By JIM ENGSTER
President, Tiger Rag Magazine
Minutes before kickoff four years ago at Tiger Stadium, Nick Saban discarded the traditional practice of trotting out with his team seconds after LSU bolted through the goal posts at the other side of the field. On this November night, Saban briskly walked from his locker room early and stood as a man alone at midfield to watch Les Miles parade the Bengals into the arena amid a thunderous ovation.
There were significant rumors at the time that Saban was headed to Texas, and it remains a mystery why the Alabama coach wanted to absorb the frenzy of Death Valley at that moment. The theory here is that Saban cherished a final experience of what it was like to be the coach of LSU. It was this school and this stadium that made everything else possible in his nomadic career. Everything.
Alabama survived a 21-17 cliffhanger in 2012 as Saban collected another crystal trophy and the flirtation with Texas abated. Today at 65, the diminutive leader of the Crimson Tide towers above his peers. With five national titles in his last eleven years on the sidelines of Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa, Saban is primed to supplant Bear Bryant as the most successful mentor in the history of the college game.
It’s been an amazing 17 years for the man from Fairmont, W.V. This blue collar town of 18,000 has eleven thousand fewer residents that it did when Saban’s was born on Oct. 31, 1951. When Saban was hired by LSU as a 48-year-old journeyman in November of 1999, the most famous Fairmont native was Gold Medal winning gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Not anymore.
Nicholas Lou Saban has navigated an improbable odyssey to the pinnacle of his profession. His playing days ended in the same place that Charles McClendon’s coaching career closed. In Orlando at the Tangerine Bowl, the 5’6, 185-pound Saban completed an unheralded tenure as a Kent State defensive back in Kent’s 21-18 loss to Tampa on Dec. 29, 1972.
Saban logged four years as a defensive assistant at his alma mater, spent a year at Syracuse on a staff that went 6-5-1 in 1977 before jumping to West Virginia where he coached defensive backs on two losing teams. Earl Bruce hired Saban as defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 1980, and in two years at Columbus, the Buckeyes posted consecutive 9-3 seasons.
At age 30, the restless Saban moved to Navy under first-year coach Gary Tranquill. The Midshipmen were a lackluster 6-5 in 1982, and Saban was off to Michigan State as defensive coordinator for five years under George Perles. The Spartans went 32-24-2 in those years before Saban bolted East Lansing for the NFL. He was defensive backs coach for the Oilers of Jerry Glanville in 1988 and 1989. Houston had winning seasons both years, 10-6 and 9-7, but the Oilers defense was near the bottom of the league..
Just shy of his 39th birthday, Saban became a head coach for the first time at the University of Toledo. He piloted the Rockets to an impressive 9-2 season, but Saban departed to serve as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. From 1991-94, Saban toiled in his early 40s for an NFL team that produced a 31-31 regular season record. In his final season with the Browns, they were ranked No. 1 in the league in defense.
Saban returned to Michigan State as head coach in 1995, and his first four years were mediocre. The Spartans went 6-5-1 in his rookie season, losing their opener 50-10 to Nebraska and closing with a 45-26 Independence Bowl defeat to LSU. Year two saw Saban go 6-6 and finish with a 38-0 loss to Stanford in the Sun Bowl. His next campaign was a bit better at 7-5, but MSU was bombed 51-23 by Washington in the Aloha Bowl to cap year three.
With his job in jeopardy, Saban struggled to a 6-6 record in his fourth season. The Spartans were embarrassed in lopsided losses to Oregon and Penn State, but upset victories over Notre Dame and Ohio State saved Saban.
At 47 with his future clouded by a four-year mark of 25-22-1, Saban guided his fifth Michigan State team to a 9-2 record and lobbied to become head coach at LSU when no other top flight coach was interested. Chancellor Mark Emmert made him one of the highest paid coaches on the planet with a five year deal worth an unprecedented six million dollars.
Saban inherited a program that had weathered eight losing seasons in eleven years. He converted the 3-8 Tigers of 1999 into an 8-4 unit in his maiden voyage. A year later, LSU sailed to its first SEC title in 13 years and in January of 2004, the Bengals cruised to their first national title in 45 years.
Saban had struck gold where others perished and seemed destined for decades of greatness on the bayou. He orchestrated one of the most impressive physical plant expansions to occur on a college campus with state of the art coaching, practice and academic facilities. But at the close of a 9-3 season in year five, Saban bowed to his vagabond spirit and accepted a multi-million dollar overture to take the helm of the Miami Dolphins.
After two seasons that saw the Dolphins go 15-17, Saban at 56 landed his ship at Alabama where he has tormented the competition, winning 107 of his last 119 games. Players and assistants come and go at Tuscaloosa, but Saban keeps winning like nobody else.
Five years ago, LSU was emerging as the decade’s dominant team. Saban had lost two in a row to Les Miles and was 2-3 vs. LSU entering the BCS Championship Game of Jan. 9, 2012. Miles was a victory away from equaling Saban with a pair of national titles.
The Crimson Tide humbled the SEC champions 21-0 just nine weeks after LSU won the Game of the Century at Bryant-Denny 9-6 in overtime. Saban has won five in a row against his former employer.
The legend of Saban had its genesis in Baton Rouge where he began the Golden Age of LSU football that started with the SEC crown in 2001 and ended with conference honors against Georgia in 2011. During those eleven seasons, LSU secured four SEC and two national championships.
Saban has now coached more games at Alabama than he did in combined five-year tours at Michigan State and LSU. His record shows substantial improvement in each five-year increment.
Years School Record Percent Conference Record
1995-99 Michigan State 34-24-1 58.6 23-16-1
2000-04 LSU 48-16-0 75.0 28-12-0
2007-11 Alabama 55-12-0 82.1 32-8-0
2012-16 Alabama 58-6-0 90.6 33-4-0
If Ed Orgeron conquers LSU’s elusive coach turned bitter rival, Coach O deserves a ticket to stick around. Saban is no longer the uncertain 48-year-old coach who lost his season opener at Michigan State in 1998 to Colorado State. LSU transformed Saban into an invincible giant who reigns supreme. The rest of the SEC gazes at him with both awe and hate, sounding much like former heavyweight champ Joe Frazier, who grudgingly assessed Muhammad Ali after their epic bout in Manila, “Lawdy, he’s a great champion.”
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