From midnight to sundown on Sunday the debate raged across Louisiana bar tops, bed pillows and supermarket aisles: Were the Tigers geauxing to the big game or not? LSU received the answer in private just after 2 p.m. from SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who relayed a message from the BCS to university chancellor Mark Emmert, who gave the nod to assistant athletic director Sam Nader, who ran off in search of Tigers coach Nick Saban—who was busy conducting a team meeting in the school's football complex. After summoning the coach outside the room, Nader delivered the verdict: LSU had indeed vaulted over Southern Cal to No. 2 in the BCS standings and would play for its first national championship in 45 years.
Other coaches might have started hooraying down the hallways. Saban, a cool, compact 52-year-old with a public expression that ranges from granite-faced to slightly bemused, had a question. "So when's the game?"
Deadpan? Try dead serious. When considering how a star-starved team that was ranked No. 14 in the preseason sneaked into the Sugar Bowl, you might look to the fact that its coach didn't know the date of the national-title game, scheduled to be played a few dozen miles from his backyard. While other coaches dangle the prospect of bowl games in front of their players, Saban preaches gimlet-eyed focus on the next win. "I don't think Coach used the word bowl once all season," said wide receiver Michael Clayton last Saturday. The fruits of this tactic are apparent. In 2001, an SEC championship and a Sugar Bowl win over Illinois. In an injury-fraught 2002, a six-game winning streak. And on Saturday night, with the final gun sounding 10 minutes after No. 1 Oklahoma had tripped over the finish line, a 34-13 SEC tide-game victory over fifth-ranked Georgia to lift the Tigers to 12-1, their best record since going 11-0 in '58, the year of their lone national championship.
Not surprisingly in a region where college football is king, Saban is revered like a royal. Creole grandmamas laud his blitz packages, while more than a few Bayou gentlemen have refashioned themselves in the coach's sport-coat-over-turtleneck style. "Not since I was in my 20s has LSU been this good, and that's because of Nick Saban," one 66-year-old Tigers season-ticket holder said after Saturday's game. "The ladies like him because he's good-looking. I like him because he just wins and wins and wins?
"The man can flat-out win games," echoed a middle-aged LSU alum traveling by plane from Atlanta to Lafayette, La., on Sunday morning.
Later that afternoon a taxi driver working downtown Baton Rouge inquired of a passenger, "That coach, he has won many games, non?"
Oui. With an emphasis on focus, discipline and hard-nosed defense, Saban has roused the South's most deeply slumbering giant. From 1973 through '99, while Saban was elevating himself from Kent State graduate assistant to college-and-NFL defensive coordinator and finally to head coach of Michigan State, LSU won just one outright conference title. And yet when the Tigers approached Saban with a job offer five years into his tenure at Michigan State, the coach considered the speed and athleticism that is so abundant in Bayou country and started dreaming of untapped potential.
After accepting the LSU job in November 1999 and transporting his wife, Terry, and their children, Nick and Kristen, to Baton Rouge, Saban set out to justify abandoning a Spartans team he had just coached to a 9-2 record. His new players, several dozen of whom grew up accustomed to the Big Easy lifestyle, were shocked at the coach's NFL-style summer-workout program, which included 26 reps of 110-yard sprints on the first running day. "If you leaned over or on someone else, you did an extra one," says senior defensive tackle Chad Lavalais. "I've never minded hard work, but there were times when I said to myself, Man, why am I doing this?"
Players might have protested outwardly had Saban not been even more demanding of himself. Asked to estimate how many hours a day her husband works, Terry responds with how many he doesn't: "About three." Says junior safety Travis Daniels, "I'll never forget the Wednesday night when I passed by the football office around 11 p.m. and saw Coach's car still in the parking lot. More than anything he's said, that hit home."
The Tigers have gotten tougher and more disciplined each year of Saban's tenure, and they peaked this season. Although players had a choice of doing individual weight workouts at 7:30, 8:30 or 9:30 in the morning during the summer, four out of five showed up at the earliest time slot. The morning gatherings fostered a team chemistry that Saban says he has "never seen at any level" in his 30 years of coaching.