Lessons from Nick Saban

I am a college football agnostic (meaning I fall asleep if I try to watch a game). I can’t remember the last time a college football game really held my interest (well OK, it was that Boise State/Oklahoma bowl game in 2007 which by the way can never be topped).

While I am largely uninterested in the sport, I am fascinated by Nick Saban at Alabama. I always read what I can about Saban because he is just too good at what he does. Frankly (don’t throw things at me), he is too good for college football. I am not saying he does not have his problems; I think he clearly has some issues, but there is still an awful lot to study there.

This article is a must read if you want a master’s class in what it means to be good at something. It is not a business article but is the best business study I have read in a long time.

Here is a quick excerpt:

Saban’s guiding vision is something he calls “the process,” a philosophy that emphasizes preparation and hard work over consideration of outcomes or results. Barrett Jones, an offensive lineman on all three of Saban’s national championship teams at Alabama and now a rookie with the St. Louis Rams, explains the process this way: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.”

In that excerpt, you get a sense of why even Alabama’s fans are wary of Saban. He is not of their world. He makes it very clear that he is not going to bow to the ridiculous god of Alabama football because he represents ideals that are far bigger than Alabama football. He is not about their silly traditions. He is not even about winning national championships.

What he is about is simple: doing things the right way. What that means is focusing on the fundamentals rather than final scores. It means always finding ways to improve an already dominant process (there is no team in America that is close to as dominant as Alabama).

This kind of thinking is very unusual. It is not a old-generation-is-better kind of thing. Saban is 61 and he is unusual for his own age group too. But on the other hand, I worry that we are pointed in the wrong direction especially with our kids. Our society is continually teaching them that the results are more important than the process. I see it in education where the focus is on test scores rather than really learning something. I have finally figured out that test scores today are mostly an illusion and often find myself informing my children that their grades are meaningless if they have not mastered the underlying concepts.

Or look at the stock market where companies are rewarded not for creating a great business but for showing a high quarterly profit. The fact that those two things are mutually exclusive most of the time is a well known fact but almost completely ignored by investors looking for quick results.

The fact is that we have a tendency to focus on results rather than the process and as a result, we get neither. The secret of Saban is that he works on the process and lets the results take care of themselves.

No, Saban does not belong to the world he lives in. It is more than the fact that he has to try to train immature football players and more than the fact that he is under pressure to please immature adult fans. He is just of another world period. There are not many Nick Sabans anywhere.

It is not complicated to be like Saban but that does not mean it is not hard. It means being ruthlessly dedicated to a process and it means accepting nothing less than the best. In Saban’s world, no excuses are allowed to obscure reality. Things are really simple; you get things done or you don’t.

You could sum it in one final Saban quote: “It is what it is.”