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BATON ROUGE, La. – It was a friendly time somewhat forgotten because of the hate that ensued and buried it.
Nick Saban was hung in effigy near the LSU campus before his first game back at Tiger Stadium as Alabama’s coach in 2008. In January of 2007, he had left the Miami Dolphins after two average and personally unhappy seasons to return to what he learned he loved best – coaching college football.
Unfortunately for LSU fans, this epiphany landed Saban at long hated – because of a several decades-long inferiority complex – Alabama. This was the LSU Nation’s worst nightmare. Its greatest coach ever, who won the program’s first national championship in 45 years in 2003 and became the first LSU coach to beat hated Alabama four times, was going to Alabama after leaving LSU for Miami after the 2004 season?
“Oh, he’ll just leave them after a few years, too,” one angry LSU official said the night news broke that Saban was Bama bound, and prayed that his prediction would come true. But Saban still hasn’t left Alabama for another job, and he never will.
Nick Saban Continues To Be LSU’s Worst Nightmare
He is in his 16th year with the Tide and has won six national championships, including one over LSU in the 2011 season by a 21-0 score in LSU’s home away from home – the Superdome in New Orleans – that still exasperates LSU fans to no end. This is because it happened to a 13-0 LSU team just two months after one of the Tigers’ greatest wins in history – 9-6 in overtime as the nation’s No. 1 team at No. 2 Alabama in a true Game of the Century.
Saban will be back in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night as No. 6 Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) plays No. 10 LSU (6-2, 4-1 SEC) at 7 p.m. on ESPN. He is 6-1 in Tiger Stadium as Alabama’s coach, including a pair of shutouts in 2016 and ’18 and a 55-17 win in 2020. He is 12-4 overall against LSU with the Tide, including many recruiting victories involving Louisiana players over the years.
There was a time, though, when he was cheered in Tiger Stadium while not LSU’s coach. He returned to LSU as the Miami Dolphins coach on Oct. 30, 2006, to play the New Orleans Saints, who played some home games that season in Baton Rouge because Hurricane Katrina had wrecked the Superdome. The Saints were so unpopular at the time because they were awful. And because then-owner Tom Benson began efforts to move the team to San Antonio, Texas, within days of Katrina. So, many Saints fans cheered for the Dolphins.
Some of the LSU power brokers who were in on LSU hiring Saban from Michigan State in 1999 watched that Saints game on the Dolphins sideline and hugged Saban as he walked off the field with a 21-6 win.
Two days before the game, Saban visited the new football operations building near Tiger Stadium that he helped design and raise money for by winning the 2003 national title. While there, he visited new LSU coach Les Miles. Saban was not hung in effigy. He was celebrated, almost like the conquering hero returning home.
Some At LSU Tried To Get Nick Saban Back
Miles would finish his first season in 2005 at 11-2 with an SEC West title, while Saban went 9-7 with a Miami team that was 4-12 the previous season. Some of the movers and shakers around LSU cooled on Miles, though, because of coocoo behavior and a punchless offense that suffered a 7-3 loss at Auburn and a 23-10 loss at Florida. And he just wasn’t enough like Saban. He was like a mom’s second husband trying too hard to make friends with the kids, and it wasn’t working. They missed daddy.
Saban didn’t enjoy his time at Miami from the beginning, and it got worse in 2006 amid a 1-6 start that would finish 6-10. This galvanized a few of LSU’s money people, and a quiet movement began to try to get Saban back to LSU. Alabama, which got off to a 6-3 start under fourth-year coach Mike Shula, had not totally zeroed in on sacking Shula and finding a new coach yet.
The story goes that Richard Gill, who was a president of the Tiger Athletic Foundation fund raising arm for LSU athletics, spoke to Saban about coming back to LSU. Gill, a prominent Baton Rouge business man, loved Saban and was part of the team with then LSU chancellor Mark Emmert that got Saban hired at LSU. Gill was in on the talks with Saban’s agent Jimmy Sexton to get Saban to LSU from Michigan State. Gill was not a big fan of Miles and never got over Saban leaving.
“They were saying, ‘We’re going to pull you back in,'” LSU associate athletic director Verge Ausberry said in an interview for a recently published book about former LSU baseball coach/athletic director Skip Bertman. Bertman had tried to convince Saban to stay at LSU in 2004 because he did not think Saban would like being a head coach in the NFL, and he was right.
“I remember Richard Gill and Skip and I meeting in Skip’s office,” Saban said in Destin, Florida, in 2019. “And I was really torn about what to do. And Skip said, ‘You’ve just got to decide what you want your legacy to be. You want it to be as a college coach? Or do you want to try to make a name for yourself as a NFL coach?'”
