The NFL is a copycat league, as are professional and collegiate sports leagues in general, and the surest evidence of this is the annual race to hire the assistants of successful head coaches. Bill Belechick is easily the most successful NFL head coach in modern times (or realistically any time), which means he’s endured annual poaching from his staff.
Where it gets interesting is that NFL fans have had to subsequently endure the generally poor teams coached by Belichick disciples. Think Matt Patricia, Romeo Crennel, Al Groh, Jim Schwartz, and Eric Mangini. While they witnessed greatness up close, they weren’t able to bring the greatness with them to other teams.
All of this came to mind while reading John Talty’s very excellent and very entertaining The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban: How Alabama’s Coach Became the Greatest Ever. While Talty is very Saban-like in not promising readers the skills to be like Saban after reading his book, its title understandably implies the imparting of crucial knowledge. Obviously people will purchase this wildly informative book and try to implement insights gleaned in their own personal and professional lives.
Will it work? It’s hard to say. Figure that Saban’s coaching tree has blemishes like Belichick’s. Though Kirby Smart won a national championship at Georgia last season after the Bulldogs hired the defensive coordinator from Saban’s 2015 national champion, Jeremy Pruitt flamed out at Tennessee, Butch Jones similarly did not work out in Knoxville (keep in mind that Tennessee was a major power when the 21st century began), while Mike Locksley’s future is arguably uncertain at Maryland. Some will point to Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, but the bet here is that the list of coaches A&M fans would take in exchange for Fisher is in the double digits. Steve Sarkisian got the Texas job after thriving under Saban, but no serious football fan would say his seat isn’t a little bit hot after his disappointing first season in Austin.
It's all a reminder that genius generally isn’t imitable. Which means there’s only one Nick Saban, and odds are that’s not going to change anytime soon. Enjoy his brilliance. In the most competitive era of college football, one your reviewer worries is about to end due to the sad professionalization of the sport, Saban has won seven national championships. This is John Wooden, only someone greater than Wooden.
It all helps explain why Talty’s book is so hard to put down. Even if readers can’t be Saban, how interesting to develop a sense of how he operates. Talty is a longtime Alabama football reporter within the various properties of the Alabama Media Group who knows his way around the team’s complex, but also the coaches, players, and trustees who’ve worked closely with or watched Saban closely over the decades. Much can be learned, and is learned from Talty’s book.
As readers can imagine from Saban’s demeanor, he’s an exacting human being. Growing up, Nick Sr. told him “if you don’t have time to do it right, where do you find the time to do it over?” Talty approaches this as Nick Sr. instilling values in Jr., but the guess here is that Jr. is Sr. The lessons father imparted to son struck pay dirt because there was the same “buy in” to what Sr. believed that Jr. expects from players and assistants at Alabama. Indeed, Talty is clear about the individual he’s analyzing. As he puts it early on, his book looks at how a “relentless attitude powered Saban’s climb to college football’s mountaintop, and more impressively, how he stayed atop it.”
Unexpectedly fascinating about where Saban is today is how long it took. He didn’t rise to head coach (at Toledo) until 1989. He also arguably wasn’t Nick Saban right away. Talty reminds us that he was 19-16-1 in his first three seasons at Michigan State. This most driven of men is relentlessly self-evaluating, and always rushing to his errors. One of his favorite sayings per Talty is that “you never want to waste a failing.” Reading that alone, you find yourself wishing the mostly non-political Saban (more on this in a bit) would instruct members of Congress, along with the economists whom politicians are prone to listen to. While politicians and economists believe it’s their job to “fight” recessions via intervention, Saban’s otherworldy success reminds us that “recessions” are a happy signal of us addressing our errors, or not wasting “a failing.” Recessions are the recovery. Governments don’t improve us when they pursue measures meant to blunt sometimes necessary economic pain.
Needless to say, Saban views every error as a “teaching moment” that sets up a better tomorrow. He’s always trying to improve himself in all ways. His “sense of urgency” about every aspect of football operations permeates the book, and it should at least be said that it’s easy to see why for reasons beyond the person. Hard as it is to imagine now, Saban spent a lot of years looking up as evidenced by the time he spent as an assistant; years that included a humiliating dismissal (Talty indicates that Saban was victimized by a disagreement between Earl Bruce and a higher up assistant) from Ohio State that landed him at Navy. Yet even there, Saban chose to gain from the demotion. While there, he got to know longtime Navy assistant Steve Belechick, father of Bill. Saban and Bill are very close to this day. What a treat it would be to listen to their conversations.
