Commentary

Saban still under fire for taking helm of Tide

Originally Published: November 2, 2007
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Admit it, Nick Saban. You have built a career on your ability to focus on the task at hand. You have won a national championship. You earn $4 million a year, the highest salary in your sport. You have written a book extolling the virtue of the many working toward the one common goal ("How Good Do You Want to Be? A Champion's Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in Life," Ballantine Books, $13.95).

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesNick Saban hasn't paid much attention to the venom from LSU fans upset by his decision to coach their rival.

But even this is a bit much. Saban's current team, No. 17 Alabama (6-2, 4-1 SEC), will host No. 3 LSU (7-1, 4-1), the university where he won that glorious BCS national championship four years ago. It doesn't matter to LSU fans that Saban traveled from Baton Rouge to Tuscaloosa through Miami, where he coached the Dolphins in 2005 and 2006. All they know is that he is coaching one of their archrivals, a school that until this decade owned the Tigers on the football field.

That's why The Birmingham News splashed above the fold on the front page of its sports section Thursday a photo of Saban with darts sticking out of it. The photo hung in Free Speech Alley on the LSU campus, where students donated to charity for the right to throw the darts.

If nothing else, it's not much of a birthday present for Saban, who turned 56 on Wednesday. Don't the darts puncture that wall you have built around you? Do the long-distance calls of "traitor" really fall on deaf ears?

Saban looked at the photo, shrugged and smiled.

"Too bad," he said.

That's it? You have darts in your face and you say, "Too bad"? If they prick you, do you not bleed? If they wrong you, shall you not revenge?

"Ten minutes," Saban said.

That's how long he opens the gate in his wall.

"Terry and I," Saban said, referring to his wife, "always have our little 10-minute coffee in the morning when we get up at 6:15. We talked about it a few times."

A smile crept across his face.

"Ten minutes. In my house, with the dogs, and that's it. The kids are still sleeping. I don't even let them hear about it. And the dogs don't talk."

Terry Saban is not as cryptic. It is clear that she has considered the subject for more than 10 minutes a day. Nick Saban puts up a wall in part because he has Terry as an ambassador.

"The passion of both programs is so high," she said. "I don't know that that will ever abate. If you're not passionately involved in it, it's great for the game. … Unfortunately, people are taking it personally. [LSU fans] call Nick a deserter. We gave five years of our life! Anyone involved in the coaching profession knows. It's not a job. It's your life. It's every pore of your body. You have to live it day in and day out. It's unfortunate that it's become a personal thing. It shouldn't be the team against Nick Saban. It's two great universities going head to head."

The public discourse is coarser these days. There are "Geaux to Hell Saban" T-shirts in Louisiana, and others more vulgar.

Saban gets it. He explains how he left LSU thinking he wanted a bigger challenge, like winning the Super Bowl. He explains how he realized that he would rather work with college-age athletes, and how the unrelenting demands of the NFL wore down even a workaholic like him.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and Terry Saban
AP Photo/Rob CarrTerry Saban has provided constant support to her husband.

Saban has explained that before. He knows that's not what this is about. Feelings are hurt.

"I loved LSU when I was there," Saban said. "I love the people. It was a special time for us, and I may never have another opportunity to ever experience winning a national championship in the Sugar Bowl in your home state. How could you write the script? It was created by the togetherness that everyone had: the administration, the leadership from the [former] chancellor, Mark Emmert, all kinds of stuff and all kinds of people, including the fans. That's why we had that success there. It wasn't my success. It was LSU's success."

One of Saban's most prominent players at LSU hasn't let emotion cloud his perspective. Matt Mauck, the quarterback of the 2003 national championship team, has not taken a fan's view of the game now that he is out of football.

"People have a hard time understanding how he could separate himself," Mauck said. "A friend of mine asked me, 'Can you believe he went to Alabama?' Heck, yeah. He didn't form a relationship with his school. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I don't know how you do that. Do I like that he's at Alabama? Not really. I'm not surprised. He's looks at it like a job."

Exactly.

"I understand the emotional part of it," Saban said. "But I had the feeling that I wanted to come back to college football. It wasn't anything about LSU. It wasn't anything about Alabama. It's, 'What's available at the time?'"

Alabama became available. LSU did not. Les Miles is 29-5 in two-plus seasons in Baton Rouge. He won an SEC Western Division title.

"[Saban is] really hurt that some people in Baton Rouge are just so mad at what he did," said Michael Bonnette, LSU's associate athletic director and sports information director, who worked for both Saban and Miles. "Look at what he did for LSU. You look at the impact and on the state of Louisiana. … It sent us to a whole other level. We're still reaping the benefits. You can't turn on the TV without seeing us. LSU is a power nationally. Before he got here, you couldn't say that. We've won 70 football games in the last seven years [2000-2006]. That's impressive in this day and age. He started it. Now Les has continued it and taken us to even another level with the type of success that we are experiencing around here."

The relationship between Miles and Saban started well. Saban left him a legal pad full of notes about the players Miles would take over and the recruits that Saban hoped to sign. They talked on the phone a couple of times afterward.

They are not so friendly anymore. Some of it may be a result of recruiting wars last spring. Some of it may be posturing by Miles, preaching to his LSU choir. He went schoolyard on Saban at SEC media days in July, refusing to refer to his predecessor by name, calling Saban "that coach."

But by this week, Miles played it well, praising Saban for what he did while "passing through Louisiana." Maybe Miles realizes that he has the better team. LSU is a touchdown favorite to beat Alabama for the seventh time in eight seasons.

The LSU game is the task at hand, which is all Saban professes to care about. But it is LSU. The word in the coaches' offices is that Saban has been unusually calm and focused this week.

Tigers fans want to be at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. The Sabans have gotten more ticket requests for this game than any Nick can remember. LSU received 33,000 ticket requests, a school record, for its allotment of 7,000.

"I'd like to think all those friends wish us well who are calling us for tickets," Terry said, a smile in her voice.

Her husband is reasonably confident of that.

"You know," Saban said, "contrary to what everybody thinks, we still have some very good friends in Louisiana who really probably like us for who we are, not what we do, or did or didn't do. We respect that they are LSU fans. But they're still our friends."

You're sure of that?

"Last time I checked," Saban said.

Kickoff is at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday. Ask Saban again around 8:30 p.m.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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