The foundation of Nick Saban’s success

“People liked to say Coach Bryant would turn over in his grave because of something we did,” Lindsey said. “I said Coach Bryant would turn over in his grave if he knew what was going on here. If ever there was a man who talked about team and oneness, it was him. He wouldn’t have stood for all the bickering.” –former Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Don Lindsey quoted in the Birmingham News, 1996.

When looking at what makes Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban a success in Tuscaloosa—a place where many others post-Paul W. “Bear” Bryant have failed—it comes down to leadership. Of course that is an easy thing to attribute, and offers almost no specifics about why Saban’s leadership solved Alabama’s woes. In the post-Bear Bryant era, many coaches have won ten games or more in a season. Ray Perkins, a good coach did it. Bill Curry, a mediocre coach did it. Gene Stallings, a very good coach did it. Mike Dubose, an incompetent coach did it. Mike Price did not do it because he never coached a game; he preferred partying with the ladies. Mike Shula, an inexperienced and person ill-suited for leadership did it.

But winning is more than just coaching ability. Winning is about building a program, and Alabama is a difficult place to work.

In 1996 the Birmingham News provided this quote from former Alabama Crimson Tide athletic director Steve Sloan: “I was aware that after Coach Bryant there were going to be several years of turmoil,” Sloan said. “The one thing I didn’t count on was people’s reaction to Bill, particularly the ex-players. Their resistance to him as a coach really surprised me. It seemed like everything was always in turmoil.”

A coaching change is rarely a time of peace. Whether the coach retires, heads to the NFL or gets fired, there is going to be various factions pushing their own candidates and their own agendas. Curry could never silence the chaos because he failed to subjugate the organization to his own will. Nobody feared Bill Curry.

Everyone fears Nick Saban.

In the “Gamechanger” movie Jimmy Sexton, Saban’s agent, said that Saban makes everyone work toward one goal. “He makes everyone in the building single-minded in purpose.” Sexton said everyone is focused on winning.

Saban is able to attain this level of conformity to his will because people fear him. Sure, Saban is inspirational, but how long does inspiration last? What lasts is fear. Saban holds everyone accountable. During the 2010 season Saban had this to say about accountability: “Everybody has to be accountable to a standard and the question is ‘What is everyone doing to impact the success, to impact the standard, individually and collectively?’”

Everyone knows the consequences for not meeting Saban’s standards. Saban is not timid about sending someone packing. It is the business world’s equivalent of exile or capital punishment.

For a leader this sounds familiar. As Machiavelli noted, when a new prince comes to power or in our case a new manager, one must remember the example of Moses, Cyrus, Theseus and Romulus—if they “had been unarmed they could not have enforced their constitutions for long…” While a manager does not need to be armed in the literal sense, he should be willing to discipline those who oppose his regime.

In his book, How Good Do You Want To Be, Nick Saban explains one powerful image of being held accountable. As an eighth grader, Saban made a D in music. His father made him quit sports until his grades improved, and took him deep into the mines of West Virginia. The message was clear—actions have consequences. And this has to be seen as a critical element in Saban’s management.

In his book Saban warns that you have to pick your battles to be an effective leader.

At Alabama there are many battles with entrenched forces who expect things to go their way. During the early days of Nick Saban’s time at Alabama, the Crimson Tide football coach took to the airwaves to chastise someone for calling the team’s offensive coordinator after a loss. Why did Saban do this? His action served two purposes. First, it was a public (though anonymous) chastisement for the offending Alabama booster. Second, it showed Saban would defend people within his organization from those within the extended Alabama family.

The public reprimand for the offending booster served an important purpose—it illustrated how Saban would not tolerate someone (even a random booster who could drunk dial a telephone) who did not work for the overall good of the program. And the overall good of the program was something defined by nobody else but Nick Saban.