To peer through a window deep inside the Alabama footballprogram, an innocent peek behind the eyes of one player can lead to an interesting probe between the ears of another.
Squint and you’ll see Kevin Elko. Listen closely and you’ll hear an echo.
One recent day, for instance, superlatives flowed as Nico Johnson talked about a fellow star linebacker. C.J. Mosleyhas improved. He feels more confident. He’s playing faster.
“He’s accepting failure,” Johnson said. “He’s not worried about making mistakes or anything. He’s going from there and just making plays every chance he gets.”
Where did that come from?
At Alabama, players repeat what they hear from head coach Nick Saban. And he repeats what he hears from the “head” coach.
That would be Elko. You could call him a sports psychologist. You could call him a motivational speaker and an author. He prefers to be called a performance consultant.
Saban calls him often. They speak every couple of weeks, according to Saban. Elko visits the Crimson Tide four or five times a year, and he’s coming Wednesday, after a speaking engagement Tuesday in Mobile.
When he speaks, the players listen.
“He always preaches to us about accepting failure, and if you can accept failure and understand why it happened and what’s the reason it happened that way, everything else will be OK,” Johnson said.
“We’re hitting it real hard now,” Elko said.
Except Saban won’t accept failure. With Elko’s help, he wants his players to learn from their mistakes.
“We’re not telling them to accept losing,” Elko said. “We’re telling them, ‘Don’t even let it become an issue in your life. Winning and losing is not your issue.”
The process matters more than the result. Saban has said this hundreds of times. He’s had help refining the mantra.
Through Elko, the top-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0) is influenced by a founding father, a famous psychologist, a grandmother from Russia and dead soldiers fighting.
The founding father
The process is all about the Benjamin.
“One of the things that we push so hard and Nick pushes so hard is Benjamin Franklin’s phrase, ‘Pain instructs,’” Elko said.
He’s talking about mental anguish, the excruciating kind Alabama felt after its 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in the 2011 regular season.
“We got a chance to play them again,” Elko said. “We said, ‘Remember how you felt right after you lost to LSU? Remember how you felt when you looked across the room at the other players with a broken heart? Now prepare and play this game so you don’t have to feel that again.’”
The Tide crushed the Tigers 21-0 in the BCS Championship Game. The next day, when asked about developing players, Saban cited Elko, among others.
Saban has come to understand brains and human behavior as well as he appreciates brawn.
To get ahead and stay ahead in college football, Saban wants to get inside a head. He reaches out weekly to people such as Trevor Moawad, the director of the IMG Performance Institute, and Michigan State professor Lonny Rosen.
“I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them that has really helped me understand the best way to help manage guys psychologically so that they have a better chance of being successful,” Saban said. “Not just in football but in their personal life and academics and anything they choose to do.”
Saban is a good student, says Elko, who over the years has worked with roughly a dozen college or NFL coaches.
“All of them are pretty successful, pretty big names, and I am the most impressed with him,” Elko said.
“The way his mind works in systems,” Elko said. “I’ve never seen anybody that can pinpoint factors that lead to winning and not pay any attention to factors that don’t.”
Encouragement is the essence of Saban’s focus on process, Elko says. Encouragement was studied years ago by psychologistRudolf Dreikurs. It’s different from praise.
“If my little girl comes home with a report card and it’s all A’s, this is praise: ‘Claire, you got all A’s. That’s incredible,’” Elko said.
“Here’s encouragement: ‘Claire, I saw you doing the things that brought you these grades. I saw you working hard. I’m glad you like learning.’”
Saban’s method of encouragement might seem unusual sometimes.
“In the national championship game, why did he go nuts when the guy jumped offsides?” Elko said of a moment late in the game. “Because he’s on the process. And (late) against Michigan, why did he go nuts when Vinnie Sunseri mistimed that blitz? Because he’s all about the process.
“It’s psychology, but it’s not, ‘Let me sit down and figure this guy out.’ It’s, ‘Let me teach this guy. Let me say the kind of things that lead him there.’ We do not work at all down there on praise. We don’t go results. We go all encouragement.
“It’s really more a parenting concept.”
At his latest press conference, Saban talked about freshmen making mistakes on special teams, made his point and then asked a reporter: “Do you have kids?”
Saban then was asked about his grasp on psychology.
“I had some classes in college that really made me interested and made me feel like … your mental conditioning was an important part of being successful, how you thought, the habits that you created with your thoughts and positive energy and all of that,” he said. “So I’ve always been interested in it.”
One of Elko’s grandmothers was from Russia.
“She was real,” Elko said. “One of my aunts would walk in and she’d go, ‘Oh, you got fat!’ She’d look at me and say, ‘See your cousin? He thinks he’s a minister, but he’s not a minister. You’re the minister.’ She wasn’t phony.
“That’s how I see Nick. He’s real.”
Real talented, Elko emphasized.
“I’ve worked with others,” Elko said. “I’ve won Super Bowls. I’ve won other national championships. He’s a talent without peer. The way his mind works, the way he sets up a culture, the way he does things. …
“He cares. Sometimes somebody who really cares about you isn’t always positive. Sometimes telling people what they need to hear isn’t a positive thing. But they know where it’s coming from when he cares.”
Elko isn’t exactly sure when he and Saban first met. They grew up in the same coal-country region, Saban in northern West Virginia, Elko near Pittsburgh. Elko thinks he was working for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Saban was with the Cleveland Browns when they became acquainted.
Their paths crossed at the NFL Scouting Combine, where aptitude tests are given to prospects.
“He’s the only coach I’ve ever seen even look at them,” Elko said.
Later, Elko was consulting for the Miami Hurricanes and Saban was the head coach at LSU. On a day when he spoke in Baton Rouge, La., Elko offered to speak to the LSU football team after hearing that Jesse Jackson had just talked to the Tigers. LSU had just ended the 2002 season with a Cotton Bowl loss to Texas.
“I just tongue-in-cheek said to Nick, ‘Hey, I’ll come and help you win a national championship, and when you do, you can send me a ring,’” Elko said. “When they won, he sent me a ring.”
Dead soldiers fighting
Phrases are big in Elko’s world, and Alabama players catch them like touchdown passes.
“I have them all written down,” said senior tight endMichael Williams, who calls Elko “the best speaker I’ve heard, other than Coach Saban.”
That list probably includes the phrase “dead soldiers fighting.”
“We get completely caught into a step-by-step of winning the game, and there’s a phrase we got into,” Elko said. “There were a bunch of these soldiers, and they kept on winning these battles. People said to these soldiers, ‘How do you keep on winning?’ They said, ‘We’re dead soldiers fighting. Once we quit worrying about winning and losing, we got lost in the fighting.’”
Saban buys what Elko sells. Then Saban sells to his players.
“He’ll take my information, and he’ll film it and repeat it and re-teach it, and re-teach it, and re-teach it,” Elko said. “Some guys say, ‘Aw, it’s just a talk.’ Not with him. He’ll take my talk and make it a culture.”
The level of buy-in seems extraordinary.
“There’s research out of California-Santa Barbara, and they went to 100 households and said, ‘If you do this insulation, you’ll gain one dollar a day,’” Elko said. “No one took it.
“They went to the next 100 houses and said, ‘If you don’t do this insulation, you will lose one dollar a day.’ Everybody took it.”
Research at Alabama shows that everybody is taken by the “head” coach.