Leadership, Legacy and Love of the Game: A Conversation with Nick Saban
Watch Andy Sieg, President of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, and football legend Nick Saban, Head Coach at the University of Alabama, discuss using passion and purpose to shape success and the importance of family and legacy.
ANDY SEIG: Hi, everyone, I'm Andy Sieg, head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. On behalf of all of us at Merrill and Bank of America, I'm delighted to welcome you to a very special occasion, a conversation with Nick Saban, head football coach at the University of Alabama. By any measure, Coach Saban is a legend. By leading the Crimson Tide to the national championship in 2020, his seventh national championship, he surpassed Bear Bryant. At Alabama, an astounding 88 percent winning record, 170 wins and only 23 losses. During his six national championship seasons at Alabama, Coach Saban's teams have gone 17 and 2 against top ten opponents. And since 2008, they spent all or part of every season ranked number one in the national polls. And he's not done yet. His contract at Alabama was just extended through the 2028 season, ultimately taking him to 22 years with the university. Coach Saban's known for leadership, not just his record, but his ability to attract and motivate top talent, mold it into a winning team, and do so with integrity and style. On the personal front, he and his wife, Terry, have been married 49 years, 2 children, and they have 2 grandchildren. Coach Saban, we're excited to hear from you, and our clients appreciate the qualities you brought to your career. They aspire to do the same in their own. And the parallels are obvious: having passion and purpose, the right game plan, and the team to execute it. Now, Coach, we see competition in both sports and business. A winning mindset is important, adjusting and anticipating to maintain an edge. From your perspective, what's it take to be a perennial winner, and how have you prepared these incredible teams at Alabama?
NICK SABAN: I get asked that question quite often, and, you know, a lot of people think it's a good game plan, its ability to adapt and adjust in the game, be flexible, have really good teamwork and togetherness, have good systems both on offense, defense, special teams. And I think all those things are really, really important. But I think the number one thing is establishing a culture, a mindset in your organization that everybody can understand. And it's got to be somewhat about them, and that's got to be somewhat about the team. But I think the number one thing that we always tell people is, you have to have a sense of purpose in what you want to do and what you want to accomplish. So I think a lot of people refer to those things as goals. And I'm talking about individual goals, things that you want to accomplish and you want to do. For example, I bring every player in when they come here, and I say, "What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to do with your college career?" Many of them will say, "Well, I want to graduate. I want to play in the NFL someday." And I'm happy with that. But there's a second part to that. And I get accused of inventing this, which is not really correct, is now what do you have to do, to do those things? How do you define what you have to do to accomplish the goals that you have, which is referred to as "the process"? The process is simply a definition of what do I have to do to accomplish the goals that I have? And then there's a parallel that goes with that is, how do I have to edit my behavior to be able to accomplish those goals? When Kobe Bryant was here and spoke to the team, he made a very interesting comment. One of the players, I asked him, "how do you score 60 points in the last game that you played when you were 40 years old, coming off of an Achilles tendon surgery?" And he said, "I worked out eight hours a day for 365 days out of the year, so I can play that season and finish that season. They don't put that part on ESPN." And his point was that's how I had to edit my behavior because I never had to work that hard to play any other season because I wasn't coming off an injury, and I wasn't 39 years old going on 40. So, the whole concept of how do you have to edit your behavior to be able to accomplish the things that you want to accomplish. And then probably the most important thing is, do you have the discipline to execute it every day? Now we have a plan, we have a goal, we have a plan. We have a process that we have to go through. We know what our behavior needs to be. But now do we have the discipline to execute it every day? And, you know, if you play in any kind of sports, I know you're your coach had to sign up on the wall that said, "discipline is do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it the way it's supposed to get done, do the right thing, the right way, the right time, all the time." But I'm talking about self discipline. And self discipline, really, we answer hundreds every day. We answer hundreds of questions that come down to these two things. Here's something I know I'm supposed to do that I really don't want to do. Can you make yourself do it? The second part of it is, here's something I know I really shouldn't do, not supposed to do, but I want to do it. Can you keep yourself from it? Well if you can make those choices and decisions the right way, you'll always be able to stay on the path of accomplishing the goals that you have. And it really comes down to feeling versus choice. You hear people say all the time, "I don't feel like studying. I don't feel like going to class today. I don't feel like practicing." Whatever it is in your field. You've got to choose to study if you want to graduate from college. You got to choose to go to practice if you want to play in the NFL. So it's feeling versus choice. And, you know, that's a kind of bridge that everybody needs to cross if they're going to be successful. That you have enough mental toughness, fortitude, perseverance, whatever you want to call it, that you can make the choices and decision to do the things you need to do rather than doing what you feel like doing. So that whole mindset is very, very important to me. I think the fourth part of all that is having the ability to self-assess. If you can self-assess, you have your goals, you know the plan, all right, you've got the discipline to execute. But now if you can self-assess, how am I doing on all these things? Then you're going to have a better chance to improve. Because if you can't self-assess, it becomes very difficult for you to improve. And if you can self assess, you're always going to have respect for the critical eye, which is the people above you, whether it's a coach in football or whoever your administrator is, who are trying to help give you direction, on how you can improve and how you can get better. So if you can self-assess, you're going to have more respect for the critical eye. So you're going to learn more, develop more quickly and be able to accomplish the goals that you have probably more readily.
