Looking Back at Nick Saban's Impact on LSU

In an excerpt from 100 Things LSU Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Ross Dellenger and Ron Higgins look back at Nick Saban's coaching career with the Tigers ahead of his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in December 2020.
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The following excerpt of 100 Things LSU Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, by Ross Dellenger and Ron Higgins, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information or to order a copy, please visit Triumph Books, Bookshop.org, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

When Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa by private plane in January 2007 after agreeing to become Alabama’s coach, he was mobbed by adoring fans. But when he arrived in Baton Rouge in late November 1999, at his introductory press conference announcing him as LSU’s coach, the reception was “Who’s Nick Saban, and why is LSU paying him $1.2 million a year?”

“I couldn’t believe the response and the attitude people had toward me,” Saban said. “I felt like there were a lot of questions, a lot of doubts. You have to understand. I was coming from a place [Michigan State] where the people were pretty happy over what had been done. I was shocked. I was thinking, Maybe I ought to go back where I came from.” Thankfully for LSU, he didn’t.

What he did was save the Tigers’ football program with a national championship, two SEC titles, and a 48–16 record (.750) in five seasons from 2000 to 2004 before chasing an NFL dream as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He arrived at a time when LSU was thirsting for success, stability, and a coach with his sights set on the elements required to build and sustain a national power.

After LSU had only two head football coaches (Paul Dietzel and Charles McClendon) in a 25-year period from 1955 to 1979, the Tigers had five coaches in 20 seasons from 1980 to 1999. In that period, LSU won SEC championships in 1986 and 1988, but after the 1988 title the Tigers had 8 losing seasons in the next 11 years.

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When LSU fired Gerry DiNardo with one game left in 1999, administrators already had a list of coaching candidates they wanted to pursue. But Saban wasn’t originally on it. He was a Bill Belichick disciple who worked as Belichick’s defensive coordinator for four seasons with the Cleveland Browns and had been a college head coach for six seasons, including five at Michigan State. There, he was basically a .500 coach in his first four seasons before posting a 9–2 record in 1999. When DiNardo got fired at LSU, Saban had interest in the job for one reason: For years the state of Louisiana had produced more NFL players per capita than any state in the nation. Saban saw a rich recruiting base waiting to be plucked.

Saban had his Memphis-based agent, Jimmy Sexton, get in touch with then–LSU athletic director Joe Dean. The conduit was Sean Tuohy, one of Sexton’s business partners and a friend of Dean. The negotiations moved quickly. Saban said he would accept the job, but only if LSU built a football operations building and an academic center for athletes and provided better living conditions for the players. When then–LSU chancellor Mark Emmert agreed to Saban’s conditions, it marked the commitment that advanced the program to a national championship contender.

None of Saban’s assistants followed him from Michigan State, though he offered four of them jobs. He immediately put together an all-star staff that during his LSU years included future head coaches Jimbo Fisher (Florida State, Texas A&M), Will Muschamp (Florida, South Carolina), Kirby Smart (Georgia), Mel Tucker (Colorado), Derek Dooley (Tennessee), and Freddie Kitchens (Cleveland Browns).

Saban never won fewer than eight games in each of his five seasons. He had three bowl wins, one of which was the BCS national title game victory in the Sugar Bowl over Oklahoma. His SEC Championship Game victories came against Tennessee and Georgia. That win against the Vols in the 2001 league title tilt was the victory that lit the fuse for LSU’s national championship run two years later. LSU had lost at Tennessee 26–18 earlier in the 2001 season. By the time the teams met again in the Georgia Dome, the No. 2–ranked Vols were a win away from advancing to the Rose Bowl and playing for the national championship. But despite the Tigers losing starting quarterback Rohan Davey and leading rusher LaBrandon Toefield with injuries in the first half, LSU roared back from a 17–7 deficit to score a 31–20 upset.

Two seasons later, after four superb recruiting classes, Saban’s 13–1 Tigers delivered the school’s first national championship since 1958 by beating Oklahoma 21–14. “The 2003 team had so much character that it didn’t need a leader,” Saban said. “They thought they would win the championship long before I did.” As a result of winning the national title, Saban landed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. It was a class that would help Les Miles, the next LSU coach, win a national championship in 2007.

At the end of the 2004 season, a contract for $5 million per year and promised control of player personnel decisions lured Saban to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins. “I learned from that experience in hindsight was, it was a huge mistake to leave college football,” Saban said in May 2019. “And I know a lot of LSU fans think I left for whatever reasons, but I left because I wanted to be a pro coach, or thought I wanted to be a pro coach. We loved LSU. We worked hard to build the program. If there was one thing professionally that I would do over again, it would’ve been not to leave LSU.”

Saban lasted just two years before he returned to the college game as Alabama’s head coach, much to the chagrin of many LSU fans, especially after the Tide’s 21–0 win over the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl to win the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. That started a streak of eight wins over the Tigers that ended in 2019. In his first 13 seasons at Alabama, Saban has won five national championships, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest college football coaches in history.

Saban was pleasantly stunned in August 2019 when named to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He will be inducted in December 2020. “I’m just amazed this has happened,” he said after being informed of the honor. “I didn’t know Louisiana would do this for me.”