3 Leadership Lessons from the 2018 College Football National Championship

I am a huge fan of football, especially college football (CFB).  As many know, most of the players at this level play their hearts out in hopes of making it to the next level.  This fact was very apparent during the recent CFP national title game between #4 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and #3 ranked Georgia Bulldogs. 

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, center, celebrated his game-winning touchdown. Credit David J. Phillip/Associated Press

I’ll tell you, this was by far one of the most enjoyable title games I’ve watched in a while.  When the Tide’s unlikely hero freshman Tua Tagovailoa threw the game-winning 41 yard touchdown to DeVonta Smith in overtime I came out of my chair. This was a thrilling end to an intense battle. 

As I reflected Tuesday morning, I thought Alabama, particularly Nick Saban and Tua Tagovailoa demonstrated 3 characteristics of all great leaders:

#1.They remained focused on final half. After two quarters of football, Alabama went to the locker room trailing Georgia by 13 points. It was very clear major adjustments had to be made if they were going to win. Alabama’s starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts, just could not get the offense in a positive rhythm. It was clear, this was not Jalen’s game. However, Nick Saban in classic fashion maintained a very positive approach.  He needed to create a spark within the team. Benching the starting QB was the answer.

So what, you are losing at the end of the first half. Great leaders are focused on the end result. They understand an initial struggle does define their team’s final outcome. When there are roster shakeups, it’s never personal. It’s about doing what’s best for the team.  Effective leaders analyze the problem and make appropriate adjustments to ensure their team is positioned to get the spark needed to win when it matters most.

#2. They used inexperience to their advantage. The experienced Hurts was benched because of his inability to create positive offense. Once Tua was in the game you could sense a change in the air. Although he had not played any real time during the regular season, he took the helm with confidence in his abilities. He also trusted his team.  After making a few positive passes, Tua threw an interception. This could have been a turning point for the worst. However, he quickly reassured his coach that he could be trusted to lead the team. Saban’s confidence never wavered. Georgia’s thorough preparation against Hurts was very obvious. However, their calculus backfired once the unknown variable was added to the equation.

Great leaders are not afraid to give their inexperienced team members the opportunity to perform, even on the highest stage.  They understand when their experienced starters are struggling to get the job done, inexperience is nothing more than commentary.   In order to win they do things a bit unconventional.

#3. They use setbacks as motivation. It was overtime, Tua held on to the ball to long and took a sack on first down. Georgia was up by three points and he had lost 7 yards on this play. This could have been a perplexing situation for Alabama. However, the team remained laser focused.  Saban acknowledged he wanted pull his quarterback to talk to him. Luckily for him, he could not get to him before he had snapped the ball and thrown the game winning 41 yard touchdown. The win came immediately after a critical seven yard setback.

Great leaders don’t let their setbacks define who they are. They understand setbacks happen. That’s part of the game. It’s how you respond after you get knocked down that matters.  Great leaders use these moments to dig deeper and reinvent a better version of themselves. Ultimately, after a major setback, they get back up and go for the win.

In the end, it is clear that the College Football National Championship game wasn’t solely about natural ability or momentum. It was really about leadership.  Saban and Tagovailoa were the better leaders, and that’s the real reason the Tide won.


*Photo Credit David J. Phillip/Associated Press