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You Can’t Escape Nick Saban—or His Infamous Straw Hat—at LSU

Are legends born or made? When it comes to the Nick Saban Hat, it’s a little bit of both.

BATON ROUGE—The straw hat doesn’t look so valuable. The purple band is a bit faded, and the bill is slightly frayed. If the hat hadn’t belonged to such an important figure, it would have been tossed into the garbage long ago. After all, it is two decades old.

And yet, here it sits, inside an office on the second floor of LSU’s athletics administration building, steps from Tiger Stadium, alone on a table like a piece of fine jewelry on display.

The hat once belonged to Nick Saban.

The hat’s current owner, Michael Bonnette, a longtime athletic administrator at LSU, believes Saban left the hat in his office upon leaving LSU for the Miami Dolphins in December 2004. Since then, this hat has lived in the Bonnette household for nearly two decades, even worn at times by his children.

Saban has notoriously donned similar versions of the hat during practices, first at LSU, then with the Dolphins, and for the past 16 years at Alabama. It has evolved into an iconic symbol of the man himself. The straw hat is to Saban what the houndstooth fedora is to Bear Bryant, or the wide-rimmed eyeglasses are to Joe Paterno.

Nick Saban coaches a player during a summer practice during his days at LSU.

The tradition of the straw hat began a few seasons into Nick Saban’s tenure at LSU.

Bonnette clings to this keepsake of one of the greatest coaches in college football history, one of a few tangible objects from Saban’s time here.

Saban left behind a culture of winning that has now spanned three coaches, two national championships and three SEC titles. During his first year in Baton Rouge in 2000, Saban woke a sleeping giant, transforming this place into a behemoth before heading to Tuscaloosa and dominating the Tigers for a decade. Alabama has won 10 of the past 11 games against LSU, and Saban has won the past five games played here dating back to ’10. It’s reminiscent of Bryant, who ended his career winning his last six games in Tiger Stadium.

Saban returns to Baton Rouge on Saturday night, when No. 10 LSU hosts No. 6 Alabama. The Tigers and Tide meet as top-10 teams for the 10th time in 15 contests. A game that seemed ho-hum at the season’s start now carries significant weight: The SEC West lead is on the line.

Around Baton Rouge, reminders of Saban are everywhere. His shadow still looms. His imprint on the program still lingers.

Inside Saban’s old house, there’s at least one wall-mounted phone that, more than 20 years later, is still marked with the names of the Saban family members. One LSU booster even keeps a handwritten letter Saban penned to him. In Saban’s old office inside the LSU administration building, the remote he used to open and close the office door is still there. On campus, two buildings stand that were both his brainchild: the team’s football operations facility and the school’s Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes. Most football-related items can be traced to Saban’s five-year run at the school from 2000 to ’04, including the tiger statue outside of the football operations building.

“Everything you see is Nick,” says Verge Ausberry, LSU’s executive deputy athletic director. “That’s what he left behind. He paved a way and laid a foundation.”

Of all the items left behind, Saban’s straw hat is the most recognizable. It was born here, with the frightening accident some 20 years ago that led Saban to start wearing the hat.

A phone in Nick Saban’s old house in Baton Rouge.

The same phone from the Saban Family’s home while they lived in Baton Rouge.

The old straw hat and door clicker left behind at LSU by Nick Saban

The straw hat and remote left behind at LSU athletic offices. 

Lenny Lemoine, an LSU booster who lives in Baton Rouge, remains one of Saban’s dearest friends and their families often vacation together. Each family owns a house on Lake Burton, a 2,700-acre reservoir in northeast Georgia known for its clear water and beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Last week during Alabama’s bye weekend, the families gathered at the lake as they do each year in early November to celebrate Saban’s birthday. Since Saban’s days in Baton Rouge, the Lemoines, Sabans and other close friends have spent a week or two in the spring and sometimes a month of the summer on the lake.

One year stands out from the rest. In the summer of 2003, just before the start of LSU’s preseason camp, the families made the trip to Lake Burton. After a day on the water, Saban and Lemoine were cleaning the boat when the coach tripped, smacked his head against the dock and rolled into the water. Lemoine didn’t see it happen, but he heard it. He wheeled around, raced toward the water and saw Saban’s figure a few feet below the surface.