ANDY SEIG: When we think about that philosophy and then your incredible record around recruiting, do you sort of identify young people who you believe will respond to your philosophy or your system? How do you weigh that versus the skills they show on the field? You know, a lot of our listeners are running businesses, so they think about recruiting and hiring all the time. And I know they appreciate your perspective.
NICK SABAN: Well, first of all, I think that you got to know what you're looking for. If you go to our lake house, you know, Miss Terry's got seven bottles of ketchup and no mustard because she goes to the store every day with no list. So she just seems like she always buys ketchup and never buys mustard. So my point being, you have to identify and know what you're looking for. So we define critical factors that are important to play every position. Well, positions in football are no different than positions in your organization. They all come together to make a team and all may have a little different skill set. The left tackle does something different than the wide receiver, for example. But when we define the critical factors that are necessary to play the position, for example, defensive back got to be able to judge a ball at any part of the field. You've got to be a play man-to-man, and you've got to be able to tackle. Well, we might have 25 skills that determine whether a guy can do that. Then there's a size and space component to it. Then there's a character and intelligence component to it. So we take all those factors and say, OK, this guy meets the critical factors that we're looking at. He's the right size, he's the right kind of person. He's got the right kind of character to be able to develop that potential. Because if you don't have good character, and you're not the right kind of person, you probably aren't going to develop whatever potential that you have. So, I'm telling you how we define what we're looking for when we bring somebody into our organization. I think you have to define that yourself, in your business, in terms of how you want to do that. And then I think that there's got to be some things that are really important in terms of people in your organization. Now, the number one thing that's important to me is what kind of character does somebody have. You know, what kind of person are they? How do they treat other people? What kind of ability do they have to communicate? The only way they're going to be able to develop relationships with people is to be able to communicate. The only way they're going to fit in with the other people in the organization already is their ability to communicate. So that's going to go a long way to how they develop relationships. And then, you know, knowledge is really kind of a big part of all that. What kind of knowledge do they have? What kind of expertise? But probably more important to that, do they have the ability to learn? And will they listen to learn, so that you can develop them to do the things that you want them to do in your organization? So those are kind of in a nutshell, how we define what we're looking for, but also some critical factors, I think, and the kind of people that you want in your organization.
ANDY SEIG: Hey Coach, I have one more question on people. Just when you think about your coaching staff, how do you maintain a fresh perspective and an edge? I know you've brought very senior people onto your staff, and some of them have gone on then, very successfully, to do other things. Is that a strategy to kind of proactively drive some change in your staff over time?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think that, first of all, there's really no perfect players, there are really no perfect people. The first guy that gets picked in the NFL draft just has a few less flaws than everybody else. So I kind of look at what does someone have to offer in a positive way? And a lot of the people that you refer to, had a tremendous amount of success to get to the opportunities that they had. And this because they had some flaw that sort of was a setback in terms of their career. That didn't mean that they still didn't have a lot of value, that they still didn't have a lot of expertise. That just means that they had a flaw. And in some businesses, in some circumstances, when you have a flaw, you get sort of diminished completely out of every part of the organization because of that one thing. And I've never thought that. I was trying to take the good things that somebody has to offer and try to, you know, incorporate them into our organization, to make our organization better because their flaws not going to bring our organization down in any way, shape or form. So we actually can build and challenge the people in our organization to be better by bringing good quality people who have lots of experience into the organization. And, you know, there's a lot of people out there that don't like that theory of doing things. They don't want to be challenged. And my whole thing is, is I want people to be better than me. If I can hire a whole group of people to be better than me, we're going to be better because of it. And that's going to be a good thing. So, that's something that we always really try to do.
ANDY SEIG: Hey Coach, I know our clients would love to learn a little bit about influences that shape you and your perspective. And maybe I could ask, could you share just a couple of the influential people in your life and how they helped shape your definition of success?
