DEVILLE: LSU and the post-Saban era

Nick Saban

ORLANDO, Fla. - A whirlwind week of organized chaos surrounding the LSU football program came to an appropriate ending Saturday afternoon.

LSU and the post-Saban era

 

ORLANDO, Fla. - A whirlwind week of organized chaos surrounding the LSU football program came to an appropriate ending Saturday afternoon.

 

One week after coach Nick Saban announced he was leaving Tiger Town for the NFL, a fitting conclusion was penned as the fifth-year head coach's final chapter came to a close on the floor of Citrus Bowl Stadium.

 

A 65-yard touchdown pass from Iowa quarterback Drew Tate in the game's final seconds proved to be the exclamation point on one hellish week for LSU fans. With the sweet taste of victory already on the tongues of most Tiger patrons after JaMarcus Russell's seemingly game-winning touchdown toss to Skyler Green, LSU fans were again dealt gut-wrenching agony with Tate's improbable pitch and catch.

 

For the second time in less than a week, the Tiger faithful was forced to stomach another bitter pill – the first Saban's bid adieu to Bayou country, the second a 30-25 loss in the Capital One Bowl to an underdog Iowa squad.

 

The madness began 18 days earlier when Saban revealed his interest in the Miami Dolphins coaching vacancy. Rumors swirled and sides were chosen – will he go or won't he? Talk radio shows, Internet message boards and water coolers everywhere were buzzing with talk of will Saban abandon LSU for the money of the professional ranks. Plus, if Saban did bolt, who would stay behind, who will depart…. and most importantly who would be named the man to follow "The Man."

 

One familiar with LSU fans can only imagine the hoopla. And while a media firestorm ensued over the following days and weeks, Saban – as expected – refused to comment on the situation. At a Dec. 15 press conference, he informed the local media of his intentions to further explore the Dolphins situation, then stated he wished from that point on to comment only on bowl preparations concerning Iowa.

 

Yeah right, like that was going to happen.

 

All that was discussed from that point on was anything but the Tigers' New Year's Day showdown with the Hawkeyes, co-champions of the Big 10. If the mere mention of the NFL and Saban's decision surfaced the feisty field marshal would bristle in a way he made famous (er… infamous) during his half-decade stay in Baton Rouge.

 

And the more quiet Saban remained, the more the rumors grew. Let's just say, if one more person approaches this writer with the questions, "what is Nick going to do?" or "who is going to be the Tigers' next coach?" pool together some money for bail because there will most probably be assault charges filed.

 

Let's just say, rumors and questions have weighed heavy on the nerves of sports scribes over the past half-month.

 

With anticipation growing as Christmas approached, most everyone hunkered down and waited for what would be one of the most historic press conferences in LSU history. The media camped out around the LSU Athletic Administration building. Fans stayed glued to radios and television sets in anticipation of what would be the fate of the Tiger Football program.

 

The Tigers went through their final workout on Dec. 21 and were to be released for four days to celebrate the Christmas holidays. Surely Saban would come forth with some sort of decision to break the tension so everyone could relax and enjoy the holidays in peace, knowing one way or another.

 

But heavens no, that would be too routine – or far too easy for an announcement of this magnitude.

 

So the Saban hostage crisis began.

 

With LSU administrators hanging on Saban's everyone word, fans dangling on the end of a string and Saban in no way bound the university in terms of no buyout clause in his contract, he waited. Even as several of LSU's top notch recruiting commitments began dropping like flies, Saban would not crack.

 

The local media held a vigil in 20-degree temperature in the athletic building parking lot. Three days everyone waited. Following every possible rumor or semblance of a lead, including Miami Dolphins' owner Wayne Huizenga's plan parked on the runway at the Baton Rouge airport on the morning of Christmas Eve, Saban would not budge.

 

As the team returned on Christmas Day, a decision had not come. And fans, who should have been a home enjoying Christmas with their families, sat through a day which is supposed to be filled with joy nervously waiting for Saban's decision.

 

The buses pulled to the front of the building that Christmas afternoon ready to whisk Saban and Co. off to the airport for their trek to Orlando and the Capital One Bowl. As Saban emerged from the side door of the building dressed to a T, he trotted swiftly to the the sanctuary and safety of the charter surrounded by an armed escort of Louisiana State Troopers.

 

After the buses sped away, LSU administrators announced Saban would hold a press conference at 6:30 CST in Orlando when the team reached the hotel and he would reveal his decision there. The explanation was several of the Tiger players from the Alabama, Georgia and Florida areas would join the team in Orlando and Saban wanted to address the entire team. While it was admirable for Saban to want to speak with his entire squad, it was also convenient that none of the local media could reach Orlando in time for Saban's historic announcement. This meaning Saban would be devoid of difficult questions he had been dodging for nearly two weeks. Instead, he was lobbed softballs by the Florida media, mainly Miami Dolphin beat writers, who inquired about his feelings concerning the Ricky Williams situation instead of why and how he came to a decision to leave LSU.

 

After a brief statement, a quick Q&A session and the announcement of his intentions to remain with the team to coach the bowl game, Saban then again stressed he did not wish to discuss the matter for the remainder of the team's stay in Orlando saying he did not want it to serve as a distraction for his team as they prepped for the Hawkeyes.

 

No problem! How in the world would something of this magnitude possibly distract the team? (sarcasm) In no way should the team be deterred from its preparations for its fourth straight New Year's  day bowl game by the hoopla surrounding the future of the head coach. Hmmmmm…..

 

And Saban's plan worked masterfully.

