Nick Saban: Strategy G.O.A.T.

This was not what I was planning on writing.  I had a whole different article sketched out, but then the unthinkable happened. On January 10, 2024, Nick Saban* retired as the football coach of the University of Alabama. Two things are relevant to the rest of this article. One, I’m a graduate of the University of Alabama and because my family raised me right, a huge Alabama football fan. Two, Nick Saban, apart from being the greatest football coach of all time, is also one of the greatest strategists of all time. You’re probably thinking, “really, Catie?” Well, let me tell you.

Honestly, there’s a reason people use sports analogies so much in the office. But we must be honest about those too. On one hand, it’s generally a common language that most people in the audience can relate to. I live in Wisconsin, and we all speak Packers. On the other hand, sports analogies can also feel very “old boys club” and othering. I’ve been privy to both, frequently. Even as a woman who loves sports, I try hard not to use them. But, let’s face it, sports analogies tend to work. And why do they work? They work because sports are a microcosm of an office, set on a stage for all the world to see and observe.

But, back to Nick Saban. At the end of the day, a coach is essentially the CEO of the team. The role of any CEO is to set the tone from the top: to establish the vision and mission, to define the goals and objectives of the team, to be the chief communicator. Coach Saban does this through The Process. The Process (and yes, that’s a capital T and P), defines everything the organization does. It is the perfect example of John Kotter setting a compelling vision for change. And it’s communicated with the old mantra of “seven times seven ways” to the max. The Process is preached from the top down, it’s on the walls of the building, it’s on t-shirts, it is championed from old players to new players. You either buy in or you opt out. There is no questioning “what is our strategy” – it’s all around you. In our own organizations, how are we communicating our mission, our vision, our values? Where do we see it? Where do we hear it? Can our team members tell it back to us?

The Process includes key values – discipline, commitment, toughness, effort. Goals and objectives are part of Process Thinking. It focuses on the present. Winning the next snap (or for us office folks – the next task, project), becoming better each step at a time. Coach Saban focuses on W.I.N. – what’s important now – and, my personal favorite, Do Your Job. (Honestly, how often do we have an opinion on someone else’s job, when we have a ton of opportunities in our own?) Process Thinking allows team members to grow, develop, and become really great at the fundamentals of what they do. As leaders, what expectations are we setting for our team in how they grow? What strategies are we focused on perfecting so that we can be ready for the next step? Do we feel so confident in our fundamentals that we’re ready to take the next strategic step?

Change is inevitable. In reflecting on Coach Saban’s career, one of the most remarkable things is his ability to change with the game. We’ve all known leaders who “the game passed by”, but by being willing to change, Coach Saban remained relevant until the minute he retired. But The Process allows for change. To quote Coach, “Be rigid in fundamentals, but flexible in scheme.” The Process teaches us to grow our fundamentals, so we are ready for a change in how we do it. This is what allows Coach Saban to go from a defense first mentality to embracing a high-powered offense. It’s what allows an office to go from strict waterfall management to excelling at agile execution. In our own shops, how are we defining our fundamentals? What schemes do we need to be ready for? Are we brave enough to change? As credit unions, how are we growing and adapting so that the financial services industry does not pass us by?

Coach Saban would be the first to say that none of this can be done without talent. What has differentiated Coach Saban is not only his ability to recruit the right talent, but to then develop that talent once they join the team. In the credit union industry, we frequently hear about the War on Talent and succession planning for CEOs. We focus on hiring, but how often do we focus on retaining? To quote Coach, “It’s been our goal as a program to always give our players the best opportunity to be successful, whether it’s personally, academically, or athletically.” How are we thinking of our employees’ full existence – their growth, development, their personal financial well-being? As credit unions we preach People Helping People, but are we making sure to help our own people too?

My appreciation for Coach Saban runs deep. Not only as the alumni and fan that I am, but also as a strategist who tries to look outside the normal business roles to see what’s working, what’s not, and what we can learn from others. Having spent time around incredible leaders and CEOs, having read books and articles about leadership and strategy, for me, Nick Saban is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) for what he has done as a master strategist and leader. What he’s preached is bigger than football. It’s being rigid in life and strategy fundamentals so that we can be flexible in whatever scheme we choose to apply it.

A friend recently asked me if I thought Nick Saban could run a company or even be president. Without thinking, I said “Yes, without a doubt.” Because The Process is The Process is The Process. It can be applied anywhere by anyone. Which leads me to ask, what is The Process in your credit union, in your organization, in your life? And one more Coach Saban quote – “what are you willing to do to be great?”


*Disclaimer for those who are unsure, as one of my beloved teammates was – Nick Saban is a retired American football coach, who during his coaching tenure won seven national championships, six of those at the University of Alabama. Roll Tide.

Catie McDonald

Catie McDonald

Catie is a strategic partner and leader with a deep passion for the credit union movement. Throughout her career, Catie has worked closely with CEO’s, executive leadership teams, and ... Web: Details