EDITOR S NOTE: During his recent Super Bowl assignment in Houston, Blade sports writer Dave Hackenberg made a side trip to visit with former University of Toledo head football coach Nick Saban, who recently led Louisiana State University to the Bowl Championship Series national title.
BATON ROUGE - Tiger Stadium is a big, old, gray lady without any particular charm when empty, but a place that makes the hair on your arms stand up on a sweaty, muggy, autumn Saturday night, the lights brilliant, every seat dressed in purple and gold, the LSU band striking up “Tiger Rag” or “Hey, Fightin Tigers” as the team rolls out of its end zone tunnel. Welcome to Death Valley, the toughest place to play in college football, a venue Bear Bryant once likened to the “inside of a drum.”
It is interesting to note that the Tigers went 4-7 in 1998, and the school s response was to add 11,600 seats to the stadium. Maybe that s all you need to know to understand LSU football. That and the fact that another rotten season the next year cost Gerry DiNardo his coaching job and set the stage for Nick Saban.
It took Saban five games to set the Bayou State on its ear. His first team in 2000 was 2-2 after losing at home to Alabama-Birmingham, of all teams. But powerful Tennessee came to Death Valley the following Saturday and LSU won 38-31 in overtime and nothing has been the same since.
The Tigers captured the SEC championship a year later, started the next season 6-1 and played in the Cotton Bowl, and now claim the championship of all the land - or at least half of it; Southern Cal can have the rest - after last month s BCS title-game win over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Saban, now 39-13 after four seasons at LSU, has become the highest-paid coach in college football. He will earn at least $2.3 million - there are incentives that could push it higher - next season.
It is a high-rent district far removed from the 1990 season he spent as a first-time head coach at the University of Toledo. In other regards, though, he claims to be the same coach doing the same things.
“Not a lot has changed in how we approach recruiting, player evaluations, off-season programs,” Saban said. “The organizational approach and our offensive and defensive systems are similar. The cast of characters and the names have changed and everything has been refined through the years, but fundamentally it s all the same stuff. Some of the lessons I learned as a first-year head coach were invaluable and really helped me develop personally.
“Terry [his wife] and I loved Toledo. I really have a lot of very good memories. Of winning nine games and tying for the conference championship. Of the players. And of making some life-long friends. Our next-door neighbors from up there came to the Sugar Bowl last month. Toledo was a wonderful year.”
But just one year. Shortly after Saban s Rockets finished 9-2, the Cleveland Browns hired Bill Belichick as head coach. The two were acquainted - Saban spent the 1982 season as secondary coach at Navy, where Belichick s father Steve was on the coaching staff for 33 years. Immediately before taking the Toledo job, Saban spent two years with the NFL s Houston Oilers while Belichick was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. Belichick would be involved in all aspects as a head coach and wanted someone he could trust with his defense. He recalled the tactics and elaborate coverages Saban installed with the Oilers, and offered him the coordinator s job.
The year before Saban joined Belichick, Cleveland allowed the most points (462) of any team in the NFL. In 94, his last season with the Browns before leaving to become head coach at Michigan State, Saban s defense surrendered the fewest points (204) and the Browns advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
The two coaches, Belichick and Saban, have figuratively been attached at the hip in several regards - bright coaching minds, but dogged workaholics who are colorless, humorless, and seemingly bereft of personality. They must know what to say to the right people at the right times, though, because they currently sit atop their respective football worlds, Belichick having won two of the last three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.
The dour, no-personality tag wasn t true of Saban in Toledo, at least to those who got to know him. And it isn t true now, although he still fights that rap.
“I m a very happy person,” the 52-year-old Saban said. “I wish I naturally smiled. If I m too serious, I apologize. But I am happy.”
So are LSU s fans. If their coach doesn t smile much, they do. If the national championship didn t do it, then Saban rebuffing the almost-annual NFL feelers and signing a top-three recruiting class did.
The LSU job, perhaps, is like no other. It s not just the only game in town; it s the only game in the state, which was attractive to Saban after five seasons (34-24-1) of playing second fiddle at Michigan State.
At LSU he inherited a program that had posted losing records in eight of 11 previous seasons, a program notorious for losing players to academic ineligibility, one whose players media-guide head shots were often taped to the walls down at the Baton Rouge Parish police headquarters.
But there is an upside. Louisiana provides a rich in-state talent base, the financial resources are seemingly limitless, and there is a powerful conference affiliation. Then there are the fans - the 91,000-plus lucky enough to have a ticket into Tiger Stadium on Saturday nights and the millions who don t.
“I ve never been anyplace like it, including the NFL or any Big Ten school,” Saban said. “The football culture, which exists anywhere in the South, mixed with the passion brought to it by our fans is truly amazing. I can t really describe what it s like here on game nights, other than to say it s unique. The noise, the excitement is unbelievable.
“Not to disrespect any of the other schools in the state, but we re the only one in a major conference. People are born LSU fans and they grow up with this football program being the pride of the state. Most places have choices - Michigan or Michigan State, Alabama or Auburn, that type thing - but we re it down here and we re in a great league with a lot of tradition.”
Saban is the hottest name in coaching and it s a coin-flip what might happen if an NFL team offers him the keys to the kingdom - full control of the football operation - and a paycheck that would dwarf what even his newest LSU contract will provide.
“I ve always liked college football, the main reason being that you really have an opportunity to control your own destiny by creating team dynamics from start to finish,” Saban said. “I really don t ever want to be in a place you can t have that, especially if you consider the shelf life of a head coach in the NFL.
“Coaching in college, you have a chance to build a roster through recruiting, then mold character, help create the attitude and resiliency it takes to compete for 60 minutes at a high level. It s like our Sugar Bowl game, down to the wire, good players on both sides making plays and giving up plays. It was the ultimate test. Which would our players do, make the plays or give them up?”
And, knowing the answer, Nick Saban smiled.