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Leadership lessons from Alabama football coach Nick Saban

September 7, 2012, 10:55 AM UTC
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala., Aug. 1, 2012. From left: Michael Williams, Dee Milliner, Coach Saban, Nico Johnson, Barrett Jones, and Chance Warmack
Photograph by Gregg Segal

If you want to figure out what makes Nick Saban tick, start with the little things.

It’s noon on a recent Thursday, and I’ve been invited inside the multiple-national-championship- winning University of Alabama football coach’s inner sanctum. We just returned from a quick trip across campus, where Saban gave a speech to a theater full of high school students and dispensed a bit of his patented motivational magic. (“What are you selling today? Are you selling positive, or are you selling negative? Are you affecting everybody else in a positive way or a negative way?”) The whole experience, there and back, took about 25 minutes. Now we’re about to multitask through lunch. He has until 1 p.m. to answer some questions, give or take one minute.

As he sits down at a small table in his expansive wood-paneled corner office, the coach grabs what looks like a garage-door opener and presses the button. Across the room, the door to his office softly whooshes shut. Boom! Nick Saban just saved three seconds. Multiply that enough times and you have a couple of extra months, or years, to recruit more high school stars.

Then there’s lunch itself. He has it down to a science — another in a series of small efficiency measures. Every day, Saban sits at this very table and works through his lunch hour while eating the same exact meal: a salad of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing. No time wasted studying a menu. (Guests, though, aren’t required to order the same thing. On this June day I’m having a turkey wrap.)

Saban runs his schedule — and his entire program — with similar efficiency. Nothing is trivial or unimportant. It may be the off-season, but there is very little downtime in the world of Alabama football. In a couple of days there will be 1,000 high school players on campus for camp, and they all need to be coached, evaluated, and potentially recruited. There are boosters who want to talk. There are speeches to give. Not to mention the fact that the coach has to save energy and time to deal with issues that crop up, like player problems. (Or, he says, giving me a look, “dealing with the press.”) So he packs the middle of his days with meetings and saves his mornings and afternoons for “football-related stuff.”

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The 60-year-old coach has jammed a lot into the five years since he arrived in Tuscaloosa after a short foray in the NFL as the coach of the Miami Dolphins. He has revived a once-great football program in record time and led it to new heights. He has recruited an outsize share of the nation’s best high school players and turned them into first-round draft picks (eight of them in just the past two years). He has helped lead the community’s and his team’s response to a devastating tornado that blew through town last year. He has even, if you believe the university chancellor, played a key role in driving the school’s enrollment and increasing the quality of applicants.

Most of all, of course, he has collected victories. After going 7-6 in his first year, Saban has now won 48 of his past 54 games. And in January the Crimson Tide won its second BCS National Championship in three years when it defeated SEC rival Louisiana State University 21-0 in the title game in New Orleans. Add that to the title that Saban won back in 2003 when he was the coach at LSU, and he’s the only active coach to have won three BCS titles — and the only ever to have won BCS titles at two different schools. This year Alabama began the season ranked No. 2 and looked dominant in easily defeating No. 8 Michigan by a score of 41-14 in its opening game. There’s a distinct possibility that when January rolls around, Saban’s team could be playing for a third title in four years.

If Saban were running a company instead of a football program, he’d be hailed as an elite manager. Alabama football is big business, and it has gotten only bigger under Saban. In 2006, the year before he arrived in Tuscaloosa, the athletic department brought in $67.7 million in revenue, mostly from football, and spent $60.6 million. Last year revenue was $124.5 million and expenditures were $105.1 million — leaving a $19.4 million profit, according to figures compiled by USA Today. During Saban’s tenure, Alabama has expanded the capacity of Bryant-Denny Stadium from 92,000 to 101,000, including the addition of new luxury (i.e., more expensive) seating. It was a no-brainer for the school to give him a two-year contract extension and healthy raise earlier this year. With a compensation package that averages $5.6 million a year over the next eight years, Saban is among the highest paid coaches in college football.

