How Nick Saban leads the Crimson Tide
By Jena McGregor,
Let’s start with full disclosure. As an alum of the University of Georgia and a lifelong fan of the Bulldogs, I’ll be glued to my television this Saturday afternoon, pulling hard against the Crimson Tide.
But as someone who writes about leadership and management styles, I’ll also be watching the SEC championship game to see how Nick Saban, the University of Alabama’s coach, fares. In a game that will decide who faces off with Notre Dame in the National Championship game on January 7, Saturday’s matchup is like the BCS playoff come early. If Alabama wins and goes on to defeat Notre Dame in Miami, Saban will reach his third national title in four years—only the second college football coach since World War II to do so. He is the first coach ever to win national titles at two separate Division 1-A schools. It’s hard to argue with success.
What’s notable about Saban’s management style, especially among college coaches, is that he hasn’t done this by instituting gimmicky plays like the spread offense or the triple option. Rather, he puts to work what is known as “the Process,” his comprehensive, rigorous approach to focusing his players on execution rather than winning. In short, he tries to keep his team’s attention on the current play rather than the next game, this week’s test rather than passing the class, the game they’re playing rather the conference they want to win. Revered, widely copied and taken to hysterically hyperbolic heights—“we could even change ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency to ‘In the Process We Trust,’” wrote one sports columnist—the blueprint to Saban’s success may have been more dissected by business and sports publications than any current college coach.
For instance, he has been on the cover of Forbes. In September, Fortune Magazine ran a lengthy feature called the “Leadership Lessons of Nick Saban,” examining his coaching style with an implicit nod to what business leaders could learn. The article includes anecdotes not only of how Saban micromanages his players—he wants to know what each of them is doing in summer weight-training exercises “down to the specific lift and weight”—but also how he micromanages himself. Writer Brian O’Keefe reveals that Saban eats the same thing for lunch every day (a salad with cherry tomatoes, turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing) in order to help cut down on decisions and make his day more efficient. “When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what’s important,” Saban told Fortune. “And then you spend a lot more time on thinking of things that would make it better.”
Other profiles have drawn attention to how he tries to develop the whole player, bringing in sports psychologists, motivational speakers and a slew of academic advisers. When he was at LSU, where he also won a national title, he pushed to build a $15 million, 54,000-square-foot academic center, reports Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples. At Alabama, he has hired leadership development coaches and holds weekly academic reviews, and the team’s graduation success rate is 75 percent, third in the SEC.
And when it comes to recruiting team members, many have highlighted how meticulous Saban is. Every day, reports a Wall Street Journal profile from August, Saban sets aside time for his assistant coaches to make phone calls about the country’s best prospects. No detail is spared: “If a lineman’s heels are raised when he is crouched in a stance, he is probably too inflexible for Alabama,” the same article states.
Of course, Saban has a huge budget and an envious array of resources at his disposal, leading a football program that brings in $124.5 million in revenue, according to USA Today. And some of the strategies Alabama has used have been targeted by the NCAA and criticized by opponents—from the controversial practice of “oversigning” recruits to the head coach making off-campus visits during the spring evaluation period (the rule banning the latter has been dubbed the “Saban rule”).
Still, “the Process” is a basic formula for leading any team: Focus relentlessly on recruiting the best people. Define exactly what the job is you want them to do. And then, push them to focus relentlessly on doing just that, rather than looking ahead to the win—or the next game. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll be pulling hard for the other team Saturday. But it’ll also be with a grudging respect for the coaching style of the man leading the team they face.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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