Lessons from the gridiron: Former Alabama football coach preaches the importance of process, culture

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If former Alabama University football career Nick Saban could point to a foundational moment in his career that helped shape his philosophy to coaching it would be this: In 1998, his Michigan State University football team with a 4-5 record was headed to Columbus, Ohio, to play an undefeated Ohio State University team. Speaking at a keynote session for MHI’s Modex tradeshow, Saban admitted he did not think his team had any chance of winning. So, he asked his friend who was a sports psychiatrist what he should say to his team. 

“He said you need to teach the team to focus on one play at a time, like [the play] has a history and life of its own, and to be totally process-oriented,” Saban recounted. “Do not be worried about the outcome, be worried about all the things you can do to get the outcome. There’s no external factors. There’s no scoreboard. You focus 100% in front of you and what you need to do for that play.”

Michigan State went on to win, in spite of being down by 10 points at one point.

“In that game, I totally changed philosophies and became a transformational leader instead of a transactional leader,” said Saban. “I was no longer always worried about the outcome. What do you have to do to get to the outcome, that was the whole focus.”

Saban attributes that philosophy change to altering the trajectory of his career, resulting in his going on to win seven national college football championships. Saban said that was the one recommendation he would have for business leaders in the audience would be to get out of a similiar transactional mindset of everything is about the bottom line to focus on what needs to be done to get to the bottom line. 

Throughout the keynote session—which was conducted as a Q&A with Agile Business Media Founder and Board Member Mitch Mac Donald—Saban continued to touch upon how discipline, process, and culture could foster success both on the football field and off. 

“People ask me all the time, ‘What does it take to win?’” he said. “I think they’re expecting me to say, have a good game plan, adjust and adapt during the game, do a good job at the preparation, and have a good system and staff. All of those things are really, really important, but probably the most important thing is the kind of culture you build in your organization.”

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