- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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[Ed's note: For a story on appreciating Nick Saban by noted author (and Alabama graduate) Winston Groom, please click here.]
There is strange music coming from apartment 315: a mix of zydeco and swamp pop, as unquestionably Louisiana as getting a go-cup from a bar. Inside is a raucous group of LSU fans. The Big Ragoo and the Evil Twins are surrounded by their crew, which includes a nuclear chemist, two women kissing, another drinking straight from a bottle of Stoli, an ex-fighter pilot and the guy who played keyboards—and organ—for song 11 on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. They all have at least one thing in common.
They hate Nick Saban.
Now, lots of people dislike coaches. Michigan fans loathe Jim Tressel. Buckeyes can't stand Joe Paterno. Nittany Lions detest Bobby Bowden. Those are normal, acceptable levels of hate. But LSU fans hate Saban more than store-bought jambalaya, more than FEMA, more than Yankees who confuse Creole with Cajun. The man loved 'em and left 'em. This is personal. This is cultural. This hatred is…intergalactic. "You could draw the analogy to Star Wars," says Indiana professor Ed Hirt, an expert in fan behavior and why sports turn ordinary grown-ups into psychopaths. "It is going to the dark side."
The LSU fans will tell Saban just how much they hate him in person on Nov. 8, when the Alabama coach brings his top-ranked Tide to Baton Rouge. As a rule, LSU opponents must park their buses and walk into the stadium in open air, protected, sort of, by police barricades. LSU fans chant "Tiger bait" over and over. But when Saban and his team come to town, that walk will be more than scary, presuming local authorities allow it to happen at all. LSU police say they will have extra security at the stadium and along the Bama bus route. "It's gonna take the 82nd Airborne to get him into Tiger Stadium," the Big Ragoo says.
Just five years ago, Saban was every LSU fan's hero, leading the Tigers to their first national title in 45 seasons. But on Christmas Day, 2004, he broke their hearts, bailing on Baton Rouge for Miami and NFL money. Two years later he stabbed their hearts by taking the Bama job. Since then, Ragoo and the Evil Twins have counted the days to Saban's return, passing time with another national title and many Alabama jokes. (Such as: How are Bama fans and maggots the same? Both can live off a dead bear.) Now their day of blessed redemption is upon them, and folks down here are some kind of pissed.
The roiling emotions across the Pelican State have to do with insecurity, fear, ethnic slurs, off-color jokes and grandmothers who speak Cajun French. For those who don't know what any of that means, don't worry. We'll translate.
First, there's the Big Ragoo. He's the greatest LSU fan alive. Ragoo is short and bald, sort of what you'd get if you crossed Winston Churchill with John Belushi. He acts like that too: half eloquent statesman, half wild man. He's given away untold amounts of food and drink to strangers. Show him respect, he will move heaven and earth for you. Cross him, he will feed you to the crabs. He is 59. He is a district manager for an oil company. His real name is Marvin Dugas. The 'S' is silent.
Then there are the Evil Twins. God, where to begin? They are actually twins and possibly evil. They are 46 and unmarried. Evil Twin Two, whose name is Scott DeJean, is a veterinarian. He's the older one, but he's the sidekick, and mans the stereo at the party. Evil Twin One is named Kent. He does the talking. This is his condo. His fridge holds only beer, soda, cream puffs and Slim-Fast. He has framed pictures of the 2003 and 2007 national championship games in his bedroom, the first images he sees in the morning. Evil Twin One warms up the crowd at Les Miles' weekly radio show and does skits at tailgates. In real life, he is a lawyer.
Besides being unhinged LSU fans, the Twins and Ragoo are Cajun, born and raised in southern Louisiana parishes. Their parents grew up speaking Cajun French at home but didn't teach it to them, not wanting to pass along what they saw as a stigma. Their folks were belittled, spanked for not speaking English in school. Years ago, when chef Justin Wilson brought his Louisiana recipes and swampy accent to national TV, Evil Twin One asked his grandmother if she was proud. No, she told him. They weren't laughing with Wilson and his catchphrase "I ga-ron-tee." They were laughing at him.
That brings us to Saban.
He has several problems down here. First, LSU fans can be insecure. Maybe it's because LSU sits smack on the border of Acadiana—the 22 parishes that make up Cajun country—and the locals' antennae remain out after years of ridicule. Maybe they are scarred from years of losing before Saban, and, somewhere deep inside, maybe they're afraid all this success will go away. Secondly, he went to Alabama. Tiger fans won't admit this, but they have a complex about Alabama, so a loved one leaving for Tuscaloosa subtly reinforces the fear that they are inferior.