Nick Saban Says He Should Not Have Left LSU
Saban chose the NFL and then-Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, who Saban said recruited him well. Saban had turned down the Chicago Bears after the 2003 season.
“I had it in the back of my mind all the time that the ultimate thing that you could accomplish in the profession was to be a head coach in the NFL,” Saban said. “Don’t ask me why, but that was just kind of there. And I thought, probably because of Mr. Huizenga, that was the right one. Skip understood that. Although as it turns out, what I learned from that experience was, in hindsight, it was a huge mistake to leave college football. If there was one thing professionally that I would do over again, it would’ve been not to leave LSU.”
Bertman also tried to convince Huizenga, who died in 2018, not to hire Saban.
“I said, ‘Mr. Huizenga, you’re making a big mistake. This guy’s not going to be successful in professional football, although he’s the greatest,'” Bertman said.
“Skip told Nick not to go a bunch of times,” said Ausberry, who has been in the athletic department since 2001 when Bertman became athletic director. “Skip knew Nick belonged in the college game. When he realized that pretty quick at Miami, there were quite a few powerful people at LSU who wanted Nick back.”
Bertman, though, stuck behind Miles, who finished strong in 2006 for his second straight 11-2 season. Shula, meanwhile, went south with three straight losses to finish the regular season at 6-6 for his third non-winning season and was fired on Nov. 26.
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez turned the Alabama job down in early December, and Alabama athletic director Mal Moore’s interest moved to landing Saban. And when Rodriguez turned Alabama down, Saban told Sexton he wanted the Alabama job.
“Richard Gill was still talking to Saban,” Ausberry said. “You’ll win faster here than at Alabama, he told him.”
It didn’t happen. Saban famously lied repeatedly about having no interest in Alabama before finally accepting the job after the Dolphins’ season ended.
Saban’s Players Helped Les Miles Win
Miles, meanwhile, won the national championship in the 2007 season with more than 30 players remaining from Saban’s recruiting classes (No. 1 and No. 2 in 2003 and ’04). Miles became hugely popular until eventually he wasn’t as his team gradually got worse after the 21-0 loss to Alabama. Gill passed away in 2008. Miles was fired four games into the 2016 season.
“Les was a good guy and a good coach,” Ausberry said. “He did some great things. But that 2011 loss to Nick (in the title game) messed him up. He became paranoid. He thought secretaries were sneaking stuff to Alabama. He became so infatuated with beating Nick again. He worked so hard and so long, but he didn’t know how to prepare the team for Alabama. It became about Nick. I said, ‘Stop worrying about beating Alabama all the time.’ Alabama’s not worried about you until the week they play you.'”
Ed Orgeron replaced Miles, and after his 10-0, 24-10 and 29-0 losses to Alabama, LSU finally slayed the Crimson Dragon. The Tigers went into the 2019 game No. 1 in the nation at 8-0 and slayed the No. 2 Tide, 46-41, in a Game of the Century. LSU went on to win the national championship at 15-0, but had to watch Alabama win another national title in 2020 and beat the Tigers in the last two meetings.
As Brian Kelly was deciding if he wanted to leave Notre Dame for LSU midway through the 2021 season, he called Saban, although he was 17 years removed from LSU. And somehow, Kelly found out where Saban lived when he was LSU’s coach.
“It was much more about the SEC,” Kelly said Monday. “It was much more of a general conversation. He didn’t give up any secrets about etouffee or Louisiana or LSU. If he did, I would have bought that house on Highland that he lived in. There was nothing that specific.”
A story in the Baton Rouge Advocate on Thursday focused on Saban’s favorite place to eat in Baton Rouge (Gino’s Italian restaurant), other than that house on Highland Road where Mrs. Terry Saban cooked.
The Saban Shadow Lingers On The Bayou
Where he ate, where he lived, where and how he coached – Saban’s shadow remains in Baton Rouge. As soon as he finds more than a day over the summer or retires, he will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches, which has been trying to plan the event for three years now.
“I never hated him like so many people here, even in this athletic department, after he went to Alabama,” Ausberry, a former linebacker at LSU, said. “That doesn’t make any sense. I’ve always liked the guy and always will. He made LSU special when he was here.”
Saban turned 71 on Halloween Monday.
“Well, it’s a big day, as you know,” Kelly said to open his weekly press conference that day. “It’s Nick Saban’s birthday, so I want to wish him a happy birthday to start this off. Maybe that will soften things up a little bit.”
Doubtful, but Saban’s retirement is imminent. If it does not happen after this season, it’s going to happen within a year or two. And there will likely be a huge party in Baton Rouge.
So, you just might bump into him before you know it hanging out at Gino’s, either to eat or in effigy.