Saban beats out USC's Carroll for award

Updated: December 12, 2003, 9:49 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Nick Saban called his LSU team together early last month, when the Tigers were in seventh place in the BCS standings and a long shot to make it to the Sugar Bowl.

He told the players that now was the time to voice any frustration over the rankings, because after that, they could only talk about the next game. The players kept quiet, the Tigers kept winning, and Saban's steady leadership helped him earn The Associated Press Coach of the Year honor Thursday.

"Even though I'm accepting the honor, it's for all of the players and coaches and support staff also," Saban said. "They all had as big a part in it as I did. I'm very flattered and honored."

Saban received 22 votes in balloting by the panel of sports writers and broadcasters on the AP college football poll, beating out Southern California's Pete Carroll by five.

Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Tulsa's Steve Kragthorpe tied for third with four votes each and Navy's Paul Johnson was fifth with two votes. Terry Hoeppner of Miami of Ohio, Joe Novak of Northern Illinois, Rich Rodriguez of West Virginia, John L. Smith of Michigan State and Gary Pinkel of Missouri each got one vote.

Iowa's Kirk Ferentz won the award last year.

The second-ranked Tigers won a school-record 12 games, captured their second SEC title in three years, and earned a berth in the Sugar Bowl against No. 3 Oklahoma with a chance to win the school's second national title.

LSU finished fast to get into that position. The Tigers were in seventh place in the BCS on Nov. 3, with a tough closing stretch to come. That's when Saban got his team together before an off week to sharpen its focus.

With games remaining at Alabama and Mississippi, at home against Arkansas, and possibly in the SEC championship, Saban knew his players couldn't get bogged down in any BCS controversy.

"I said we're going to talk about the BCS and where we're ranked. This is the time to talk about it," he recalled. "I told them when we leave this room we'll focus on what is and not what was.

"Rankings are what was. Rankings are what happened last week, we had to worry about what will happen this week. We knew we had no control of the BCS but we knew that if we didn't win we didn't have a chance. We could only control what we could do."

That was the second time this season that Saban sensed that his team's focus could be an issue. The Tigers got off to a quick start, using a 17-10 win over then-No. 7 Georgia on Sept. 20 to move into the top 10 of the AP poll.

Three weeks later, a struggling Florida team came to Baton Rouge off a bad loss at home to Mississippi. The Tigers were feeling full of themselves, according to Saban, and fell 19-7 to the Gators for their only blemish of the season.

"We came out flat as a pancake against Florida," Saban said. "I think from that point on the players bought into what we were saying. They knew they had to play hard all the time. They finally got it. I think it was an osmosis sort of thing with saying it so much that it finally sunk in."

Instead of screaming at his players after that loss, Saban offered words of encouragement.

The Tigers responded by winning their next seven games to make it to the Sugar Bowl.

"Basically, he kind of calmed us down after the Florida game," offensive lineman Rodney Reed said. "He said not to stress out trying to get better."

Saban came to LSU for the 2000 season, leaving Michigan State to take over a program full of potential and short on results. The Tigers had losing records in the 11 years before Saban arrived.

But with a rich recruiting base in Louisiana and some of the game's most passionate fans, Saban built one of the top programs in the country.

LSU has 38 wins in Saban's four seasons, the first Tigers coach to post four consecutive winning seasons since Charles McClendon from 1976-79.

Saban learned the trade as an assistant to coaches like Don James, Earle Bruce and George Perles in college as well as Jerry Glanville and Bill Belichick in the NFL.

His NFL ties have always raised questions about whether he would like to return to the pro game. He turned down NFL jobs with the Colts and the Giants while at Michigan State, but his name will likely come up for openings this year.

But for now, Saban's a perfect fit where he's at.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press

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