Saban has long been recognized as having a first-rate football mind. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick — himself the winner of a few championships — hired Saban as his defensive coordinator when Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. He pays Saban the ultimate compliment: He copies him. “We talk on a pretty regular basis,” says Belichick. “If I ask Nick a question and he says, ‘Well, this is how we do it,’ then I usually just cut to where he is and take that shortcut and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do it this way.’ I know that he’s already gone through all the stages of thinking it through, and I would rather just get to the stage that he’s at rather than waste the time figuring that I’m going to end up at that same point anyway.”

What really separates Saban from the crowd is his organizational modus operandi. In Tuscaloosa they call it the Process. It’s an approach he implemented first in turnarounds at Michigan State and LSU and seems to have perfected at Alabama. He has a plan for everything. He has a detailed program for his players to follow, and he’s highly regimented. Above all, Saban keeps his players and coaches focused on execution — yes, another word for process — rather than results.

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Sound like your typical chief executive? “I think it’s identical,” Saban says, digging into his salad. “First of all, you’ve got to have a vision of ‘What kind of program do I want to have?’ Then you’ve got to have a plan to implement it. Then you’ve got to set the example that you want, develop the principles and values that are important, and get people to buy into it.”

Sounds simple. But it’s taken Saban 40 years to perfect the Process.

Saban has won so much in such a short time at Alabama that it’s easy to forget how much the proud program had struggled in the years before he arrived in January 2007. The school had been severely penalized twice in a decade by the NCAA for rules violations. It had suffered through losing seasons and humiliating upsets to what would normally be pad-your-record opponents, such as Northern Illinois and Louisiana Tech. One head coach bolted for Texas A&M. Another was fired before he ever coached a game at the school after an ill-fated visit to a strip club in Florida. Worst of all, from the perspective of Alabama fans, the football team that had for decades been at the top of the mighty Southeastern Conference had sunk to the middle of the pack — finding itself out-recruited and out-coached by schools like Florida, LSU, Tennessee, and archrival Auburn.

It’s a tale of woe all too familiar to this writer. Growing up in Birmingham in the 1970s, I was weaned on the dominance of Crimson Tide football and the legend of Paul “Bear” Bryant, who won six national titles at Alabama. Later, as a student at the university, I watched Gene Stallings lead the Tide to its 12th national championship, in 1992. Being conditioned to winning made the losing that came later that much more painful. When Saban arrived, ‘Bama fans had high hopes that he was the guy to finally turn things around. But most rational observers figured it would take a few years for Alabama to rebuild. Saban didn’t get the memo. In his second year he went 12-0 in the regular season and got his team within a few plays of making it to the national championship game.

Thank the Process, which involves an almost inhuman work ethic and energy level. At the preseason SEC media gathering this August, senior tight end Michael Williams told reporters that he had “never seen Nick Saban yawn.” A relentless recruiter, Saban has always maintained a punishing travel schedule. Four years ago the NCAA came up with a new policy — widely known as the “Saban rule” — that prevents head coaches from traveling to high schools to evaluate players in the spring. So Saban started talking with the recruits by Skype. (But he’s still fuming about the change.)

“You see how he works day in and day out, every day,” says strength coach Scott Cochran. “And then you see how exhausted you would be, or you are, at that time and he’s still going hard, he’s still attacking. It doesn’t matter whether he was up all night or had to take a recruiting trip and come back. He doesn’t have a tired side. He doesn’t have a down side. And I’m the strength coach, so you think I can have one? No way!”

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Plenty of coaches are intense, and a lot of them work hard. In fact, most do. Where Saban stands apart is the execution at all levels of his operation. That means defining expectations for his players athletically, academically, and personally, and — and this is critical — always following through. Saban wants to know what his players are doing in their workouts each day of the summer, down to the specific lift and weight. If a lineman is above his target body-fat percentage, Saban wants to know what the staff is doing to fix it. When there’s a football camp on campus, he has an opinion — a strong opinion — about where the welcome tent should be placed.

