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Nick Saban and David Leadbetter discuss what it takes to be a great coach

October 12, 2021

Editor's Note: This story appears in Issue 7 of Golf Digest. Read our latest issue in its entirety through our digital-edition app.

Nick Saban is arguably the greatest college-football coach of all time, leading teams to seven national championships, including his most recent in January for the University of Alabama. He describes himself as a golf fanatic, and during the offseason you can find him working on his 11.2 Handicap Index at the Coral Creek Club in Placida, Fla., or his other retreat, the Waterfall Club in Lake Burton, Ga. Saban and Golf Digest Teaching Professional David Leadbetter recently became acquainted and have become friends thanks to their passion for the pursuit of athletic excellence (not to mention the Hall of Fame instructor might get Saban’s handicap into single digits more regularly). “If his game is a small fraction as good as his coaching ability, he’ll have no problem,” Leadbetter says. We listened in as the two legends in their respective sports sat down for a chat about golf, football, life, and most importantly, what it takes to be an effective teacher.

—RON KASPRISKE

Watch the legendary football coach play three holes with Golf Digest's Hally Leadbetter below:

Leadbetter: Even after all these years, I’m still picking up things from other coaches, and it makes me wonder whether you’re still learning?

Saban: Absolutely. You never stop trying to find a better way. Whether it’s how to teach, how to develop, how to evaluate, how to help your organization be more consistent and successful, you’re always looking for a better way. But, of course, the game changes, technology changes, the rules change, so you have to change with it.

I’ve been told that whenever you’re not coaching, you’re on the course. How’s your game?

I never play during football season, and so I kind of have to re-learn it every year. When you show up to play golf where I play, and you don’t have any tan on your legs, they line up to get your money. They know you haven’t been playing. Seriously, I’m not a natural, and I didn’t have good coaching when I was younger. So I have a lot of bad habits to break, but if I can break 80, I played well.

You never master any sport, but which sport would you say is more difficult to get to the highest level—golf or football?

It’s hard to make comparisons in sports. But I find that after being a basketball player, a baseball player and a football player and not starting to play golf until later in life, it’s much more difficult to be consistent at golf. With other sports, if you were willing to play hard and put in the extra effort, you could overcome some deficiencies. In golf, you can put in extra effort, but if you can’t maintain consistency in your technique, you’re going to struggle.

Photographs by Walter Iooss Jr.

Do you see similarities between how you prepare your team and how a golfer prepares for competition?

There’s different stages of preparation to get your team ready to play, which I’m sure every golfer goes through, too. You don’t just go out and hit driver. How you approach it depends on the wind, and all the different shots you must make, and if you have to work the ball—which I’m not capable of doing any of those things.

If you go back and look at Gary Player versus Jack Nicklaus, there was no question who was superior from a physical-talent standpoint. But the fact that Player had that determination, that grit, to get to the top helped him compete with Jack. When recruiting, do you like to find a great natural talent, or do you like a grinder?

You’re going to have all different types of players on your team, but ideally, you’d like a combination of the two. One of the most important things we do in an evaluation is define the critical factors to play the position. If you look at someone swinging a golf club, there’s got to be several factors crucial to that player being successful, regardless of that person’s grit or determination. Character and attitude are very important to reaching your full potential. You can say Jack Nicklaus was more talented than Gary Player, but Nicklaus had determination and grit, too, or he never would have been able to achieve the potential he had. We’re looking for character, and do these players have the critical factors to play their positions. There are plenty of people who know what they want to do and even understand the process of things to do it, but they don’t have the discipline to execute it every day.

When you lose a game, and your team’s down, how do you go about motivating? Do you use the TLC approach or the big-stick approach?

The best time for athletes to learn is when they make mistakes. I always say, don’t waste a failure. Whether you got beat on a play, lost a game or lost a golf match, that’s the best time to learn. That’s when people are going to be more receptive to the critical eye. I have a little more compassion and subtle approach to the players when we lose, and when we win, I have a much more aggressive approach toward pointing out the corrections that need to be made. Just because you win the game doesn’t mean you played perfect. The worst thing you can do is play poorly and win. If you play poorly and win, you made a lot of mistakes that need to be corrected, but now the players don’t have the disposition to work. Complacency creates a blatant disregard for doing what’s right.

