Tom VanHaarenESPN Staff Writer
“We were recruiting [Tagovailoa and Fromm] at the same time, and it was one of those where we had a good relationship with Tua,” said Lane Kiffin, who was Alabama’s offensive coordinator from 2014 to 2016.
That connection took time to develop, though, and Fromm was the first to commit to the Crimson Tide. Ranked No. 132 in the ESPN 300, Fromm picked the Tide in October 2015. For Tagovailoa, however, that wasn’t the decision that changed things. Two days after Fromm’s commitment, USC fired head coach Steve Sarkisian.
“A lot of people will tell you that Tua had been silently committed to USC back then when [Sarkisian] was there, so this thing is really intertwined,” Kiffin said.
But before Tagovailoa could come off the Tide’s bench and into Alabama lore, he wanted to go to Oregon.
Tagovailoa, who was born and raised in Honolulu, attended Saint Louis School, the alma mater of Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. When Tagovailoa was in fourth grade, Mariota took him under his wing to give him quarterback tips, becoming an early mentor.
That relationship sparked an early interest in Oregon once Tagovailoa started his recruiting process.
Mark Helfrich, who was then the Ducks head coach, along with then-offensive coordinator Scott Frost, tried to avoid offering prospects early in their high school careers, but this one seemed like a no-brainer. However, no offer came.
George Malauulu, part of the AIGA foundation, a group that works with Polynesian recruits, says it was an event against another highly touted QB recruit that launched Tagovailoa’s recruitment. At a camp in Las Vegas, Tagovailoa was splitting reps with eighth grader J.T. Daniels, who had recently reclassified and committed to USC.
“Everybody knew about J.T. because he was the phenom,” Malauulu said. “Tua comes out there, and he was just lighting up the board. After that event, people were talking about Tua, and he was able to get some exposure that was well-needed going into his junior year.”
After that Pylon event, Tagovailoa took a visit to USC, where the Trojans started to emerge as the favorite. With Oregon showing very little interest, Tagovailoa turned his attention to USC, where he developed a relationship with Sarkisian and tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo.
On the other side of the country, Fromm had just received an offer from Alabama. Fromm was a highly regarded prospect out of Georgia, which was part of defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s recruiting area.
A month after Fromm committed to Alabama and Sarkisian was out at USC, Oregon got its quarterback: ESPN 300 prospect Ryan Kelley.
At Alabama, even with Fromm on board, the attention of Kiffin and the Tide’s coaches turned to Tagovailoa, despite having not offered him a scholarship.
“We were recruiting him the whole time because you don’t know what’s going to happen with the kids,” Kiffin said. “We were projecting our numbers to be pretty low that we would potentially take Tua in the class. [The Tagovailoa family] were well aware of that. We were recruiting him and knew that there could be a numbers issue.”
The relationship that Tagovailoa, ranked No. 57 overall in his recruiting class, had established with Sarkisian was important, but Tuiasosopo was still at USC, as was offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who was eventually named the head coach. The Trojans were still in the mix for Tagovailoa, but there was a dent in the bond.
In the next two months of Tagovailoa’s junior season, his recruitment saw even more movement. Smart, who had developed an excellent relationship with Fromm, was hired as head coach at Georgia in December, and Tuiasosopo was named the new quarterback coach at UCLA.
Despite having Fromm committed, the Tide were slated to take two quarterbacks in the class. Although it’s not typical to take two top quarterbacks in one class, the Tide thought they had a chance if they offered Tagovailoa. Oregon was out of the conversation, and his connections to USC were gone.
Alabama co-defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi, the primary recruiter for Tagovailoa, was sold as well.
“He’s got a great attitude and approach,” Lupoi said. “He’s real, he’s who he is. You see that early in the process. You see what his leadership qualities are, and people quickly follow him. Just a great person.”
After Smart left for Georgia and Fromm flipped to the Bulldogs, the Tide were all-in on Tagovailoa and offered him just days after Fromm left.
“When Jake decommitted, Tua had already made us feel good that he was coming, and we really liked Jake, but it was a mixed room on him. I’m not going to say who was on what side,” Kiffin said. “Kirby got the [Georgia] job and started recruiting him, had a good relationship with his family. We were still recruiting [Fromm], but it was one of those things where we weren’t excited about losing him, but we had a good feeling we were getting Tua, so that made it a lot easier.”
Tagovailoa committed publicly in May 2016.
“This is the place where my dad wanted me to come,” Tagovailoa said of his father, Galu. “There’s nothing else that makes me happier than seeing my dad happy, and this was the right place for me and didn’t matter who was already here or how many quarterbacks they had.”
Kiffin and the staff knew that they had just landed a potential star. In addition to Tagovailoa’s arm talent, launch points and quick feet, Kiffin saw a quarterback who possessed off-the-charts confidence. The offensive coordinator saw someone who doesn’t get rattled and a leader like he hasn’t seen in quite some time.
“Everybody thought Tua would flip at the end somewhere, once Jalen [Hurts] started playing like that, the guy’s the first freshman offensive player of the year since Hershel Walker,” said Kiffin, referring to Hurts’ freshman season in which he led the Tide to an SEC title and lost to Clemson in the national championship game. “Usually you don’t follow that because you think you’ll sit for three years. Tua’s mindset was different, and they still came after that.
“We had a great feeling that he was coming from what they were saying before Jake decommitted. They still came after what Jalen did. The last thing they were worried about was Jake Fromm.”