“I jumped in and grabbed him,” says Lemoine, the president of a Louisiana-based contracting company. “He had a pretty big gash in his ear and head. It knocked him out.”

Many around Baton Rouge believe Lemoine saved Saban’s life that day. Lemoine isn’t one of them. “He’s a fighter. Nick would have saved Nick,” he says.

The gash was deep enough that Saban needed stitches. The doctor warned him that any long-term sun exposure to the area would leave a ghastly scar, recalls Greg Stringfellow, LSU’s longtime equipment manager.

“He needed a hat to shade the ear,” Stringfellow says, “so I got him a hat.”

Actually, he ordered a variety of wide-brimmed hats, stacking them next to each other for Saban to choose his preference. The sort of hat lineup included floppy hats made by Columbia, a safari-style model and another made of mesh.

“He picked the straw hat,” Stringfellow says.

And with that, Saban’s Hat was born.

Stringfellow used to order multiple hats as backups, at one point possessing a dozen of them. “He would beat the s--- out of them, throw them and stuff,” Stringfellow says. “We needed replacements.”

When Saban left for the Dolphins, Stringfellow sent the remaining straw hats to Miami. Dolphins equipment staff removed the LSU band and replaced it with one featuring the franchise’s trademark aqua color and logo.

When the coach arrived at Alabama, Stringfellow got a call from the team’s equipment staff members.

“They said, ‘Where the heck did you get the hat?’” Stringfellow says.

Nearly 20 years later, Saban still wears a straw hat to every practice at Alabama. But the versions have changed through the years.

Saban and his straw hat was featured on the cover of SI’s Aug. 27, 2007 issue.

Saban and his straw hat was featured on the cover of SI’s Aug. 27, 2007 issue.

Nick Saban during his first practice with Alabama.

Equipment managers have worked to stock up on straw hats at every Saban career stop since LSU.

The original hats were made by Nike. At some point, Saban switched to Broner, a Detroit-based retailer. However, the bands around the hats are still made by Nike. Having ordered so many Nike straw hats over the years, Alabama has an inventory of them. Staff members remove the Nike bands around those hats and slip them onto the Broner hats. Jeff Springer, Alabama’s associate athletic director overseeing equipment, says one hat usually lasts about a year before Saban replaces it, but the coach has worn his current one for at least two years.

Saban’s angry outbursts at practice can come at a cost to the hat. Greg McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback who is now an ESPN analyst, remembers it well.

“That poor straw hat got taken to the woodshed,” McElroy says. “The straw hat served as a beacon for us players. It weathered the Saban storm. ‘The straw hat pushed through it, so maybe I can.’”

Saban isn’t the first coach to popularize the straw hat. Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden famously wore one during Seminoles practices. Springer believes Nike stopped making the hats around the time Bowden retired in 2009.

Springer has a whopping 36 Broner hats at the ready.

“Just in case they stop making them, I wasn’t going to get stuck without one,” Springer says with a laugh.

A Broner straw hat can cost as little as $20. “I remember sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Shoot, dude, you are making $5 million a year. Why are you wearing this hat?’” McElroy says.

Similar hats listed as “Alabama Crimson Tide Nick Saban Straw Hat” are available for purchase on Amazon for about $47. An Alabama straw hat purportedly belonging to Saban is even up for bid on eBay. Another site is selling a supposed Saban-autographed straw hat for $350.

Considering Bonnette’s hat is an original and was worn by Saban, it’s got to be worth a high price, right?

“I haven’t thought much about that,” Bonnette says. “I let my son Grant wear it out. He wears it to the beach and to golf.”

Maybe it should be behind glass somewhere?

“Yeah,” Bonnette says with a laugh, “I should think about that.”

Saban will return to the hat’s birthplace Saturday, and at least one of his former players believes the coach shouldn’t limit wearing the straw hat to only practices.

“If he wore the straw hat during the game,” says McElroy, “he’d get more street cred with me.”

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