Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide speaks to members of the media. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

To be excellent, study excellence.

When asked recently to speak to the players on the University of Alabama‘s football team, the invitation included the option of spending the day observing practice, meeting staff and even grabbing some couch time with Coach Nick Saban. If you truly want to see how the Great ones do it, you jump on an opportunity like that. Alabama under Saban has set the Gold standard for sustained excellence, winning four national championships. They open the 2017 season ranked first in the nation again.

With the Tuscaloosa sun beating down relentlessly on our backs and sweat rolling down our foreheads we watched as the team ran one of the most efficient practices I’ve seen in the college game. And Saban matched this intensity in his coaching until the final horn was blown.

One look into the athletic facility made it increasingly apparent why these players were able to play with the level of intensity and focus that they possessed. From the weight room to the players’ lounge to the hyper-focus on nutrition, the environment that these players were surrounded by is steeped in culture. It felt as if every single inch of the facility had been considered and crafted to focus on the common goal of excellence.

But my biggest takeaway of the day came in the form of a lesson that the head coach often reiterates to his players. For many years Saban, while working in the NFL, would spend countless hours in rooms where teams were deciding which players they wanted to draft to their roster. During that time the two words that came up more than any others, he tells his players today, were and & but. When these teams were deciding whether a certain player was right for their locker room, the conversation would always start with the numbers (How fast a player could run, how much weight a player could lift, etc.)…This would unfailingly be followed by either an and or a but.

The conversations sounded something like:

“John Smith is a wide receiver out of Ball State University that runs a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, has great hands…And stayed after practice every single day to help improve his freshman teammates ‘OR’ And he led a mission trip to Haiti after a hurricane ravaged the country.”

Don Yeager, Forbes