How Nick Saban Keeps Alabama Football Rolling

Nick Saban knows what he’s doing isn’t normal. The University of Alabama football coach is well aware that it’s anything but typical for one school to thoroughly dominate a major sport the way his Crimson Tide has ruled college football over the past decade. More to the point, he knows that it’s well outside the bounds of ordinary to expect 18- to 22-year-olds to win national championships—and then work even harder to get better. “To me it takes a completely different mindset to stay successful as opposed to what you have to do to build something to be successful,” says Saban. “All of us are sort of geared toward, if we have success, we’re supposed to be rewarded for it, not necessarily that we have to continue to do things even better than we did before.”

It’s the Friday before his team’s first scrimmage of spring practice, and Saban, 66, is sitting, legs crossed, in a plush chair in his wood-paneled office in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a collection of championship rings spread out on the coffee table in front of him. Clad in a black pullover sweater, gray slacks, and black loafers, the coach is in a reflective mood. But his trademark intensity begins to show as he warms to the subject: Being a champion means, well, being different.

Nick Saban is featured on our World’s Greatest Leaders list. See the full list here.

Illustration by HelloVon
Illustration by HelloVon

“I mean, it’s like you make an A on a test and you say, ‘I can take it easy for two weeks and make a C on the next test and have a B average.’ That’s normal,” he says. “It’s special for somebody to make an A on the test and say, ‘I’m going to try to make the highest grade ever in the class.’ That’s not normal. But yet, that’s what you have to try to promote from a mindset standpoint to the people in your organization.”

The most recent exam Saban aced was the 2017 season—and it was perhaps his greatest triumph yet. The year kicked off with Alabama ranked No. 1. But as the season unfolded, Saban’s team suffered an epidemic of injuries—with starters missing a total of 54 games—and a crushing defeat to archrival Auburn that could have cost the Tide a shot at the College Football Playoff. Given a second chance, Alabama snatched another title in thrilling fashion. Shortly after midnight, minutes into Jan. 9, Alabama’s quarterback, 19-year-old freshman Tua Tagovailoa, stunned the football world when—facing 2nd-and-26 in overtime of the championship game against Georgia—he threw a game-winning, 41-yard laser beam of a touchdown pass to give the Tide a 26–23 victory. Adding to the drama was the fact that at halftime Saban had made a tough call to bench the quarterback who led the team to the title game, Jalen Hurts, in favor of Tagovailoa—a calculated gamble that worked.

The victory gave Saban his fifth national championship in nine years at Alabama. Add an earlier title he won at LSU in 2003, and his six rings match Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most football championships by a college coach in the so-called poll era, dating back to 1936. And he’s won with stunning consistency: Under Saban, Alabama has been ranked No. 1 in 72 of the past 153 Associated Press weekly polls. If imitation is truly flattery, then Saban is much praised: Four of Alabama’s Southeastern Conference rivals—Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas A&M— now employ former Saban assistant coaches as head coach. (Saban has never yet lost a game to one of his disciples.)

“It’s remarkable the run that Alabama has been on, and the common thread in all of it is the head coach: Nick Saban,” says Phil Savage, the author of 4th and Goal Every Day: Alabama’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. Now the lead radio analyst for Crimson Tide football games, Savage met Saban when they joined the sta of the Cleveland Browns in 1991. “I mean, he’s had several different coaching staffs now in Tuscaloosa. He’s had different quarterbacks. He’s had different defensive star players. And he does an amazing job of setting the tone from the top down.”

The system that Saban has developed over the years to achieve such success is known as the Process—a methodical, efficient approach to organizational management. In 2012, five seasons and two national championships into his tenure, I wrote about Saban and his Process for Fortune in a piece called “Leadership Lessons from Alabama Coach Nick Saban.” (This is the point in the story where I need to disclose that I’m both an Alabama alumnus and a lifelong fan of the team.) At the time, Saban was facing a new challenge. After impressive turnaround jobs at Michigan State and LSU—and leaving aside a disappointing two-year run with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins—Saban’s quick success at Alabama had cemented his reputation as a master rebuilder of college football programs. The question was, Could he sustain success in one place over a long period? Three additional titles later (plus a couple of near misses), the answer is a resounding yes.

I returned to campus this spring in search of Saban’s secret: How has he managed to navigate the sports version of what Clayton Christensen famously dubbed the “Innovator’s Dilemma”—the fact that success makes it hard to keep the edge you need to win in the future?

Sure, it helps to be at a traditional football powerhouse with a seemingly unlimited budget and resources (Exhibit A: Alabama’s pristine, 36,000-square-foot weight room). But the most powerful explanation is this: Saban has always been relentlessly committed to self-disruption. His Process may look rigid from the outside, but it relies on constant analysis of what’s working, or not, and an aggressive embrace of new methods when necessary. “I hate it when somebody says, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’ It drives me absolutely up a wall,” says Saban.

The coach’s willingness to constantly evolve can be seen both on and off the field. As college football has moved to spread offenses in recent years, for instance, Saban changed both his offensive approach (faster pace, more use of spacing) and defensive recruiting (to target quicker, more agile athletes).

Saban is also open to using technology to gain an edge. A few years ago Alabama began using a GPS system from a company called Catapult to track the performance and workload of its players. Comparing, say, a player’s top speed or acceleration in practice with his past performance can help determine if he’s getting worn down late in the season. After Alabama lost to Clemson in the final minute of last year’s championship game, Saban felt his team was tired. So before this year’s playoff , he asked head trainer Jeff Allen to crunch the GPS numbers. The data showed that, indeed, the Tide had seen a drop-off in overall performance against Clemson. Saban studied the results and decided to adjust his traditionally rigorous postseason practice routine to keep the players fresher. This year, it was Alabama that won on the last play.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the time and effort Saban puts into understanding his players. He studies the psychological profile of every one for clues on how to connect with and coach them. “Some people would look at it like it’s a pain in the ass, you know? But I don’t,” says Saban. “I enjoy seeing if I can get somebody to respond, even if they’re a little bit abnormal and abstract in how they view the world. Well, how can I reach this person to get them to do things that are going to benefit them, but also benefit the organization?”

How much longer can Saban keep pushing past normal? At the parade in January to celebrate the most recent title, Saban concluded his speech with three words: “We’re not finished…” Behind him, the players shouted in unison: “Yet!” That might be a clue.

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