The Pac-12 is nowhere to be found, while the greatest threat to its recruiting pipeline is spending four days on the sport’s grandest stage in the conference’s backyard.
SAN JOSE, Calif — The marauders were neatly dressed in gray and crimson, with closely-cropped hair, slight smiles and measured words. Positioned 20 yards from each other during a media event Saturday in San Jose, Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi and assistant coach Jeff Banks politely answered dozens of questions about Clemson and the national championship game.
But when the topic turned to the recruiting benefits that come with playing in the Bay Area, the tone shifted subtly. The Crimson Tide’s raiders of the west coast smell blood — Pac-12 blood.
After another disappointing season in which it neither placed a team in the playoff or excelled in major intersectional games, the Pac-12 appears increasingly vulnerable to losing homegrown talent to blue-bloods from other conferences.
“There’s no doubt,” Banks told the Hotline. “Right away, you’ve got to point — and no negative, but it’s just fact — you’ve got to point to the fact that USC has had a lot of mixture in its coaching staff, in the head coaching position, and they’ve kind of been a little up and down since Pete Carroll left.
“That’s probably the No. 1 issue, and UCLA hasn’t been as strong as it’s been in certain years.
“So those two powers that really ran the Pac-12 … those two are down, and Stanford has the limitations it has academically. Washington’s kind of moved up. It’s all changed. It’s a little weaker, a little more (opportunity) for national people to come in and take guys.”
In that regard, the national championship matchup Monday at Levi’s Stadium couldn’t be much worse for the Pac-12: It’s nowhere to be found, while the greatest threat to its pipeline is spending four days on the sport’s grandest stage in the conference’s backyard.
No program has pillaged the west more surgically in recent years than the Crimson Tide, and there is seemingly more to come.
“There happens to be, and always will be, some young men that we may be recruiting in this area, in this state,’’ Lupoi said. “So, of course, having (the title game) here, front and center, makes it exciting for them.”
Lupoi, who played for Cal, and Banks, a Washington State alum, are two primary reasons for the talent drain.
Sons of the Pac-12, it appears, have become agents of its destruction.
“No matter where we play, we’re going to be on TV nationally,’’ Banks said. “But all the publicity leading up to the national championship, and being here, in California, I think it does help us.
“There are some great recruiting classes coming up in ’20 and ’21, and a lot of (west coast prospects) we’ve offered early.”
Nine players on the Crimson Tide’s current roster are from Pac-12’s recruiting footprint.
Star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (Hawaii), All-American offensive tackle Jonah Williams (Folsom) and backup tailback Najee Harris (Antioch) were 5-star recruits and the most celebrated of the transplants.
But Alabama signed four highly rated west coast players last winter and is expected to land a 2019 gem: Henry To’oto’o, from Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, the No. 2-rated outside linebacker in the country.
Oregon, Washington, USC, Utah and Cal are in pursuit, but the Tide is the heavy favorite to sign To’oto’o next month.
“It’s what happens when you create the kind of dynasty we’ve created — it attracts kids from all over,’’ said Williams, who spent his childhood in Atlanta but attended Folsom High School. The No. 2-rated offensive tackle in his class, he picked Alabama over Washington, Oregon and USC.
The Crimson Tide’s lead recruiter on Harris, Tagovailoa, To’oto’o, and its secondary recruiter on Williams is a Bay Area native and graduate of De La Salle: Lupoi.
One of the most successful recruiters in the nation, Lupoi played for Cal and served on the Cal and Washington staffs. He was investigated for NCAA violations with the Huskies — no penalties were assessed — then wasn’t retained when Chris Petersen took over in Seattle in 2014. He joined Alabama as a defensive analyst and has been promoted multiple times, all while strengthening the Tide’s recruiting footprint in the west.
Banks grew up in Southern California, punted for Washington State and broke into coaching as a graduate assistant under Mike Price. Before joining the Alabama staff last winter, he spent five years at Texas A&M working for Kevin Sumlin and successfully lured receiver Christian Kirk, one of the top prospects in Phoenix history, to College Station.
Combined, Banks and Lupoi have decades of connections to high school coaches across the Pac-12 footprint and an ability to relate to west coast prospects interested in attending school in the SEC.
“We kind of pick our spots on the west coast and try bring in players we feel not only fit with our culture but also be difference makers in program,’’ Banks said.
“It takes a difference mindset to play at Alabama, and sometimes guys on west coast might not know that until get there. So we’ve got to do great job identifying guys who are not only athletically good enough but mentally tough enough to sustain the SEC grind.”
The exodus could get worse for the Pac-12, quickly.
The west coast’s loaded 2020 recruiting class features the No. 2 tailback in the country (Kendall Milton), the No. 1 Pro Style quarterback (DJ Uiagalelei), plus two 5-star linebackers (Sav’ell Smalls, of Garfield HS, and Justin Flowe). All four are considering the Crimson Tide.
Were Alabama the only invasion threat, the Pac-12 pipeline wouldn’t be as vulnerable. But Ohio State, Michigan and Oklahoma have all executed multiple successful raids.
The trend line isn’t promising for the Pac-12.
Two years ago, just six of the top-25 players from the Pac-12 footprint (per 247sports rankings) left for other Power Five schools. That number is expected to rise to nine when the class of 2019 is fully signed and sealed, and early projections show the potential for 2020 plundering to reach double digits.
The Pac-12’s poor performance appears to be depleting its pipeline. And the greater the talent drain, the more difficult it becomes to compete on the field, thereby exacerbating the exodus.
“It’s a cycle,’’ Banks said. “Look at Oklahoma and Ohio State, and what they’ve been able to capitalize on on the west coast.
“And then being in playoff and being successful with players from California — the more that other (players) leave and go to these SEC schools and to the Big 12 schools, it just adds to the feeling that ‘I can do it, too.’’’