It’s easy to think of a football team in terms of offense and defense. Teams make a name for themselves on both. You often hear, “This team has a high-powered offense” or “that team has a dominant defense”. So, why does Alabama head coach Nick Saban invest a large amount of his time in special teams?
Perhaps, it is because he recognizes that most head coaches do not. They focus more of their attention on offense or defense. Who can blame them? A disproportionate number of plays each game will be an offensive or defensive play. Your offense will score the majority of your points and your defense will prevent the majority of points scored against. They are critical aspects to the game.
But, Saban’s focus on special teams is two-fold. First, he recognizes that special teams are devalued in football. Just ask Auburn about their importance. Most importantly, it sends a message to his players. Some coaches play backups on special teams. They do so to get others playing time or reduce the chance of injury to key players. This is not true at Alabama. In fact, a number of their most talented players are on special teams. It’s a matter of pride.
Players recognize that special teams are important because their head coach invests time and energy in them. And, because it’s important to their coach, it’s important to them. Therefore, they battle for starting spots on special teams. They want to be on punt block or kick coverage teams. They want to be returning kicks or punts. Being a starter on special teams is just as important to them as it is being a starter on offense or defense. As such, Alabama often has better players on special teams than their opponents – meaning, they are more likely to have better field position, create points on failed drives, deny opponents points on successful drives, etc. This leads to a greater probability of success.
So, what does this mean for you and your organization?
Sometimes, those in charge take on responsibilities that, at other institutions, are delegated to those lower on the organizational chart. In residence life, you sometimes see this in advising. RHA or NRHH advisors are often assistant directors or hall directors and many are qualified to do so. But, I was always surprised when I would see an executive director serving as an RHA advisor. Certainly, they have other important priorities and those lower on the organizational chart are certainly capable of advising these students.
Yet, here is what I discovered. These departments had fantastic student organizations. Their student leaders were phenomenal. Is this because their director was advising these groups? Possibly. But, their assistant directors and hall directors were also accomplished advisers who had an above average understanding of student leadership.
By advising these groups, the director was sending a message to their organization. Student leadership is a priority. Others in the organization recognized this and thus made it a priority as well. “What’s important to our director is important to me.” Hall councils were highly functional, people in the organization were ART certified, they often hosted state and regional conferences, etc. Much like a football team that made a name for themselves on special teams, these organizations made a name for themselves on student leadership.
Other institutions have created reputations in similar fashion, whether it be student programming, staff selection, orientation, educational priorities, etc.
Who is your head coach and what are your organizations’ special teams?
As a director, or to continue the analogy, a coach, where you invest your time and energy sends a message to those within your organization about what your organization values. This analogy scales down as well. If you are a mid-level or entry-level staff member, what you spend your time and energy on sends a message to your entry-level and student staff members respectively.
Saying special teams are important and then focusing your time and energies on offense doesn’t send the message that special teams are important. It sends a message that though you want others to care about special teams, you really care about other things more.
One can make the argument that, as a head coach in our respective areas, we have more pressing priorities. Things that can be delegated out, should be. Is it a fair point? Absolutely.
Yet, Nick Saban still focuses on special teams. And, Alabama keeps winning.
No matter what level professional you are, there is a difference between saying you value something and showing you value something.
Where do you invest?
By the way, Alabama finished first in special teams last year.