How to Become a Legend in Football (or Business)

Monday night I saw one of the most incredible displays of leadership. Plus, it was the best college football game I’ve ever seen. There was tension right from the beginning.

In spite of the 13-0 score at the end of the first half, we all knew the second half was going to be amazing. And it was. Alabama came back from being shut out by Georgia in the first half to win the game in overtime.

But the real story is Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, and how he changed the game completely. He put the game in the hands of a freshman quarterback who had played very few snaps throughout the 2017 season.


With this win, Saban tied the legendary college football coach Bear Bryant with six national championships. This is rare air. An incredible career accomplishment.

The interview with Nick Saban at the end of the game got me thinking about this man. What makes him a legend? What did he do that resulted in six national championships? What character traits does he demonstrate? What leadership methods does he employ?

I decided to focus on Saban’s results and work backwards. Here are my observations of what makes him such a great coach.

Love Your Market: Be a fan first

The interviewer for ESPN grabbed coach Saban right after the game ended. He was about to ask Saban his questions. Saban stopped him and said, “Let me ask you a question first. Was that a great game?”

I love this.

I never saw a coach do this to an interviewer. It showed me how much he enjoyed the game. He is as much a fan of college football as he is a coach. I am sure he carries this love of the game into his relationships with his players, coaches, and fan base.

It is infectious.

Said another way, Coach Saban not only loves what he does, but he loves where he does it. I believe this is so important with entrepreneurs. It is one thing to enjoy leading startups and building solutions, but it is the next level which makes for the big winners.

People like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind. They not only loved what they did, but they loved the tech and consumer electronics market. They loved its speed, its culture, the people, the competitors, and the buyers.

Recruit the Best Players: Then you can win championships

I heard a statistic this morning which blew my mind. Every player recruited by Coach Saban to Alabama since 2009 has been on a National Championship team.

How amazing is that?

Saban is always recruiting. I was told this is where he spends a large part of his day. And it makes sense to me.

I once asked a sales manager who worked for me, “What is your secret of success?”

He answered, “I am always recruiting.”

He then told me the story of the most successful regional sales manager he worked for at Wang Computers back in the 1980s. He said the guy interviewed a couple of new sales candidates every evening.

“As one of his salespeople, I knew I needed to perform at the highest level or I was gone. He was talking to some terrific candidates every night. In the end, I was a top performer surrounded by top performers in a region which was always number one in the company.”

Build Great Leaders: And you’ll be competing against them some day

This National Championship game pitted Coach Saban against the University of Georgia coach, Kirby Smart. Coach Smart used to be Nick Saban’s defensive coach at Alabama. In two years as Georgia’s head coach, he brought them to the National Championship game.

In fact, Nick Saban has a “coaching tree” which is enviable. The coaches he hired, trained, and worked with are leading many Division 1 college football programs. There are sixteen men in this tree. And Nick Saban is part of Bill Belichick’s “coaching tree.”

Saban invests in his coaches. He has a legacy of picking great leaders and developing them into leaders of their own teams who build their own legacies.

Great leaders build great leaders.

Have High Expectations: Success does not happen overnight

Saban began his career as Alabama’s head coach in 2007. For the first two years, Alabama was unrated in the preseason college coaches’ poll. Since 2009, Alabama has consistently been in the top 5 colleges in the nation.

Once he got the right people on board, he knew he would be a national contender. He knew it because he expected to be. In fact, he asks his recruits two questions.

  1. Do you want to play in a National Championship game?
  2. Do you want to play in the National Football League?

He sets high expectations. He wants to work with men who have high expectations.

Timing Is Everything: The last play determines it all

When asked about winning the game, Saban said, “Last year we lost on the last play of the game. This year we won on the last play of the game.”

He knows he is playing a game. It is a game played with people who are talented but not perfect. They make great plays, and they make mistakes.

Sometimes they miss the mark and disappoint, and sometimes they come through in the end and win. But he knows there is another team on the field. And his opposing coach is dealing with the same issues. It is all about people.

“Who knows how it will end?” Saban said. “We have to execute one play at a time. That’s all we can do. The rest comes down to who executes on the last play of the game.”

You can do all the right things. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way, but sometimes it does.

His players are just people.

He understands with all his effort, high expectations, and execution that these are young men who aren’t perfect.

Timing is everything.

Saban is a college football fan first and foremost. He wants to make college football great. To that end, he does his very best to recruit great players and coaches.

His focus is execution with high expectations.

From there, it is in God’s hand. He doesn’t hold it too close. He doesn’t own the outcome. But he is willing to bet the outcome on an untested freshman.


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6 thoughts on “How to Become a Legend in Football (or Business)

    • Thanks Regi. I got pretty excited about the game but the post game interview with Nick Saban really stuck with me. Great coaches always seem to have something meaningful to share after a hard fought win.

  1. His focus on execution and “the process” is unrelenting. He teaches practicing at a high level every day and not worrying so much about the outcome. You hear it every week in his press conferences. He doesn’t allow the media to hype his team, he’s just thinking about the next game.

    I agree that his position as one of the best recruiters in college football is what gives him an edge. He is constantly watching high school tapes and thinking about who he needs. It also explains why his results as a NFL coach were mediocre.

    • When I was writing this, you were one of my Alabama friends who came to mind. I was concerned that I would miss something big in describing Nick Saban’s leadership traits. I knew execution was way up there but chose to write on some of the other leadership traits that struck me that night. Thanks for zeroing in on execution…the process. Everything I mentioned goes no where without the process! Roll Tide!

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