So many great moments in last night’s college football championship game. So many people stepping up in different ways. Three stand out as leaders: Coach Nick Saban being ready to make required changes and having the courage to make the changes when he needed to do so; freshman reserve quarterback Tua Tagovailoa stepping up to do what he needed to do to win the game; starting quarterback Jalen Hurts keeping his head in the game even after being pulled out.
For those of you who missed the game (and you missed quite a game), Georgia crushed Alabama in the first half, completely choking off the Alabama offense and heading into half-time with a 13-0 lead. Saban went with his back up, true freshman quarterback for the second half, leading to a heart-stopping 26-23 win in overtime.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll describes Saban’s (and Belichick’s) philosophy of “Next man up, ready to go, no excuses.”
Let’s unpack that.
“Next man up” is the result of future capability, succession and contingency planning. Saban is already building his 2025-2026 team. He’s got people scouting all the rising grade school and high school stars. He’s getting to know the players he wants on his team. He won’t get all of them. But he knows what capabilities he’s going to need on his future teams and is working to fill the gaps.
With a more short-term perspective, he does succession planning. He creates opportunities to give his future starters playing time. Back up quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for example, played in over half of Alabama’s games this season, completing 49 of 77 pass attempts for 636 yards.
Saban’s contingency planning is closely linked to his succession planning. The players on his depth list need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Saban says he trusts players. “Players that do things the right way. Players who prepare the right way, practice the right way. They're dependable."
The “no excuses” part of the philosophy goes both ways as well. No excuses for coaches that do not give their rising stars the opportunities to learn and grow. No excuses for players that don’t get themselves ready. No excuses for not making the right moves at the right time. With Hurts struggling, Saban had Tagovailoa ready and was ready himself to make the move.
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Tagovailoa was the next man up. He was ready. He made no excuses. To be clear, he did not play perfectly. He threw an interception and suffered at least two big sacks on plays in which he should have thrown the ball away for no loss. He made a bunch of other mistakes. But, and it’s a big but, he ignited the team, made big plays to keep drives alive and score when he needed to do so. Bottom line, he delivered what the team needed to win the game.
Jalen Hurts kept his head in the game, switching roles with Tagovailoa at half-time. That’s a hard switch for a starting quarterback. Throughout the second half he was right by Tagovailoa’s side on the sideline, paying attention to everything the coaches were saying and encouraging Tagovailoa and the rest of the team every step of the way. Had Saban needed to go back to Hurts, he was the next man up, ready to go, no excuses.
Implications for you
Your organization needs all sorts of leaders: artistic leaders, scientific leaders, interpersonal leaders, strategic leaders planning the alignment of forces before the battle, tactical leaders moving forces in the battle and supportive leaders. Make sure you treasure all of them.
Make sure you’re building your team for the future – with future capability planning for the long term, succession planning for the mid term and contingency planning for, wait for it, contingencies.
When it’s your turn to be the next man up, be ready to go, no excuses.
When it’s someone else’s turn, make sure you’re supporting them and ready yourself.