Commentary

Baton Rouge painted crimson by Saban, Tide

Originally Published: November 8, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Game over and disaster averted, Terry Saban came wobbling toward the elevator in the Tiger Stadium press box Saturday night. The wife of the man at the center of an only-in-the-SEC emotional maelstrom clutched the arm of a friend, tears in her eyes. She appeared totally drained.

"What a hard-fought game," she exhaled.

Hard fought. Hard earned. Hard feelings everywhere in the record crowd of 93,039. Hard to deal with for the Sabans, no matter how much they tried to downplay this hate-stained homecoming.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezNick Saban directed Alabama to a win in his return to Baton Rouge.

Now here's the hard truth: LSU and Nick Saban, once a match made in football heaven, are destined to make life hell for each other in perpetuity. When one is on the road to glory, expect the other to provide wickedly stiff competition. This is the stuff great rivalries are made of.

Last year, LSU's path to the national title went through a huge scare from an Alabama team that would finish 7-6. The Tigers had to score two touchdowns in the final three minutes to win 41-34.

This year it's the Crimson Tide marching toward a national championship. This year it's Saban's old school, struggling through what might be its worst season since 2002, pushing his current team to the brink before relenting in overtime, 27-21.

It was an exceptionally arduous Bama victory. A team that had trailed for little more than a minute all season found itself battling from behind for more than 16 minutes of the first half. Alabama led for only 19:04 of regulation and was forced into OT after a chip-shot winning field goal was blocked on the final play of regulation.

In fact, if LSU gets even decent quarterback play instead of four interceptions and 38 percent accuracy, it pulls the upset and scuttles the Tide's undefeated season. And Tigers fans are partying for days in celebration of beating their hero-turned-villain.

They were desperate to ruin Saban's season, desperate to render his return to the place where he won the 2003 national title a comeuppance. Some fans burned Saban in effigy at a bonfire Friday night. Others wore profane T-shirts. One kid in the LSU student section wore a toilet seat around his waist with a picture of Saban in the bowl.

Bitterness was running at or near an all-time high -- which is saying something in a league in which perspective is routinely trampled by stampeding emotion. It's possible that no single individual has been booed this enthusiastically by this many people.

After spending all week brushing aside questions about this melodrama, Saban appeared to subtly broadcast a peace signal by wearing a light purple tie into the stadium at 12:30 p.m. Central Time Saturday afternoon. Perhaps he was trying to mollify potential snipers who picked up the color scheme in their rifle scopes.

Saban was the first man off the Bama bus, surrounded by state troopers and whisked quickly through a throng of roughly 350 people gathered around the visiting locker room. Most of the fans were wearing crimson, there to support their savior, so the cheers drowned out the boos of the LSU fans.

"I didn't leave LSU to go to Alabama," Saban reminded a fan base that doesn't want to be bothered with the truth. "I left LSU for Miami.

[+] EnlargeLSU Fans
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireLSU fans made their hard feelings known Saturday.
"I know there may be some people that have a negative attitude. But I can say I really appreciate those people that spoke to me and welcomed me back here today. I really appreciate that from the people here. We have special memories of this place, and no one will tarnish those no matter what they do. I appreciate the class of the people and administration at LSU."

He presumably did not appreciate the "F--- you Saban" serenade -- both pregame and postgame -- from the LSU student section. Or any of the other catcalls, broadsides and snide shots aimed his way.

"You name it," Saban said, "I heard it."

Theoretically, the Saban-LSU squabble shouldn't have affected the Alabama players -- it's not their fight. But the Tide played a remarkably sloppy first half, fumbling twice, throwing an interception and missing a field goal.

"That is as lethargic a half of football as we've played all year," Saban said.

The only reason the game was tied at 14 at halftime was because LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee served up yet another pick-six -- his sixth of the season, which is just astonishing -- in the second quarter. Rashad Johnson ran back one of his three interceptions 54 yards for a score.

Lee is only a redshirt freshman, but he's played plenty this season. Which made the endless miscommunications with his receivers all the more puzzling. From the look of things, you'd swear they just met each other Saturday morning. The LSU passing attack was far more guesswork than clockwork.

"I think [Lee] can play better than he played today, simply put," head coach Les Miles said. "I thought that he gave his team a chance to win."

To the contrary, he gave Alabama a chance to win by throwing into double coverage on the first possession of overtime. That resulted in Johnson's final interception, and the Tide scored the winning touchdown three plays later.

The only thing left after John Parker Wilson tunneled in for the winning score was a wild Alabama celebration and some more booing of Saban, who had at least 10 state troopers surrounding him as he shook Miles' hand and spoke with some of the players he helped recruit to LSU.

"My emotions for this place are positive, not negative," Saban said.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezNick Saban left Baton Rouge focused on Alabama's next step.
The biggest reason those emotions are not returned in kind by so many LSU fans is simple: They're seeing, firsthand, the brilliance of a coach who used to be theirs. This is jealousy, pure and simple. They want him and can't have him. They used to love him, but the depth of the embrace was never fully reciprocal.

Saban took LSU to a place it had not been since the 1950s, and now he's in a place where he'll do the same for a bitter rival. That's why the bitter rival fans were clustered around the visiting locker room last night, roaring with glee at their escape here, and their ahead-of-schedule arrival as the nation's No. 1 team.

But Saban is nothing if not obsessively guarded against satisfaction. If he smiles between Labor Day and New Year's Day, it's a well-kept secret. Even here and now, there was no hint of celebration.

"We are at about 19,000 feet," Sir Edmund Saban said. "The mountain is at 26,000 feet, and the air is changing a little bit. The air is a little rarer and you have to change how you breathe sometimes, but you still have to focus on the task at hand."

When Saban finished his postgame news conference in a comically packed room, a woman in the back in a houndstooth skirt and matching handbag changed her breathing. Terry Saban exhaled and said, "Yessss."

With that, the hate-stained homecoming was almost done. There was just one last task before getting out of town.

In an almost empty stadium where he once was king, Nick Saban stood on the 2-yard line and taped his Sunday coach's show with a Birmingham TV host.

On the chest of his white shirt was a scarlet letter A.

He wore it proudly.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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