LSU coach decides NFL can't wait

Updated: December 26, 2004, 11:57 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

After three days of emotional deliberations, personal and professional discussions with family members and close associates which tore Nick Saban in two directions, the Miami Dolphins have a new head coach.

Saban decided Saturday to leave his comfort zone at LSU, a university for which he has great respect and fondness, and accept the task of rebuilding the Dolphins organization. The decision came after long Thursday and Friday sessions at his home in Baton Rouge, where he weighed his future with his wife, Terry, and his agent, Jimmy Sexton.

Saban's coaching record
Season Team W-L-T Pct.
1990 Toledo 9-2-0 .818
1995 Mich. St. 6-5-1 .542
1996 Mich. St. 6-6-0 .500
1997 Mich. St. 7-5-0 .583
1998 Mich. St. 6-6-0 .500
1999 Mich. St. 9-2-0 .818
2000 LSU 8-4-0 .667
2001 LSU 10-3-0 .769
2002 LSU 8-5-0 .615
2003 LSU 13-1-0 .929
2004 LSU 9-2-0 .818
Total 91-41-1 .688

"We've never ever taken over successful programs," said Saban, who announced his decision, after apprising university officials and his players of it, at an evening news conference in Orlando on Saturday. "We've taken challenges that were difficult, worked hard and had an effect in a positive way. That's one of the reasons I feel I can be successful in this challenge."

The contract will be for five years and is worth $4.5 million-$5 million annually. It will also provide Saban with near-absolute control over football-related decisions and allow him to help reshape the organization following a disastrous 2004 season.

He will take over in Miami after coaching LSU in its bowl game on Jan. 1. The Tigers, who won their final six games this season to finish at 9-2, will face Iowa in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.

The following day, the Dolphins conclude their worst season since the 1960s, and their first losing season since 1988.

Saban on Wednesday was formally offered the Dolphins job and told Dolphins and school officials he might need a day or two to come to a decision. Clearly, he wanted a resolution before Christmas, when his team was scheduled to leave for its bowl game, but could not meet his original timetable because of his strong feelings for LSU.

Sexton spent much of Wednesday meeting in Fort Lauderdale with Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga discussing contract parameters. The two made what one source termed "significant progress" toward a deal, but an agreement wasn't struck. There remained some details to be hammered out and, more important, Saban needed time to examine the offer and review his own priorities. Sexton then hunkered down with Saban for nearly three days to discuss the options.

On Friday morning, Huizenga flew to Baton Rouge for another round of meetings. He had hoped to bring Saban back to Miami with him on his private plane, but the coach reiterated that he needed more time.

At no time, sources said, did LSU attempt to significantly augment Saban's contract. Two sources said that, at the outset of the process with Miami, school officials told Saban and Sexton how far they could go financially. There was never a formal counteroffer in an attempt to keep him in Baton Rouge.

There are likely to be dramatic changes now in the Dolphins organization.

Miami will hire a new team president to replace the much-respected Eddie Jones, who will retire in March, and the hiring of Saban could also end the tenure of general manager Rick Spielman, who has been a part of the search for the successor to Dave Wannstedt. It is anticipated that Saban would want to bring aboard his own general manager or personnel director to head the scouting department.

"We most certainly want to have success in an organization that has been rich in tradition and success in the past," Saban said. "[We're] going to work extremely hard to try to restore that success."

One of the deal-breakers 11 months ago, when Saban rejected the Chicago Bears head coach job, was that he was not offered control over some staffing and personnel matters. Confidants of Saban have reiterated to ESPN.com that control, particularly in terms of acquiring players, was a more critical issue to him than finances.

Saban began taking a hard look at the Miami job a year ago, when it appeared Wannstedt might be in trouble, following a second non-playoff season. A candidate for several NFL jobs since leaving the league to become head coach at Michigan State in 1994, Saban has always indicated he would return to the league only under optimum conditions.

Part of his attraction to the job was that Huizenga is regarded around the league as an owner who does not meddle in football matters, who essentially gets out of the way and lets his coach do his job.

"Your boss is always really important," Saban said. "And I was really, really impressed with Wayne Huizenga in terms of what he wants to accomplish, what his vision is for this team and what his goals are. I would like to work in partnership with people like that."

The other intriguing element for Saban is the opportunity to rebuild a football organization to his own specifications.

The Dolphins first huddled with Saban on Dec. 14, in a late-night meeting, and it was clear from the outset that he topped the Miami wish list. Teams officials also interviewed former Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell, currently a league vice president, and interim head coach Jim Bates for the position. But there was never any doubt that Saban was their man if a deal could be struck.

Saban, 53, has enjoyed great success at LSU, and leaving the school would be a difficult decision for him. As late as Tuesday morning, even before he had the Dolphins offer in hand, he told athletic director Skip Bertman that he probably faced a tough call and praised the school for its commitment to him and his family. After rebuffing the Bears advances, Saban signed a new seven-year contract, making him the highest paid college head coach in the country.

His team won the national championship in 2003 and, in five seasons in Baton Rouge, he compiled a 48-15 mark.

Following the Tigers' practice Sunday in Orlando, their first since his announcement, Saban said the team is taking his imminent departure well.

"At some point in everyone's life, they have to make some kind of career decision that affects other people, and that's how I explained it to them," Saban said. "They have managed this well -- better than I have."

LSU All-American defensive end Marcus Spears said the Tigers weren't surprised by Saban's decision.

"It's not the first time coach has had to entertain the idea of taking another job," Spears said. "I think most of the guys are happy for him. Some young guys may have concerns, but that's normal."

In stints at LSU (2000-present), Michigan State (1995-99) and Toledo (1990), Saban had a record of 91-41-1.

His previous NFL experience came as secondary coach with the Houston Oilers (1988-89) and the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns (1991-94), where he worked on the staff of longtime friend Bill Belichick.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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