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.”

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.’ ”

For Saban, the Process began in the West Virginia hills where he grew up, and his most influential instructor was his first boss and first coach — his dad, Nick Sr. The Saban family, including Nick’s mom and sister, ran a service station and a Dairy Queen on the side of a two-lane road in the heart of coal country. When Nick Sr. organized a football team for the local kids, he made Nick Jr. the quarterback. And he set the bar extra high for his only son. “People say Nick is intense, but my husband is a pussycat compared to his father,” says Terry Saban, Nick’s wife of four decades. “He had a good heart. But he was just a tough, hard-nosed man.”

Simply winning was never good enough. “He was a perfectionist in the way he analyzed me,” says Saban. “And winning was important, all right, but my dad would get on me even when we won about how I played or a mistake that I made or if my body language wasn’t right.” As Saban wrote in his 2005 book, How Good Do You Want to Be?, the takeaway from his upbringing was powerful: You should always “evaluate success.” Even when you win, you should study what you could have done better and plan how to improve next time.

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Despite being a bit undersized for college football — maybe 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds — Saban earned a scholarship to Kent State University, where he played defensive back from 1970 to 1972 and majored in business. (He was on campus during the infamous National Guard shooting.) His dream at the time was to own a car dealership one day. But when Saban’s coach, Don James, who went on to fame at the University of Washington, asked him to give coaching a try, he was hooked instantly. Saban stuck with it even after his dad died suddenly soon after. And he began climbing the coaching ranks.

Saban points to a game in November 1998 as a key moment in his evolution. He was in his fourth year as the head coach at Michigan State, and his unranked Spartans were scheduled to face the undefeated No. 1 team, Ohio State, on the road. During practice that week Saban told his team that they weren’t going to worry about winning the game. They would treat every play in the game as if it had a history and a life of its own. And regardless of what happened in the play before, they were going to focus only on the next play. He found that his players were looser and more confident. In a huge upset, Michigan State came from behind to win 28-24. Saban decided to stop talking about the importance of winning and double down on his process-oriented approach. “I’m not naive enough to think winning isn’t important,” says Saban. “But what that game made me realize is how much better it is for people not to worry about the opposition but to focus on executing and know if they do their job correctly they’re going to be successful, rather than thinking the other guy’s going to determine the outcome.”

Just before 1:30 p.m. on another summer day the Alabama coaching staff files into the conference room for the weekly academic review. Nine assistant coaches and the athletic department’s academic director sit around a long rectangular table while trainers and graduate assistants grab chairs on the edge of the room. One wall is covered by a large whiteboard showing high school players that the staff is recruiting, ranked and organized by position. The coaches joke and laugh with one another. Then the private door from Saban’s office opens — and the room immediately goes silent. Saban, reading glasses perched on his nose and his ever-present spiral-bound notepad in his hand, sits down at the head of the table. “What do we got?” he asks quietly, getting right to the point.

The academic adviser launches into an update of each player in the program who has any kind of academic red flag while Saban studies the information on a coded list, occasionally injecting questions. One player is struggling in math class but working hard. Another, his history professor reports, isn’t taking notes and didn’t bother to answer all the exam questions. “I want to talk to him,” Saban says a couple of times and makes a note. For the past three years Alabama has been second in the Southeastern Conference in the graduation rate of its football players — behind Vanderbilt — and last year set a conference record with 38 Academic All-SEC honorees, even while it was winning the national championship.

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Saban’s commitment to developing his players — or his “product,” as he suggests an organization should think of its people in his book — goes way beyond monitoring their academic progress. He invests a lot of time (and athletic department money) to understand them as people and teach them how to accept coaching. Going back to his days at Michigan State, Saban has worked with a sports psychiatrist to develop full psychological profiles of each player on the roster so that the coaches know what buttons to push or not push. Can they yell at the guy, or will he go into a shell?

