EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Coach Joe Judge can look around his New York Giants meeting rooms and see familiar faces who take him back to a previous life, coaches who were with him when they were low-level assistants on the University of Alabama staff from 2007 to 2012.
They called themselves the CLU (Cheap Labor Union), which is half a joke and half a badge of honor for those who were members of this tenacious group of go-getters under coach Nick Saban.
These assistants, some making as little as $22,500 with no health insurance, were trying to make their marks in a demanding career. Perhaps that is what bonded them as they aligned on the back wall in the coaches' meeting room in Tuscaloosa.
These CLU members, seven of whom now share the coaches' room with Judge at 1925 Giants Way, no longer come cheap, having ascended to the highest level of their profession.
The text messages still come after big wins and significant accomplishments with the hashtag at the back end: #CLU. They might as well start using #ELU (Expensive Labor Union) given they are no longer scrounging to support themselves or their young families thanks to salaries that reach six figures.
The Giants' CLU contingent begins with Judge, who was a special teams analyst at Alabama from 2007 to 2011. Then there is offensive line coach Rob Sale, who was listed as a strength and conditioning assistant in the 2011 Alabama football media guide. (Almost all the Alabama coaches back then spent time working in the weight room at some point). Offensive quality control coach Russ Callaway was a defensive assistant that same year. Jody Wright, an offensive assistant with the Giants, was a defensive analyst on Saban's staff. New York's defensive quality control coach, Carter Blount, was a student assistant at Alabama (2008-09).
Giants senior defensive assistant Jeremy Pruitt (secondary) and linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer (director of player development) were sort of executive members of the CLU because they were slightly more well-compensated having experienced success in the high school coaching ranks prior to their arrival.
The number of members in the CLU fluctuated wildly, but seven of the 25 Giants coaches have ties to the group. Pruitt, Sale, Calloway and Blount were all hired this offseason.
"Before you know it, the years go by fast and you're here," Sale said. "Here we are today. A lot of the band is back together."
Class in session
At Alabama, the CLU would get together on Fridays and host their own internal coaching clinics, chief among the things that made the group special.
"It was probably pretty unique because I don't know if that went on, that I can remember, anywhere else," Sherrer said.
The Friday night clinics weren't slapped-together presentations. They were assigned at the beginning of the season. Sale would talk about something such as inside and outside zone-blocking schemes. Judge would get into the weeds about special teams. The CLU even had then-Alabama director of player personnel Ed Marynowitz and former NFL executive Phil Savage as presenters to talk about personnel.
They had established a self-made graduate coaching program deep in the Alabama football offices.
"It was kind of so special," Callaway said. "It's crazy because now we're all up here, [but] for whatever reason, we all just hit it at the right time. It was all a bunch of good dudes that were young, smart, kind of up-and-coming. And we got along so well.
"Looking back, that just timed out perfect."
The CLU was hungry for knowledge and the clinics turned into Q&A/critique sessions. Nothing was off limits.
"We would critique each other on everything," Judge said.
That included football details (especially the "why" to playcalls and philosophies) and how the presenter handled public speaking. It wouldn't have been unusual for someone to say "don't talk as much with your back to the audience."
In retrospect, the Friday clinics were mock interview sessions in Callaway's estimation, integral to helping these coaches get to the NFL and learn the game beyond their area of expertise.
"I guess we were all just young, dumb and broke, trying to absorb everything we could from Coach Saban and everyone," Wright said.
The CLU produced more than a few quality coaches. Current Los Angeles Chargers defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Billy Napier, LSU offensive coordinator Jake Peetz, Georgia co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann and Tampa Bay Buccaneers receivers coach Kevin Garver were among the members.
There is some debate about where the name Cheap Labor Union originated. Judge insists it stems from a comment Saban made during a meeting at a time when a bunch of college coaches around the nation were complaining about having bloated staffs.
Saban was kind of going off on the subject.
"'I don't know what all their problem is. All they're doing is stopping themselves from hiring cheap labor,'" Judge recalled Saban saying. "I remember walking out of the meeting and Rob Sale looked at everybody as we were walking out and goes, 'There you go boys. That's all you are to them. Cheap labor.'"
Sale didn't initially take credit for the name, but later acknowledged he might have been the inventor. It doesn't really matter who named the group or when it started or ended. It existed, and it played a role in their development as coaches.
At picture day for the 2012 BCS title game between Alabama and LSU following the 2011 season, the group insisted on documenting their club.
"Somebody came up and said, 'We have to get a CLU picture.' And everybody sprinted back to the middle of the field," Callaway said. "And you look at that, I'm kind of proud of that."
Judge, Sale, Wright and Callaway are in that picture. Now with the Giants, they're sharing a meeting room together for the first time since the 2011 season.
They understand Judge's demands, and they have a mutual trust. Their families know one another from the Sunday night dinners Saban had at Alabama, making the support system around the coaches even stronger.
At times for the CLU members, it's almost as if things haven't changed -- aside from their growing families and increased salaries. No more one- or two-bedroom apartments.
"We're still telling the same stories as 10 years ago. Or telling stories about things that happened 10 years ago," Blount said. "For whatever reason, those group of guys from that three-year period, the around-the-wall guys, we meshed, gelled very well. We all kind of seemed to be on the same track of where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do. We were all willing to help each other.
"I'm not saying we're all best friends. But we're all close. We trust each other. We respect each other."
It's something Judge is trying to recreate with the Giants. He looks for coaches with similar characteristics to that group, and he thinks he has it.
"We have good young guys on our staff. I see a lot of those guys very similar to how we were and how they are in terms of doing the extra mile with work and staying engaged, and when they walk down the hallway they are talking ball. That's something I'm always looking for," Judge said. "I want guys that want to talk ball. I want guys that are always talking about the game that was on the night before. 'Did you see the situation? How would you handle that?'
"There are a lot of guys that I'm working with right now that were on that staff that were part of that CLU. We got to know each other really, really well as people and coaches at that time, so there are a lot of things that we think similar [about] philosophically. That has really helped and been the strength for our coaching staff. We don't have everyone thinking the same thing, but we have the same values and that helps string everything together."
If it leads to some big wins, everyone can also expect to receive the same text messages from old colleagues in the coaching circle punctuated by the same hashtag: #CLU.