3 Lessons Conservatives Can Learn from Nick Saban

Regardless of your collegiate football affinity, or lack thereof, you’ve likely heard about the unprecedented run Alabama’s Crimson Tide football program is currently enjoying.

And since politics has already invaded our sporting entertainment, perhaps we could look to the gridiron to infuse the conservative movement with some winning lessons.

It’s not that conservatives aren’t making headway. Tax reform is on the table as is the possibility to at least peel back some of the worst parts of Obamacare, if not outright repeal.

But play has been sloppy. Lots of missed opportunities as the Democrats flex their messaging muscles to make every stumble feel like getting hit by a semi.

There’s a difference in making first downs and winning championships. To help the conservative movement reach its potential, let’s look to a program that knows how to not only win but to win so convincingly that they demoralize their opponents.

To provide some context for the unimpressed, here’s a brief rundown of Alabama’s success:

The Crimson Tide has appeared in more bowl games and won more national championships than any program in college football history.

Over the past decade, Bama has won 120 of 133 games and has spent at least one week every season ranked #1. They have outscored opponents on average 36-13 and brought home four national championships along the way.

If we are to empower grassroots economic growth and reset government in its proper, limited role, perhaps we can look to one of the most successful programs in college football for inspiration.

Here’s what works for Alabama:

Work the process, love the results

As conservatives, we love to tinker with the process. It’s time to stop.

One of the great ironies of the conservative movement is that we seek to preserve the principles of America’s founding but can’t stick with a consistent path to do that to save our lives.

Nick Saban has made Alabama successful in large part because of his obsession with what he calls The Process. In short, The Process is a dedication to discipline, talent and effective action that moves an organization forward to achieve results.

Here’s an example: when Saban and his recruiting team go out to look for a running back, they don’t look for the top-rated prospect. Who they look for is an athlete with speed, strength, size and agility within certain parameters. They are willing to pass on a higher ranked recruit to find one who better fits within the system.

Why? Because Saban knows that while a star athlete brings success for a season, The Process will create the momentum to establish on-going success for a decade.

As conservatives, do we know what it takes to build lasting policy change that empowers individuals, families and communities? Do we know what the policies are that will decrease poverty, create jobs, and ensure our national defense?

I believe we do, but here’s the next question: Do we have a process to achieve these results? Are we developing the talent to advance these policies? How about the talent to support elected officials? To communicate our ideas with empathy and insight?

Too often, conservatives get enamored with the “next big thing”. They chase squirrels – from fundraising and communications technologies to donor-requested issues – without the discipline to protect their time and resources to achieve the primary objective.

One notable exception is the State Policy Network, which has diligently and methodically developed a process to empower reform in the states. SPN supports local organizations and experts who are single-mindedly focused on the process of winning policy battles. They have been incredibly innovative in how they go about their work without deviating from the core process of building up state-based think tanks and their staff.

The truth is that widgets and data and yes, even grants, are not the outcomes – they are part of the process. If they honestly, actually boost our ability to implement reforms, then great. Let’s go. Far more often than not, they don’t. It takes discipline to know the difference, and act.

Achieve operational excellence

Part of working a process that achieves results is focusing on incremental improvements. It’s a paradigm we, as independent-minded conservatives, have rarely been able to fully embrace.

Even writing the words “operational excellence” sounds cold and dry. It feels like a banner hanging in Michael Scott’s office at Dunder-Mifflin. So why is a championship football team built on it?

Alabama thrives not because of trick plays, spread offenses or other frivolous nonsense, but because every player does their job on every down. Each man on that team is committed to doing his job with excellence. When they all do that, they are hugely successful.

Here’s an example from the policy world: recently the New York Times published an article about the massive infrastructure liberal organizations have created to support the #RESIST movement.

Accompanying the Times piece was a graphic detailing the dozens of organizations involved. Among the logos were three grouped under the heading “Innovation & Accelerators.”

This should stop every conservative leader in their tracks. Why?

For context, if you wanted to launch a tech company to be the next Facebook or Amazon, your first stop would be to apply to an accelerator like Tech Stars or Y Combinator.

These organizations prepare founders for success by pairing new entrepreneurs with experienced startup veterans. Accelerators teach participants how to design, pitch and scale their product so that when they graduate, they have accelerated the path to success by months, if not years.

Accelerators also serve a useful role when raising capital. Once a startup’s leaders have graduated from a well-known accelerator, it provides validation to venture capitalists that the company is operationally sound and a good candidate for funding.

If liberal organizations are committed to the same level of operational excellence, it means that new progressive organizations will launch faster, stronger, and with better funding.

A belief in the value of operational excellence leads to stronger organizations and better outcomes, no matter the sport.

The media is a conduit

Recently, Coach Saban referred to the media’s positive coverage of Alabama as “rat poison.” Reporters were more than a little taken aback at the comment, but Saban doesn’t care. He realizes that the role of the media is to communicate a message to an audience, and he is going to make certain they communicate his message.

When Saban goes off on reporters, he’s not really yelling at them. He is just making sure that his message gets through to his target audience – his players. He was telling his players not to listen to the analysts gushing about them on ESPN, but to focus on The Process.

When we know reporters and enjoy working with reporters, it’s easy to lose focus on the one thing that matters in a press conference or other interview: communicating the message you want the target audience to hear.

In today’s Twitter-driven world of breaking news, the media still has a powerful voice. Use that voice, even if it’s to send a message to someone down the hall.

Rolling with the Tide

Alabama didn’t win four national championships in the last ten years on accident. They didn’t have a conference call to yell at each other. They didn’t put together a presentation to present a wiz-bang strategy. They didn’t undercut each other at every opportunity.

They committed to a process. They committed to discipline. They committed to maximizing their God-given talent every second in the arena.

It is easy, perhaps even natural, for policy wonks and campaign operatives to over-think a problem. The simple reality is this: conservative ideas work. They lead to human flourishing and opportunity.

The trick is to improve every aspect of how we go about advancing those ideas.

Roll Tide.