Has golf made you a better coach?

It’s good conditioning for me to be able to stay focused, even when things don’t go well. Golf is a metaphor for life. Whether you hit a great shot or a bad shot, you still gotta play the next shot. That’s how life is.

In your career, you’ve obviously seen a lot of changes—technology, quality of athletes, etc., right?

Everybody’s gotten bigger, stronger and faster. But the style of play has changed, too. Football used to be played in what I call a box, a small area—a lot of running, not a lot of passing. Now the game has evolved to be spread out, play fast, make it difficult for the defense, create a lot of run-pass conflicts. You got to change with it, or you get left behind.

Walter Iooss

I’ve heard one of the biggest parts of your job is preparation, true?

No question. When people hear preparation, they think it’s just for the game, having a good plan on offense, defense and special teams. But it goes all the way back to what is the mind-set of the people in your organization, what is the mind-set of your team? How can they focus? How can they stay resilient and overcome adversity? All these things are part of preparation that people don’t really look at.

What is your definition of discipline?

It’s a little bit different than what a lot of people talk about: what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it. We make hundreds of decisions a day based on self-discipline. There’s something I’m supposed to do that I don’t want to do, and you make yourself do it. Over here there’s something that you’re not supposed to do, and you want to do it. Can you keep yourself from it? That’s self-discipline, and it goes a long way toward the decisions you make as a football player and on a golf course—like Tin Cup. He knew he should have laid up. I do that sometimes, too, you know? I’m in the woods, and you know you should just punch it out and take a stroke, but instead you try to hit it to the green and end up making an 8.

Have you had players who worked hard to become superstars?

I think of Mac Jones, our quarterback this past year. He’s an example of that. The guy was in the program for three years, played behind some really good players. He worked hard and waited for his chance and succeeded. Today, a lot of people look for an easier path than that. They transfer and go someplace else because they are very outcome-oriented. I think back to our generation. We were more process-oriented. What do I have to do to get the outcome that I want? Today I ask a receiver, what is your goal? Well, I want to catch 50 passes. But that’s not a goal; that’s an outcome. Just like you ask a golfer, what is your goal? I want to shoot two under today. Shooting 70 is an outcome. It’s not a goal. Trying to get people to be process-oriented is the biggest challenge that we have.

You’re one of the greatest college football coaches ever. What keeps you motivated?

I enjoy coaching because I like to see players reach their potential—personally, academically and on the football field. Each group of players is a new challenge. We’ve coached at Alabama for 14 years, but a lot of people didn’t think we’d stay for three because I moved around a lot. I came to the realization later in my career that every year is a new challenge. That keeps me motivated. The second thing is, very simply, I hate to lose.

I oversee a junior academy, and our goal is not only to develop the athlete but to develop the youngster as a good person. Is that a factor for you?

Our No. 1 goal with all the players we’ve ever recruited is to help them be more successful in life because they were involved in the program. Most want to be good players in football, but if you can transfer that desire to other parts of your life, they have a much better chance to be successful.

Coach Lou Holtz is a golf nut, like you. He once told me he used to get so angry on the golf course. One day, he was playing in a pro-am, and the pro said, “Hey, Lou, you’re not good enough to get mad.” How do you take what you apply in coaching to your golf game?

Getting angry is not the best way for me to coach successfully, and getting angry from a bad shot or circumstance on the golf course is not the best way for me to play well. I tell players regardless of what happened on the last play, you have to play the next play. I try to tell myself that when playing golf. You’ve got to be prepared for the next shot regardless of the situation you put yourself in. It’s good for me. It’s a practice in patience, which I’ve never been accused of having much of. It’s a practice in the ability to stay focused even when things don’t go well. It’s helped me as a coach.