NICK SABAN: Well, I think you have to start with my parents especially. I had a great mom and a great dad. My dad was a coach. He was a competitor and he was a perfectionist. And I worked at his service station from the time I was 11 years old. And until I got married. And there was no room for not doing things exactly right. If you watched a car and there was a streak side, you lost it again. If you didn't treat the customers right, you got reprimanded for it. If you didn't treat someone with respect, you got reprimanded for it. So, there was this constant sort of, this is the way you need to do things. This is the right way to do things. There's no compromise to not doing things the right way. And there was a pride and performance that came with all that, that carried over into athletics when I played athletics. And it was tough love, no doubt. But I think it was very beneficial in the end to develop in the kind of work ethic, perseverance, ability to overcome adversity, pride and performance to be the best that you could be, whatever it is you choose to do. Those things were very, very big part of my upbringing when I was young. And then I was very fortunate to have really good coaches. I never wanted to be a coach. You know, people just assumed that I grew up wanting to be a coach. I never wanted to be a coach. Coaches had a great influence on me. My high school coach had a great influence on me. My college coach, Don James, was very influential because he always talked about not being a good football player, not winning the game, but being successful, being as good as you can be. This is what you need to do to be successful. And that's kind of how I've always patterned our programs. You know, our program here is all about helping people be more successful in life because they were involved in the program, through personal development, academic excellence, career development, developing careers on the football field. So, it's a philosophical thing that I learned when I was a college player. So, I just always been very fortunate to have really good mentors, but I've always been a really good listener. And even when I work for people that I never quite agreed with, the way they did things, I learned, maybe this is not the way to do it because I listen. I didn't try to convince them to do it the way I thought they should do it. And I was very fortunate to have a lot of good mentors that I said, wow, that would be the way to do it. And just kind of took all those things in like a sponge through the years, and I was very fortunate to work for Bill Belichick, who was very process oriented, defined the expectation for everybody in the organization, and held everyone accountable to that. I don't care if you were in personnel or you coaching on the field, or you were an executive in the organization in some way. Everybody was held accountable to a standard. But he defined the expectation for everyone, too. He didn't assume that everybody knew what he expected of them. And I think we all make mistakes, you know, in that. In business as well as, you know, in coaching, that we assume that people know what we expect. We assume that they know what we want. And we really don't define it for them. But if you define it for them, then they can buy into it, and you can hold them accountable to it, and everybody has a better chance to be successful. So, you know, I've had some really good mentors, though, those are two of the best. And, you know, Wayne Huizenga, who is the owner of the Dolphins, when I was there, was one of the most successful, compassionate people I've ever met. He had more money than anybody I've ever met. But he started out with one garbage truck, and he ended up building into waste management. But the guy had more compassion and treated other people as well or better than anybody that I know. And I always had a tremendous amount of respect for that and said, you know, that's the way I always want to be remembered, too. And he helped a lot of people, in a lot of ways, which is kind of why we do Nick's Kids, because it gives us an opportunity to give back to other people who have supported us. I would say those are the people that had the greatest impact on me.
ANDY SEIG: Hey, Coach, that's a perfect segue, because I was going to ask you a bit about legacy and Nick's Kids in particular. I know our clients would love to learn more about it. Could you just share a little bit about Nick's Kids?
NICK SABAN: You know, I think that, I think Muhammad Ali said this or somebody that, "the rent we pay here on Earth is how we serve other people." And your legacy is probably going to be a lot about the trees you planted that you never saw grow. And that's kind of how I feel about you Nick's Kids, is if we can help and create opportunities for a lot of other people, that those things are going to grow and live long beyond us. And I think that's something that's really important to us. That people didn't help me. You know, I came from a coal mining town in West Virginia and hung out on the second street corner. And how did I get here? It was because other people took the time to help and provide direction, support, educate, keep me on the straight-and-narrow in a lot of ways when I could have gone right, when I should have gone left. And so I appreciate that. But I also think that when you help somebody else, you know, my dad's motto was, "no man stands as tall as when he stoops to help a child." So we've always tried to do it in terms of creating opportunities for young people. I get more self-gratification out of that than probably anything. You know, each year we have to give-away the day we start camp, in the fall. And, you know, that's one of the funnest days of the year for me. So Miss Terry does a great job with this, spends a lot of time. We're building our eighteenth house in a community right now, one for every national championship that we won, which was stimulated by the tornado in 2011 when a lot of people lost their homes. We said, OK, we'll start building houses. And I don't know how many national championships we had back then. Maybe it was a 12 or something. So we built 12 or 13 houses, and then we added on. We built a school with the juvenile detention center so people could get their high school diploma and welding trades so they can go out, get a job. You know, we've given, I don't know, a lot, of we sent eight- Our goal was to send eight kids to the University of Alabama, eight years on, every year, on first generation scholarships. And then there's over a hundred organizations throughout the state and the southeast that are young people organizations that we support to try to help create opportunity for, in most cases, people who aren't as fortunate as we are.
