The Ritual goes like this: The girl gives her father, the football coach, a shiny penny before his games, and his team wins. The two of them talk about the power of the coins, which are their special weapon against opponents. At 10 minutes past five on Sunday afternoon, LSU football coach Nick Saban boarded a bus outside the New Orleans Marriott for the short trip to the Louisiana Superdome and the Sugar Bowl game against Oklahoma that would give the winner a share of the national championship. He carried not just one penny in his pocket this time but three, because his 13-year-old daughter, Kristen, figured one just wasn't enough with so much at stake.
It is absurd, of course, to suggest that those three little pennies were responsible for the Tigers' 21-14 victory over Oklahoma, a win that secured LSU's first national title in 45 years and sent tens of thousands of Tigers fans spilling deliriously into the French Quarter and far beyond. Better to credit the tenacious LSU defense, which held the Sooners to 154 yards of total offense and forced Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jason White into 13-for-37 passing, with two interceptions. "We knew he didn't like to get hit in the mouth," said Tigers All-America cornerback Corey Webster. "So we hit him in the mouth. By the end of the game he was flinching even when nobody was rushing him." Better also to single out the 117-yard rushing performance of true freshman back Justin Vincent, the game's MVP, or the inartistic but gritty leadership of Matt Mauck, LSU's 24-year-old junior quarterback. Anything but the pennies.
But think again. This was the close of the bizarre 2003 college football season. Absurdity ruled. The Bowl Championship Series system had LSU and Oklahoma—the top two teams in its rankings—playing for a share of the tide only because the members of the American Football Coaches Association had agreed to vote for the winner in the final coaches' poll, even though those same coaches had voted Southern Cal No. 1 at the end of the regular season. USC's Rose Bowl victory over Michigan on Jan. 1 so deflated the atmosphere in New Orleans that Saban, Sooners coach Bob Stoops and Sugar Bowl executive director Paul Hoolahan each issued statements, hours apart, saying, in effect, that the game in Pasadena had been meaningless. "The magnitude and importance of the Nokia Sugar Bowl's BCS national championship game remain unchanged," Hoolahan proclaimed. Now that was absurd.
The ongoing BCS madness was but one distraction for the Tigers. Equally daunting were the expectations earned by the fans who turned New Orleans into a purple-and-gold encampment by game time. A fleet of RVs filled the lots alongside Poydras Street not far from the Superdome, and LSU flags hung from wrought-iron railings on balconies along Bourbon Street. "You can't go anywhere without feeling how much this means to LSU fans," said Mauck three days before the game.
Saban kept the Tigers relaxed by shedding his dour image. On a team riverboat ride on Dec. 29 he cracked up his players with an attempt at a James Brown dance step. "I hope he was just trying to be funny, but I think that's how he moves for real," said junior cornerback Travis Daniels. Often intensely critical of his defensive backs in practice—"He'll get down in a stance and say, 'I can do this, and I'm 52 years old,' " says Webster—Saban lightened the mood with jokes and smiles. Even away from the team, he kicked back; after attending mandatory New Year's Eve functions he returned to the team hotel, climbed into bed with his wife, Terry, and watched a cowboy movie. On the night before the game Saban took his team to see The Last Samurai and then told the players in the Superdome dressing room, "This game is going to be like that movie: a fight to the end."
Yet no play affected the game more than the very first one from scrimmage. After LSU took a touchback on the opening kickoff, Mauck called Right Dot Zone 34, a running play to the right in which Vincent was to read the reaction of Oklahoma's defensive tackle and cut accordingly. Seeing Tommie Harris slide inside, the tailback slashed outside through a gaping hole and ran 64 yards to the Oklahoma 16. No matter that Mauck lost a fumble four plays later; because the Tigers' Webster intercepted White's first pass, leading to a 24-yard touchdown run by sophomore wideout Skyler Green and a 7-0 lead with less than four minutes gone.
The game was destined to devolve into a sumo match. Saban and the 43-year-old Stoops are former defensive coordinators with deep, common roots. When Saban was an assistant coach at Ohio State (1980 to '81) and Michigan State (1983 to '87), he recruited in Youngstown, Ohio, where Stoops grew up. Saban spent long hours watching film with Stoops's father, Ron, who was the defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High for 30 years until his death in 1988. "I used to play gin with Bob's uncle [a coach at another Youngstown high school], killing time," says Saban. In '86, when Bob Stoops and his brother Mike were assistants at Iowa and their brother Mark played there, the Hawkeyes visited Michigan State; after the game the entire Stoops family had dinner at Saban's house.
Saban, who came to LSU in November 1999, calls himself "the highest-paid graduate assistant in America" because he so cherishes working hands-on with his defense. The Tigers allowed just 10.8 points per game during the season, best in the nation. Two days before the Sugar Bowl, Mike Stoops, who had been his brother's defensive coordinator this year before accepting the head coaching job at Arizona, said, "You're not going to see either team marching up and down the field. Not us, not them."
What proved to be the Sugar Bowl's winning touchdown was scored by the LSU defense when end Marcus Spears dropped off the line of scrimmage as the Tigers ran a zone blitz, picked off a pass in the right flat and ran 20 yards to the end zone just 47 seconds into the third quarter, giving LSU a 21-7 lead. Nearly 30 minutes remained, during which Oklahoma would run 40 plays and gain 110 yards, an average of 2.8 yards per snap. Typical of the Tigers' resolve, starting defensive end Marquise Hill, who was fighting a stomach virus, would occasionally take off a few snaps in the second half to vomit on the sideline and receive intravenous fluids. And when the Sooners had four tries from the LSU 12-yard line, while trailing 21-14 late in the fourth, White threw four incompletions. The game ended with three Mauck kneels and a punt that rolled out of bounds on the Oklahoma 12 as time expired. Tiger Nation erupted.
In the chaos on the field Saban found his wife and kissed her. "It's been a long four years," Terry said. "But for Nick this whole game was about the competition on the field, not all the outside issues." When he learned back in December that LSU would be facing the Sooners, Saban had told his wife they'd be the best team the Tigers faced all year, that their complex schemes and intensity reminded him of the Green Bay Packers. But he also said this: "They're beatable." And then he went to work.