With the 2021 college football season in full swing, I want to share one of my favorite profiles on Nick Saban, written by Polina Marinova Pompliano. Polina breaks down Saban’s journey to success and shares additional content to read, listen to, and watch.
Polina is the founder and author of The Profile, a media company that profiles the most successful people and companies across business, sports, entertainment, tech, and more.
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The Profile Dossier: Nick Saban, America's Most Successful Coach
By Polina Pompliano
Alabama head coach Nick Saban boasts the most national championships by a head coach in college football history. Although Saban has proven to be one of the greatest college football coaches, that label hasn't come without scrutiny.
Once, Penn State head coach James Franklin referred to Saban as “Nicky Satan” in front of a group of high school kids. Another time, Saban’s own former assistant, Tim Davis called Saban “the devil himself” at a booster meeting.
Saban doesn't particularly enjoy being compared to the devil. He doesn't find it funny, and he believes he's wildly misunderstood.
“It used to upset me,” he says. “I would come and say to my wife, ’I’m not like that at all. Why do these guys say I’m that way?’ And she would say, ’You ever watch yourself in a press conference?’ You can blame the other guy for saying it, or you can look at yourself and say, ’I must have contributed to this.’”
It's easy to hate Saban. He wins ... a lot. He is also college football's highest-paid coach with a salary of $9.3 million.
To understand Saban, you need to first understand his upbringing. His father, Big Nick, was the owner of a gas station and a Dairy Queen who died when Saban was in his early twenties. As a kid, Saban took the brunt of his father’s perfectionism, but he also learned about fairness and equality.
Here's an excerpt from a GQ profile:
Big Nick, the son of Croatian immigrants, also had a sense of fairness unusual for the place and the times. He took heat from some locals for treating black customers the same as whites at his Dairy Queen.
And when he learned that an African-American player on the Black Diamonds named Kerry Marbury didn’t have a father around, Big Nick took him in. Marbury, who went on to become a star running back at West Virginia, says he was accepted so completely by the Sabans that he was effectively shielded from racism as a child. “I was very confused when I got out in the world and found out how much prejudice there really was,” he tells me.
Saban and Marbury stayed close friends, each being the best man at each other's weddings. In the 1980s, Marbury was arrested for drugs, and he served a prison sentence for two and a half years for violating his probation. After he got out of jail, Saban sent him money to help get him back on his feet.
Marbury went on to get his master’s degree and now serves as an administrator of public safety at a small West Virginia University. “I got where I am all as a result of him caring about me when no one else did,” he says.
As much as Saban cared about football, he cared about the people playing it more.
He invests a lot of time and money to understand the players as people in order for his coaching to be most effective. At Michigan State, Saban hired a sports psychiatrist to develop full psychological profiles of each player on the roster so that the coaches would know what buttons to push or not push. Can they yell at the guy, or will he retreat into his shell?
Another time, Saban brought in actors to take players through improv training exercises as a way to boost their communication skills. He's always looking to help his team gain a mental edge.
"It all goes back to helping the players, but individual players being successful makes the team more successful," Saban says. "Now, everybody always says there’s no ‘I’ in team, but there is an ‘I’ in win, because the individuals make the team what it is, and how they think and what they do is important to the team. So when you act like the individual is not important, well, it is damn important who these people are and what they are.”
Here's how Saban became the most dominant coach in America.
On his pursuit of excellence: Saban obsesses over every aspect of preparation, from how his players dress at practice—no hats, earrings, or tank tops are allowed in the football facility—to how they hold their upper bodies when they run sprints. One player explains it this way: "It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it." This is one of the best profiles I've read.
On his leadership style: Saban wants to know what his players are doing in their workouts each day of the summer, down to the specific lift and weight. He micromanages, but with a purpose. He sets expectations so that everyone understands what he wants, and then he can pull back. “When you have a system, you kind of get in a routine of what’s important,” says Saban. “And then you spend a lot more time on thinking of things that would make it better."
On how to think like a champion: In his book How Good Do You Want to Be?, Saban shares his winning philosophy for creating and inspiring success. Working alongside Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick and coaching legend Jerry Glanville, Saban saw firsthand how great leaders encourage greatness in others. In this book, he shares insights into the psychology of champions, the importance of discipline, and how to cultivate a "process-oriented approach."