But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to school and football, Alabama players take a curriculum of classes designed by the Pacific Institute, a leadership-development consultant based in Seattle, and implemented by a mix of conditioning coaches and trainers that All-American offensive lineman Barrett Jones refers to as “our shrink coach staff.” The lessons focus on reinforcing positive habits through mental conditioning. “I x V = R,” says Jones, offering up one affirmation formula. “Imagination times vividness equals reality.”

Last year Trevor Moawad, director of athletic and personal development at the IMG Academy and another motivational expert that Saban employs, suggested to Saban that the team’s leaders needed to get more theatrical. Literally. He told Saban that he wanted to bring in actors to take players through improv training exercises as a way to boost their communication skills. It’s hard to imagine, say, Woody Hayes having players do unscripted-acting exercises. But Saban, says Moawad, readily agreed.

Says Saban: “It all goes back to helping the players, but individual players being successful makes the team more successful. Now, everybody always says there’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in win, because the individuals make the team what it is, and how they think and what they do is important to the team. So when you act like the individual is not important, well, it is damn important who these people are and what they are.”

The coach’s constant quest for an edge is not limited to the mental side of things. When Saban was with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, Belichick asked him to talk to a martial arts expert who had requested a meeting. A skeptical Saban concluded that incorporating martial arts into a workout regimen could improve his players’ leverage and he bought in; his players still do karate. Similarly, when his wife, Terry, started raving about the benefits of Pilates a few years ago, Saban met with her instructor for a private lesson and then added it to the team’s workout routine (and his own). Right now he’s very interested in vision training and the potential to improve the reaction time of his players. He plans to include special vision training equipment in a new, state-of-the-art 37,000-square-foot strength and conditioning facility that is currently under construction at an estimated cost of $9 million.

Even for Saban, the Process sometimes sputters. In 2005, after a decade as a head coach in college and a national championship at LSU, Saban decided to jump to the NFL to coach the Miami Dolphins. He was impressed by Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, who had built both Waste Management (WM) and Blockbuster. And Saban had always had it in his mind that the pinnacle of achievement would be to win as a head coach in the NFL. It was time to test the Process against the best.

But after years of being able to control every detail of his football program and recruit as many elite players as he could fit on scholarship, he suddenly had to contend with a general manager, a scouting department, and the constraints of the draft. And it was harder to outwork NFL coaching staffs that prepared year-round. Saban put up a solid 9-7 record in his first season but won just six games in his second with a rotating cast at quarterback. He became the target of harsh media criticism when he first denied an interest in the opening at Alabama, then decided after the season to take the job.

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Saban says that he missed the ability to have an impact on college players as people. Critics panned him as another college coach who couldn’t hack it in the NFL. Would Saban and his system have succeeded if he had stayed longer with the Dolphins? At least one peer believes so. “Sure. I don’t think there’s any question about it,” says Belichick. “He’s going to be successful in any football program.”

When Saban signed his contract extension this past March, he let it slip that he had gotten offers for other jobs, presumably in the NFL. But he said that he and Terry, whose two kids have attended Alabama, had decided they want to stay in Tuscaloosa. This will be his sixth season at Alabama, the longest he has stayed anywhere in his career. “We talked about that at our lake house this summer: What is your motivation for going back?” says Terry Saban. “Because if your motivation is to win another national championship, it’s no fun. It’s too much stress, and you’re focusing on the wrong things. It’s not about the crystal ball. It’s about the players. It’s about the journey.”

It’s the day before practice for the new season is set to begin, and I’m back in Saban’s office discussing what it’s like to motivate players coming off a championship year. “When people have success, one of two things happen,” he says. “They either get really satisfied and want to keep thinking about it and talking about what they did, or the success becomes a little addictive, and it makes them want to keep having more. That drive and motivation makes you understand the next challenge is that you’re going to be a target, and you really need to focus on the things that helped you be successful and continue to improve. Otherwise somebody’s going to pass you up.” Sounds like he’s recalibrating the Process to do one of the few things he hasn’t accomplished yet: win two championships in a row.

This story is from the September 24, 2012 issue of Fortune.