Lessons manifest from Swinney’s fun train to Saban’s executive chambers

The Nationally College Football Championship is in the books, and the fun-loving coach beat the serious business tycoon in an impressive rout. The Clemson-‘Bama matchup makes a great case for examining different leadership styles, each of which have proved to be successful in guiding a team to reach the pinnacle point in the season, four years in a row.

Dabo Swinney is a constantly uplifting coach noted as an authentic, transformational leader who inspires others with a visionary outlook of the possibility of success. He joyfully creates a compelling need for his players and staff to follow his lead. He makes subtle jokes during press conferences. He high-steps on the sideline after a huge play. He rents out an amusement park for his team. He hosts family night every week during the season. He works to keep the mood “light” and he recruits loyalty over, but not at the expense of, talent. He recruited the freshman quarterback with long hair who has been described as a Power Rangers fanatic. He promotes a family-environment and has created a culture for Clemson football built on relationships and loyalty. Swinney’s demands are simply that players and staff enjoy the process and have a great experience being a part of the Clemson football program.

Coach Nick Saban, on the other hand, is the authentic, transactional leader who created a culture of expected excellence embedded in a style that is direct, authoritative and transparent, where players and staff follow his lead out of an obligation and duty. The coach has built a dynasty in Tuscaloosa (five national championships since 2009). He advocates a direct connection between success and action, noting that actions can be influenced by an individual’s thoughts which is where a coach has direct impact. His unparalleled consistency in behavior is evident. There’s the ‘Bama way, and everyone else’s way, which explains the discipline demanded by Saban in the work ethic of his players and staff. There is no compromise. One journalist, Marc Tracy, characterized Saban by virtue of his “joyless exterior, CEO. mentality, fanatical devotion to detail, and buttoned-down professionalism.” A business-exchange is Saban’s modus operandi in demanding compliance for the reward of sweet success.

Fun-loving and focused vs. serious and business-like — the happy bandwagon vs the process express — both coaching styles have proven their worth.

Despite the differences, there obviously are commonalities in the leadership of Saban and Swinney that have made a more compelling argument for Alabama and Clemson’s sustained success. It’s no secret that loading up on an arsenal of talent (players and a staff) is a key ingredient for success. “Surround yourself by great people” is a mantra for successful leaders in sports, politics, or business. Interestingly, while Saban is touted for supplying a direct pipeline of assistant coaches for the NFL, Swinney has had much more stability in his staff, having lost only three coaches over the past four seasons compared to well over a dozen at Alabama (‘Bama’s staff just this year alone included six brand-new assistant coaches).

Both head coaches profess accountability for actions and are relentless in their pursuit of excellence. Both are detailed oriented, ethical, and professional to the core. Each coach truly believes no one will outwork them or their team, on or off the field. Both are successful despite different styles of influence and motivation for eliciting desired behaviors.

In a few years, Nick Saban may hang his hat and retire from collegiate coaching. In the wings will be Swinney, who may be persuaded to head further south and a little west to his alma mater in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It may happen, and it may not, but regardless, the fun train will always remain part of Dabo Swinney’s persona, just as the benevolent dictator will always be tied to the identity of Nick Saban. Thanks for the lessons in leadership, gentlemen.

Stay tuned next month for more educational and entertaining stories from a global, national, or local vantage that provides a window to understanding the intersection of sports with business, politics, and life.

Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sports management at Tiffin University.

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