who were usually undergraduate students. The room was a beehive of activity with the student workers flitting in and out of the room, usually to walk quickly around the corner to talk with their bosses, the nine full-time Alabama assistant coaches, who had larger offices in the main corridor. The students had to work in shifts because they had to share the space and computers. It was not 24/7 activity but close.
There were no pictures of exotic destinations or posters of favorite athletes or fast-food menus tacked to the wall. The only thing hanging in the room were several instruction sheets curiously called “Critical Factors.”
This room was the very modest enclave of the Alabama “recruiting specialists,” each of them was assigned to one of the nine assistant coaches. When people talk about the Alabama “football factory,” these guys are the rivets. In early 2009, they were the archetype of what was coming in college football: a player personnel department stocked with recruiting specialists/analysts. These rivets are one of the less highlighted explanations for the five national titles at Alabama in the Nick Saban Era (2007-2017).
“It was part of Nick’s vision,” says Ed Marynowitz, whom Saban hired in December 2008 as Alabama’s director of player personnel. “He saw a way to take advantage in recruiting and put some systems in place before anyone else. It shifted the whole paradigm in college recruiting in terms of how things are run. Everyone started looking to have a player personnel department, like Alabama’s, built on the NFL model.”
Each Alabama assistant coach recruits an area of the state, or the country, and also for their position group. The recruiting specialist’s job is to collect names of high school prospects, the sophomores and juniors, and some late-blooming seniors. They also keep an eye on freshmen who might be percolating toward stardom. The specialists then pour the prospect names — approximately 1,100 per class — down a funnel as the first filter in the Alabama recruiting process. There is a process to eliminate names as much as search for the next All-SEC candidate.
Marynowitz set up the system to save Saban’s assistant coaches from hours of tedious Internet searches and film work. Over time, the specialists became trusted evaluators for the assistant coaches and much more than just an elementary filter. They helped Bama avoid recruiting mistakes.
Hall of Fame coaches are lauded for their coaching tree, and Saban certainly has been a taproot. You know the names: Kirby Smart (Georgia), Jim McElwain (formerly Florida), Will Muschamp (South Carolina), Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M), Lane Kiffin (Florida Atlantic), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Jeremy Pruitt (Tennessee), and Mario Cristobal (Oregon).
But there is another seedbed in the Saban hothouse, this one for player personnel staffers.
Drew Hughes, the player personnel director at Tennessee, worked in the windowless Alabama recruiting office, as did Marshall Malchow, who runs recruiting for Kirby Smart at Georgia. Matt Lindsey, South Carolina’s director of player personnel, was part of the Bama recruiting crew, and so were Geoff Martzen of UCLA and Cooper Petagna of Michigan. There are others as well, working in the NFL and in college football, and though not all of them worked with the original 2009 crew, they had a hand in recruiting players for national championship teams, either in 2011, 2012 or 2015.
The specialists, who worked from 2009 to 2015 when the system was getting traction, became close friends and some stay connected on the messaging app Group Me. They call themselves The Slappies. The name comes from the inelegant term “slapdicks”, which is what Cleveland special teams coach Scott O’Brien called young scouts and office workers in 1995 when he worked for then-Browns head coach Bill Belichick. The Alabama recruiting crew saw a documentary on the 1995 Browns and appropriated the name Slappies.
The name belies their significance. They are not only leading their own departments in college football and spreading a regimented, highly-detailed recruiting system to all parts of the country, but some are also working in the NFL, applying their skills at the top of the football industry. They are tomorrow’s caretakers of the game, the future general managers and scouting directors of the NFL or top-tier athletic administrators in college football.
The Slappies did their jobs well at Alabama, and so have their successors. Alabama, according to the recruiting web site 247Sports, had the No. 1 recruiting class seven consecutive years from 2011 to 2017.
When Saban became Alabama coach in January 2007, he hired 26-year old Geoff Collins to be his first director of player personnel. Collins did all the usual stuff a college personnel man does — he ran the recruiting camps, mailed letters to prospects, organized prospect visits — but he also started to rely heavily on Facebook as a recruiting tool. Collins had access to graphic designers, and Alabama started pumping out full-color glossy brochures to sell the program. Recruits received personalized color brochures as part of the pitch.
Collins started bringing in more student workers to help with all the tasks he added in the recruiting department, which included the cataloging of DVDs of high school prospects’ highlights. The player personnel staff was taking pressure off Saban’s full-time assistant coaches, allowing them to coach the current Alabama players instead of having so much of their head in recruiting.
