It’s not human nature to be great. It’s human nature to survive, to be average and do what you have to do to get by. That is normal. When you have something good happen, it’s the special people that can stay focused and keep paying attention to detail, working to get better and not being satisfied with what they have accomplished.” –Nick Saban
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Head Football Coach Nick Saban’s Alabama team has prevailed over Georgia for the SEC Championship and earned the right to meet Notre Dame in the National Championship game. So, it seems like a great time to review some of the different points of view on Nick Saban and his blueprint for success: “The Process.”
- Jena McGregor who writes “On Leadership” at The Washington Post starts us off today putting Saban’s career in perspective and attempting to distill what makes him special:
“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.
“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.”
When you read that it sounds like “The Process” is important, but many coaches have a system that they have built and believe in.
It appears that it his relentless focus on implementing the process that really separates him from others.
Brian O’Keefe at CNN Money weighs in and also focuses on the quest for efficiencies and his habit of micromanaging:
“In other words he micromanages — but with a purpose. He sets expectations so that everyone understands what he wants, and then he can pull back. “When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what’s important,” says Saban. “And then you spend a lot more time on thinking of things that would make it better. Like we met on this camp today. The first year I was here we met for eight hours on how we were going to do the camp. Now everybody else in that room knows how I want the camp run, so we don’t need to spend eight hours on it.”
Balance of Confidence and Freedom
Saban’s ability to give those around him confidence and freedom at crucial moments might be his most important quality as a leader:
“As hard as he drives everyone around him to prepare, Saban is careful not to be overbearing when it’s time to compete. Before each game the coaches have what they call a what-if meeting. (What if this happens? What if that happens?) And Saban makes sure to express his confidence in the staff, says defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Says Smart: “He’ll be like, ‘Look, guys, tomorrow the plan’s there. You, as the guy making the calls, are not going to make or not make the play. So have confidence in it; believe in it. If the kids don’t make the plays, we’ll live with it. And it’s all on me.’ It’s always one voice. That’s all we’ve got here: one voice coming out of that chair. If we ever screw it up, he has always taken the blame and never pointed at a coach or a person or a kid. And I think that helps the whole organization. It gives you confidence before the game that, ‘Hey, we’ve got a plan. We’ve outworked everybody at this point. Let’s go execute it and do it.’ “
Ray Glier at the New York Times has the story of Saban protege now on Georgia’s staff.
It’s hard not to notice the amount of resources at Saban’s disposal as well. But let’s face it, those resources are available to many college football coaches who do not know how to maximize them nearly as well as Saban.
Isaac Rausch at Dead Spin, writing earlier this year, agrees that resources are the key to Saban’s success and dissents from the laudatory celebration of “The Process” finding it derivative, staid, and boring on the field, and cult-like off it.
They play a controlled game in which offensive explosions are rare and the passing game is devalued, and they follow “the Process.” It’s capitalized like that throughout—the Process. It sounds a little like a cult; it sounds a lot like bullshit. The Process, Nick Saban’s system for Motivating Champions, consists of a rubric for evaluating recruits that he cribbed from his own college coach (who himself “borrowed the idea from Eddie Crowder”), a willingness to moralize by proxy (the article congratulates Saban for bringing in speakers from something like the Scared Straight athletic circuit), and a whole f**kload of money. Though the SI piece implies that the speakers and the rubric’s emphasis on “character/attitude/intelligence” have helped Alabama avoid off-the-field issues, coaches have been hiring lecture-circuit standbys and emphasizing character (blind obedience) since the inception of college football. You could argue that Saban uses his vast, vast resources in interesting ways, but where he’s allocated money to sports psychologists and beefed-up coaching and training staffs, he’s just doing his own imitation, this time of the NFL. Throwing cash at new weight rooms is a “process,” sure, and evidently a sucessful one, but it probably doesn’t deserve any breathless capitalization.
Jason Selk at Forbes compares Saban to Wooden and notes their ability to focus on the process despite the noise and the emphasis on winning:
“Nick Saban was not the first coach to create the first wave of success with the process focus program in sports. In 1963, John Wooden, a coach hailing from rural Indiana, showed up in Los Angeles and created a legend with the UCLA basketball team. He defined mental toughness as having the ability to judge oneself on effort rather than results. Armed with a process focus, Coach Wooden led his teams to win 10 national championships in 12 years. He did this without ever saying the word winning to his players.”
Don Kausler Jr. weighs in and finds that as meticulous as “The Process” may be, each of the player and staff define it somewhat differently. Perhaps this is part of the genius of it; each player can embrace the aspect most crucial to his success. This quote from red shirt sophomore center William Vlachos does touch on an important point though:
“The one thing our program is based upon is finishing. Finish games. Finish your reps. Finish your running. Finish practice strong. Finish the fourth quarter. That’s the biggest thing. I’d say ‘finish’ would be the biggest word to describe The Process.”
Ryan Holiday includes a story of Nick Saban and “the process” in his wonderful book The Obstacle is the Way
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