Savior in Saban
LSU has its man at the helm, but NFL rumors won't die anytime soon
Posted: Saturday January 3, 2004 4:57PM; Updated: Saturday January 3, 2004 5:04PM
NEW ORLEANS -- LSU merchandise on sale at every corner. Spontaneous "Tiger Bait" chants breaking out on Bourbon Street at all hours.
You might figure such a scene to be as innate a part of Louisiana culture as beads and crawfish etoufee.
For all the history and passion associated with LSU football, however, games the magnitude of Sunday's Sugar Bowl national championship against Oklahoma have been few and far between in the program's history.
"LSU is such a great university and a great place on this planet -- we should be on top," said All-America guard Stephen Peterman. "Coach [Nick] Saban has come in with his staff and all the people at LSU have done a great job of getting us where we need to be."
Accordingly, the man who in his fourth season has led the Tigers to the brink of their first national championship in 45 years is regarded as nothing short of a saint here in the heart of Cajun country. With his combination of superb recruiting and masterful game-planning, many believe seasons like this one could soon become a regular occurrence for the Tigers.
That is, of course, if he's still around to guide them.
As frequently as the sun rises, rumors of an impending departure to the NFL continue to hover over Saban. This year it's the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and New York Giants who are reported to be eyeing him, with talk of contracts so rich even Houston Nutt would blush.
When it comes to Saban, more so than with most coaches, the speculation is hardly without merit. His ties to the NFL are numerous, his demeanor and philosophy carry a decidedly pro-style feel and most of all, his responses to the rumors always seem less forceful than most.
Asked about it for the umpteenth time this week at Saturday's final pregame news conference, however, his answer didn't exactly exude warm and fuzzy feelings about the pro ranks.
"In the NFL sometimes, based on all the other [decision makers] in the organization, you don't have the chance to control your own destiny," said Saban. "I think sometimes we need to appreciate the jobs we have. The stability of some NFL coaches right now has not been real good."
If you're a Tigers fan, the question of Saban's future is hardly one to take lightly.
Though he's has won two SEC championships in three years and is working on his third top five recruiting class in four years, the program has hardly reached a level of stability where it could realistically expect continued dominance.
LSU, though certainly an accomplished program, is not a place where championships grow on trees. Just ask the myriad coaches -- Mike Archer, Curley Hallman, Gerry DiNardo -- who came and went prior to Saban's arrival.
"I can honestly say when I was contacted about this job, I had some questions as to why in the 10-11 years prior to [my] coming to LSU they didn't have the success they'd had in the past," said Saban. "In the four years we've been here, we've been able to reestablish that."
He's done it first and foremost through recruiting, reclaiming the rich Louisiana talent base that for so long had been escaping to elsewhere in the SEC. The Tigers' starting lineup features four in-state stars -- receiver Michael Clayton, center Ben Wilkerson and defensive ends Marcus Spears and Marquise Hill -- who were part of Saban's first full recruiting class in 2001, and several others from subsequent classes.
"The one thing that kind of made a difference for me [in accepting the job] was that when I was in the NFL, the fifth-most players on NFL rosters were from Louisiana. There's only one school that plays in the SEC in the state of Louisiana, and that kind of recruiting base for one school was the kind of thing I kept coming back to."
It's a talent pipeline that only figures to get stronger on the heels of the Tigers' breakthrough season. Blue-chip recruits with sights on playing in the NFL are enamored by the chance to play in an NFL-style system yet unfazed by Saban's own alleged NFL aspirations.
"We were recruiting a player who had a coach from another school using the NFL as a negative about our program," Saban said. "The player said to him -- and I'm not making this up -- 'If the coach of your school is so good, why aren't they trying to hire him in the NFL?'"
It's a good line, one that surely kills on the booster circuit and gives reporters something to fill their notebooks. But the fact is, until the day he officially turns down every last offer, the speculation is only going to continue. Even more so if his team beats Oklahoma.
"I don't think coach is going anywhere," Tigers safety Jack Hunt said. "He's kept all his promises about everything he's ever said to me, and I have no reason not to believe he won't stay here, is happy here and will stay here as long as he can."
If the Tigers do claim the national championship Sunday, Saban will have at least one particularly lucrative reason to stick around. His already rich contract -- reportedly valued at more than $1.5 million a year -- includes a clause that says if LSU wins the BCS title game, the school will renegotiate the deal to "pay him at least $1 more than the highest paid college football coach."
Currently, that coach is his adversary in Sunday's game, Bob Stoops, at more than $2 million per season.
Beyond dollars and cents, Saban also realizes he's in the midst of building something special in Baton Rouge. Like USC's Pete Carroll, who despite his NFL background has found an ideal home in college, Saban may already be holding his most ideal career opportunity.
"This is kind of the beginning of maybe LSU becoming a dominant program in the future of college football," said Saban. "It's not really the end in terms of this game here."
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.