ENGSTER: Saban is a study in survival

As Nick Saban returns to Tiger Stadium for the sixth time as Alabama coach, he holds a 4-1 advantage over LSU in Death Valley, the same record Saban recorded against the Tide when he was coaching the Tigers from 2000-04.

Saban is generally regarded by both fan and foe as the greatest college football coach of his generation and possibly the best in history. He is reaching John Wooden territory. The famed UCLA basketball boss closed his career by winning ten NCAA titles in his last ten years.

The Wooden parallel with Saban is striking. Wooden coached UCLA for 15 years before he won his first national championship at 53. Saban had been a head coach for ten years in the college ranks before LSU captured the crystal trophy in New Orleans in January of 2004. Saban was 52 when he collected his first crown. Five more titles have been secured by the mercurial man who lives in Tuscaloosa, but calls nowhere home.

Saban’s nomadic career as a coach has seen him travel with wife Terry from Kent, Ohio to Syracuse to West VIrginia to Ohio State to Navy to Michigan State to the Houston Oilers to Toledo University to the Cleveland Browns, back to Michigan State, then to LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama.

Here are the Sabans’ investment of time in 12 stops over a 45-year career.

Tuscaloosa                          12 years

East Lansing                        10 years

Baton Rouge                      5 years

Cleveland                            4 years

Kent                                      4 years

Houston                               2 years

Miami                                   2 years

Columbus                            2 years

Morgantown                     2 years

Toledo                                  1 year

Annapolis                            1 year

Syracuse                              1 year


For those who think Saban was destined for the pinnacle from the start of his odyssey through nine states, it should be noted that he was a 48-year-old journeyman when hired by Joe Dean at LSU and posted a record of 21-24 from his final game at LSU through two years at Miami and into his first 12 games at Alabama.

Since the final game of the regular season of 2007, Alabama is 134-14 overall and is 76-8 in the SEC. LSU, which has emerged as the most competitive rival for the Tide despite losing seven games in a row in the series, is 102-34 overall and 57-28 in the league since winning the 2007 BCS Championship.

Saban’s rise could have come to a disastrous end in the summer of 2003. After a disappointing 8-5 campaign, the LSU coach was preparing for a championship run during the Fourth of July weekend in at his vacation home in Georgia.

Saban waited two weeks before telling the story to reporter Kaare Johnson that July of 2003 provided a close call less than six months before the coach was celebrating in the Superdome. This was Saban’s first experience with a crimson tide.

Saban said he fell from the ski deck of his boat and hit his head against the dock, causing him to be knocked out as fell to the bottom of a lake. Two friends came to the rescue as Saban suffered cuts to his ear and the back of the head, requiring 25 stitches.

“I hit my head on the dock. I slipped and fell. I split my ear open. I knocked myself out,” Saban told Johnson. “I said ‘What am I doing here?’ I paddled my way to the top.”

Construction magnate Lenny Lemoine, who was one of the friends at the scene, said Saban was under water for ten seconds when Lemoine jumped in to save him. Lemoine, adding to the legend of his friend, disputes accounts that he saved Saban’s life. “Saban could have woken up at the bottom of that lake an hour later and he’d still be alive. He’s a fighter, Lemoine says of his resilient companion.”

Saban survived the boating mishap and turned the LSU program into the second best in the SEC and rebuilt Alabama into a juggernaut like no other.

LSU is at home and due for a victory over the Red Elephants, and while we know Saban does not walk on water, he is resistant to defeat at his old stomping ground. This is likely the game of the year in college football even with Alabama a solid favorite and LSU trailing in the series by a margin of 27 games, 52-25.

Saban’s trips to LSU as Alabama coach began in 2008 when his image was burned in effigy at the Tiger Manor Apartments on the eve of the game. As usual security will be tight for the most hated man in Louisiana.

Saban will open his Saturday by attending Mass in Baton Rouge. During the service, he may daydream about the wisdom of odds makers installing Alabama as two-touchdown favorite. The Tide has prevailed 80-percent of the time in its games at LSU with Saban in charge. But there have been no routs.

2008:                     Alabama 27 LSU 21 (Overtime)

2010:                     LSU 24 Alabama 21

2012:                     Alabama 21 LSU 17

2014:                     Alabama 20 LSU 13 ((Overtime)

2016:                     Alabama 10 LSU 0

In matchups against his former employer at Baton Rouge, Saban is 2-1-2 in regulation and has directed the Tide to a scoring advantage of 99-75 for an average score of 20-15 in favor of Alabama. During regulation, the average margin in those games is 17-15 in favor of Alabama.

Alabama may win Saturday night, but it’s not likely to be a rout of 14 points or more.

Some things rarely change

It is time for our survey of the composition of the LSU football team and the Tiger Golden Girls based on photographs in the media guide and in game programs.

LSU Football Roster*                      72 African American Players (84 pct.)      14 White Players (16 pct.)

LSU Golden Girls**                         0 African-American Members (0 pct.)     18 White Members (100 pct.)

*Football composition taken from 2018 LSU Media Guide

**Golden Girls composition taken from 2018 Game Program

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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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