In modern times, everyone is looking up to Saban. What are some of the secrets? For one, it’s apparent that Saban is willing to be wrong, or admit that he’s not keeping up. Where this becomes most interesting is in Talty’s examination of his hiring of and relationship with offensive mastermind Lane Kiffin. The bet here is that someday Talty or someone else will devote a book just to Kiffin’s three years at Alabama under Saban. As former Alabama assistant Lance Thompson put it in an interview, “it was like Earth and Neptune” so far apart were the two. Which speaks so well of Saban on so many levels.
For one, Saban hired Kiffin when Kiffin’s reputation was at a low ebb. About the circumstances that brought him down, if you’re reading this review you’re already familiar. The main thing is that despite Kiffin’s depleted state of football being, Saban acknowledged to him that “We’re a Mercedes that’s getting ready to drive off the edge of the cliff. It looks good, it looks pretty, but it’s not working anymore.” The greatest coach in college football felt a former head coach with a somewhat shot reputation could help “Alabama marry pro-style concepts with a faster tempo and more spread option components.” Saban won four titles with “one style,” as in seemingly the old, Alabama style, only to have the courage to fix an approach that won him four championships. He’s since won three championships “in a completely different way.” And with a new contract extension, it seems Alabama’s powers-that-be believe Saban’s got more titles in him, which presumably signals an ongoing willingness to adjust his approach to a game that continues to evolve. Successful leaders most certainly acknowledge weaknesses, or looming weaknesses, and once again rush to fix them.
For two, think of Saban as a skillful investor. His analyst program has become all the rage in college football. Saban hired Kiffin and other down-on-their-luck former coaches for $35,000/year. Talty refers to these frequently former head coaches as “liquidated damages” at other schools. Basically, college football has become so modernly lucrative that schools pay big buyouts just to move the head coach (and assistants) aside for the new can’t miss hire. Talty makes the excellent point that other schools were essentially subsidizing Saban and Alabama’s expenses, and making it possible for Saban to buy low. With Kiffin and other former head coaches due millions from their past jobs, they could afford to take $35,000 while repairing their reputations.
Kiffin, as is well known parlayed his time at Alabama into a return to the head-coaching ranks (Florida Atlantic, and now Mississippi), as did Butch Jones (Arkansas State), and most famously now, Steve Sarkisian at Texas. Sarkisian was an obvious surprise given what brought him down at USC (alcohol abuse), but the value investor in Saban “strongly believed in the culture he had already established and that it would provide the necessary structure for Sarkisian to get back on his feet.” So much could be said about this.
Not only is Saban willing to bring in dented, but necessary outside voices, not only is he willing to take admittedly low-cost risks on tarnished individuals, there’s a purpose to it all. And it’s alluded to at the beginning of this review: successful head coaches endure an annual poaching of talent from their staff. The $35,000 hires were in addition to everything else, a low-cost way to assess the fitness of an individual for Saban’s system, plus their time spent in the program as an analyst makes movement to an assistant’s role quite a bit smoother.
What about Saban as a manager? Readers can imagine that he’s very hands-on in all sorts of ways. If the goal is to do something right the first time, there has to be oversight. At the same time, Talty writes that it would “be easy to tune out his voice over time” if “Saban was the only leader and the only person trying to hold people accountable.” Saban needs his assistants to perform, but also his players. In particular, he places heavy emphasis on team captains. As one of his former Michigan State players explained it to Talty, team captains have to be “absolute dogs on the field and every workout,” plus they must be exemplary off the field and outside the complex too. The expectation from Saban is that the captains handle themselves like Saban is “in the room with them.” Keep in mind how young these men are.
Still, when the captains are doing their jobs the winning that’s a given becomes even more of a given. Consider the captains on the 2020 national champion: Mac Jones, Landon Dickerson, DeVonta Smith, and Alex Leatherwood. Apparently they very much bought into what Saban was preaching, only for the head coach to say “I had the easiest job in America” during the 2020 championship season.
Players matter, which is so obvious it sounds trite. And while recruiting will be discussed more in greater detail toward review’s end, a common theme is that Saban hates “playing with shitty players.” In Saban’s own words, “Mediocre people don’t like high achievers, and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.” This has such crucial business applications. Mark Zuckerberg has said much the same, as did the individuals who created PayPal, as does Blackstone co-founder Stephen Schwarzman. “As” hire “As” as it were, but “Bs” frequently go for “Cs.” You can’t mess up with your personnel. This comes to mind in particular with Saban’s decision to get political in 2020 or 2021. It was something about voting rights. Talty also brings up the George Floyd murder. The bet here is that Saban isn’t very political either way. How could he be while also running the greatest football program in the world? Still, he made a comment that annoyed the right-of-center crowd that your reviewer sides with, and that wishes sports and politics could remain separate. My analysis at the time was that Saban’s comments weren’t an expression of his own views as much as they were about getting the best players. In a world where everything is sadly political, coaches endlessly in search of an edge might become more verbal.
