Auburn

Nick Saban's post-loss lessons

December 2, 2013: 1:12 PM ET

The Alabama football coach usually wins. But how he handles losses, like Saturday's defeat to Auburn, shows leadership too.

FORTUNE -- Nick Saban is surely in a great mood today. Smiling. Enthusiastic. Full of positive energy.

No, I'm not being sarcastic. What, you would expect something different from the Alabama football coach?

You're probably thinking that the soul-crushing 34-28 loss to cross-state rival Auburn on Saturday would make Saban, not perceived as a warm and cuddly figure on his best days, particularly surly. This wasn't just any regular defeat, after all. It dropped Alabama's record from undefeated to 11-1 and almost certainly ended the Crimson Tide's hopes of winning an unprecedented third straight BCS National Championship. And it came in especially gut-wrenching fashion. Alabama gave up 13 points in the final 32 seconds of the game, including a bizarre, game-winning, 100-plus-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown on the final play -- which raised questions about both Saban's tactics and the thoroughness of his team's preparation.

To this writer, it certainly felt like a waking nightmare. As a lifelong Tide fan, I must grudgingly give credit to the Auburn coaches and players for their effort even as I replay in my head all of the mistakes made by Alabama. It was hard for me to muster more than a passing smile this morning.

So why do I think that Nick Saban is in such a chipper mood? Because it is all part of his famed Process.

Last year, I wrote a piece for Fortune on the leadership lessons that we can learn from the meticulous approach of the Alabama coach. My story was largely reported and written before the 2012 season began, and published after Alabama's first game. Late in the year, Alabama's championship hopes took a hit when the Tide lost at home to Texas A&M. But Saban rallied the team, a series of unlikely events created an opportunity for the Tide to get back in the championship hunt, and Alabama wound up winning the BCS Championship game in resounding fashion over Notre Dame. Alabama's title team from the previous year also had to overcome a late-season loss and benefit from a little luck.

Such a reprieve is highly unlikely this year. But while some Alabama fans fret about persistent if unsubstantiated rumors that Saban will depart for Texas, the coach himself will be diving into, well, his Process.

Here are three ways we can expect Saban to react to the loss and get his team back on the winning track.

When things turn negative, go positive

The popular perception of Saban is that he is a growling, humorless coaching automaton, a "robot set on 'win,'" as Warren St. John eloquently put it in a recent GQ profile. Anyone who watches ESPN has seen the highlights of Saban exploding in anger at his players after a mistake in a game that is already well in hand. Casual observers might imagine that watching his team lose a winnable game might cause him to yell at them even more.

But it's the opposite, according to Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a longtime Saban assistant. "That's probably the misconception on him," said Smart when I interviewed him last year. "People recruit against us, saying, 'Oh, he's always on you. He's negative.' No, he gives sugar when it needs to be given. He gives confidence when it needs to be given. And he's the opposite on wins and losses. I mean, Monday he'll be a terror after a win. But after a loss, everything's great. He's out there in a great mood."

After a loss of that magnitude, I bet he's beaming from ear to ear.

Drop the blame game, and learn from the mistakes

Long before Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, there was a football coach at Alabama named Paul "Bear" Bryant. One of the coaching legend's famous quotes went something like this: "If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes real good, then you did it. That's all it takes to get people to win football games." In his later years, Bryant routinely went out of his way to take public blame for any and all mistakes by coaches or players.

Saban doesn't hew perfectly to this script. He has a hard time, particularly in post-game comments when emotions are still high, not pointing out the mistakes of others even while saying that he is "ultimately" responsible.

For instance, after the loss on Saturday Saban said that it made perfect sense to trot out a little-used back-up kicker for a high-pressure play with very low chance of success. (How many 57-yard field goals have you seen made in college games this year?) He also clearly felt that his players blew it when they didn't tackle the Auburn player on the return. "'Grif' makes them from 60 in practice," he said. "He didn't hit it right. We still should have covered it. You're supposed to fan out, and cover it."

But Saban is a master at moving on and finding the lessons in a loss, without castigating his coaches. "In the staff meeting, he's the most self-critical," said Smart last year. "He'll say, 'There's no need to defend the call. Don't defend what you did. I'm not criticizing you. I'm doing self-analysis of what could we have done differently.'" Saban is meticulous about probing his own mistakes for lessons. "He is a quality control guy," said Smart. "When I say quality control, I'm talking about looking at what we did and how can we do it better. All part of the Process."

Next time Saban is tempted to try a 57-yarder, we can expect his team to be better drilled on defending the potential return.

Stop whining and stay paranoid

A hallmark of Saban's Process is the 24-hour rule: enjoy your success on Saturday or wallow in your self-pity for a maximum of 24 hours, and then get back to doing all the little things that you need to do to win. The Alabama players and coaches could spend 10 lifetimes analyzing all the small breaks or mistakes that cost them the game. The fans (myself included, truth be told) certainly will. What if the Auburn defensive end hadn't been left unblocked on a crucial 4th and 1? Saban will seek to harness that what-if energy from his players for what remains of this season and, more importantly, for next year, and channel it into a redoubled work ethic.

There is a fundamental paradox in Saban's Process: It breeds success. Yet the very success it enables threatens future success. So, in a way, a soul-crushing loss is a gift, a way of getting everybody's full attention again. A little bit of failure can be a huge motivation tool.

"When people have success, one of two things happen," Saban told me before last season. "They either get really satisfied and want to keep thinking about it and talking about what they did, or the success becomes a little addictive, and it makes them want to keep having more. That drive and motivation makes you understand the next challenge is that you're going to be a target, and you really need to focus on the things that helped you be successful and continue to improve. Otherwise somebody's going to pass you up."

Even after a defeat, Saban and the Tide remain a high-value target for the rest of the college football world. And you can bet that he will make sure that his players and coaches don't spend the off-season feeling satisfied.

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