So, I was reading my Forbes magazine last week. I know that sounds pretty highfalutin’, but what else do you expect me to be doing while smoking a pipe and wearing my jacket with patches on the elbows?
Anyway, I was reading my Forbes magazine with no thought that I’d be dragged into a sports argument. But there, in the magazine’s annual list of the World’s Greatest Leaders, was Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
He was the highest-ranked sports figure on the list of 50 great leaders, coming in ahead of tennis player Serena Williams and The Gymnasts and their Allies in their fight against corruption and sexual abuse within the United States Olympic gymnastics program.
At No. 12 on the list, Saban came in one spot behind General Motors CEO Mary Barra and one spot ahead of Baldwin County native, Auburn graduate and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Barra is credited with turning around the domestic automaking giant. Cook leads the world’s most valuable publicly traded company in the world.
And Saban? He coaches football.
So, at first glance it’s odd to see his name included in a list that includes some of the world’s most powerful people. But we should get over that bias.
Think back to the greatest leader you’ve ever encountered.
Are you thinking of a high-ranking politician or corporate bigwig? Chances are just as good that the person you’re thinking of was your high school debate team coach or Boy Scout leader.
In my case it was a newspaper editor, who was a great leader because of one trait more than any other — the ability to communicate a clear goal for our team and not accept anything less than perfect effort in our pursuit of that goal.
That sounds an awful lot like what any Alabama football player would tell you is the core of The Process.
When the Alabama team visited the White House earlier this month, President Donald Trump zeroed in on that trait in honoring the reigning national champions.
“Anyone who wants to know how Alabama does it, they should study coach Saban’s simple philosophy,” Trump said. “It’s called ‘The Process.’ Coach tells his players ‘don’t look at the scoreboard, don’t look at any external factors, just focus on your efforts, on your toughness and all your discipline on executing each play, one play at a time. By doing that, by focusing on the process, the outcome — winning — will take care of itself.”
Why shouldn’t a football coach who oversees dozens of actual employees and more than 100 student-athletes be considered for the list of the world’s greatest leaders?
Here’s what Forbes had to say in justifying Saban’s inclusion alongside the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates.
“Late on a Monday night in early January, The University of Alabama’s quarterback, 19-year-old true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, threw a game-winning, 41-yard laser beam of a touchdown pass to give the Crimson Tide a 26-23 victory in the College Football Playoff. The win gave Alabama head coach Nick Saban his fifth national title in nine years at Alabama. Add an earlier one he won at LSU in 2003, and his six rings match Alabama legend Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant for the most football championships by a college coach in the so-called poll era, dating back to 1936. Now that he’s succeeded to a historic degree, Saban is grappling with the sports version of what business guru Clayton Christensen famously dubbed the “Innovator’s Dilemma” — the fact that success today makes it hard to keep the edge you need to win in the future. But if the last few years are any indication, the grappling is going pretty well.”
While visiting the White House, Saban looked right at home in the larger-than-life setting — that is, when he wasn’t taking the opportunity to call high school recruits he hoped to impress with his location at the time of the conversation.
“This season was a little bit of a metaphor of life in terms of the togetherness, the hard work, the perseverance that these young men put together to overcome a lot of adversity, to create a legacy for a lifetime and a memory for a lifetime with them because of what they were able to accomplish as a team,” Saban said as his team and the president looked on. “This group of young men will also learn a lot of lessons that will help them be more successful in life because of the experiences they had together this year as a team.”
This spring and into the fall Saban is going to face one of his most challenging tasks as a coach. He has a returning starting quarterback in Jalen Hurts, who has led the team to the national championship game in both of his years as a starter. Hurts is not only a gifted athlete but the manifestation of The Process, excelling on the field, in the locker room, in the classroom and in the community.
But he’s no Tua Tagovailoa. As a freshman, the young Hawaiian came into the national championship game against Georgia to rescue the Tide from a 13-0 halftime deficit, then threw the championship-winning pass on the final play of the college football season.
Hurts is a great young man and is greatly respected by his teammates. Tagovailoa has the talent to be an all-time great.
Saban has already decided on a solution to the problem, even if he hasn’t decided who will be on the field every Saturday.
“We don’t have a quarterback controversy,” Saban said last week. “I won’t let it be a distraction for this team.”
Spoken like one of the world’s greatest leaders.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.