ANDY SEIG: Coach, thank you. A lot of us have been reading about a fairly seismic change in college sports, you know, this topic of name, image and likeness, the ability of players to seek endorsement income. What's your perspective? Do you see this as a positive for college sports, a negative or, you know, kind of jury out on the topic?
NICK SABAN: I think there was a couple of ways to look at it. I think, first of all, players have always been able to work. And when I played, I worked all summer and, you know, just a few years ago, we used to have a big summer work program where players could work and earn money in the summertime. And then we all of a sudden change the rules that everybody could be on a scholarship in the summertime. So guys would like to go to summer school and be on scholarship and all of a sudden people didn't work anymore. But this just creates another opportunity for players to work and make money. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that. Now, the issue is, is what are the... Because we have no precedent for how it's going to affect the future, what are the issues going to be a year from now? And that's something that none of us can know. But I've kind of warned our team that, you know, A- everybody's not going to get the same opportunities. Some positions will have better opportunities to make money than others. Nobody can look over their shoulder and say, I'm envious of that guy because he's getting something and I'm not. Can't be that way. It's not that way in pro-football. You know, Aaron Rodgers makes 24 million dollars a year and probably makes a couple of million dollars in endorsements. I don't really know that. But the right guard probably makes a million dollars and doesn't make any endorsements. So, that's just the way it's going to be. Things are not going to be equal. So, this cannot affect us as a team. Still, everybody should be trying to create value for themselves as a player, because that's much more valuable than what you can make in name, image and likeness. So you're going to make 20 thousand dollars over here doing some whatever, and you can make 10 million dollars playing pro-football. So don't get things out of perspective here in terms of what's still most important. You're getting an education, and you become the best player you can be. And this is just a job that you have an opportunity now to make money in a different way. So what the consequences of that are going to be, I really can't say. But I don't think it's a bad thing for the players. Nobody really kind of knows what the consequences are going to be.
ANDY SEIG: Hey Coach, for a last question, we went out to some clients and asked them what they would like to hear you address. This is not going to surprise you. The number one question, far away, was how's Alabama going to be this year? So we'd love any comments on the upcoming season and how you think about it.
NICK SABAN: Well, I think every year is sort of a rebuilding year for a college football team. And obviously, when you have a very successful team, which we had last year that won the national championship, we won because you had a lot of good coaches and you had a lot of good players. And a lot of those people aren't here anymore. So, there's a new challenge in how do you replace the players that left? How do you, the roles that those players had on the team, whether it's leadership or whatever it might be, who actually changes their role to sort of encompass a role like that and want to take that responsibility to do that? So, we have new coaches that have to sort of get into the system of how we do things here. So, how are these things sort of fit together, you know, determined to a large degree on how well do we do next year as a team? We're going to have a lot of inexperienced players on offense, especially. And we're going to play Miami, Florida and Texas A&M in the first five games, none of them in Tuscaloosa. So these guys are going to have to grow up quick. And how this whole team dynamic and team chemistry grows, and how the players adapt to the new circumstances. Just like last year, we had to adapt to a new circumstance of COVID. Our team did a great job of adapting to that throughout, and they had success because they were able to adapt. How are we going to be able to adapt to the new challenges that we have. Guys transferring, guys' name, image and likeness? What happens if this guy didn't get something that guy did? All those things are going to be factors in terms of how this team does this year. I'm happy with what they've done to this point, how they've prepared, how they worked. But I'm not much of making predictions in the future.
ANDY SEIG: Well, Coach, you've been very generous with your time, and thank you for sharing your experiences and your wisdom. I'm sure our listeners are as inspired as I am, and this has been a highlight that we won't forget. And so, we wish you all the best this season and in the years to come. You got a lot of people here who are going to be rooting for Alabama. And so, no better way to close this out than saying "Roll Tide." Thank you, Coach.
NICK SABAN: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity and best to everyone in your organization who has the opportunity to listen to this, and I wish them very much happiness and success in the future. So thank you very much. And I'll say "Roll Tide" as well.
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