Nick Saban: Master Designer?

“He is different because of systems and organization. With him everything is a system. I saw it from the beginning. The first time I went in to meet him, he was staring at a map of the country, a recruiting map. I went in to shake his hand and meet him (around 8 AM) and he was staring at that map.”


I can’t get enough of Nick Saban’s coaching philosophy, discovering new insights into him and his program, and learning the consistent practices he instills to keep his team performing at the highest level possible on a ridiculously consistent basis. His 2015 biography was a fascinating, albeit unauthorized, glimpse into Saban’s life in coaching, and one of my favorite books of the past couple of years. It’s easy to dismiss his demeanor as cold and his intensity as disingenuous, but by all indications those traits are simply by-products of his intense commitment and obsession with constant and incremental improvement. His success is unmatched in college football and he’s in the discussion as one of the single greatest coaches in the history of sport.

So I loved this latest peak behind the curtain of Saban’s program, with a unique perspective from a performance consultant he’s partnered with since 2001, Dr. Kevin Elko.  Elko was prominently featured in Saban’s book, as he helped Saban define his now famous “Process” years ago, which has been a huge part of Saban’s success ever since.

Saban: The Making of a Coach
One of my favorite bios in recent years, Saban: The Making of a Coach, by Monte Burke.

Design Thinking: Iteration and Incremental Improvement

What I found particularly interesting, and surprisingly relevant to my work in branding, marketing, and advertising, is how Elko describes Saban’s mind as being so organized and his thoughts being 100% systematic, both of which are cornerstones of great design.

We talk a great deal about design thinking at my company, VSA Partners – what that means for our day-to-day operation, how we all can apply that to our work, and how we apply those principles to solve business problems for our clients.

One important aspect of this approach is to focus on the user/consumer first to define the real problem or opportunity, rather than the old school but all-too common practice of leading with what media channel to advertise in and working back from there.

Likewise, rather than talking lofty championship aspirations and Heisman trophies, Saban approaches practices, seasons and recruitment periods by dissecting big goals and team deficiencies into the smallest pieces possible.

With the true business problem defined, we work to develop a system around that issue to yield the greatest results and the most powerful impact possible.  That could mean anything from a new identity, to package design, to shopper marketing tactics at retail, to a social media program, to more traditional media planning and mass media creative executions.

“I went in a couple hours later and he was still staring at that map. It’s just an extraordinary organized mind. It’s systematic. His mind is set up in systems, like something I’ve never seen.”

Whereas this design exploration can involve rounds and rounds of small tests, prototyping, revisions and new approaches, for Saban and Alabama Football, the focus turns to incremental improvement every single day – from 4-minute offense, to recruiting Texas, to strength training (more on Bama’s strength training here).

Identifying the root of the problem first sounds obvious, but all too often it can be glossed over in favor of loftier conversations about complex strategies, sexy creative concepts or irrelevant details. But crystalizing that problem, then approaching the solution as an organized system is a process that’s been a refreshing shift in philosophy for me, and it’s interesting to see similarities in the way one of the all-time greats in college football processes and approaches challenges for his team on a weekly and annual basis.

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