The Man Behind Nick Saban

Rachel Baribeau, (

I sat in the press conference after Alabama come-from-behind 48-43 win at Ole Miss watching a battle-weary Nick Saban run his hand through his hair. The Crimson Tide was victorious, having been pushed to the brink by the Rebels. I was searching for a nugget, a morsel, something that would validate my feelings that if, if, this team were to go on to win another national title, that this game would prove to be a galvanizing moment in that journey.

I managed to get one question in. I asked about the pronounced momentum shift in the second quarter. What was the cause? Did the players wake up? Was it something the coaches said to them?

“No, we just said, ‘We gotta keep playing. We gotta keep playing,’” Saban said. “Score one touchdown and we are back in the game. We were able to score two. That’s a message that we always try to give to our players: how you have to compete, how you have to be relentless.”

Nick Saban – philosopher

“You’ve gotta overcome adversity,” Saban continued. “Actually, I talked to the players and I asked them if they like football. They raised their hand and said, ‘Yeah we like it.’ I said, ‘Well how many of you love it? How many of you love it, I mean really love it?’

“A lot of guys raised their hands and I said, ‘How many guys really love your teammates?’ And everybody put their hand up, and I said, ‘You know, to overcome burdens, whether it’s in a marriage, in a job. You know people are all excited, I’m going to get married, this is the woman of my dreams and five years later you can’t get along at all. You get a job and you say this is the job I’ve always wanted, and five years later, you are punching the clock and putting in time, so there are a lot of different ways you can quit.’

“I told the players, ‘if you can overcome the burdens, if you really love, well, that is how you overcome burdens. People who quit can’t overcome burdens. We will have burdens in this game and we will have to overcome them.’ I said, ‘If you guys love each other, you guys are going to be able to overcome whatever we have to.’

“I never dreamed it would be like it was, but turned out to be a pretty timely message and the players really responded to it.”

As I listened to his remarks I again noticed the softer side of Saban, the one few people acknowledge, but I know exists. I heard another man speaking through Saban as well, sharing a message of love and accountability. Actually there were two, but we’ll start with the first.

The man behind the man

His name is Dr. Kevin Elko. He’s a doting father and husband, a gifted orator, one that will leave you hanging on his every word. A real life-changer. He is literally the man behind the man.

While he has 20 national championships underneath his belt, he is not a coach, he’s a performance consultant. He flies around the world speaking to fortune 500 companies, NFL and college teams – sometimes giving three talks in a day.

It is his work with athletes and coaches you see, hear, and read in press conferences and postgame interviews. You probably never knew that until now.

  • “Get stuff done (or GSD)”
  • “Be where your feet are”
  • “I’m not looking for a miracle, I want to be a miracle (to someone)”
  • “I walk by faith, not by sight”
  • “I owe you”

These are, but a few of the phrases he has used over the years.

And he’s been with Nick Saban since 2001.

“I was at Miami with Butch Davis and Nick was at LSU,” Elko recalls when we spoke this week. “But I was with Butch. Nick was after me for a little while, but I didn’t go. I was in Baton Rouge speaking elsewhere and I ended up going into speak to the team (LSU).

“I was just teasing him, ‘If you win a national championship, you need to send me ring.’ I didn’t even know him. They beat Oklahoma and he sent me a ring; that was the first year I was there. I’ve been with him ever since.”

In those days Saban had yet to make his indelible mark on the game.

“Nick Saban wasn’t even a name then, the name is college football was Butch Davis,” Elko said. “I was with Butch. I was turning everything around at Miami with him. In those days it was Butch Davis and Bobby Bowden. Those were the two names.”

But leaders are leaders, even before anyone else recognizes them. It’s who they are, down to their cellular DNA. They act differently, they think differently, they march to the beat of their own drum, not because they have to, but because they can’t help but be special.

“I thought the world of Nick before he was a name,” Elko told me. “I was with him before he’d ever really won anything. I just thought he was different.

“He is different because of systems and organization. With him everything is a system. I saw it from the beginning. The first time I went in to meet him, he was staring at a map of the country, a recruiting map. I went in to shake his hand and meet him (around 8 a.m.) and he was staring at that map.

“I went in a couple hours later and he was still staring at that map. It’s just an extraordinary organized mind. It’s systematic. His mind is set up in systems, like something I’ve never seen.”

The other man

The other man I heard in that press conference was also a gifted orator and writer.  Only he walked the earth almost 2,000 years ago.

His name was Apostle Paul.

“So last week, I read Corinthians and I called him,” Elko said. “And we talked about what he should say. I said Nick, ‘Do you believe this? That the key to Alabama isn’t, ‘Let’s dominate, let’s be against them?’ No. ‘Let’s keep on playing because we have a love for each other,’ and that was kind of it.