“Geoff was the foundation to some of the things we have now,” says running backs coach Burton Burns, the only assistant coach remaining from Saban’s first Alabama staff in 2007. “He was the creator.”
That year Collins was at Alabama, the Crimson Tide brought in what some consider the greatest recruiting class in the history of college football. It included five future first-round draft picks: wide receiver Julio Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, defensive back Mark Barron, defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, and Alabama’s first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, running back Mark Ingram.
“Coach Saban allowed us to build out the infrastructure; he put a high-priority on recruiting,” Collins says.
Collins, however, wanted to coach, and Saban did not have an open position. He left Alabama after one year and went to UCF in 2008 as the linebackers coach. He is now the head coach at Temple.
Saban hired Tim Davis to replace Collins as the director of player personnel, but Davis also wanted to coach. He was gone after a year at Alabama to coach offensive linemen at Minnesota.
Saban called Collins in early December 2008 looking for a permanent replacement, a player personnel solution who would not leave for a coaching job.
Collins referred Saban to Marynowitz, a 24-year old scout with the Miami Dolphins. Marynowitz (Man-o-witz) was in Miami working for three of the top scouting minds in the NFL. Bill Parcells was Miami’s executive vice president of football operations. Jeff Ireland was the Dolphins’ general manager and is currently college scouting director for the Saints. Brian Gaine was a scout with Miami and is now the GM of the Houston Texans.
Marynowitz adopted Collins’ social media bravura. Then he went to work looking for undergraduates on campus who played high school football or were the sons of coaches and had a passion for the game. Marynowitz hired nine of them early in 2009. Next, he began codifying and establishing as bedrock the recruiting systems: the proper way to do present film to coaches (cutups), the rating system for players, the color codes for judging intangibles.
“Ed took it higher than I did at Alabama; it was brilliant what he did to assign a guy to each of the nine coaches and give them an area,” Collins says. “Matt Rhule of Baylor is a good friend, and Brent Key, a coach at Alabama, is a good friend and we have an inner code phrase, ‘Is he one of us’ and Ed is one of us. Does he grind all night long? Does he work hard and pay attention to detail? Ed does.”
A major task was scrapping the piles of DVDs and VHS tapes of high school prospects and replacing them with digital. That wasn’t easy, because Saban preferred watching VHS tapes of players.
Did Alabama need that extra layer of all those recruiting specialists? After all, the Crimson Tide secured the 2008 class (Jones, Ingram, et al.) with assistant coaches scouring the tapes with the help of just a few student workers.
Well, you don’t know Saban if you think he was going to stand still following success. His tyranny over the rest of college football rests on a simple principle: Never settle. Rivals were going to dig just as hard to catch up, so Saban knew better than to relax. “It’s fourth and goal every day,” as one assistant coach liked to put it.
The windowless room where the recruiting specialists worked is where the fog of confusion around a high school prospect starts to lift. You know that fog. The player’s name is in the paper every Saturday morning after a stellar game Friday night. He makes a lot of catches as a receiver or a mountain of tackles as a linebacker. His name is on recruiting message boards as being “a player” to keep an eye on. The player’s high school coach, a former player himself, said the kid could be something special.
It can be hard to rate a player accurately through the fog of hosannas.
The fog, however, is no match for that laminated sheet of paper tacked on the wall in the windowless room, the one titled “Critical Factors.” It is unsentimental with the Friday night star.
The term critical factors originated in 1963 with the Dallas Cowboys and head coach Tom Landry and scouting director Gil Brandt and was the foundation in scouting that led to 17 consecutive playoff appearances by the Cowboys. Brandt met with Belichick and the Browns in 1991 and shared some of the ideals of the Critical Factors. Saban was Belichick’s defensive coordinator.
Marynowitz was introduced to “critical factors” in Miami with Parcells. When he arrived at Alabama, Marynowitz merged his scouting background with Saban’s scouting prowess and the Slappies got the best of two camps: Parcells and Saban.
Marynowitz then started conducting Scout School with his new hires. He had to show them what “good” was.
Good was first outlined on the Critical Factors sheet. Corners had to be 5-foot-11, 6-feet to 6-1 and 190 pounds. The left tackle had to be around 6-foot-5, 300 pounds with a frame to put on more weight. Their arm length had to be at least 33 inches so they could reach linebackers and defensive ends trying to run around them. Wide receivers were typically 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. A lot of programs hunt for those same measurables, but what separates Alabama is that the Crimson Tide recruiting staff sticks to those definitions and does not stray. The Saban discipline demands it.