Finally, there is the quote.
The slur for Cajuns is coonass. Some say it comes from a gamey delicacy or a ringtailed hat, others say the word is derived from the French put-down conasse, meaning cheap whore. Younger Cajuns will sometimes say it with pride, displaying stickers on cars around Louisiana that read "RCA," for registered coonass. For older people, it is incredibly offensive. OK, stage set.
Saban took the Bama job the day LSU played in the 2007 Sugar Bowl, and signs such as "Saban is a D-Bag" popped up in the French Quarter. Back in Miami, the coach was speaking to reporters off the record. He repeated a story a friend, who Saban said happened to be on LSU's board of trustees, told him—a story that ended up taped and played on the radio a few weeks later. Here it is: "He was walking down the street yesterday before the Sugar Bowl. He calls me. There was a guy working in the ditch, one of those coonass guys that talk funny. I can't talk like them, but he can. Most people in Louisiana can. He says, 'Hey, you see where Coach Saban signed up with Alabama?' You know, however they talk. And the board of trustees guy says, 'Yeah I saw that,' and he says, 'That son of a b—, I feel like he's f— my wife.'"
It didn't matter that Saban was trying to be funny, or that a lot of people use the word coonass. A segment of LSU fans heard ditch-digging coonass and saw red. "Cajun people are proud," Ragoo explains. "When they perceive that you're putting them down and making fun of them, they become focused and galvanized about kicking your ass."
The quote hurt, and Saban quickly released an apologetic statement. He is responsible for the return of LSU football glory and doesn't really deserve to be hated. But you can understand, right? Those who hate Saban do so because they cared for him so much. "I was jilted," says Alie Gremillion, Ragoo's fiancée. "Nick was like your first love." Here's a story: The first Saints game in Louisiana after Katrina was against the Dolphins at Tiger Stadium. When Saban came out, he got an unforgettable ovation. They loved him. And now this? Same conference? Alabama? Ditch-digging coonasses?
Two years later, at the party, Ragoo and the Evil Twins still aren't over it. They refer to Saban as Lil' Nicky, or Tricky Nick. "He's like Satan," Evil Twin One says. "He's gone from king of the world to Judas."
As the drinks start to flow, so does the level of anger. There are jokes, both innocuous and disturbing (like Ragoo opining about what some of his less-civilized brethren might do with a 12-gauge should they spy Saban in the Bayou). "If I were him I'd be very discreet," Ragoo cracks. "He might not make it back."
He is, of course, kidding. Around him, in apartment 315, the party continues. It is the night before LSU will lose to Georgia, 52-38. Dozens crowd into the kitchen, taking turns spinning the Wheel of Death: a carousel of scotch, vodka, tequila and rum. Wherever it stops, that's your poison. They spin it for hours. After Ragoo takes a turn on the Wheel—"Oh, no, tequila," Alie says quietly—he lies on the floor and lets the Twins spin him like a top. At the end of the party, they play "Rocky Top" to honor Tennessee, Alabama's opponent. Of course they change the chorus a bit.
Rocky Top, you'll always be,
Second in the SEC.
Good ol' Rocky Top.
Second in the SEC!
Second in the SEC!
The next day, the party continues at 6 a.m. with Budweiser, biscuits and boudin. It moves toward the stadium with chicken spaghetti at Ragoo's tent; a neighboring tailgate has a keg on a giant stand, rigged with rubber tubes. All the while they jam to music coming out of twin six-foot stacks, like The Allman Brothers have set up in the parking lot. The party survives the game and beyond the entire sad afternoon. LSU fans even congratulate passing Georgia fans on their W, which will not happen against Bama. Afterward, Ragoo heads to the Pastime Restaurant & Lounge to watch Saban's Crimson Tide. They're crushing the Vols, playing with a confidence Ragoo recognizes. When Alabama scores, he stares at the television. He is quiet. He mumbles to himself, his face twitching a little. "You want an Excedrin?" Alie asks.
He declines. But the long day, and the combination of LSU losing and Saban winning have left Ragoo worn out. Is it possible that giving up 52 points to Georgia is worse than being called a ditch-digging coonass? Not a chance. "I'm gonna sharpen my shovel," he says.
"We're ditch-digging coonasses," Alie says.
"That's me," Ragoo says.
When Alabama rolls into Baton Rouge, LSU fans will have a hard time deciding which is more fun: showering the Tigers with love - or raining hate on Nick Saban.