<
>

Saban: Tigers full of 'resiliency,' 'heart'

1/5/2004 - LSU Tigers

NEW ORLEANS -- Nick Saban knew he sounded cheesy. He knew the reporters jam packed into the smelly, sweaty postgame interview room were rolling their eyes, pausing their tape recorders and waiting for something tasty to fall out of his mouth.

But he didn't care.

When it came time to unveil the No. 1 reason he -- and not Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops -- was standing on the confetti-covered Superdome podium Sunday night, he spoke not of the defense and not of freshman phenom Justin Vincent. He talked not about multipurpose man Skyler Green or All-American defensive tackle Chad Lavalais.

Instead, he talked about resilience. Heart. About a team that was more unified, more cohesive, than any other he had ever coached.

"It might sound like B.S.," Saban conceded, "but that's the reason we won the national championship tonight. I've never been around a team like this. When something goes wrong, it means nothing."


Which says a lot. Playing for LSU, you see, is sorta like playing for the Chicago Cubs or the Boston Red Sox. Over time, they've always seemed to mess things up in the end. But on this night, there was no Steve Bartman. No Grady Little.

Sure, things went wrong. A botched snap on the 2-yard line, a blocked punt in front of their own end zone, a pair of penalties that nullified a field goal, a costly pass interference on third down late in the game. But nobody ever freaked. They took the bad bounces, tightened their chin straps and, unlike Mark Prior and Pedro Martinez, bounced back.

Even late in the fourth quarter, while everyone else was holding their breath, while the folks in Norman were waiting for the Tigers to collapse and the folks in New Orleans were waiting for Oklahoma to conquer, the guys in the white jerseys didn't flinch.

LSU quarterback Matt Mauck threw an interception, the Sooners pulled within one touchdown, then had the ball again deep in LSU territory, and everybody on the LSU sideline just sorta said, "Oh well."

"It's nothing new," Lavalais said. "That stuff's happened all year long. The offense would turn the ball over on our side of the field, and the defense would have to step up."

"I guess you could say we're cocky. We had been there before, and we knew we could do it again. It was no big deal."

The same thing happened against Georgia. That day, Mauck fumbled at the 15-yard line with less than five minutes left, Georgia tied the score on a 93-yard screen pass, but LSU responded with a score and a stop of its own.

The same thing happened against Ole Miss. Eli Manning marched the Rebels deep into LSU territory in the final minute, but the Tiger defense forced three incomplete passes and sacked Manning for a three-point win.

On Sunday, late in the fourth quarter, the Sooners had first-and-10 at the LSU 36. But eight incomplete passes by Heisman winner Jason White and one vicious sack later, the national title was theirs.

Afterward, the LSU players gave the credit to their coaches. The coaches to the players. Saban said that the first day he showed up in Baton Rouge, he told his guys they would give everything they had on every single play, for 60 minutes and never look at the scoreboard.

"It's hard to understand because that's the exact opposite that fans do," he said.

But they bought into it. Especially after last year. Against Arkansas, the Tigers watched Matt Jones complete two passes for 84 yards in 10 seconds to beat them.

And three weeks earlier, they saw teammate Devrey Henderson catch a 75-yard, last-second Hail Mary after Kentucky coach Guy Morriss already had been drenched with Gatorade.

"We saw Kentucky celebrate early, then against Arkansas, we celebrated early and they slipped in the back door and beat us," offensive lineman Rodney Reed said. "We learned right there -- coach knew what he was talking about. And when you see it work, you buy into it."

There were plenty of reasons to fold here Sunday. On the Tigers' first possession, they marched 78 yards on the staunch Sooner defense before Mauck botched a snap and fumbled on the 2-yard line.

In the second quarter, Brandon Shelby blocked Donnie Nicholson's punt, which Russe Dennison recovered at the LSU 2-yard line. Then, after stuffing Sooner tailback Kejuan Jones on 3rd-and-goal at the 1, the Tigers were called for offsides. On the replay of the down, Jones scored.

That wasn't all. On a third-quarter, 24-yard field goal attempt, which could have all but put the game away at 24-7, the Tigers were called for holding and a personal foul. They were marched back 25 yards, and kicker Ryan Gaudet was suddenly out of field goal range.

And then, with the game in the balance late in the fourth quarter, Corey Webster was called for pass interference on third-and-5.

And yet nobody, at any point, freaked.

"It's something that our players bought into," Saban said. "They have so much resiliency. We get a punt blocked, and our guys are like, 'Eh, stuff happens.' Some people would completely melt down."

Even the defense is based on a me-last, everything is for the greater good of the team approach. Remember the squad that everybody was calling one of the greatest in college football history a few months ago? For the better part of three quarters, LSU made Oklahoma look like Iowa State.

Yet, leading into the week, nobody seemed to believe the hype. Oklahoma run coordinator Kevin Wilson said the Tiger unit was overrated, saying, "It isn't a Chinese fire drill to figure out what's going on."

But at halftime Sunday, the Sooners had more penalty yards (55) than total yards (44). Their two scoring drives totaled 33 yards.

And just like he did in the SEC Championship against Georgia, Lavalais was calling out plays to the Oklahoma offensive line.

"I was telling them, 'Man -- you need to tell your coordinator to slow down, take your time,' " Lavalais said. "I was even giving them tips. But they rely on the big play. They'd get two yards and then their guys would start chirping to chuck it downfield."

But, Lavalais said, it all comes back to selflessness, to teamwork. To sacrificing yourself for the good of the team. That means Marquise Hill sacking the quarterback. Marcus Spears intercepting passes. And Lionel Turner being freed up for nine tackles.

And if you don't believe in this stuff, if you don't believe in this warm-fuzzy football, this difficult-to-grasp make-believe world of gridiron intangibles, then you probably don't want to hear that the Tigers dedicated this season to Jeff Boss, their equipment manager of 24 years, who died of brain cancer in October. You probably don't want to hear that they gave Boss' wife the game ball after the SEC Championship and are likely to do the same after tonight.

But it all makes sense if you could have seen Lavalais, all 6-foot-3, 292 pounds of him, walking off the field with 1:51 left, tears pouring down from his face.

"When it hit me what we had done, I couldn't help it," he said. "And it was funny -- the young guys were all trying to get me to calm down because they thought we might have to go out there one more time. But I couldn't help it. It meant so much."

No matter how cheesy it was.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.