Alabama-LSU Rivalry Still Boils Down to One Thing: Nick Saban

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It all began at the airport, the same one that will be closed to the public for most of Saturday because the President of the United States wants to attend LSU at Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium. 

Even if it was open, one has to wonder if he would have gotten a similar reception as Nick Saban did here years ago. 

Arguably the most important touchdown in Crimson Tide history occurred at approximately 3:45 p.m. on January 3, 2007, when Alabama’s private jet landed before scores of fans who had gathered in eager anticipation. They didn’t even wait for the man wearing a gray suit, lavender shirt and no tie to emerge from the open door to start celebrating.

The following day, when Nick Saban was officially announced as the 27th head coach of the Crimson Tide, he didn’t hesitate to send a clear and deliberate message to the program’s fans, players and boosters, which instantly became Alabama's mantra.

“Be a champion in everything that we do,” Saban said. “Every choice, every decision, everything that we do every day, we want to be a champion.”

With that, the Saban era was under way at the Capstone, and the angst from LSU fans began to boil over. 

They're still stewing all these years later. 

LSU has a traditional rivalry with Tulane, a trophy game with Arkansas, plus a growing border feud with Texas A&M.

But Alabama remains different, because it's like one of their own has become their biggest nemesis. Saban took LSU to new heights, and then landed at a rival school. 

Life isn't fair. 

LSU coach Nick Saban
In just four years, Nick Saban won a national title and turned LSU into a college football powerhouse. Courtesy LSU

Granted, being in the same division had already caused frequent sparks between the fan bases, but nothing on this level. 

For a couple of years there was a healthy back-and-forth between the schools. Media tabbed the subsequent game between the two schools as the “Saban Bowl,” and LSU fans arrived at Bryant-Denny Stadium early sporting purple-and-gold houndstooth hats, like they owned the place. 

LSU, with 17 of the 22 offensive and defensive starters having been recruited by Saban, came from behind to win 41-34 and went on to play for the national championship.

For awhile, LSU fans could live with that. Sort of. Saban was still "welcomed" by a burning effigy the next year, and Alabama won in overtime en route to capturing the national title.  

Everything since then has been football torture for the Tigers. 

Even after winning the 2011 "Game of the Century" 9-6 in overtime, LSU still couldn't get away from Alabama and Saban. The Crimson Tide ran the table and earned a rematch in the BCS Championship Game. The Tigers faithful wanted to believe that they might prevail again, especially since it was being played in their back yard of New Orleans. 

21-0. Another Saban triumph. 

Since then it's been the plunged dagger, twisted over and over again. Eight straight head-to-head wins for Alabama. Three more national titles. All the recruits who have left Louisiana for Tuscaloosa.  

What's the old saying about definition of insanity? 

This isn't to suggest that Alabama is a lock to win when LSU visits on Saturday (2:30 p.m., CBS) along with College Gameday, SEC Nation and the massive entourage accompanying the president. LSU is still Alabama's toughest annual opponent in terms of talent and physicality, and Joe Burrow has some in the bayou thinking he might be the real-life equivalent of an Alabama voodoo doll. 

How many of them would like to see the clock turned back to when Mike Shula was fired on November 26, 2006, and interim coach Joe Kines guided the Crimson Tide to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, a 34-31 loss to Oklahoma State resulting in a 6-7 finish.

“I realize I was out on the gangplank, so to speak, or out on thin ice, but I felt like I had to do this,” Alabama director of athletics Mal Moore said at the time. “I recognized that this was such a crucial hire for the university.”

What if Saban had fallen through the cracks, or didn't take the pay cut to leave the Miami Dolphins (even though he signed the richest contract in college football history at that point, eight years and at least $30 million with incentives).

Saban had been Moore’s top choice throughout the process, although Alabama did briefly turn to West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, and flirted with both South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino.

What if Alabama had hired one of them? 

With Rodriguez’s rejection in early December (a year later he was hired by Michigan, which didn't turn out too well), Moore immediately went back to Saban and decided to wait for the Dolphins’ season to finish on the 31st. Only then did he fly to Florida to make a formal pitch.

Saban was 55 at the time. When he said yes he added that he planned on Alabama being his final coaching job, with his next stop retirement at the family home in Lake Burton, Ga. (“They don’t have a football team there. They do have a pontoon boat, though.”).

No one listened. No one wanted to believe. They still don't. 

The rest of college football is desperately hoping for LSU to end Alabama's stranglehold on the rivalry, on the division, on the entire game, which has been felt for 12-plus years. 

“I waited forever to talk with him,” Moore said. “Once I talked with his wife [Terry], I thought I really had a chance.”

So when did Moore know he had a new coach?

“About three hours before I picked him up at his home to come to the airport,” he said.

Agony for LSU. Ecstasy for Alabama.

Even though Saban only coached the Tigers for four years and won a national title more than 15 years ago (2003), that's the way it's been ever since. 

“I can’t tell you how pleased and honored I am to be your coach at the University of Alabama,” Saban said during his introductory press conference. “The spirit and enthusiasm that have been demonstrated to myself and my family has been phenomenal since we arrived.”

This is the fifth story in a series this week on Alabama-LSU showdowns since Nick Saban took over the Crimson Tide.

Another LSU at Alabama Showdown: The Rivalry

The Shutout

Recruiting Implications

Looking Back on the 2011 Season 

Some information for this story stems from the book "100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die"