 

In no way did the team look distracted in the game, a game in which LSU suffered numerous breakdowns in special teams, including two blocked punts. In no way did the team look distracted with blown blocking and coverage assignments, not to mention turnovers. No way did the team seem distracted when it failed to abide by the golden rule of the Nick Saban era at LSU – a credo that was hammered home on a daily basis by Saban himself – "play every game for 60 minutes." The Tigers forgot the most important Sabanism of all when leading 25-24 with just seconds left and allowed an Iowa receiver to get behind coverage and score the winning touchdown as time expired. Why in the world would a team that had rallied for countless fourth quarter victories throughout this season forget to play for the full 60 minutes? 

 

At any rate, I digress.

 

The 2004 football season, one that began on such a bizarre note in the mud versus Oregon State, a season that encountered more bumps in the road than a south Louisiana interstate, has mercifully came to an end. It is in the books – LSU, 9-3 overall, 6-2 in the SEC and on the cusp of the newest chapter in the annals of Tiger lore. St. Nick has finally done what NFL experts have been projecting for years now, a bolt to the pros. Tiger Stadium is currently undergoing major renovations and the football operations complex – which was to be Saban's Taj Mahal he was promised when he arrived in 1999 – is under construction. Oddly enough Saban will never darken the door of his castle as king.

 

While we lament on one of the more zany, more controversial, more trying seasons in LSU history, there are two questions that have (need) to be asked.

 

1. With the events of Saban's departure, what will be the legacy of arguably the most successful (and popular) coaches in LSU history?

 

2. And the obvious, who will have the unenviable role of being LSU's next coach? Saban has left some mighty big shoes to fill.

 

 

First, Saban's legacy.

 

While many Tiger fans are not happy with the fact Saban departed the program for greener ($$) pastures in the NFL, Saban is possibly the most beloved coaches in LSU history. When the jilted lover syndrome wears off, the Tiger faithful will look at Saban as the person who resurrected the program to the highest level.

 

Two league crowns, a national title, five bowls game, four of which were played consecutively on New Year's Day, facility upgrades, Saban will be remembered for all of these.

 

However, Saban's most lasting impression on Tiger Town was his ability to transform the mindset of an entire fan base. Traditionally a hot-headed fan base that was known for kneejerk reactions whenever anything went wrong, Saban was able to restructure the thought process by which the fans accessed success and failure when it came to LSU football.

 

Saban lashed out at the fans when they booed his team during a loss to Ole Miss in 2001. But by the national championship season of 2003, it was clear The Tiger nation had bought into Saban's way of thinking and it was never more obvious when LSU fans chanted L-S-U repeatedly showing their support even after Georgia tied the game 10-10 in the fourth quarter. The Tigers, as everyone will remember, won that game 17-10.

 

And as the fans' mentality changed over the past five years, Saban grew as well. When he arrived in December of 1999 steely gaze and icy demeanor was one some predicted would not jive with the laid back attitude of south Louisiana. But as time passed, Saban loosened up, learned to put on a smile from time to time and introduced several terms to the LSU landscape that will not soon be forgotten.

 

No one can think of day-old coffee or Little Debbie oatmeal cookies without having a Saban flashback. And not a day will go by in Baton Rouge that the terms "wolf mentality" or "brook trout look" will not be uttered.

 

Ironically, Saban's departure from Baton Rouge is not so dissimilar from the only other coach in LSU history to win a national championship. When Paul Dietzel chose to pull up roots from Baton Rouge and head for West Point as the head coach of Army following the 1961 season, he was vilified. But time healed all wounds and Dietzel eventually returned to the capital city assuming the reigns as athletic director. He lives in Baton Rouge to this day and remains as one of the most popular people in Tiger Town.

 

While Saban isn't too high on many people's lists around town today, there will come a time when folks will reflect back on his days on the sidelines in Tiger Stadium and those memories will evoke a warm feeling inside.

 

 

With Saban on his way out, who is poised to take over as the next LSU head coach?

 

While their were swirling about the fate of LSU and Nick Saban, there might have been even more in the post-Saban fallout as to who would be the Tigers next mentor.

 

Butch Davis was the obvious choice. The former Miami Hurricane and Cleveland Brown coach seemed to be the heir-apparent, but health problems forced Davis to pass on the job many had him already fitted for.

 

Then news concerning Bobby Petrino from Louisville, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio and even absurd ramblings about the possibility of Steve Spurrier coming to Baton Rouge circulated never came to pass.

 

LSU passed out a few token interviews to Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum and current LSU wide receivers coach Bobby Williams, but none of those seemed to ever see the light of day.

 

Oklahoma State coach Les Miles was on the early short list, but had been seemingly dismissed when his Cowboys were throttled by Ohio State 33-7 in the Alamo Bowl. But as I learned stepping onto to the airplane on which I am writing this column, Mike Triplett of the New Orleans Times-Picayune is breaking a story in which Miles is currently being offered the LSU gig – and it is speculated that he will accept.

 

While this decision might not sit particularly well with Tiger fans, Miles is a capable coach who brought a once downtrodden OSU program from the ranks of obscurity to national prominence. For the naysayers who questions Miles' 28-21 record, remember Saban brought a 34-24-1 record after five years at Michigan State. Miles has only been the coach at Oklahoma State for four season. After four seasons at MSU, Saban was a mere 25-22-1 before going 9-2 in 1999 which led to his landing of the LSU job.

 

While this all seems to be simply arithmetic, only time will if LSU has made the right decision on who will follow the Saban legend.

 

So in closing, so long Nick, it has been a hell of a run. Welcome coach Miles. If you are to be the Tigers' next coach, buckle your seatbelt because you are in for the ride of your life.

 

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Matt Deville is the editor of Tiger Rag Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at matt@tigerrag.com.

 

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