Roarin' to Be a Tiger
It didn't take Nick Saban long to decide he'd rather be the kingpin in Louisiana than continue to play second fiddle in Michigan
Who says there are no secrets anymore? LSU lured Michigan State coach Nick Saban out of East Lansing before anyone there knew he wanted to leave. Saban, 48, bolted for money ($6 million over five years, after earning about $700,000 this season) and so he could coach a team that would be tops on its own turf. "At Michigan State, we were never Number 1 [in the state]," Saban said last week. "That was always Michigan. It was always, 'UM this and that.' " LSU is the only sheaux, as Cajuns might spell it, in Louisiana.
"We don't have a Michigan and Michigan State," says LSU athletic director Joe Dean. "We're both. That's what attracted Nick."
Apparently Saban also left East Lansing because of lack of love. Michigan State president Peter McPherson, who twice gave Saban raises to keep him from jumping to the NFL, didn't hear about the Tigers' interest in Saban until the 11th hour and chose to do nothing to counter it. One of the coach's friends says that Saban wanted to hear, "We love what you're doing. We don't want to see you go." No such affectionate words came.
Here's how LSU kept its pursuit of Saban quiet: After Tigers coach Gerry DiNardo was fired on Nov. 15, Dean asked Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys player personnel director, to help him find a new coach. Brandt phoned Saban a couple of days before Thanksgiving, around the same time that Miami coach Butch Davis said he wasn't interested in the position. Saban was interested and called his agent, Jimmy Sexton of Memphis. One of Sexton's business associates, Sean Tuohy, a former Ole Miss basketball player, has known Dean for years. He phoned Dean and suggested that Dean call Sexton. If the process had gone any deeper underground, LSU would have struck oil.
Once Dean discovered Saban could be had, he never wavered. The Tigers made Saban an offer on Monday, Nov. 29. That same day Saban's wife, Terry, went to Baton Rouge to check out the area. She had lunch with DeLaine Emmert, wife of LSU chancellor Mark, at TJ Ribs, which was polling customers about whom LSU should hire. The women cast the first two votes for Saban. When Terry returned home at 11 p.m., she and Nick talked for several hours about the offer and went to bed. They woke up at 5:10 a.m. Tuesday, talked the move over again and decided to leap.
Saban leaves Michigan State with a 34-24-1 record and no Big Ten championship. At LSU his mission will be simple: Keep the in-state talent at home. Here's a partial list of the stars who have left Louisiana for colleges elsewhere during the 1990s: Warrick Dunn, Marshall Faulk, Anthony Lucas, Peyton Manning, Travis Minor, Kordell Stewart, Anthony Thomas and Raynoch Thompson. Quarterback Brock Berlin of Shreveport's Evangel Christian, the No. 2 high school team in the nation according to USA Today, has verbally committed to Florida.
After Saban left, Michigan State put out feelers to embattled San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, a Michigan native, and Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham, a former Spartans quarterback. Neither was interested. On Dec. 2, Michigan State officials interviewed Minnesota coach Glen Mason, who has become a candidate in more states than Al Gore. By last Saturday night, McPherson had decided to give the job to Spartans associate head coach Bobby Williams in hopes of keeping as much of Saban's old staff together as possible. It was the endorsement Saban had sought, only a week too late.
SEC Championship Game
Gators Sink, Tide Tackle Rises
The SEC team of the decade petered out one month before the decade did. Florida didn't just lose last Saturday's conference championship game 34-7 to Alabama, it was humiliated, gaining the fewest yards (114) and first downs (six) in coach Steve Spurrier's 10 seasons. The woes of the struggling Gators offense, which had existed for most of the season, finally took their toll on team unity. "The defense is pissed at the offense," defensive end Alex Brown said after Saturday's game. "We had, what, 70 yards at halftime? That's awful. Somebody needs to make a play. If the ball hits them in the hands, they need to catch it. These guys are great athletes who don't make plays."