About players more broadly, easily one of the most entertaining chapters is Chapter 4 in which former Alabama great Rolando McClain is discussed. While at Alabama McClain was one of those football savants, “who knew the defense so well he could tell every player on the field what he was supposed to be doing.” What a great world we live in that allows specialization of this kind! No matter the question, McClain had the answer. It underscores a point made in my 2018 book, The End of Work. In it, I argued from the first chapter that college football players should be allowed to major in – yes – college football. The sport is incredibly complicated, so if someone is so talented as to rate a very expensive scholarship to play the complicated sport, this individual should be free to choose the sport as major.
To which some will reply that most don’t make the NFL after playing college football, and this is true even at Alabama. The response is nonsense. Many more business majors will never get a job at Goldman Sachs (or even an interview with the investment bank), but we don’t criticize them for majoring in business. To which some will reply that business majors are learning a “trade,” while college football is just a “game.” Ok, but if you’re interviewing a former Alabama player for a “real job” are you more interested in what this individual learned in accounting class, or what he learned from Nick Saban? The question answers itself, or it should. Never forget that Talty’s book is a “business case study.” What Saban’s players learn from him is exponentially more valuable than what they learn in class, yet we insult the genius of those players with the presumption that they must prepare for a life after football in class even though what’s learned in football is much more useful to life after football. It’s something to think about.
Consider just the practices, and what players learned from them. And consider them without regard to the “football” played at practice. With Saban it’s apparent that players learn a great deal about how things should be done in all manner of work settings. Because the expectation is that things be done right the first time, there’s no time needed to do certain things another time. As former All-American Antoine Caldwell remembers it with the coach (Mike Shula) before Saban, “We worked very hard with Mike; we worked very efficient with Nick. You’d knock out two hours of practice in forty-five minutes.” So while winter conditioning for the uninitiated under Saban would be “the hardest thing you ever do,” the impression conveyed is that what’s very difficult is compressed. Even the pain isn’t elongated in this most brilliant of systems.
Arguably what’s most fascinating about Saban and his system is that there’s nothing random about it. Every situation is game-planned ahead of time. Think Tua Tagovailoa. To this day most (including those reading this review) likely think Saban’s decision to bench Jalen Hurts on January 8, 2018 was a split-second decision born of desperation at halftime of the National Championship game. More realistically, all season “Tagovailoa had wowed his teammates and coaches with what he could do in practice against Alabama’s stout defense.” There was even talk from CBS announcer Gary Danielson that Hurts had lost confidence as the season wore on, and as Tagovailoa’s genius became more and more apparent. Saban went with the freshman in the second half based on explicit knowledge of Tagovailoa’s immense talent, and what he could do with it.
Almost as fascinating is Saban’s embrace of a “Process” that is decidedly NOT results oriented, and that thoroughly rejects a mindset of “national championship or bust.” Saban developed “the Process” while at Michigan State with a professor there, Lionel Rosen. Aware that he lacked the talent to beat Ohio State, he asked Rosen how to approach games against the giants. It became about “winning plays” over “winning games.” Saban felt and feels a focus on “results” could “obscure the actual process of getting better.”
All of this explains why Saban can be seen ranting on the sidelines in the 4th quarter of blowouts. His view is that every play is a chance for his players and assistants to improve. If the focus is on “winning,” it’s easy to get caught up in thought about a past victory, or a future game. Saban doesn’t allow that. The goal is to get better and better with every day, in every practice, and in every game. No let-up. In Saban’s remarkable words, “People think you’ve got to win a national championship every year, and if you don’t, the season is a waste. We can’t teach that to these kids. Our goal is to be better today than we were yesterday.”
In approaching football not for results, but for constant improvement, the view from Talty is that this largely saves Alabama from embarrassing upsets. No doubt there was Louisiana-Monroe in Saban’s first season, but since then the upsets have been few and far between. With every day about improvement on the previous day, there’s reduced likelihood of players taking games or plays off against lesser schools. They’ll suffer “ass-chewings” if they do.
All of which brings us to recruiting. It was saved for last for two reasons. For one, Saban was clear to everyone in the Alabama complex from day one, including janitors and secretaries, that “Everything we do is about recruiting. Everything we do.” Some will respond that the latter is a statement of the obvious, but there’s a case to be made that Saban could win with the recruits that don’t rate Alabama’s attention, so good is his “process.” But as has already been detailed, Saban hates “shitty players,” and thinks good players are revolted by them too.