Part of the system that came from the Cowboys and was passed to Belichick, and refined by Saban, were the color codes that were “alerts” assigned to players. It was a tool to help easily identify positive/negative intangibles when looking at the player’s name on the recruiting board. These “board tags” were listed on the sheet of Critical Factors and included a yellow dot next to a player’s name for academic issues, or an orange dot for character issues. Board tags could be letters, too. If the player was tagged with a ‘Z’ he lacked the required height. If there was a ‘T’ he was tight or stiff. If he had an ‘S’ he lacked the requisite speed. If a player made it to the recruiting board with a “tag” he must be outstanding in other areas.
The critical factors were a valuable tool to the Slappies for eliminating players because names of prospects would come at the Alabama recruiting specialists at a dizzying pace. They used the Internet to comb for more names and would then take down names that came in through random phone calls into the football office by “friends of the program.” There could be 1,100-1,200 names collected for one class by the nine specialists, and that list had to be whittled to 90-100 offers.
In 2009, Marynowitz and the assistant coaches showed the Slappies how to evaluate film. The undergrads were taught how to do “cutups”, the real meat of the process, which was called Good Bad Ugly. It started with 35-40 individual plays by the prospect divided into good plays, bad plays, ugly plays.
“We wanted a video summary of a player,” Marynowitz says. “This is what he does well. This is what he struggles with. You get a true depiction of what you are getting with this player. Our whole mantra was no surprises. We wanted to provide coaches exactly what the player is. You are not trying to kill the guy and you are not trying to sell the guy.
“If he has issues playing the ball down the field, there may be an issue with this guy moving forward. So when we get this guy on campus and he struggles to play the ball down the field it is not going to be alarming to us because all we’ve seen are positive highlight plays. We would continue to add to a player’s film because some players improve, some go down. We wanted a good pulse of who the player was over the course of his season.”
Burns marveled over how quickly the Slappies got up to speed. They were a repository of all things player personnel.
“They were always aggressive in learning the business. Always eager to find out more and they were willing to work a lot of hours. They had a passion,” Burns says.
Marynowitz’s system is a bulwark against fanciful hunches, the kid who “might” turn into something. It guards against awarding scholarships to high school players whose fathers are “friends of the program” or the sons of former players, which had become a problem at Alabama before Saban arrived. These days, you either have the God-given goods or you don’t.
“A lot of times those kids in your area or at your position become better looking than they may be,” Collins says. “Ed Marynowitz’s job was to cut through all the bullshit and say ‘This is what this player is, this is how we rank this board, take all the feelings and emotions out, and this is what’s best for Nick Saban and Alabama football.’
“A lot of people in those roles want to be people-pleasers. Ed did what was right for the organization. He took the drama out of it.”
The recruiting specialists were not involved in the actual recruiting. Their job was to get context and information.
All along, Marynowitz was receiving his own training from Saban, who is considered a master at evaluation.
There was also some extra sauce for Marynowitz’s training. Phil Savage arrived in 2009 as the color analyst for Alabama radio broadcasts. He had been the general manager of the Cleveland Browns and, as the director of college scouting for the Baltimore Ravens, helped Alabama great Ozzie Newsome, the GM of the Ravens, build a Super Bowl champion. More important, Savage worked for Saban with the Browns and he knew about the head man’s strict quality control.
Marynowitz says he and Savage would watch film every Friday night before home games. They would go on jogs and discuss best practices and a numerical system for rating players.
Through the collaboration of Marynowitz, the assistant coaches, and Saban, prospects were graded from 1.0 to 3.9 with 1.0 being a no-brainer, an instant impact guy. Think Julio Jones. Most of the players offered were in the 2.5 range, which goes to show that the development of players is also a big part of the Alabama process. Very few 1.0s come through the door.
Players weren’t the only ones being developed. The Slappies entrenched in the program started to teach the replacements. The prerequisite: You had to show up with devotion to the job and accept tough coaching, just like the players on the field.
If Wes Slay missed a class, it wasn’t because he was hung over or hanging out on the pool deck. He was in the windowless room from 2011-2013. He was a Slappy.
Slay, who now scouts in the south for the Tennessee Titans, dismisses any notion that he had a pivotal role in recruiting classes that made up national championship teams in 2012 and 2015.
“I don’t want it to sound like we had a lot of say in anything,” says Slay, who worked for offensive line coach Mario Cristobal. “We were doing the grunt work, which was getting the tape into the system and running reports and making sure we were not missing on anybody.
