Nick Saban, LSU head coach 2000-2004
In nearly every interview that Alabama head coach Nick Saban is asked about winning a college football national championship, he immediately starts talking about his 2003 LSU team, the season and the victory over the Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl.
Saban did it again this weekend while standing as a commentator in the pre-game show for the SEC championship game. And he wasn't asked about being the head coach of LSU, just what it takes to get to the championship game.
In order to get him to talk about the 2009 Alabama National Championship, a reporter has to specifically refer to the year, the event, the fact that it was his first undefeated season of his entire coaching career, and the first victory for Alabama against Texas in the history of the program.
Why is that? What is it about LSU that has endeared Nick and Terry Saban to the University, the town of Baton Rouge and the State of Louisiana? Essentially, it was the first real home for the journeyman coach and his family since leaving their home state of West Virginia. But that is just a start.
Baton Rouge was a home where their visions were realized on and off the field. A place where their children grew and became familiar with the community, went to the elementary and middle schools and made early childhood friends. And there, along with fond memories and amongst good friends and a community of good people, they reached the pinnacle of college football by winning a national championship.
Nick Saban entered in the year 2000 as the LSU head coach after the rocky tenure of Gary DiNardo. DiNardo constantly had LSU on the brink of an SEC championship but could not get his teams "over the hump." Saban changed that almost immediately. In the first year, he took a team that was previously 3-8 and finished 8-4. In his second year, LSU won the SEC championship.
The 2003 LSU team had an unbelievable run during the early part of regular season, one which included a victory over the 2002 SEC champion, an undefeated Georgia Bulldogs team, in Tiger stadium during the fourth week of the season.
Though the game was scheduled as a 2:45 pm start to protect their "night game record in Death Valley," remarkably the Tigers defeated the then ranked No. 7 Bulldogs, 17-10, in front of a national audience and 92,251 raging cajun fans to start the season 4-0. It was another signature win for the Saban staff.
The Tigers then went on the road to Mississipppi State and thrashed the Bulldogs of the west division, 41-6, in week five, in front of a nationally televised audience. The Tigers were becoming a favorite team to watch by the entire nation. Through five games, the Tigers had outscored opponents 201-43.
In week six, the LSU Tigers stumbled, and lost to an unranked Florida team, 19-7, again, in front of a nationally televised audience. This loss came at home, in Tiger Stadium, in front of 92,077 distraught, unforgiving Tigers fans.
The loss raised concerns that the Tigers would lose focus, as they had in 2002, when Auburn thumped the defending SEC champion LSU Tigers 31-7, which was followed by a second consecutive home loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide. This time the score was 31-0, under the lights in Death Valley, on national television.
But the 2003 team was different, more mature, and intent on redemption for the 2002 collapse.
Following the loss to Florida, fans, talking heads and the national media began to question Saban's ability to win the big game, meaning a game with national implications. But the resilient Tigers, led by Matt Mauck, would not fold. They went on to finish the season without another loss, pounding South Carolina, 33-7 in Williams-Brice Stadium, reversed the score versus the Auburn Tigers from the year before, winning by a score of 31-7 on the road, at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
And then, in early November, the Tigers waltzed into Bryant-Denny and thrashed the Crimson Tide 27-3, on national television, under the lights, in front of 83,818 befuddled Alabama homers. In 2003, Mike Shula brought hope, but hope was alone. His teams had a lot of fight, but they were undersized and overmatched.
Hope and excellence was owned by the LSU Tigers in 2003. They finished the season with a victory against the Oklahoma Sooners, in the BCS Championship game, completing the journey with a share of the 2003 National Title. USC Trojans finished as the AP & FWAA National Champions.
But for the LSU family, it was a journey of hope and expectation. One that finished with a championship that they deserved. One that was earned, and earned by players that were primarily from the area, home grown, taught how to win, and win with class.
Nick Saban was adopted by the inhabitants of the Pelican State in that year, they absolutely loved him and he felt as if he had found a home.
In 2004, Saban and the LSU Tigers would finish the season 9-3, and lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Capitol One Bowl, 30-25. During the regular season, the Tigers suffered a very tough one point loss to the Auburn Tigers and were pummeled by the Georgia Bulldogs, 45-16.
At season end, Nick Saban left Baton Rouge to follow his dream to become a head coach in the NFL. It was a bitter farewell, and a bit of a shock to the fan base, but the fans who were endeared to him understood that he wanted his shot in the big leagues.
