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VOL. 129 | NO. 167 | Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Finding Life Influencers

Football coaches depend on leaders from within programs

By Don Wade

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Coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban get paid millions to lead and win championships, so it’s only natural that Saban would say something like this:

College football coaches depend on team leaders to help players deal with adversity. At Alabama, that adversity came with this shocking game-winning touchdown against Auburn last season.

(AP Photo/The Ledger-Enquirer)

“We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.”

Or something like this: “Don’t follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you.”

Only Saban didn’t say either of those things. The first quote belongs to Queen Victoria and the second to Margaret Thatcher; neither played nor coached college football as far as the historical record shows.

But they did know a thing or two about leadership and so does Saban. So this one does belong to him, or at least he has used it:

“Leadership is your ability to impact someone else for their benefit. When you impact somebody else for your benefit, that’s manipulation.”

Saban wasn’t even speaking so much of his role as a leader as of the necessity of having leaders within the rank-and-file of the team. College football coaches have been talking about their “senior leaders” for so long that it has become trite. Yet, the need for players as leaders – be they upperclassmen or underclassmen – is real.

Alabama’s 2013 season is illustrative. The Crimson Tide was shooting for a third straight national title. Alabama was 11-0 and had only one close game – a 49-42 victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 14 – when it went to Auburn for the Iron Bowl.

As anyone who even casually follows college football knows, Alabama lost that game when a missed long field goal resulted in Auburn running the ball back from nine yards deep in its own end zone for a game-winning touchdown. The possibility of defeat was born that fast.

Alabama senior wide receiver Christion Jones says that, in retrospect, it was clear the season had been building toward that one miserable moment when players did not pay attention to small details.

“Once you win two titles back-to-back, it’s hard to find that hunger,” Jones said. “Yeah, you play good. Yeah, we did our job. But we didn’t do it the same as we did in 2011 and 2012.”

Again, looking back, Jones said the players’ leadership in 2013 wasn’t as consistent.

“How long are you going to lead a team?” Jones asked. “Through the ups and the downs? There were a lot of small things the leadership let get by.”

At Alabama’s level, those small things can be the difference between playing for a national title and getting beat in a “lesser” bowl, which was how last season ended. For a program such as the University of Memphis, which hasn’t been to a bowl since 2008, the little things can be the difference between winning and losing every week.

New York Times best-selling author John C. Maxwell, who has written many books on leadership, says, “Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.”

Memphis coach Justin Fuente sees that influence in redshirt senior running back Brandon Hayes.

“Brandon helps everything, to be honest with you,” Fuente said. “He’s a guy that’s got a great work ethic, great demeanor, fun to be around, shows guys how things are done. No job’s too small for him. He’ll do anything you ask him to do.”

Asked what percentage of his job as a quarterback is about leadership, Mississippi State junior Dak Prescott said: “Every bit, 100 percent. You may not have to be the guy that’s ‘rah, rah, rah.’ But just lead by example and being the right guy on and off the field and giving guys a sense that you can be a real person and a good player.”

Of course, for any player to be heard in the locker room he has to perform on the field.

“How are they going to look to me if I’m out there getting beat deep?” said senior Texas A&M defensive back Deshazor Everett.

Senior defensive end Martin Ifedi is a quiet guy, a “pull-them-aside” guy within the Memphis Tigers’ locker room, but he also says it’s the players’ job to handle things at their level.

“The coaches don’t want to have to baby-sit,” Ifedi said. “Ultimately, it’s our team.”

Ifedi, Hayes and senior cornerback Bobby McCain are all part of Fuente’s Leadership Council. It’s an intentional way of giving the players responsibility.

“You don’t need people taking the law into their own hands, so to speak,” Fuente said. “But you do need guys that can comfort or call it like it is with people.”

McCain says he tries to pick just the right moment in both cases.

“Sometimes I like to sit back and let things unfold, but if I see a problem I’ll address it,” he said. “If I see a guy doing the right thing, I’ll address him as well.”

One life influencing another.

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