The Great Earl Weaver

Earl WeaverCreative Commons License

Keith Allison via Compfight

I was sorry to hear of Earl Weaver’s passing today. I have written about him before.  He was a big coaching figure in my childhood. Both my father and my brother regarded him as the brilliant manager of their beloved Baltimore Orioles. As a result I read his book which I found incredibly valuable despite the fact that I coach an entirely different sport.

Paul White writes in USA Today about his great abilities as an innovator as well as his strong personality.”The lasting visions of Earl Weaver always will include an irate man with hat askew, kicking dirt and screaming at an umpire. But the Hall of Fame manager was more innovator than instigator.

The Washington Post’s Bart Barnes weighs in on Weaver describing his tremendous winning records, his ability to manage players and the tremendous toll that coaching took on the man.

Allen St John from Forbes adds a tribute to Weaver which addresses the difference between the man and the myth. “We tend to think of Weaver as an old guy, and, indeed, he was the prototype for the grizzled manager in Bull Durham. But Weaver was only 37 years old when he got his first managerial job–only five years older than his star player Frank Robinson. He was only 55 years old when he retired in 1982.”

The Baltimore Sun sums up his career nicely, “Weaver piloted the Orioles from 1968 to 1982, and in 1985-86, earning nicknames like “the little genius” and “the Earl of Baltimore.” Weaver’s teams won 1,480 games and lost 1,060, and his lifetime winning percentage (.583) ranks ninth all-time and fifth among managers in the modern era who managed 10 years or more. Five times, Baltimore won at least 100 games for Weaver, who stood 5-feet-7 but was a legend to his players.

“Having Earl gives us a four-game lead on everybody,” pitcher Sammy Stewart once said.”


BCS Matchup

Nate Silver of election prediction fame, looks at the numbers for tonight’s BCS championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame, and takes a little air out of the matchup.

“Part of the attraction of this year’s game is that, despite being the nominal No. 1 seed, Notre Dame enters the championship as underdogs — certainly in the view of Las Vegas bookies and computer programs like Mr. Sagarin’s, but also in the mind of most football fans who have seen Southeastern Conference teams (including Alabama) romp to six national championships in a row. If Notre Dame is able to keep pace with Alabama, the game should be remembered as a classic. But underdog stories that end in a 55-19 or 34-0 defeat don’t usually hold their audience’s attention.”

Pat Summitt

Jena McGregor, writing in the Washington Post, includes Pat Summitt’s outstanding career and gracious retirement as one of “The best leadership moments of 2012″

pat summit's outstanding career and gracious retirementCreative Commons License aaronisnotcool via Compfight

“….Amid all that bad behavior, Pat Summitt’s retirement as the longtime head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team provided a breather. Summitt, who had announced last year that she has early onset dementia, could easily be called the best coach in college basketball with her 1,098 wins and eight national championships. She bowed out gracefully, taking on the role as “head coach emeritus.” Over the course of her career, she showed how to lead a team to win after win. And as her career drew to a close, she showed us how to win again.”

The Process and Nick Saban

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.”

Relentless Implementation
  • 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.

Sets Expectations

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.’ “

Resources Matter

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.”

Finish Games

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

the process and nick saban

I recommend books here

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets and The Black Swan has a new book out, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.

Slate has an interesting interview up. I was struck by this question/answer:

LG: Do you apply these principles to your life?

NNT: I lift stones and do weightlifting. I don’t go to the doctor except when I’m very ill, and when I go to India, I drink a drop of local water. Things like this harness the body’s antifragility. I have never had personal debt and never will. I also picked a profession in which I am antifragile, because any attack makes me stronger. When I write about something, I have skin in the game, and I have benefited more from attacks on The Black Swan than been harmed by them.


Extreme Leaders

Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter

Extreme leader Trey Ratcliff via Compfight

I enjoyed this podcast with Harvard professor Gautum Mukunda, the author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter .  The conversation focuses on the idea of the “extreme leader,” which he defines as the leader who is different from every other plausible leader or candidate for a job or leadership position.

Mukunda changes the paradigm.

Instead of discussing leaders as either good or bad, he looks at them as either somebody who is high-quality, prepared, well vetted and will probably be good or somebody very different, from the outside, potentially unlikely or unknown, who is a wild-card and will either be great, very good or very bad.

The latter are the extreme leaders he lauds when the times and circumstances, indicate your company, country or team is in serious trouble. At these times, he posits, it makes more sense to go with the wild card than to go with a high quality well known choice.

He uses three examples in the podcast Lincoln, Churchill and Jamie Dimon. All three are very compelling and he re-tells the standard story and adds significant nuance. For instance, in the case of Lincoln he was so obscure that he wasn’t really on the radar to lead the country, but what was known would have led people to believe he would have made opposite choices. In fact, he was considered the more conciliatory of the potential candidates for president.

Same with Jamie Dimon, who JP Morgan hired looking for charisma, which he has, but his great strength was the conservative decisions he made.

The podcast made me think of recent coaching hires and how they might play out.  In particular, the Jamie Dimon example, where he was a well known entity, but an outsider to the company, which qualified him as a wild card choice. Mukunda focuses on the selection process and when it is wise to go with the known or a high-quality insider, and when it is crucial to take a chance with a potential “extreme leader.”

After listening to the podcast I bought the book.