TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Every year when the University of Alabama football program holds fall training camp, Nick Saban lines up a guest speaker to address the team each night.
He’s had some doozies over the years.
They include Dewey Bozella, who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit (and at age 52 wanted a chance to fight a sanctioned boxing match—which he won), Michael Franzese, the former New York mobster with the Colombo crime family and too many others to list in this space.
For this year’s camp Saban may just want to print out a copy of Fortune’s annual list of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” that was released on Thursday morning and invite everyone who was on it ahead of him.
Granted, the Pope might be a little busy, but Saban was ranked 11th, one of just two coaches mentioned. Steve Kerr of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors shared the No. 15 slot with the best basketball player in the world, Stephen Curry.
As someone who used to have to keep an eye on Kerr when working in Phoenix and has interviewed him a few times, I can guarantee that the former Arizona Wildcat point guard was shocked to see his name just before Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Likewise, some people were shocked at Saban’s inclusion. Sure, he’s visited the White House so many times now that he might be on a first-name basis with some of the staff workers, but to consider him one of the most influential/inspirational people on the planet seems on face value to be over the top.
Besides, Forbes has had a similar fascination with Saban, calling him the “Most Powerful Coach in Sports” in 2008, and the “Best Bargain in College Football” last year.
Then you take a second look and realize that if a coach is going to be on the list, he’s the guy.
Saban has created what might go down as the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen. The only people one can draw a comparison to are the likes of legends Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Knute Rockne.
He recruits better than anyone and has had the most All-Americans and NFL draft picks, and the program’s graduation rates have reached new heights as well. The school has simultaneously almost doubled in size over the past decade.
But first and foremost, Saban is a teacher, and very good one, too.
“I’m old-school [and I] believe in college football and what college football is all about, and I know from a media standpoint nobody really cares about this,” Saban said. “But we’re supposed to help develop people who have a better chance to be more successful in life because they were involved in the program because of the leadership and example that were set by people and the standard that you have.
“Guys do things, on and off the field, so they have the thoughts, habits and priorities that are going to help them make the kind of choices and decisions so that they can take advantage of their gifts. We’re supposed to help them develop a career off the field, so they can graduate from school, which is going to help them be more successful in life. And we’re suppose to help them develop as football players so that whether they can have a career as a football player, their experience as a football player and competitor is going to help them down the road in their life.”
What sparked that response just a few days before facing Florida in the 2015 SEC Championship Game was a local reporter asking if he felt indirectly responsible for getting so many other coaches fired.
Except for Les Miles at LSU—and he came very close to being let go after losing to Alabama for the fifth straight time last November—every other school in the conference has replaced its coach at least once since Saban arrived at the Capstone, some of them despite winning records.
Former assistants Jim McElwain, Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp are now running big-time programs at Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, respectively, while Jimbo Fisher won a national title at Florida State, and Mark Dantonio made last year’s playoffs with Michigan State.
They all want a piece of what Alabama has been enjoying.
“So there’s some guys that have done a really, really good job of that in their programs, if you look at their record of graduation rate, things like that, and they win nine games, and that’s not good enough,” Saban continued. “I don’t have any idea of what anyone’s standard is for what they want to accomplish in their organization, what their expectation is. But I do think that there’s a lot of negative energy out there sometimes for whatever reasons get created as soon as you don’t have success.”
In general, Fortune’s list should be taken as nothing more than a talking point (note that President Barack Obama didn’t make the cut) and not an accurate reflection on who is really influencing people the most these days, especially in the millennial generation.
Sadly, on just about any college campus you’d have a difficult time finding anyone who could identify each of the top 10 choices. Most would probably get John Legend and maybe a couple of others, but you really couldn’t expect much more awareness than that.
Have you seen the video of the Texas Tech students struggling to name who won the Civil War?
Perhaps the right indictment is on the fact that true leaders seem to be in short supply these days. The ongoing train wreck known as the presidential election appears to be a reflection of that, and our short-attention-span society is doing everything it can to discourage others from stepping forward.
Entitlement is rampant. Complacency is simple. It’s easier to embrace ignorance than to take responsibility, all things that Saban battles on a daily basis, and not just with his football team.
You want to be the best at something? Work hard and earn it.
Saban has embodied that. He was a football leader even before he won his first title, but he also became a community leader in Tuscaloosa and throughout the state following the devastating tornadoes in 2011, which was not part of his contract with the university.
So “world leader”? Yes, the designation is actually fitting.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer and also the author of “Nick Saban vs. College Football.” Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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