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On his psychological recipe for success: What makes a champion? Who makes a champion? This three-part podcast series goes inside Saban's mind. In a rare interview, he reveals the keys to excellence at the highest levels. It’s not just about the physical training — so much of Saban’s “process” focuses on building up his players’ mental strength. Here’s his psychological recipe for success.
On transforming college football: In this three-part documentary, we take a look back at the Alabama Crimson Tide's pivotal 2008 football season, and the role that particular team played in changing the face of Alabama football, and all of college football, as we know it today. Saban's arrival transformed the program almost overnight. [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Persistence is the best indicator of success: Saban believes you have to commit to something and then refine the process over & over again. The results will follow. He has a vision he literally calls “the process” — a philosophy that emphasizes preparation and hard work over results. It’s about constantly examining weak spots and gradually improving. If you fall short, you work to meet the standard of excellence next time. And if you win, you work to fight off complacency. The process, then, is never over.
How you do anything is how you do everything: It's not just how you perform during the game that matters. It's also how you behave at practice, in the classroom, and at home. That's because Saban believes you can have "the attitude of a champion" in everything that you do. “Your character is your accumulation of your thoughts, habits and priorities on a day-to-day basis,” he says.
Stop looking in the rear-view mirror: Were you the star of your high school football team? Did you win a national championship in college? If you're constantly looking to those past accomplishments to feel pride today, Saban thinks you have a faulty mental model. That's because he believes in small, incremental improvements day after day. In other words, what are you doing today to get better? “I don’t care what you did yesterday," Saban says. "If you’re happy with that, you have bigger problems." He allows players 24 hours to celebrate a victory. This way, they don't let past successes set back their future.
Energy flows where attention goes: Decide who you want to become, and invest your time in habits and activities that follow in accordance with your new identity. “When you invest your time, you make a goal and a decision of something that you want to accomplish," Saban says. "Whether it's make good grades in school, be a good athlete, be a good person, go down and do some community service and help somebody who's in need, whatever it is you choose to do, you're investing your time in that.” What you do is who you become.
Reserve your time for quality decisions: Saban eats the same meals every day because variety would be a waste of time. For breakfast, he eats two Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies; for lunch, a salad of iceberg lettuce, turkey, and tomatoes. The regular menu, he says, saves him the time of deciding what to eat each day. He wants to automate as many behaviors as he can, so he can spend his mental energy on making decisions that matter.
Take control of the interview: What do you do when you're interviewing for a job? You probably let the hiring manager ask all the questions. Saban flips that model on its head. He won jobs at both Michigan State and Louisiana State during his initial interviews. At Saban’s LSU interview, one of the trustees present said: “He was interviewing us hard, and we were interviewing him less hard.”
Conduct "what if meetings:" Before every game, Saban and his other coaches have what they call a "what-if meeting." In it, they ask each other, "What if this happens? What if that happens?" They go through hypothetical scenarios in order to be best prepared for the big day. But no matter what, Saban emphasizes that if things go awry, he's the one to take the blame. Then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said, "He’ll be like, ‘Look, guys, tomorrow the plan’s there. You, as the guy making the calls, are not going to make or not make the play. So have confidence in it; believe in it. If the kids don’t make the plays, we’ll live with it. And it’s all on me.’ It’s always one voice." As a leader, you make a plan, execute on it, and then take full responsibility if the results falls short.
Cure yourself from "the disease of me:" Saban does not believe in complaining. In fact, he labels "chronic feelings of under-appreciation" as "the disease of me syndrome." The players who suffer from this "disease" constantly feel like they are overlooked in praise, he says. "We all want to be patted on the back, but some individuals demand constant attention and sulk when they believe, rightly or wrongly, that their skills and efforts are being under-appreciated," he says. "It leads to jealousy and bad chemistry.” Stop looking at everyone else, and focus on yourself.
Great leaders earn respect: As a leader, you should seek respect, not admiration. A piece of advice from Saban: “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader; sell ice cream.”
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"Don't look at the scoreboard; play the next play."
“Champions are rare. Everybody has some chance, some opportunity to change and improve, but not everybody takes advantage. Be somebody who does.”
“Discipline is not punishment. Discipline is changing someone’s behavior.”
“Talent is putting skills into productive use.”
“There are two pains in life. There is the pain of discipline and the pain of disappointment. If you can handle the pain of discipline, then you'll never have to deal with the pain of disappointment.”
“You can't win together if you don't work together.”
“Great leaders do not rush to make changes because of failure.”
"Mediocre people don't like high-achievers and high-achievers don't like mediocre people.”
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