LSU coach meets with Bears executives

Coveted LSU coach Nick Saban officially interviewed with Chicago Bears executives on Friday, ESPN.com has learned.

Updated: January 10, 2004, 10:49 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Counted out by the Falcons just one day earlier, Nick Saban was courted like coaching royalty on Friday, as ESPN.com has learned the LSU sideline boss officially interviewed with Chicago Bears executives.

The interview, in Baton Rouge, began early in the afternoon and lasted well into the night. Whether there will be a follow-up session is uncertain. Any potential contract negotiation between Saban and the Bears could be handled by telephone and fax.

It is not known if the Bears offered Saban a job. But team officials, led by general manager Jerry Angelo, are said to have made it clear to Saban that the position is his if he wants to make the move to the NFL. Angelo and Saban have been close friends for years, and speak frequently by phone, and there has never been much doubt the club would pursue the LSU coach once the Tigers finished their Sugar Bowl appearance.

Sources said Saban, who does not want to extend the uncertainty longer than necessary, likely make a decision by the end of the weekend. No matter how strong the Bears' sales pitch is, getting Saban out of Baton Rouge remains a long shot.

The Bears fired coach Dick Jauron on Dec. 29, the day after the season ended, following five seasons and an overall record of 35-46. The Bears, who were 13-3 in 2001 when they claimed their first division title since 1990, were just 11-21 in the two years since.

Saban was originally scheduled to interview with Atlanta Falcons management on Friday as well, but the team canceled the meeting on Thursday afternoon when it chose instead to hire San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora.

Apparently, the Falcons sensed that Saban, a name well-known in the Atlanta area because the city is essentially the center of the SEC, was likely to rebuff them. That was probably a good read of Saban's sentiments, sources told ESPN.com, since Saban was skeptical of the Falcons job anyway.

Events of Thursday and Friday leave Saban in the enviable position of choosing between an NFL team that desperately wants him and a campus powerhouse striving to retain him by making him the highest paid coach in college history.

In the wake of LSU's victory over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl last Sunday night, a win that earned the Tigers the BCS share of the national title, Saban has spoken to university officials about a new contract.

Published reports have indicated that LSU is prepared to offer Saban a 10-year contract that, with incentives, could be worth about $3 million annually. Winning the national championship triggered a clause in his existing contract that makes Saban the highest paid coach in the college game (by paying him $1 more than the salary earned by the previously highest paid coach, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops). That the Bears are pursuing Saban seems to signal the club is prepared to consider what are sure to be lofty financial expectations on his part.

For weeks it has been assumed it will take not only a potentially solid football situation but also a large contract offer for Saban to even think about leaving Baton Rouge. He will have a strong roster returning in 2004, supplemented once again by one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.

The school faxed its latest proposal for an upgraded contract to Saban's representatives on Tuesday, and athletic director Skip Bertman reiterated his belief that the coach will rebuff all NFL overtures and remain at LSU.

Saban has been a target of several league franchises in the recent past. Last year, he quietly interviewed for the Jaguars opening. A year earlier, he had informal discussions with the Tampa Bay Bucs after Tony Dungy was dismissed.

In part because of the relationship with Angelo, he has been linked to the Chicago job for more than a year now. It is doubtful that the Bears will advance their search significantly before determining Saban's plans.

Angelo had interviewed Mora earlier this week and met with defensive coordinators Lovie Smith of St. Louis and Romeo Crennel of New England last week. An interview with Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, set for Thursday, was canceled by the team.

ESPN.com has learned that, on Friday, the Bears sought and were granted permission by the Pittsburgh Steelers to interview offensive line coach Russ Grimm. Such a meeting will not come until next week and would be canceled, of course, if Angelo lands Saban.

Saban, 52, has been attractive to NFL teams for several years for a number of reasons. In 10 seasons at a head coach at Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99) and LSU (2000-present), he has compiled an 82-39-1 mark and never suffered a losing season. Almost as important, particularly at a time when NFL owners seem to favor candidates who have past league experience, Saban possesses that coveted commodity.

He served for four seasons as the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator (1991-94) on the Bill Belichick staff there, and Saban was the Houston Oilers secondary coach for the two seasons prior to that.

At various times in the past decade, Saban has turned down NFL head coaching offers, but there is a long list of league general managers and personnel directors who admire him and feel certain he would succeed in the pro game.

There is a good chance he would have been a top candidate for the New York Giants job earlier this week had some things come together from a timing standpoint.

Team officials phoned him Monday morning, just hours after the Sugar Bowl, in an attempt to arrange an interview. Saban asked for a few days to savor the national championship victory and to collect his thoughts, but the Giants' search was on a faster timetable. New York management feared that if its other leading candidate, Tom Coughlin, left town without the job and headed to Buffalo for an interview there, they could lose him to the Bills.

Convinced they should not head down a road previously traveled with Saban, who had turned down the Giants earlier in his career, New York then hired Coughlin, who had been their leading candidate all along.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.