“Every minute of every day you’re selling something. You’re either selling positive, or you’re selling negative,” Nick Saban once said. His pitch is to sell Alabama’s football program to the nation’s top recruits. Saban’s strategy is a master class in communication for any leader who wants to attract top talent.
As Alabama’s head coach, Saban is vying for his seventh national title as the Crimson Tide prepares to battle Clemson in the NCAA college football championship game. But as a recruiter, Saban’s already won. Alabama’s 2019 recruiting class is currently ranked number one—a position its held for seven of the past eight years.
Much of Saban’s success as head coach of University of Alabama football team is due to recruiting—the lifeblood of any great college football program. As a communication specialist, I’m struck by Saban’s carefully selected use of symbols to reinforce the narrative he puts forward to attract the best high-school players in the country. In academic literature, a symbol is an artifact, a prop, that reflects key moments in an epic story.
For example, one such symbol is the piano in Saban’s home.
Nick Saban’s ‘Grand Recruitment Tool’
The Wall Street Journal called a piano that recruits see upon entering Saban’s home a “grand recruitment tool.” The piano comes with a story. More than forty years ago, Saban splurged on a piano that was beyond his means. Saban and his wife, Terry, spent years paying it off. According to the article, he tells the story so frequently that players and staff can recite it by heart. This tells me it’s a calculated pitch—and it works.
“The parable of Saban’s piano is about the power of persistence,” according to the article. “But it also reveals that football’s most demanding coach had exacting standards even back then and it reminds players of Saban’s humble beginnings—which is how one magically placed musical instrument can make a 65-year-old millionaire relatable to a teenager from a modest background.”
Saban uses symbols and stories to make himself “relatable,” and also to magnify an epic tale.
Image the scene that takes place when a top recruit walks into Saban’s office. According to Bleacher Report, Saban guides the player and his family to a sofa while he takes a seat across from them. A coffee table sits in between. Saban’s National Championship rings are lined up on the table which “gleam brilliantly, like sunshine bouncing off the ocean.”
Saban launches into his pitch, using the rings as a prop. “We will win championships here. You see these rings? We’ll get more of those. And I will prepare you for the NFL…” Saban closes the pitch with an unexpected twist. Instead of “begging” the recruits to join as the program—as many coaches do— Saban says: “We want you, but know that we will win with or without you.” And that’s how Saban seals the deal.
Josh Chapman, a player for Alabama who went on to play in the NFL, says the office pitch is part of Saban’s magic. “I was set to go to Auburn, and then I sat in Coach Saban’s office, and that changed everything for me,” Chapman said. “You just feel he’s got a plan for you and that he’s the guy who will get you to the NFL. And he’s got a presence like no one I’ve ever met.”
Saban’s props, symbols and stories complement a strikingly simple, intoxicating vision—if you play for Alabama you’ll win a National Championship and play in the NFL.
A writer for GQ magazine once visited Saban in his office and sat in the seating area where he meets with recruits and their families. “On brass easels to my right are three framed photographs of his Alabama championship teams on the White House steps with President Obama. ‘Want your son to meet the president?’ the photos all but declare. ‘Let him play for me.’”
What vision are you trying to sell potential employees, partners and team members? Nick Saban is clear on the story he’s selling and uses symbols to complement the epic tale.
According to one article on Saban’s recruiting strategy, “Everything is a pitch. Everything is calculated.” The talented players or employees you’re trying to recruit to your organization want to play a part in a bigger story. Make sure the props you select serve as symbols in the grand narrative.