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Nick Saban Knows How To Manage

Alabama trailed Georgia for the entire SEC Championship Game. The Tide started making a comeback in the third quarter, and then the team’s all-everything quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, had his ankle stepped on by one of his teammates. The injury was serious enough to take him out for the rest of the game. Bama had to turn to Jalen Hurts, a one-time SEC Player of the Year, who had lost his starting job to Tua in January’s National Championship Game.

Hurts took the field and led the offense first to a touchdown that tied the game, and then to another that ultimately won it for Bama. Surely by now you have seen the Twitter posts and the commentaries that came out of the whole affair.

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After the game Nick Saban, a murder robot parading as a football coach, fought back what appeared to be human tears as he talked about the way Jalen Hurts dealt with losing his spot in the starting lineup and continuing to lead this team in the locker room. That, Saban said, is why he was ready to lead this team on the field when his opportunity presented itself.

As you can see from the Tweets above, the common talking point today is that the lesson to be learned is in how Jalen Hurts “didn’t quit on his team in this age of transferring if you aren’t a starter.” That is a little silly. If we’re talking about Jalen, the lesson to be learned is in sticking to your guns and doing what is right for you. By staying at Alabama, he got to work with one of the best QB coaches around in Dan Enos. He gets to finish his degree. That means when he does transfer next year, he won’t have to wait a season to play.

The lesson I hope you pay attention to in this scenario is the one from Nick Saban. I went to Bama, so I am biased. I think there is a lesson for everyone in everything Nick Saban does, but every PD in the country could benefit from studying the way Nick Saban handled Jalen Hurts this season.

Let’s rewind all the way back to August, long before either of Bama’s heralded QBs had taken a single snap. There was so much speculation surrounding the Crimson Tide. It wasn’t so much about who would start at quarterback. It was about how Jalen Hurts was feeling and what school he should transfer to.

Everyone was speculating, but as we found out the first time Jalen himself was allowed to speak to the media, no one asked him.

Let me give you the TL;DR version of what he said there. Basically, no one, not even Bama coaches, talked to him about what the plan was at QB during the offseason. He took as many snaps as Tua did with the starters and had to go home every night and read and see people speculating about how he would deal with being benched. That was incredibly unfair.

He didn’t call any coach out by name. He never said that Nick Saban had let him down. It was certainly implied though, and the kind of people that make me nervous to tell strangers that I am an Alabama fan took to Twitter to call Jalen Hurts a crybaby, an entitled millennial, and every code word people use to describe black athletes when they want some measure of deniability against being called racist.

Nick Saban didn’t do any of that though, because he isn’t an idiot eager to go to Twitter and use his high school football coach from 1973 as an example of what should happen to Jalen. Saban defended his QB whenever he was asked about the situation. You might remember his really misguided and clearly rehearsed explosion at ABC’s Maria Taylor on the sideline after Bama’s drubbing of Louisville in Week 1.

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What Nick Saban understood, what every good manager should understand, is that there is no good or right way for a 20 year old to react to receiving bad news. I’m 37 and I don’t fully know how to react to bad news.

He didn’t overreact. He didn’t kick the kid off the team, as the stupidest members of my fanbase wanted. Nick Saban gave Jalen Hurts a chance to be human and vent some frustration.

As a manager, you know there are time you have to deliver bad news to your employees. If the bad news is that the employee’s services are no longer required, that is one thing. You let him or her say their peace and try to remain professional. But what if the bad news is that you are moving their show from afternoons to middays or nights? What if the bad news is that you are cutting a valued part-time employee’s hours? How do you deliver bad news to an employee, let them have a human reaction no matter how angry they are, and then get them back on the same page with you?

It’s sort of a hard question to answer, because the playbook Nick Saban laid out is effective, but it really isn’t a checklist. He managed Jalen Hurts in the way Jalen Hurts would respond to best. When Jalen’s dad, a respected high school football coach in the Houston area, was making comments in the offseason about his son being “the biggest free agent in college football history,” Saban didn’t tell the guy to shut up. He labeled it “outside noise.”

Saban hired Dan Enos to be his quarterbacks coach. Enos has a reputation of being one of the very best in his field. Surely a hire like that would make it clear to Jalen Hurts that staying at Bama would give him advantages he couldn’t get elsewhere.

When Hurts voiced his frustrations to the media, Saban brought him in for a one on one meeting. The coach acknowledged his mistake. He asked what the quarterback wanted to happen next.

When the season came around, Hurts got a lot of playing time. Remember, Tua didn’t throw more than 3 meaningful fourth quarter passes this season until this weekend. Until he got injured, Hurts played every fourth quarter and amassed better efficiency numbers than at any other time in his career. Saban was reminding his junior QB that not only was he still needed, but that Hurts still needed his guidance.

The steps paid off. Saban had the steady veteran hand he needed on Saturday night. Hurts got another year of tutelage under the greatest coach in college football history and a hero’s ending. Together, they got another SEC title.

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Delivering bad news sucks. Trying to get someone who you just had to deliver bad news to to still believe in you is hard. Their feelings might be hurt. Their gut might say you no longer have any use for them.

The key to managing a disappointed person is listening. Make them understand that you are hearing what they need to still feel valued in the wake of the blow their ego has just taken. Offer the necessary olive branch that says “just because the situation has changed, it doesn’t mean I don’t still value you or need you.”

Bad news can be uncomfortable if you have to be the one to deliver it. For the person receiving the bad news, it can be devastating. Go out of your way to make sure that person understands that their feelings are not lost on you. If there is still a role for them on the station or at your company, make it clear to them that you trust that they are the right person for this new role. You wouldn’t keep them around if you didn’t want them there.

Personality management can be a steep mountain to climb when you move into the corner office. Make your people feel heard, especially when they start to question if there is a place on the team for them. There is never a guarantee that “everything will be okay” or that “it will all work itself out,” but if you aren’t even trying to empathize with the people that work for you, it will be hard to get what you need from them when they are no longer getting what they want from their job.

Demetri Ravanos
Demetri Ravanos
Demetri Ravanos is a columnist and features writer for Barrett Media. He is also the creator of The Sports Podcast Festival, and a previous host on the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas in addition to hosting Panthers and College Football podcasts. His radio resume includes stops at WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC.You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos or reach him by email at [email protected].

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