Ignoring the doom and gloom predictions from media and rival coaches, nineteen athletes signed on the line, determined to play football at Alabama. "I think these players will have a special bond among themselves and with the coaches," Franchione said. "I believe that our fans that support Crimson Tide football are going to have a special love and passion to support them the next four or five years.
"For me and my coaches, this might be as special a recruiting class as I've seen in my career. Obviously the next four or five years will clarify just how special they're going to be, but we're really proud of them."
News of the crippling sanctions handed down by the NCAA could hardly have come at a worse time. The announcement was made Friday afternoon with signing day only days away. And within minutes rival coaches began burning up the phone lines, hoping to sway the athletes from the Tide.
"These players were an inspiration in the way they handled everything," Franchione said. "With their firmness in the way they stood tall. There have been some tremendous stories. The things you go through as coach and player will be even more meaningful, because of the way they've handled this process."
Usually top athletes go through the entire recruiting cycle, waiting until January or later to announce their choice. But fourteen pledged before Christmas, and eight were in the Crimson fold back in July. "A lot of these guys made early commitments and never wavered," Franchione said. "They handled the process of recruiting with class and character. Their decisions stood firm through lots of challenges.
"I admire them as players, and I think we've got some good players in this class. But they have a distinct love for The University of Alabama and playing for the Crimson Tide. They had a great personal commitment to play for this football program. If there is a characteristic about this group, it's that they have a love for Alabama. They wanted to be here. That was true to a certain degree last year, too."
Assuming the imposed penalties hold up on appeal, this year's recruits face a first two years of college football without even the possibility of a bowl game. Frankly, few would have blamed them for choosing a less difficult path, leading to another school.
But virtually every commitment followed through on his pledge. "It's nice to see that kind of character and that kind of belief," Franchione said. "I credit those families and coaches and kids a great deal with their belief system. Our coaches did a great job of developing relationships of trust with the recruits. I think the type of coaches we had out recruiting helped us with that a great deal. And the people that we tracked in this class was a big part of that, too."
Franchione frankly admitted that last Friday was a difficult day. Once the sanctions were announced, he and his staff immediately set about to contact all their committed players, wondering if any would choose to leave. But Daphne lineman Jeremy Clark set the tone for the group. Franchione explained; "I met with the team Friday at 12 o'clock. I got in my car about 12:45 and Jeremy Clark called me. He said, ‘Coach, you've got nothing to worry about. I'm coming to The University of Alabama.' That was a pretty special phone call right there."
The Tide staff never had to worry about passing along negative NCAA news---rival recruiters handled that task for them. But the Bama coaches were careful to be open and truthful about Alabama's ordeal. Franchione explained; "We just always tried to talk honestly and candidly with them. We did not know what we had to deal with for sure. I told them that we would get through it, and I believe we will. All these young men bought into that principle."
Franchione reserved special praise for his assistant coaches, who had spent over a year building trust with the recruits and their families. "Our coaches fought hard," Franchione said. "They did not back down one ounce. They had built relationships with families and young people. That's a real tribute to what they've done over time. That helped us a great deal and was very meaningful as we went down the stretch the last several days.
"Last year we didn't have time of a year to do that. We only had 35 days. And because of what our coaches did developing trust, it helped us hold onto our commitments and finish like we did…
"In spite of everything."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out today's story, Tide signs 19 athletes in football for a complete list of athletes, with bios and pictures of Alabama's 2002 signing class.