Where it gets interesting is how involved Saban is in the recruiting process. While he must delegate a great deal of information gathering to assistants and recruiting coordinators, Talty reports that Saban has “final say,” and that there’s “no freelancing” among assistants on the matter of players. He’s not interested in the “best athlete” on the way to finding a role for same. Saban grades each player the team is interested in, and recruits based on need. And he courts those at the top of team’s “Big Board.”
Though consensus is arrived at about players among Saban and his staff as to who the top 15 recruits are for Alabama, Saban is making the calls to the 15 he and his staff deem best. One year, after reaching agreement on the top fifteen, Saban signed 12 of them.
Which brings up another major challenge: whom to recruit? Talty’s point here is that while coaches claim to not watch recruiting rankings, and “5 star” designations, naturally they do. They have to. A good recruiting class is important for branding, plus alums who don’t know football follow the rankings closely. What to do if you’re Saban?
It’s a reasonable question because as Talty reminds the reader, Alabama is no longer a recruiting “sell.” The best program in the U.S. can choose recruits, which means it’s easy to get caught up in signing the most “5 stars.” It’s a perilous path. College football fans know this. Teams don’t always improve with recruiting rankings. Talty cites former Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright’s teams declining after his first title, and despite having higher ranked recruits. Talty writes that Saban’s answer to this embarrassment of riches is “a few nonnegotiables: the player must love football, must have good character, and must be willing to put in the academic work to get a degree.” To avoid chasing rankings, Saban has made it more about people. While he could evaluate a player very quickly through film study, Saban requires his assistants and recruiting coordinators to evaluate the person being recruited. And even then Saban isn’t done. He and his staff in particular evaluate the players they didn’t sign, and most importantly, they look for what they missed with players they didn’t recruit, but who wound up shining on a competitor’s team.
At Goldman Sachs, the motto is “underpromise and overdeliver.” Saban is the same. He makes no promises no matter the recruit. Wide receiver Julio Jones was as can’t miss as they come in high school, but Saban told him “I would love to win with you, but I will win without you.” For Saban it’s about merit. In his words, “You’re not entitled to the outcome. You’re entitled to the opportunity to get to the outcome.” Saban’s approach plainly wins with players. Not only does Alabama lure top recruits, they have a tendency to do well once in Tuscaloosa. Talty reports that from 2009 to 2021 alone, Alabama had 39 players drafted in the NFL’s first round. USC’s record is soon to be broken, it would seem. The question is, will anyone care? Will Saban?
The questions are asked because college football has changed. Formerly a single-elimination season, it’s apparent that college football is on the verge of professionalization. Which is sad. Its tradition was its life: weekly rankings that changed with losses that could be deadly, intersectional, out-of-conference matchups meant to boost one’s rankings, conference championships, followed by New Year’s Day bowls tied to regions. And then days, months, years, and decades of debate about who really was #1. It was glorious.
College football will soon be two “superleagues,” with the seasons presumably ending after 16-team playoffs. How very dreadful. And that doesn’t include the overt paying of players. Can we be serious?
If we ignore the multi-million dollar scholarships bestowed on players, the facilities that make the NFL appear impoverished by comparison, access to the school’s richest donors, lifelong job security due to the latter, plus a high-profile degree if the player doesn’t make the NFL, doesn’t live up to the scholarship, or both, anyone with a pulse knew the players were being paid. Talty knows it, and in a quiet moment would surely have stories. The NCAA’s sotto voce rule was “keep it quiet,” which was the right rule. Where there’s talent there’s always going to be money, but the rules kept the payments somewhat reasonable.
What this meant was that coaches still had to recruit. Not only were recruiting wars part of what made college football so much fun, those same wars rewarded the genius of the Sabans of the world. As Saban told Alabama AD Mal Moore after he hired him away from the Miami Dolphins, “I just want you to know that you’ve hired a horseshit football coach, but nobody will out-recruit me.” Beautiful. Another wonderful aspect of college football that makes it so much more fun than the NFL. Will Saban still be the best recruiter with pay now out in the open? Honestly, does Alabama have alums with pockets as deep as those at USC, Michigan, Stanford, Texas, and Texas A&M? Even if so, where’s the fun if money obscures Saban’s genius?
The bet here is that college football is on the verge of a slide in terms of popularity. No doubt Saban will adapt, and he will because he knows that “Complacency breeds a blatant disregard for doing what’s right.” Goodness, Saban was even mad after Alabama won its first title under him in 2010. And he let the returning players know it in the Rose Bowl locker room.
Which is the point. Saban is not a dinosaur (a great passage in this brilliant book), which means he’ll adjust. Still, it’s a shame that a “solution” in search of a faux problem (“exploited players”) will cheapen the genius of the world’s greatest coach. About “greatest coach,” it will be hard for readers of Talty’s book to conclude anything else upon reading it.