He would leave college football, but he firmly place LSU on the national stage. In doing so, he brought together a community of people that took pride in the success of their football team. The success at the college level fed back to the high schools and grade school, as well as the little leagues. The people knew their kids could be great, and Nick Saban showed them that it could be done.
The LSU Tigers, as well as their fans, would no longer take a back seat to the SEC elite. They were now at the top and were not about to let go easily. The administration set out to find a man who could maintain the success that Saban had during his five year tenure, they found that man in Les Miles.
Alabama would not defeat LSU for the next four years. It is the longest stretch of victories for the LSU Tigers against the Crimson Tide in the history of the series, which began in 1895. To this day, a large part of the legacy for winning that Nick Saban left at LSU has to do with that win in Tuscaloosa. It was a win that began a short but sweet and overdue period of domination by the Tigers over the Crimson Tide.
In fact, the last of the consecutive victories owned by the Tigers came at the hand of Saban's remnants, led my Matt Flynn, Jacob Hester and Early Doucet. It was a very hard fought victory for the Tigers, overcoming adversity on the road, coming from behind, with hopes of a national title on the line. That victory came with their very own Nick Saban, leading the Alabama Crimson Tide s head coach.
With under three minutes left in the game, after playing from behind since the 2nd quarter of the game, the LSU Tigers scored 14 unanswered points to defeat the Crimson Tide. It was a stamp placed on the series by a team of determined, tough young men and a young, quickly maturing, tough minded and determined head coach, Les Miles. But it was the end of a short period of domination by the Tigers.
It was one of the most amazing come from behind victories in the history of SEC football. It was the last LSU victory at Bryant-Denny until 2011.
To say Nick Saban's return to college coaching was controversial is truly an understatement, with regard to how the media and fans have responded. But for Nick and Terry Saban, it was inevitable, as soon as they had been in Miami for the first six months. And if the opportunity had been there for Nick Saban to return to LSU, he would have taken it over any other choice in the country.
Nick Saban and his wife built lasting relationships while in Louisiana, relationships that are strong even to this day. Those relationships will last, as have the bonds made with lifelong friends in West Virginia and Ohio. The Saban's are a loyal lot, and they get loyalty in return from those who truly know them.
In 2007, Mal Moore created a void in the head coach position at Alabama with the sudden firing of Mike Shula. Unfortunately for Moore, he pulled the trigger a little too fast, and was left without a real option when Rich Rodriquez parlayed the Alabama offer into a whole host of promises and a pay raise at his West Virginia home.
There is no good metaphor for the ridiculous position that Mal Moore left himself in at the time, but to many in the Alabama fan base, he looked like the biggest buffoon in the business. Franchoine, Price, empty space and Shula. Shula, empty space...
Nick Saban, by God's grace, filled that void for Mal Moore, after closed door conversations with Wayne Huizenga and Terry Saban. Only after those discussions did he even consider discussing matters with Mal Moore and his agent. Nick and Terry's hearts desire brought them back to college coaching, and Alabama gave them a home. It was a good fit for both parties involved and the Alabama fan base welcomed him with open arms.
But for Nick Saban, the Alabama job was not about Alabama. It was about returning to college football and returning to the position as a mentor rather than a "boss." Tuscaloosa was just another town, but it was a good town, a good program and the administration opened the doors while donors opened their pockets.
The rivalry that exists between Alabama and LSU does not penetrate the heart of Nick Saban. He coaches young football players to be great players and good citizens. In fact, his passion for the LSU program still burns. He will always hold the people and the program in high esteem, the same as when he left in 2004.
Nick Saban doesn't understand those who hold ill will toward him for returning to college coaching at the University of Alabama. It never dawned on him that being in the SEC, much less in the same division as his beloved Tigers would even matter in the short term or the long haul. To him, at the time, it was just another place with the right platform for him and Terry to do what they love most, mentor young men and get involved with the community outreach programs.
Therein lies his demon. It is as if somewhere in the bayou, a witch doctor of sorts, has a lock of his hair pinned to a doll and that doll is dressed in purple and gold. He can't go after the Tigers with the same passion that he goes after all other opponents.
He has no passion to dislike them as they dislike him and his Alabama team. Nick Saban is an icon of success, as Alabama Football is an icon of gridiron greatness. So to be great, you have to take down the great.
