L eadership lessons from Alabama football coach Nick Saban: Turning a loss into an opportunity for growth
The Alabama football team won its 14th national championship after overcoming an overtime loss to LSU during the regular season. The loss on Alabama’s home field looked to be the end of the Crimson Tide’s championship push. However, Alabama football coach Nick Saban turned the loss into an opportunity to teach and improve his team. The refocused Alabama team routed LSU in a rematch.
Saban focused his team members on doing their jobs and ignoring what was beyond their control. Ultimately, this was Saban’s message all season, and it is his typical message about striving for individual excellence. However, the LSU loss presented a few unique opportunities to tailor this message to the uniqueness of the moment.
Four Quick Leadership Lessons:
Saban used the LSU loss to exhort his players to do better. Following Alabama’s loss to LSU, Saban took the opportunity to refocus his team on its core mission—pay attention to detail and be relentless in your pursuit of perfection.
Saban told the Alabama football team in the locker room after the LSU loss, “We need to learn from this. We need to make a commitment to the rest of the season, in terms of what kind of a football team we want to be and the way we want to respond to what happened here today. You guys have too much in it, you put too much into it, you have too much character, too much class, too much leadership here not to finish this season the right way.”
It was a message he repeated to the press on Monday following the LSU loss, “The whole idea is paying attention to detail, doing the little things right, all the things we tried to get everyone to focus on all last week, is exactly what we need to do to improve as a team. I hope that we learn and correct those things, so that we can move forward in a positive way. We can’t do anything about what happened in that game other than what happens in the future, and what we can learn from it. That’s exactly what we’re going to try to focus on.”
This focus on what you can control ties in nicely with the next point.
Saban’s championship involved a little luck down the stretch, but it also required Alabama to do the right things to put itself back into position to challenge LSU. Alabama would not have been in the BCS title game without critical losses by other potential national championship contenders coming during the stretch run like Oklahoma State’s loss to Iowa State. In what is one of the best parts of Machiavelli’s The Prince, the great author observed, “I compare fortune to one of those floods that fill the plains, uproot trees, ruin buildings, and slide mud from one corner to the other. Everyone runs before her and cannot block her. But, although this is so, men in quiet times can prepare, repair, and build dams so that fortune, when it comes may channel here or there…”
In other words, some things are outside of our control, but we must do everything in our power if we want a good outcome. This is the kind of message that Saban used about where his team stood in the BCS debate.
When asked about the BCS standings during the week leading up to the Georgia Southern game, Saban said, “I don’t really care about that. I mean, I’ve been sitting in that room for two days watching film, trying to get enough guys on a pitch guy. You figure it out and come tell me what it is because I don’t know, and don’t really care. All I know is that we just need to take care of what we control, and what we control is how we play. My contribution to that is how we get the team ready to play. So I couldn’t care less about that because I don’t understand it to start with.”
Use stories that you tell or that others create as a vivid illustration of your point. One challenge for many leaders in the business world is getting the message to resonate with the audience. Saban used a movie to illustrate his theme about doing your job. Saban was open following the BCS Championship Game about how the Red Tails movie was used to motivate his football team.
“We went to see the movie Red Tails last night, which I would recommend to anybody, but those guys’ motto was the last plane, the last bullet, the last man, the last minute, we fight,” Alabama football coach Nick Saban said during his opening remarks of the BCS post-game press conference. “And we always stay with the mission. And I think that kind of described the spirit of that group extremely well, but it also describes the spirit of the group of players that we have on our team this year and takes a tremendous amount of resiliency to come back.”
Saban said this illustrated a key teaching point for the team: the importance of finishing. Saban said this was his message prior to the game.
“In fact, it was a question: How bad do you want to finish? What’s your effort going to be, your enthusiasm, your excitement to play in the game, the toughness that you’re willing to play with, all the intangibles, and you do it one play at a time?”
Cultivation of talent can overcome challenges like lack of experience. Alabama won the championship with a sophomore quarterback starting his first college games in the 2011 season. Dealing with a young player created some interesting challenges in molding quarterback A.J. McCarron. McCarron went from getting yelled at and a slap on the butt because of a throwing the ball to the wrong receiver in the 2010 Mississippi State game during mop-up duty to a mature quarterback able to bounce back from defeat.
The core of Saban’s message centered on getting the quarterback comfortable doing his job—not trying to do too much, but paying attention to the overall plan.
“Well, AJ has been in the program for three years. And even though this is his first year starting, I think he’s taken advantage of maturing as a player, because he does prepare well, he has really good football instincts about what he’s doing, he’s a talented guy, and he’s learned, I think, how to take what the defense gives and play with patience and not try to force plays. And he’s played well for us all year-long,” Alabama football coach Nick Saban said after the BCS Championship Game. “And I told him when we were riding on the bus the other day, you know, that first LSU game was not one of your best games, but you really don’t have to win this game; you just gotta play your game. And that’s really what we want all of our players to do. And I thought he did a fantastic job of that tonight.”
McCarron talked about the ups and downs of the season and how the coaches attempted to modify the way he showed emotion during games.
Well, you know, I always laugh about it,” McCarron said. “After or during that Florida game, I’m sure pretty much most of the country saw Coach rip me for showing too much emotion. And after the LSU game the first time, he told me to play like myself, show emotion… So Coach told me to, you know, show some emotion. Play like myself. And I’m just thankful Coach gave me the opportunity to come out and put the ball in my hands and let me make some plays.”
Each of these four points flowed out of Saban’s overall message about being the best person, player, worker and student. It is the attention to detail and doing the right things that are hallmarks of Saban’s personality. These are also hallmarks of the 2011 BCS National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide.