LSU and the post-Saban
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Matt Deville is the editor of Tiger
Rag Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.