Nick Saban was included this week in Fortune’s ranking of World’s Greatest Leaders, coming in at No. 11 on the list. While it might have been unexpected for some to see Saban included in a group with the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos , Pope Francis, and one spot below the prime minister of Bangladesh, college football fans couldn’t have been too surprised about his inclusion based on the leadership qualities Saban has displayed as a coach.
Here are the four moments when Saban’s ability to lead was most apparent.
Saban leaves Michigan State for LSU
A true leader is able to notice a trend before it becomes a trend, and Saban recognized the SEC’s ability to dominate college football before it ever happened.
It might seem like a “no brainer” now that a coach would jump at the chance to coach at LSU, but when Saban made the leap in 2000 it was anything but a sure thing. The SEC hadn’t produced a national champion since Alabama’s title in 1992, and LSU hadn’t won a SEC championship in the previous 14 seasons.
However, that history would quickly change under Saban — who won the league for the first time in 2001, and then again in 2003, along with the BCS title for that season, as well. That championship for LSU was the precursor for a run of seven consecutive national titles earned by SEC schools starting in 2006.
Saban leaves the NFL for Alabama
Leaders aren’t afraid to make unpopular decisions, and they’re always driven to be true to themselves.
The NFL is the most popular sports product in all of North America and among the most popular entities in the entire world. Once a man arrives as a head coach in that league, it would be rare for him to to choose to leave on his own — yet that’s exactly what Saban did when he left the Miami Dolphins after two seasons to become Alabama’s coach in 2007.
Saban’s decision was heavily criticized by some in the NFL media who couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go back to college when a job in pro football was an option, but the NFL just wasn’t for him. He knew he belonged back in the college game, so that’s where he returned with little regard for what anyone thought about it.
Saban chooses a relative unknown as defensive coordinator
The success of any leader is largely determined by his ability to identify talented people and surround himself with as many of them as possible.
When Saban hired Kirby Smart to be defensive coordinator at Alabama in 2008, Smart was far from a household name. He had spent most of his brief career — up to that point — being a defensive backs coach.
Saban saw in Smart an ability to be so much more than that and he selected him to lead Alabama’s defense just as the program was beginning its unprecedented collection of championships.
Saban’s intuition regarding Smart’s talents had a big payoff for the Crimson Tide.
It’s no wonder then that as Smart moves on from Alabama to become UGA head coach, he does so employing many of the same leadership strategies he learned from Saban.
Saban takes a risk on Lane Kiffin
World-class leaders grow and adapt; they aren’t afraid of innovation.
Before Lane Kiffin was hired as Alabama offensive coordinator in 2014 it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say his career was in shambles. He had just been abruptly fired as USC’s head coach and was despised at Tennessee for having bolted from the Vols after one tumultuous season in 2009. Many observers surely must’ve thought Saban had lost his mind when he put his reputation at risk to give Kiffin another career opportunity.
Yet Saban’s decision was driven by more than just a desire to help Kiffin. Saban realized Kiffin could help him, as well.
Saban had been one of the biggest critics of the so-called “hurry up, no huddle” offense. He had once famously asked, “Is this what we want college football to be?” Yet at some point Saban must’ve become aware that he was losing that argument, and hiring Kiffin was his way of joining in on the trend.
Saban’s offenses under Kiffin have become successful by utilizing many of the up-tempo tactics Saban once rejected. It’s no doubt a change for Saban, but unquestionably a change for the better.
The best is yet to come?
Given the level of achievement Saban has enjoyed in the SEC, and the manner in which that achievement has been obtained, it’s fitting that the conference’s premiere coach would be recognized as a great leader by Fortune.
Furthermore, with Alabama once again expected to compete for the national championship in 2016, it’s a strong possibility that Saban could rank even higher on this list next year.