It is a statement that John Talty heard repeatedly during nearly a decade of being around the University of Alabama football program as a reporter and editor for the Alabama Media Group. Players, parents and even opposing coaches all had the same thing to say about Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban.
“Over and over again, people would tell me that Nick Saban runs that organization just like a business,” says Talty, who explored that concept in his 2022 book, “The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban.” “There are a number of things he does in football that are very applicable to the business world.”
That opinion is echoed by University of Alabama Culverhouse College of Business faculty member Lou Marino. A professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management, Marino says that equating Saban to a corporate CEO “is an excellent comparison.” In fact, Marino often evokes Saban’s approach to the Crimson Tide football program while discussing certain business concepts and strategies with his students.
“A lot of the same lessons and skills that need to be taken and applied in the CEO’s role are very similar to what Coach Saban does every day,” says Marino, who has been at Alabama for 26 years. “He is a great example of a leader who builds a strategy, makes difficult choices to implement that strategy and is willing to adapt if the strategy isn’t working in order to find a way to be successful.”
Of course, some of this simply is the nature of modern-day college football. It is, after all, now a multi-billion-dollar enterprise where the top teams (companies?) produce revenues in excess of $100 million. The Alabama program, for example, reported record revenue of nearly $131 million for fiscal year 2021-2022.
“Nick Saban is running a $100 million organization and managing a group of more than 120 players and 100 employees,” Talty says. “College football is big business, and Nick Saban has been the best CEO in college football.”
The proof on the field is obvious. Since going 7-6 during his transitional first season as Alabama head coach in 2007, Saban has compiled an impressive record of 187-21 with six national championships. The team has never been outside the top-10 in the final national rankings during that 15-year span and has finished outside the top-five only once in the past nine seasons.
Saban’s Xs-and-Os abilities as a coach account for much of his success, but there is more to it than that. Saban has created such an analytical, business-minded approach to running the program that it has been given a catchy nickname: The Process.
“The Process is all about doing the small things right,” Marino says. “It’s not about winning the game, but winning the seven seconds per play. And when you don’t, take the opportunity to learn from it and improve. So, focus on what you can control, execute it the best possible way you can, and keep evolving as you need to. If everybody does that, then as a team you’ll be successful.”
The Process has become popular not just in sports but also in the business world. Wikipedia even has an entry, first posted in 2016, about “process thinking.” It is described as “a philosophy that emphasizes preparation and hard work over consideration of outcomes or results.” The conclusion of the entry’s first paragraph states, “The philosophy was popularized by American football coach Nick Saban.”
Saban is quoted on the page as saying, “Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you need to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s The Process. Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
“Much of what he does applies outside of football,” Talty says. “There is a lot to be gained by people taking a page out of The Process playbook and implementing it into their businesses.”
According to Talty and Marino, three things in particular stand out:
• The ability to delegate. Yes, Saban is the head coach and has the final decision on all matters, but he doesn’t try to decide all matters.
“He knows he can’t be an expert in every area, so he hires experts and empowers them to be successful,” Marino says. “Doing that means he has to give them certain latitude in order to implement things the best way they see possible. And when it doesn’t work, he’s responsible for figuring out what cog is missing in the system in order to get it hitting on all cylinders again.
“A good CEO tries to stay out of the day-to-day business because they’ve identified the right people, made sure they had the proper training, and then empowered them to be successful. That’s the same thing Coach Saban does.”
• The ability to motivate. Building a championship program — or establishing a successful business — can be such a daunting, all-encompassing task that once it is achieved, there can be a natural tendency to relax a bit. Saban’s approach through The Process mitigates such letdowns because the goal is to focus on the task immediately in front of you instead of larger accomplishments.
“A lot of times businesses will have that initial ramp-up to a certain level of success, but being able to maintain that and drive it even further is very difficult,” Talty says. “You’ll see complacency. ‘I spent all this time on this one goal, and now I’ve accomplished it. What do I do next?’ How Nick Saban has avoided that is by not allowing his organization to get too high or too low off any one result.
“That’s something businesses can use. In many ways, we’re wired that when things are going well, we ease up. Nick Saban is the opposite. When they’re winning and everything is going great, that’s when he is pushing even harder to avoid complacency.”
• The ability to adapt. After winning three championships in four years from 2009 through 2012, the Crimson Tide had consecutive two-loss seasons in 2013 and 2014. That’s not much of a dip, but what concerned Saban was his team allowed more than 40 points in four games during that stretch, something that had not happened a single time the previous five seasons.
The proliferation of up-tempo, no-huddle offenses was partly to blame, as scoring started to rise significantly across college football. So, at age 63 and after four decades in coaching, Saban altered his approach. “(The game) has changed dramatically,” Saban told the media after the 2014 season. “So, we are going to have to change a little bit in terms of the kind of guys we recruit to play against the kind of offenses we see.”
The change worked, as Alabama won three more national championships over the next six years.
“One of the chapters in my book is called ‘Evaluate Constantly, Evolve When Necessary,’ which kind of sums up the Nick Saban approach,” Talty says. “Nick Saban didn’t wait until Alabama was 5-7 to make a big change. Alabama was still at the top of the game, but he thought, ‘This is getting away from us a little bit. We need to make a change before it’s too late.’ He was constantly evaluating how things were going.
“We’ve seen plenty of businesses that believe the good times are going to last forever. But you can’t be so sure of what you’re doing that you’re not willing to change.”
Marino agrees, pointing out that such companies as Kodak and Blockbuster did not adapt during the early days of smart phones and streaming services.
“They didn’t have the vision to be able to change with the environment,” Marino says. “When I teach my class in Strategic Management, there is a concept we talk about called dynamic capabilities. Those are things that allow organizations to change and rearrange the core elements, resources and processes that are needed for success.
“Coach Saban’s approach is by its very nature a dynamic capability. When he recognized what needed to change, he took the time to develop a new plan. He adapted to the game. Some CEOs are able to do that. But the ones who do, like Coach Saban, that’s what makes them successful now, and successful in the future.”
Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Business Alabama.