The LSU Tigers have been under that daunting shadow of the pachyderm for too long to return without a fight, and Les Miles has never liked the fact that Nick got more credit for building LSU into a powerhouse. He believes, and rightly so, that he deserves as much credit. "The Mad Hatter" is willing to put in the effort to prove it to everyone else by going toe to toe with his nemesis.
What fuels the desire to dominate something you love? Wouldn't you much rather see that prodigy prosper, even in the hands of someone else? Nick Saban doesn't understand the LSU demeanor and doesn't understand Les Miles, not one bit.
But Nick Saban will have to deal with that demon once again, and deal with it on the national stage. Intersetingly, every time that Nick Saban has met to play against his old team, the stakes have gotten higher and higher for the teams involved, but he tries to imply that it's just another game.
It's never been just another game. The first contest in 2007 was about showing Nick that he made the wrong choice by coming to Alabama. He didn't get the message. In 2008, the message was "not in our house." He didn't get the message then either. His team defeated the Tigers in Baton Rouge as the sun set in the evening sky, in overtime.
In 2009, All Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide did was go back-to-back with undefeated regular seasons, and won the National Title, casting a shadow over the Bengal Tigers. A shadow they despise. In 2010, the Tigers took a stand at home and said their own, "never again" in Baton Rouge. In that game, the then ranked No.12 LSU Tigers defeated the No. 5 ranked Crimson Tide, 24-21, in front of the largest crowd to ever see a game played in Tiger Stadium.
And in 2011, The Tigers returned to Alabama and played in front of the largest crowd to ever see a game in Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was a statement, an exclamation that LSU was stamping on the turf of the greatest program in the history of the southeastern college football. A statement that we too are great, and you can't take that from us.
And they walked away victors against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. It was a battle conducted by warriors, on and off the field. It was a battle that was left undecided in regulation but taken by the coach and team that was most deserving after the first overtime.
And as fate would have it, the meeting in November would be only the first of two meetings for these exceptional teams. There is going to be a rematch. And the re-match will determine a national title.
This time, Nick Saban will have to show that he is all in with his team, with his game plan, and that he can dominate his opponent, his demon, and "make his ass quit." Even if that opponent is one of his own progeny. One that he raise up and taught how to fight. And in the end, he won't be able to throw his hands up in the air and say that we just got beat by a better team.
Because this time his reputation is on the line against Les Miles, "Lesticles", "the grass eater," "The Mad Hatter." Has Les got Nick's number? This game is not about hurricanes and tornadoes, though those natural disasters have played into the drama of both communities. This is about college football pride and prestige and that's it. The winner has it and the loser doesn't (at least not this year).
These teams are as evenly matched as any that have ever competed against each other. Coaching matters, the game plan matters, and coaching decisions during the game at critical points will help to determine the outcome.
If there is two minutes on the clock at the end of the fourth quarter and the ball is in the possession of the Alabama offense, Saban will have to send in plays, not take a knee. If his team is running the ball down the throat of the LSU defense and enters the red zone, he will need to decide to continue to run the ball until they reach the endzone. This game is for a national championship, not for the lead in the west division of the SEC.
It's time, Nick, your true friends will understand that it's not about you, not about them, and not about your lasting friendships. It's about Alabama climbing back on top, at the expense of the LSU Tigers, or LSU replacing Alabama at the top. You can't have both. In exorcising this demon, there will be blood.
And if you really want to be know as the best in the business, you will have to win this game, along with your team. You're gonna have to do your part, and more. When McElwain isn't making the right call, you can't suggest to him that he make changes, you're gonna have to get in his face and insist because his mistakes will be your mistakes.
If special teams players aren't getting it done in practice, don't depend on them to get it done in the game. Make adjustments, make the right moves! Get it done as a head coach and get this win. It's yours for the taking. It's history in the making.
Do you want to be second best or do you want to be the best? Are you going to finish in second or third place with the best offensive player in America and the best defense in all of college football at your disposal?
It's a question you have asked others endless times. Can you finish? So what's it going to be, Nick?
The time is coming near, and please, for God's sake, be prepared to answer at the bell. Be prepared to win or take the heat if your team finishes with as much left on the field as in the last meeting. It's time to lead by example, Nick. It's time to shed your loyalty to the purple and gold and bleed crimson.