Saban could go -- but here's hoping he won't


NEW ORLEANS -- Nick Saban and/or Bob Stoops could declare themselves eligible for the NFL this week, but what's the point if you're not trading up?

Since when is coaching the Buffalo Bills, or Arizona Cardinals, or even the New York football Giants automatically better than coaching in LSU's Death Valley, or where Bud, a bootlegger's son, and Bob have worked their Sooner magic? And no way is it better than what happened here in the human decibel chamber known as the Superdome.

At times, Sunday evening's Sugar Bowl between LSU and Oklahoma was an Instant Classic -- as in, wake me up the instant OU gets a first down. Or goes three consecutive plays without a penalty. Or completes a forward pass, preferably to someone in crimson.

And then there were moments, lots of them during the Tigers' 21-14 victory and their first national championship since 1958, when you wondered why anyone, especially Saban, and maybe even Stoops, would hand in the keys to their LSU and OU courtesy cars. Sure, it was sloppier than eating barbecue ribs, but this game still had character as well as plenty of reasons to hit the TiVo record button.

OK, much of the first three quarters was suitable for Pampers, a tong and the nearest garbage can. Your 2003 Heisman Trophy winner, Jason White, played as if he were in a semi-vegetative state. Penalty flags fluttered toward the Sooners with mind-numbing regularity. Their leading rusher had exactly 27 yards. Whooeeee!

When's the video coming out?

LSU was up 21-7, but nobody from the Tigers sideline was in a hurry to stuff this one in a time capsule. Too many mistakes (a blocked punt, for starters). Plus, OU's defense was beginning to reacquire its swagger.

But then came the fourth quarter and actual drama. Oklahoma's Brodney Pool intercepted the first pass of the period, and nine plays later the Sooners only trailed by seven points. America began to stir in its La-Z-Boy.

Back and forth it went. LSU could do bupkus on offense, but it hardly mattered as the Tigers' defense kept sticking forks in every OU drive. The Sooners had first-and-10 at the LSU 12, only to watch White throw incompletions Nos. 19, 20 and 21. He added three more to his total on the final, last-gasp OU drive, before, ta-da, being sacked on fourth down.

Even Saban knew this was a game with serious acne. But that was also part of its appeal. It had flaws, but in a good way. LSU overcame its mistakes -- as it has for much of this unexpected season -- and has a shared national title to show for it.

Saban is rumored to be on the coaching short lists of the Atlanta Falcons or New York Giants. He could leave LSU after four seasons and do so feeling very good about the health of the program. The Tigers have their first national championship since we liked Ike. Tom Lemming has run out of hyperbole to describe LSU's recruiting successes. The pieces, as they say, are in place for a long, long run.

The NFL will pay him more, but how can it duplicate what happened Sunday night?

It was here in New Orleans that Saban's daughter Kristen handed him three pennies for good luck. Afterward, Saban told his family, "I almost needed four."

It was here that Saban tried to convince his wife, Terry, to join him on the makeshift stage for the postgame trophy presentation. She stayed put on the field.

"I wanted you up there, honey," Saban said.

"I didn't want to," she said. "This is your day."

"This is our day," Saban said.

And this is where Terry Saban added a final game program to her 2003 collection.
She never keeps the things, but this season, "I had a feeling. I just felt this was a special year."

Saban built most of this team from scratch. His players -- and it isn't much of a stretch -- are part of his family. Tigers defensive end Marcus Spears, who returned one of White's interceptions for a touchdown, fishes at the pond on Saban's property. One day, as he stood at water's edge during a rainstorm, Terry Saban told him it was time to seek shelter.

"Miss Terry," said Spears, "I'm defense."

Defense is what won Saban his BCS championship. White finished with numbers so un-Heisman-ish that you thought they were typos -- 13-of-37 for 102 yards, 2 interceptions, zero TDs and 5 sacks. Saban can wrap his arms around those kind of stats.

And it was Saban who instilled toughness into this program. How else do you explain what LSU's defensive end Marquise Hill said to White after he banged into the OU quarterback?

"Excuse me, Mr. Heisman," he said. "I'll be bumping into you all night."

In the NFL, you don't get your players fishing for bass in the back yard. You get the salary cap. And owners with egos the size of the MetLife blimp. You get players making on-field cellphone calls.

Saban and Stoops are the masters of their respective football universes. Can they say the same if they bolt for the pros?

"I don't think there's a greater feeling than winning a national championship," said LSU return specialist Skyler Green.

And this from safety Jack Hunt: "I don't think he's going anywhere. I think he's going to stay here and be a national contender for a long time."

The NFL has the Coors twins, Madden 2004, Brett Favre, NFL Films, instant replay. All good things. But there's no Tiger Rag, no Boomer Sooner, no marching bands, no Neil Parry.

Saban can add millions to his bank account if he leaves. Or he can stay for three pennies.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.