“We would look at the basics — height, weight, speed, the measurable — and if this guy doesn’t have a chance, we wouldn’t push him that up the flagpole. They had to meet certain criteria. How tall is the corner, how fast? We would try to eliminate from the beginning. If a high school coach told one of our coaches about a player they would bring it back to one of us and say, ‘Hey, get some tape on this kid.’ ”
Though the Slappies were not decision-makers, Burns and other assistant coaches became so confident in them that the coaches raised expectations for what they could do. Examine this quote from Slay, a synopsis of his film study. Does this sound like the work of a mere paper pusher?
“The main thing we did was to evaluate by not looking at the result of the play. You look at how the play happened. It’s not that he scored three touchdowns, it was what are the athletic traits that make up that individual player, and how did he score those three touchdowns.
“You have to evaluate that player for his movement ability and his size and his strength, more than what those numbers dictate. How good are his hips, how good are his feet, how good are his instincts? Instincts were huge for us. Again, it’s not looking at the result. It’s how did he get there.”
Slay, who is from Roanoke, Ala., was not paid in 2011, so he worked in a bar at night. Marynowitz says some of the recruiting specialists would work their way into part-time student pay, which was minimum wage. But they weren’t there for the money. They were there to start building a career in football.
Many of the Slappies did not return calls for comment for this story. That has something to do with the long reach of Saban. You don’t want to be seen as a teller of Saban secrets, someone operating outside the loop, even if you haven’t worked there in five, six, seven years. It’s as though you have never turned in the swipe card that grants you access into the Alabama football office.
Saban detests swans. Nobody is allowed to look at themselves in the mirror at Alabama, not even Saban. You are to be the rolling credits at the end of the movie; hard to see.
Slay, 27, wasn’t giving away secrets. He was extolling the virtues of Saban and his assistants and The Process. He was speaking for the Slappies.
“I remember one day when I was setting up a film of a prospect and I knew that eventually, Coach Saban was going to look at it,” Slay says. “He was going to put his eyes on it, so you took pride in that work, because what if Coach Saban sees this and you put a play in there that doesn’t give a true evaluation of what the player is?
“If something was messed up with it, it would work its way back down the ladder. Who did this tape? You shouldn’t have put Play 12 in there.”
There is no triumph without responsibility, that’s what Marynowitz preached to the guys in the windowless room. In weekly meetings, he would allow the specialists to put a prospect forward and evaluate him, sell him, to the rest of the recruiting staff.
“It’s finding players before they become great, before they become known,” Marynowitz says. “To take a name off a piece of paper with no other information and then begin to build a profile and be able to formulate an opinion on potential before everyone else, that’s player personnel and that’srecruiting. There is a benefit to being first.”
When somebody like Matt Lindsey would go to the NFL to work for the Philadelphia Eagles, Slay says it was juice for the other guys in the office to push harder. They are brothers in scouting and joke that just one of them needs to get an NFL GM job. Then he can hire the others.
Marynowitz left Alabama in May 2012 to become Chip Kelly’s player personnel guy with the Philadelphia Eagles. Alabama ripped through three replacements in three years: Paul Gonnella, who is at Southern Miss, Kevin Steele, who is the defensive coordinator at Auburn, and Tyler Siskey, who is an assistant at South Alabama.
Jody Wright has been the director of player personnel since 2015 and, by all accounts, is a master at organization and evaluation, and he is training the next generation of Slappies.
Walls have been knocked out since 2009 to give the current crop of Slappies more space. Other ancillary recruiting staff, a lot of them, are in the space, too. There are more than three computers in the room.
Perhaps the biggest testament to the success of the system — aside from the five national titles — is that coaching staff turnover has never waylaid Alabama. Just look at Florida State and how the Bobby Bowden Era faded away when vital assistants, like Mark Richt, left for other jobs. Look at Penn State and Joe Paterno and the downturn there when his assistants drifted off. The processes in place, Marynowitz says, helped ease the transition for a new assistant coach so he could get up to speed in recruiting. Under Saban, Alabama has had 30 assistant coaches (2007-2018), including seven offensive coordinators. There were few hiccups.
Burns, the only original assistant remaining, knows the value that came out of that windowless room, the room that didn’t need a clock because the Slappies were working so diligently for their coaches they didn’t need (or want) to know the time.
“I have the New Orleans area and my guy would send me a tape of a high school player and say, ‘Coach, watch this guy’, and the player would be a sophomore,” Burns says. “Now I could go out and find that player’s coach and get more information. The recruiting assistant would gather even more tape and verify some more on this player.
“It takes a lot of hands to do what we do. We develop a comfort zone, a trust, with our recruiting assistants. It’s been a big help to the program.”
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