The game. The moment. The “field of competition”. There is nothing as clarifying as the culminating event, the defining moment, that line of demarcation between winning and losing. Sports is such a great provider of those clearly defined outcomes, and nothing more so than the penultimate “championship game”. Monday evening again provided one of those moments. Clemson did not just win the game, they absolutely dominated Alabama. It has been an interesting four years watching those two programs compete for the National Championship in college football, each having won two. What makes it all the more interesting is that by definition, the teams to some degree change on an annual basis. While there is some player continuity on a year to year basis, but after a few years the players completely turnover. The only true consistent is the head coach. Unlike their NFL counterparts, the head football coach in college create the programs, the cultures and the environments.
What has become clear is that Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney stand at the pinnacle of their profession. While Nick Saban has clearly been at the forefront of the college coaching world for well over a decade, the last four years has seen a clear emergence of Dabo Swinney as a truly special coach. While both share a unique position at the top of their profession, each man clearly has a different leadership style.
Nick Saban is renowned for his focus, his process, his relentless attention to detail, for creating a system that has turned Alabama football into a true dynasty. A factory producing championships, coveted coaches/coordinators and a host of NFL players. To a degree his style is coldly professional, results oriented, absolutely committed to excellence, and very clear in that everyone plays a part to ensure the greater team goal is achieved.
Dabo Swinney has created an entirely different culture at Clemson. His style is open, warm, focused on creating an environment resembling a family, where having fun, maximizing the goals of the individual, and above all instilling a sense of love and passion for the game and for teammates is paramount. The result has seen Clemson clearly rise to the top, winning two of the last four National Championships while also producing a host of NFL players. Dabo Swinney’s style has created an environment which from the outside appears to be the antithesis of the Alabama “factory system”.
Thus far, both leadership styles work, just as various leadership styles work in all aspects of life. The interesting piece is that upon closer examination, Coach Saban and Coach Swinney teach us that their respective styles are not all-inclusive. There are clearly aspects of each style within the other program. Early in the season Dabo Swinney made a quarterback change. He replaced the well liked and respected senior Kelly Bryant with the freshman Trevor Lawrence. While love, faith and family feel are hallmarks of Dabo Swinney’s leadership style, quantifiable facts and commitment to the overall goal have to take precedence. He made the hard but right decision. He made the change, and the rest as the cliché goes, is history. Conversely, for all the portraits of Coach Saban as detached, cold and strictly process driven, snippets leak out of him taking players water skiing, of he and the staff playing hoops over lunch, of a warmth and personal relationship side to the process driven leader.
Both styles work, but neither works in totality. Each draws upon the other in various degrees, at different times, and for different reasons. While consistency and tone are critical components of successful leadership, there will come a time when flexibility and adaptability are critical traits for the leader and their team.
The leadership style, the feel and culture, the environment and tone are different, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney absolutely share a relentless work ethic. They are consummate professionals who are committed to their profession, their universities, their players, their coaches and the attainment of the ultimate goal. While they might have a different approach, style is nothing without sweat equity. Leaders have to put in the work.