“It came from what I thought about what Paul said, ‘Love endures, love bares all.’ People think that I just feed Nick Saban stuff. No we come to together in agreement. If I would say something that didn’t match his spirit, he wouldn’t take it to his team.”

Elko presents a version of Saban often overlooked. This is not Saban the yeller, the dictator, the final authority. This is a malleable Saban, Saban the listener. Saban is ever-changing, for the better.

He may arouse a feeling of hatred in you, or love, but know this: He elicits passion just by being who he is. Here’s another surprise: He is an introvert and, according to Elko, uncomfortable beating his own drum. Elko is happy to do it for him.

The woman behind the man

“If you ever met his wife, you would know he has an extraordinary wife,” Elko said. “Terry is extraordinary. And he was raised with values, that is the second part. The third part is the tornado changed him, it changed me, it changed everyone.

“Because you see humans hurting. Nick Saban goes down and champions legislation to help give depressed, suicidal teenagers assistance. He will do stuff with charities that no one will even know about.”

One area that Elko teaches – he harps on it – is marriage.

“It’s a simple thing,” Elko told me. “I’m married to someone who has made me a better person. One of the key parts of having victory in your life is who you marry. And if you don’t have someone like this, don’t get married.

“Every time we bring in a coach, if I help Nick, I have him tell me out loud what he thinks about his wife, or what he thinks about marriage. If I’m helping him bring in a coach, I will tell him, ‘I want to hear what you think about your wife again. I know, but tell me again.’

“I’m not going to bring a man in here to be around a coach that doesn’t respect his wife. He’ll tell me: ‘I love my wife. I am faithful to her. I love this about her and that about her.’ ‘Ok, Nick I believe it. I believe you. Hand me the phone.’

“He wanted Mario Cristobal, but Mario Cristobal is still a young man. I said to Nick, ‘I don’t want him to come learn off of you on how to be a coach, I want him to learn to be a man. So I need to know one more time that you are,’ and he would tell me. I believed him and said, ‘Hand me the phone to call Mario, or Jeremy Pruitt.’

“The process is, I say to them, ‘I’m friends with Nick Saban, come, don’t ask any questions. I did with Jeremy and I did it with Mario. And they would say, ‘I’m here, I got this offer.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t care what offer you have, get over here.’

“Jeremy said, ‘I have Michigan, I said good, you’re coming to Alabama.’ Mario said, ‘I’m at Miami, I’m the coach in waiting.’ ‘No, you need to come up here with Nick Saban.’ It’s that simple. There is no discussion. There is no persuasion. I just tell them and then they realize what it is, and they don’t blink.”

Elko is not only involved in the player’s lives, he is involved in shaping and making the coaches that mold them.

Alabama moving forward

That galvanizing moment I was hoping to write about, I got it, at least part of it, but I didn’t get it from Saban, I got it from the man who stands beside him and guides him.

“I think it’s an ongoing process,” Elko said. “Going into the game, he and I talked about you have to emerge with a brand. And I think they emerged with part of a brand and that is not quitting.

“The next thing they have to do is, this is for everyone: there are things that pull us off of attention. It could be fatigue, it could be boredom, it could be energy. And we need to learn to be there every single play.  In marriage, it’s in writing an article, it’s in pursuing a career.  You have to learn to keep showing up with your attention.

“I think they took a step towards that, I think that they have to show up more at the beginning… staying completely absorbed for the entire 60 minutes, it’s almost like training a muscle. So I think that they took a step towards that, but as he said in the press conference, they took a step in love and playing together, and not surrendering together. Now, it’s going to be being where your feet are, and being completely absorbed in what you are doing this minute, and that is hard. That is tough.

“People just think it’s a conscious decision, but it’s something you have to train your mind to do. You have to train your mind to stay on task and bring things to completion. If they are going to be a champ, they have to take the next step. (Alabama is) close, but now they have to not have lapses in attention.”

We’ll see if that love directs the feet of the players and the coaches, so firmly planted in the here and the now, on a path straight to the national championship game.

If so, I might have been onto something, in a mighty circuitous way. The hard-fought battle against Ole Miss may not have been the galvanizing factor in a potential championship run, but (regardless of the season’s outcome) it is part of the process that is becoming a champion in life –  not just on the field – under Nick Saban and Dr. Kevin Elko.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Elko, you can pick up his book, The Sender, wherever books are sold. It is loosely based on the inspiring notes Dr. Elko shared, daily, with Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano during his victorious battle with cancer.

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