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Mentoring At Its Finest: Kirby Smart, Nick Saban And The College Football Championship

Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart has his work cut out for him in the national championship game tonight. His team faces the Alabama Crimson Tide, a team attempting to win its fifth championship in the last nine years. Oddsmakers don’t believe in him or them. And on the other sideline will stand his mentor, Nick Saban.

When Smart’s Bulldogs kickoff this evening, it will be the 12th time one of Saban’s former assistants has attempted to beat the mentor… and still (to this day) Saban remains undefeated in those contests. Since Smart’s departure from Alabama in December of 2015, the Tide seemingly hasn’t missed a beat. Including tonight’s game, Saban has reached the title game in three consecutive seasons.

This speaks more to the mastery of Saban’s program-building than a negative reflection on the impact of Smart’s departure. I’m sure Saban knew that Smart’s days were numbered well before he left. After all, Smart won multiple national awards while on Saban’s coaching staff. Most notably, Smart was the first ever Alabama coach to receive the Broyles Award, recognizing the nation’s best assistant coach.

If you believe (like I do) that success leaves clues, then finding them in the teacher-student relationship between Saban and Smart isn’t that hard. That’s what fellow author and Alabama radio analyst, Phil Savage, has done with 4th and Goal Every Day: Alabama’s Relentless Pursuit of Perfection. In his latest work, Savage offers a 360-degree perspective on all things Alabama football and Nick Saban, having worked with the legendary coach as early as 1991 on the Cleveland Browns staff.

In his book, Savage writes on how compelling the connection was between the two coaches. Savage pens that Smart and Saban “had a dialogue on the sideline during a game that was in a langue all its own… An outsider would have no idea what they were talking about if he was standing between the two.”

Let that sink in for a moment. These two men (the mentor-mentee… teacher-student) were on the same wavelength so much so that they could make an outsider feel foreign, alien as if they were missing out on some sort of native coaching tongue.

Now, they will attempt to take all that they know about one another and lead their respective teams to victory.

I’m sure one part of the notoriously private Saban has to wonder how much “inside knowledge” all that time spent together will give his protégé. On the other hand, he has to be filled with pride that those he’s worked with are building challenging competitors, largely using the roadmap he has mastered.

All of us should aspire to be somewhere on the spectrum we’ll watch in the game tonight…either as a mentor helping to grow others – even if they might one day become our competitor – or as the mentee, soaking up all kinds of goodness and paying our mentor great honor by going out and building something special.

Consider your finest protégé. Have you set them up to compete against you? Are you OK with that?

If your answer is yes, then welcome to the shoes of Nick Saban. Competing against his former assistants isn’t uncommon for him. However, tonight it will play out on college football’s biggest stage. But what can YOU do in this situation? Visualize victory! You’re likely a veteran in your field of work. You’ve seen this all before. Simply remind yourself what a win looks like before the game even begins. Do that and the rest will come naturally.

For those disciples reading this that find themselves more aligned with the position of Kirby Smart in this one, fan the flames of your inner fire. Even if it looks as if the challenge is as intimidating as 0-11, use adversity as fuel! That’s what the Great ones do. It may feel like you only have a slingshot and a rock, but if you make the most of that one shot the rest should fall into place.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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