Nick Saban’s retirement: Read Fortune’s 2012 profile of college football coaching great


Nick Saban’s retirement brings down the curtain on the career of a modern legend of the sport of football, let alone the college game. The University of Alabama coach had huge shoes to fill in 2007, when he stepped into the job made famous by Paul “Bear” Bryant, and all Saban did was reel off a collection of national championships and undefeated seasons with no precedent in modern history.

Already a champion as coach of Michigan State, his Alabama sides won six more, including back-to-back victories in 2011 and 2012. That year, Fortune Executive Editor Brian O’Keefe sat down with Saban to learn the secrets of the process that made him such a modern titan of the game—and an example to leaders of any organization.

Here are some highlights of Fortune’s expansive profile. You can read the full piece here.

Efficiency to the smallest details—even lunch

Being detail-oriented helps Saban maximize his productivity, he told Fortune:

If you want to figure out what makes Nick Saban tick, start with the little things.

As he sits down at a small table in his expansive wood-paneled corner office, the coach grabs what looks like a garage-door opener and presses the button. Across the room, the door to his office softly whooshes shut. Boom! Nick Saban just saved three seconds. Multiply that enough times and you have a couple of extra months, or years, to recruit more high school stars.

Then there’s lunch itself. He has it down to a science — another in a series of small efficiency measures. Every day, Saban sits at this very table and works through his lunch hour while eating the same exact meal: a salad of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with turkey slices and fat-free honey Dijon dressing. No time wasted studying a menu.

Saban runs his schedule — and his entire program — with similar efficiency. Nothing is trivial or unimportant.

Admired by Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick admired Saban enough to copy his strategy:

Saban has long been recognized as having a first-rate football mind. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick — himself the winner of a few championships — hired Saban as his defensive coordinator when Belichick coached the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. He pays Saban the ultimate compliment: He copies him. “We talk on a pretty regular basis,” says Belichick. “If I ask Nick a question and he says, ‘Well, this is how we do it,’ then I usually just cut to where he is and take that shortcut and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do it this way.’ I know that he’s already gone through all the stages of thinking it through, and I would rather just get to the stage that he’s at rather than waste the time figuring that I’m going to end up at that same point anyway.”

The Process that took 40 years to perfect

Saban approached his role as football coach similar to how a CEO would, he told Fortune:

What really separates Saban from the crowd is his organizational modus operandi. In Tuscaloosa they call it the Process. It’s an approach he implemented first in turnarounds at Michigan State and LSU and seems to have perfected at Alabama. He has a plan for everything. He has a detailed program for his players to follow, and he’s highly regimented. Above all, Saban keeps his players and coaches focused on execution — yes, another word for process — rather than results.

Sound like your typical chief executive? “I think it’s identical,” Saban says, digging into his salad. “First of all, you’ve got to have a vision of ‘What kind of program do I want to have?’ Then you’ve got to have a plan to implement it. Then you’ve got to set the example that you want, develop the principles and values that are important, and get people to buy into it.”

Sounds simple. But it’s taken Saban 40 years to perfect the Process.

Plenty of coaches are intense, and a lot of them work hard. In fact, most do. Where Saban stands apart is the execution at all levels of his operation. That means defining expectations for his players athletically, academically, and personally, and — and this is critical — always following through.

Micromanaging with a purpose

Saban explained the art of paying attention to details without demoralizing his staff or team:

Saban wants to know what his players are doing in their workouts each day of the summer, down to the specific lift and weight. If a lineman is above his target body-fat percentage, Saban wants to know what the staff is doing to fix it. When there’s a football camp on campus, he has an opinion — a strong opinion — about where the welcome tent should be placed.

In other words 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.”

As hard as he drives everyone around him to prepare, Saban is careful not to be overbearing when it’s time to compete. Before each game the coaches have what they call a what-if meeting. (What if this happens? What if that happens?) And Saban makes sure to express his confidence in the staff

[This story is excerpted from the September 24, 2012 issue of Fortune.]

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