In the early morning hours of January 7, 2011, at around 2 a.m., Nick Saban worked in his secret lab located underneath Bryant-Denny Stadium. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain looked on, and Julio Jones laid with eyes closed in the experiment chair.
Later that day, Julio — Saban’s most successful project — would declare for the NFL Draft as an agreed upon deal the Alabama coach had with the NCAA: he was allowed to build these freakish athletes in the lab to help win him championships, but he had to let them declare for the NFL Draft as soon as they were eligible to do so. If these star athletes consistently stayed in school for four years, that would draw serious suspicion.
Saban was having a harder time than usual letting Julio Jones go, however. After all, Jones was Saban’s most exceptional work — a 6’3 wide receiver who could run a 4.3 40-yard dash and who could cut on a dime. He had all of the tools to take the NFL by storm.
The head coach got to work on the Julio experiment right after his departure from LSU following the 2004 season. It always took a few years for the athlete to mature into football readiness, and after suffering through a 7-6 debut season with the Crimson Tide in 2007, Saban was prepared to deploy Jones into his lineup in the 2008 season. The Crimson Tide would go 36-5 over the next three seasons, and would win the National Championship in 2009.
Now, Jones lay on the experiment chair like many athletes before him. Saban wanted to extract a piece of him and create another star wide receiver from that freakish DNA. He was doing this under the table, without the NCAA’s knowledge.
“Don’t you think this is somewhat unethical?” asked the uncomfortable McElwain from the other side of the room. Jim McElwain had been Alabama’s offensive coordinator for the past three seasons and always had a feeling that Julio Jones wasn’t fully human, with the gifts he possessed.
“What have you seen in your time here at Alabama that would suggest anything we do is ethical? This is a football factory, both literally and figuratively, and I’ll do anything to win,” replied the furious Saban, who never liked to be questioned by his assistants.
“Another comment like that out of you, and I’ll clone you, find your clone a head coaching job and send you to the pit of used-up coordinators, as I did with Major Applewhite,” Saban added.
McElwain would shut up after this exchange but, while curious as to why Saban’s pit was called the “pit of used-up coordinators,” he wouldn’t act on his hunch and run away from his mad scientist head coach like he should’ve.
Following the 2011 season, he would learn that Saban always banishes his coordinators into the pit after they’ve served their purpose at Alabama, while sending their clones on their way to head coaching gigs, where they are currently 0-12 in head-to-head matchups against their former mentor.
To this day, McElwain sits in the pit, alongside Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp, Mark Dantonio, Jimbo Fisher, Major Applewhite, Doug Nussmeier, Lane Kiffin, Kirby Smart and Steve Sarkisian.
That banishment would happen in a year, but on this night Saban had successfully extracted the sample he was looking for from Julio Jones and had incubated his new experiment. The part of Jones which was extracted was his touchdown scoring prowess, and he would have less and less of a nose for the end zone as this new player grew and became stronger.
Saban labeled this new project “Calvin Ridley,” and since he wasn’t made from scratch like the rest of the experimental athletes, he would grow at a quicker rate than them. Saban put this new egg incubation next to an egg labeled “Tua Tagovailoa” and went on his way.
Saban was a patient man. He knew that it would take a few years for these athletes to mature (Ridley more quickly than Tagovailoa), but when they did, they would help continue the dominance he held over the rest of college football. In the meantime, he had experiments/athletes such as Amari Cooper, Landon Collins and HaHa Clinton-Dix at the point of maturity. They were ready to bridge the gap between Jones and Ridley.
And while Jones would suffer a touchdown drought in the NFL, Ridley would make up for it a number of years from now as a touchdown-scoring machine.