Many people think that the Alabama machine, the dynasty on and off the field created by head coach Nick Saban, is self service when it comes to recruiting. Kids just pull up, place their commitment order and off they go. However, people in the know are well aware of how difficult it can be to recruit despite national titles and amazing tradition. This year's Rivals.com Recruiter of the Year knows that well, having gone into different states to lure prospects to Tuscaloosa.
Alabama wide receivers coach Mike Groh might be the forgotten man on a loaded Crimson Tide staff. Saban is the icon, and assistants Kirby Smart, Lance Thompson, Jeff Stoutland, Chris Rumph and others are well known in recruiting circles from their time at Alabama and ther stops. And Groh? The son of former NFL and college head coach Al Groh has remained under the radar when it comes to recruiting, mostly by choice.
The former recruiting coordinator at Virginia under his father and quarterbacks coach under Charlie Strong at Louisville arrived at Alabama for the 2012 class just after National Signing Day. Now, like it or not, his days of staying in the shadows when it comes to recruiting are over.
"I've known Mike Groh for many years back when he first arrived at Virginia when Rivals.com was in its infancy," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "He's a tireless worker who really relates well to people. He might have been under the radar to some on the national level, but I've known what he can do for years and have an amazing respect for him as a recruiter."
Groh spoke of the honor and, as is his way, deflected praise.
"While I appreciate the recognition from Rivals, I think this is really a tribute to our entire staff," Groh said. "Coach Saban has a philosophy that we follow in terms of providing an environment to help players develop on and off the field. That's what we talk about in recruiting, and the players can see it firsthand when they come on campus."
Groh, who also serves as the Alabama recruiting coordinator, was instrumental in leading the Crimson Tide to its fifth Rivals.com team recruiting title in the last six years. Not only did he keep players home like Muscle Shoals, Ala., defensive end Dee Liner and reel in players from neighboring states like offensive lineman Brandon Hill (originally from Tennessee and playing at Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military) and Cordova (Tenn.) Evangelical Christian School linebacker Walker Jones, but Groh went deep into enemy territory for his three biggest prizes.
At the beginning of the recruiting process, everyone thought Robert Foster from Monaca (Pa.) Central Valley would stay home at Pittsburgh or possibly head to the Big Ten. Even when Alabama became the biggest threat to the Panthers, few thought he would leave the comforts of home and head to Tuscaloosa. However, Groh didn't blink at the talk and worked in tandem with Thompson to reel in the Rivals100 receiver. And he held on to him down the stretch as the Panthers continued to push.
"Coach Groh came up during one of the games," Central Valley head coach Mark Lyons said. "Coach Thompson and Coach Groh did a great job, but I think Coach Groh, him coming up and spending a day with us, us coming down to Alabama unofficially and him making his official trip. They both did a tremendous job, without question. Coach Groh is going to be his position coach. That is who he really got to a build a relationship with."
In addition to landing Foster, Groh was the lead recruiter on running back Altee Tenpenny from North Little Rock, Ark. The Rivals100 tailback committed to Alabama in January 2012 despite great in-state pressure to stay home and play for the Razorbacks. And when new head coach Bret Bielema was hired to bring his coveted run-first offense from Wisconsin, Groh had to hold off even more in-state pressure and battle through a late official visit. Oh, and don't forget that Alabama had two other four-star running backs already committed and a third in Alvin Kamara leaning that way (Kamara chose Alabama on signing day).
"Coach Groh is a really good recruiter," North Little Rock head coach Brad Bolding said. "He is an outstanding recruiter. I've personally developed a friendship with him. I think that's what it's all about. I think recruiting is making connections and developing friendships. College football is such a big business, and it's gotten to be kind of crazy that sometimes I think there are schools that get out there and they overlook the relationship building. It's all about the kid. I don't see that from Alabama; at least I don't see that from Coach Groh."
Farrell said the job Groh did in landing Foster and Tenpenny was impressive to say the least.
"What Mike Groh did in regard to Robert Foster and Altee Tenpenny should never be underestimated," Farrell said. "People who aren't in the know think it's easy to beat Pitt for a recruit if you're Alabama or steal away the top player in Arkansas when the Razorbacks were struggling. That's crazy talk. The amount of in-state pressure both players faced to stay home was enormous, and Groh overcame that. He won over the player, coaches and family when their first inclination was to stay home. That's very hard to do, and in these circumstances, having followed the recruitment of both players for a long time, it was very impressive to me."
And Farrell cautions not to overlook Groh's ability to flip Liner and Hill, who were committed to Auburn and Ole Miss, respectively.
"Dee Liner was recruiting kids to Auburn for the longest time, and he was on the Auburn campus for many huge recruiting weekends," Farrell said. "I know the entire coaching staff got fired, but flipping Liner from Auburn to Alabama was still a big deal and took some good recruiting work. And for Hill, Alabama had him, lost him and got him back. That's persistence and the kind of work ethic Mike Groh has."
However, it was the commitment of Fort Worth (Texas) Arlington Heights defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson that cemented Groh's position as the Rivals.com Recruiter of the Year, according to Farrell.
"Hill and Liner were impressive and Foster and Tenpenny were beyond impressive to me, landing the former and holding onto the latter, but when I found out A'Shawn Robinson was saying no to Texas and yes to Alabama and Groh was the lead recruiter on that one, I was amazed," Farrell said. "That's a five-star kid from Texas, and all sources said his mom wanted him as a Longhorn. But Groh made A'Shawn's family very comfortable in leaving home and he went into Texas and beat the Longhorns. I don't care if Texas has had a few down years by their standards, you don't pull a kid like that out of state if Texas really wants him, and they really wanted Robinson. That's just as good as it gets."
The five-star defensive tackle made his announcement on signing day and had an elephant mascot deliver his hat to him to show his joy in joining the Crimson Tide.
"If you told me a year ago or even two weeks ago that A'Shawn Robinson would be flipping to Alabama and using mascots to show off his love for Alabama near the end of the process, I would have told you that you were crazy," Farrell said. "He went into Arkansas and stole Tenpenny, he went into Pennsylvania and stole Foster and he went into Texas and just took Robinson. That's doing work."
For Groh, however, it's still about the staff and recruiting as a group.
"When you are at a place with the history and tradition that we have at the University of Alabama and you have the best head coach in the nation, high school players are excited to hear about what it means to play for the Crimson Tide," Groh said. "It is definitely a team effort here when it comes to recruiting, and we have a lot of great people who play a big part in the success."
Farrell knows that this will change things a bit for Groh.
"Look at some of the names of our past winners -- Ed Orgeron, Kevin Steele, Larry Johnson, Larry Porter, Lance Thompson, Tosh Lupoi and Frank Wilson -- these are all guys who either went on to become head coaches or have earned the reputation as being top, top assistants," Farrell said. "Last year's winner, D.J. Durkin, is a rising star, and so is Groh. He's now stepped into the limelight of the elite recruiters, and it's overdue."