Alabama football coach Nick Saban knows Charlotte is more ACC territory than it is SEC, but he still wants to plant his crimson flag in the ground.
Saban, a four-time national-championship-winning coach, came to Charlotte Thursday night to speak to Alabama fans, supporters and alumni as part of the Crimson Caravan at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Charlotte was one of about 10 stops planned for Saban this offseason after an 11-2 season and a Sugar Bowl appearance.
I think giving our fans access a couple times a year is certainly important to continuing to build the program, even from an exposure standpoint for our players, Saban said. This is something I look forward to doing and enjoy it every year.
Sabans Alabama roster is filled with talent from Alabama, Florida, Texas and Georgia, but only one player from last years team cited his home state as North Carolina.
Former Charlotte Catholic running back Elijah Hood was recruited heavily by Saban before choosing Notre Dame. Hood de-committed from the Irish and is now a freshman at North Carolina.
We recruited both North and South Carolina, and I know this is close to the border and there have been some really good players close by here, and in this area as well, Saban said. Because this is a little bit ACC country, and the SEC is a little different league in terms of the competition and the exposure that a lot of players get, I think this is an opportunity that we like to extend to guys in this area, and weve had several guys from this area come over and visit us.
Saban knew Rock Hill was just across the border, and thats due in part to the time he and his staff spent transfixed on former South Pointe star Jadeveon Clowney.
Before taking the SEC by storm at the University of South Carolina, Clowney was recruited vigorously by Saban and his staff. Clowney visited Alabama in early 2011 but ultimately decided to be a Gamecock. Now, the defensive end may be less than two weeks away from becoming the No. 1 overall pick in this years NFL draft.
We thought he was the best player in the country when he was a senior in high school and had lots of opportunities to watch him play and certainly feel like hes one of the best players in the country, Saban said. I feel like hell be a great professional player. Coach (Steve) Spurrier has done a great job at South Carolina and theyve had a great success there. Id like to see somebody in our league be in the first pick in the draft, and I think he has a great opportunity to do that.
Saban acknowledged the strength of ACC football, saying its a great league and pointed to Florida State winning the BCS national championship this past season after an undefeated season.
But he sells exposure to his recruits. Alabama has won three of the past five national titles, and rarely is the Crimson Tide not playing on national television on Saturdays in the fall.
I think from top to bottom, the national exposure that the SEC gets, Saban said, and the national interest that we have is something that creates a lot of value for our players having more All-Americans, more guys drafted, more teams in the Top 10. I think all these things are things that appeal to young players now.
Standing at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in front of hundreds of supporters, Saban was just a few blocks away from Bank of America Stadium, where former Auburn star Cam Newton plays.
Newton played just one season for the Tigers, but in that Heisman Trophy winning season Newton engineered a historic comeback against Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
The No. 2-ranked Tigers were down 24-0 in the second quarter but got four touchdowns three passing and one rushing from Newton to win the game 28-27 and keep their national title hopes alive.
Saban said no matter where Newton went to school, he has tremendous respect for the Panthers quarterback as a competitor.
We havent played against very many players through the years that actually affected the game more than he affected the game in the season that he played at Auburn or against us in a game they came back, said Saban, who had two separate NFL coaching stints. He obviously has done a great job with this team and turned this franchise around. I know they have a great defense, too. Its really tough to win in the NFL if you dont have a good quarterback, and Cam is developing into one of those top guys.