Leaders establish the character of their organizations. They always have.
The British people, for example, looked, acted and felt one way while Neville Chamberlain ran things, and another way entirely under the leadership of Winston Churchill.
Whether you are talking about General Electric — which looked and acted a lot like Jack Welch when he was at the helm and Jeffrey Immelt since — or my wife’ pet sitting business: big or small, government or business, leaders infect the culture of their institutions through their personalities.
Coaches are no different, which is why this week’s SEC Championship Game will be a fascinating character study in addition to a great football game.
You won’t find two more disparate personalities than Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Mark Richt.
One is Vesuvius, a rumbling volcano, massive, daunting and prone to eruption, while the other is a placid pond, cool and calming, still and at one with its surroundings.
Both are successful. Both have recruited and signed fantastic athletes. Both have gotten the most from their players, leading them to this showdown for a conference title and a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
But that is where the similarities end.
Watching Saban on the sidelines is like watching an animal pacing in a cage. His demeanor might at first appear calm, but fury lurks beneath the surface, ready to blow at the first missed assignment. When he explodes, it is a sight to behold.
“I know they all think I’m crazy,” Saban has said about his players. “There’s a psychological disposition that you’re trying to create.”
Create it he does. Much like Woody Hayes at Ohio State, Bo Schembechler at Michigan, or even Herb Brooks when he was putting together the historic 1980 US Olympic hockey team, Saban bonds his guys around their fear and respect for a common enemy: him. Nobody wants to head to the sideline and face the wrath of an erupting Saban.
“I never want to get that look,” Damion Square said of Saban’s scornful gaze. Square is one of the Tide’s leaders who rally the team together so his teammates all avoid that look.
“We all want to work together, to be explosive and make big plays,” Square said after the Auburn rout that locked up the SEC West for the Crimson Tide. “We know how good we are and how good we can be, and we just show up and try to play to our best potential.”
Georgia players know how good they are as well, and they too try to play up to their potential every down, every game. But their motivation is different, because their leader is a different type of man.
Richt is the college coaching equivalent of a Zen Master, a monk in a perpetual state of transcendental peace. He is a devout Christian who goes on mission trips to Honduras and leads Bible studies in Athens. Otherwise he might be mistaken for Phil Jackson, whose Buddhist philosophies made him one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
Richt doesn’t have a national championship ring — a point his critics make with fervent regularity — but he is 117-39 as a head coach with two SEC titles and six SEC Eastern Division crowns under his belt.
“It’s not about me, it’s about Georgia,” Richt said during his news conference prior to the SEC Championship Game. “It’s about this program, this team and these young men. I don’t worry about this personal stuff.”
His players take the jabs at their coach personally, though. They want to win, not because they fear Richt, but because, like sons doing their best for a loving father, they don’t want to disappoint him. His praise means more to them than the rings they hope to put on their fingers.
“How can you not love somebody like coach Richt?” tight end Jay Rome said earlier in the year.
You can’t, at least not if you play for him.
“I think, philosophically, there are a lot of similarities (between these teams),” Saban said in a teleconference this week. “There’s not a whole lot of tricks or gimmicks with us or them.”
When it comes to X’s and O’s, he’s right: there isn’t a world of difference.
But when it comes to the men who lead those teams, and the cultures they have created through their personalities, they couldn’t be more different.
That is neither good nor bad. It is simply something worth watching as this championship weekend unfolds.