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Analyze this

Could LSU fans' hatred of Saban be rooted in fear?

Posted: Wednesday October 31, 2007 12:50PM; Updated: Wednesday October 31, 2007 2:56PM
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Nick Saban
First-year Alabama coach Nick Saban has drawn well-documented ire from the program that he led to a national title.
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In last week's episode of The Office, we learned that Dunder Mifflin paper salesman Jim Halpert harbors fantasies of a more glamorous life where he's a "Philly sportswriter" (one who also apparently carries around a guitar). The fact that he gets to go home each night with last year's Mailbag Crush is apparently not enough; inside, Jim dreams of a more fulfilling career.

Likewise, I myself -- a real-life sportswriter -- sometimes find myself curious about other professions. Thanks to a timely question from Mike in Winston-Salem, N.C., I finally get to take a stab at one of them.

Ladies and gentlemen, today I will be playing the role of psychologist -- and the patient on my couch is the entire LSU fan base.

Stewart, what is your take on the hatred and anger expressed by LSU fans toward Nick Saban? Prior to his arrival, LSU had experienced just three winning seasons in the last decade. He brought them a national title, and more importantly made them relevant once again on the national scene. Yes, he went to Alabama, but he did not do so directly, and he professed making a mistake in his decision to leave the college ranks. Is it because LSU is desperate for a rival (since Ole Miss doesn't really fit the bill), or is it because of their deep-seeded fear that he will one day overthrow them in the SEC West?

This a fascinating question. For the past nine months, we've pretty much accepted Saban's now-villainous status in Louisiana as a given. (And believe me, he's definitely a villain; I'm guessing those "Nick Satan" T-shirts I saw in Baton Rouge earlier this season are flying off the shelves this week). But have we ever really stopped to ask ourselves why that is?

Obviously, nobody likes it when a coach treats their school as a stepping-stone to a "better" opportunity, but as Mike points out, it's not like Saban went directly from LSU to Alabama. In fact, Tigers fans expressed little ill will toward Saban when he originally left for the Dolphins; they even gave him a mini-ovation as he ran off the field following that last-second Capital One Bowl loss to Iowa in his final game. This was not the same kind of blatant, slap in the face as, say, Tommy Tuberville going directly from Ole Miss to Auburn, or Dennis Erickson ditching Idaho for Arizona State after just one season.

As he's said repeatedly, Saban just wanted to get back into college coaching, and Alabama just happened to have an opening (and a spare $4 million a year lying around). However, Alabama happens to be the one school LSU would have least wanted to see him show up.

While few would ever admit it (and most will likely firebomb my inbox for even suggesting it), Mike hit the nail on the head at the end of his question. As any licensed psychologist will tell you, hatred, at its core, is rooted in fear. LSU fans hate Saban for taking the Alabama job because deep down, they fear the potential implications for their program.

Psychology truism No. 2: We can never escape our true inner-feelings. Yes, LSU has been one of the most dominant programs in the country the past seven years. And yes, Alabama has been fairly average for more than a decade. But just as true 'Bama fans still view their school as the historical juggernaut that it is, any LSU fan above the age of 16 still undoubtedly harbors feelings of inferiority from being treated like 'Bama's unwanted stepchild for decades.

Bear Bryant went 20-5-1 against the Tigers over his career. Those kinds of wounds don't heal overnight. And that's partly what makes this weekend's game so compelling.

For LSU fans, Alabama is arguably their biggest rival, and Saban's hiring only fueled their resentment that much more. But the Tigers and Tide aren't actual "rivals," the way Ohio State and Michigan or USC and Notre Dame are rivals. Those rivalries are rooted as much in mutual respect as they are actual hatred.

To Alabama, LSU is no more a rival than the Cleveland Indians are to the New York Yankees. The hatred rests entirely on one side of the field, and it's almost entirely a byproduct of the other side's historical dominance.

You can't fault Tigers fans for any of this. It's a natural reaction. Thanks to Saban, they finally got to enjoy the type of national prestige they'd been craving for so long. Now, by taking over their longtime tormenter and sleeping giant sitting in their own division, he's suddenly become a threat to their newfound happiness. Such insecurity is understandable. As I wrote last year, every program in the country has a historical, equilibrium point; LSU has been playing well above its equilibrium for several years now, while Alabama has been playing well below theirs. History tells us they're both likely to return to their more natural states at some point, and Saban could be the factor that causes that.

Ironically, in his ongoing effort to restore 'Bama's good name, nothing would bolster Saban's cause more than beating the very LSU juggernaut he helped create. Personally, I don't see it happening, at least not this weekend. While Saban's Tide have played at as high a level imaginable for them this season, Les Miles' Tigers are still several rungs higher on the talent ladder.

The question is, will that still be the case three years from now? I'm sure LSU fans would be the first to tell you, heck yeah, it will. But if they really, truly believed that ... they wouldn't have much reason to resent Saban, would they?

Psychology truism No. 3: Fear leads to anger. LSU faithful would never have become angry at Saban to begin with if there wasn't a legitimate reason to fear him.

And with that ... I'm afraid our time has run out, my patient. See the receptionist on the way out about scheduling an appointment for next week. I'm sure you will have some feelings following this weekend's game that we'll want to discuss.

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