Nick Saban deserves his place in Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame for his impact on LSU
Nick Saban isn’t very popular in Louisiana these days.
On one hand it’s understandable because his Alabama team routinely beats LSU.
On the other hand, it doesn’t make much sense because Saban turned around the Tigers program and won a national title during his brief tenure in Baton Rouge.
The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame looked past the emotions of many LSU fans who vilify the Alabama football and rightly chose him for enshrinement next summer.
Saban coached at LSU for a mere 5 seasons (2000-2004), but his impact on the Tigers program and therefore sports in Louisiana was substantial.
He took over a program that had slipped into the bottom half of the SEC and had never found an adequate long-term successor to Charles McClendon, the winningest coach in LSU history who retired after the 1979 season.
Saban inherited a team that had finished last in the SEC West in 1999 and immediately made the Tigers competitive.
But the success of Saban and that of his two successors – Les Miles and Ed Orgeron – was set in motion before he ever accepted the job.
One issue: the Michigan State head coach wasn’t an easy hire.
Saban famously brought with him to the interview a legal pad on which he had written a lengthy list of everything he needed from the Tigers in terms of upgrading facilities and a support system for the student-athletes.
The coach was interviewing the AD as much as the AD was interviewing the coach.
Saban knew what a significant opportunity LSU could be, but he also knew that the Tigers were lagging behind the elite programs he had seen in the Big Ten in the areas he insisted on upgrading.
Many LSU fans have long thought the program has always had everything in place to compete for a national championship every year and that whenever the Tigers failed to do so, the blame had to fall squarely on the head coach.
It’s an exaggerated impression of the program that hampered McClendon throughout a remarkable tenure in which his biggest sin was an inability to beat Bear Bryant with any regularity.
Once McClendon retired, LSU went through 6 head coaches during the 20 years that preceded Saban’s arrival.
Sadly we never got a chance to know what kind of job Bo Rein would have done as McClendon’s immediate predecessor because he died in a plane crash while on a recruiting trip before he could ever coach a game.
Tigers legend Jerry Stovall stepped in and did an admirable job, bringing LSU to the Orange Bowl in 1982 in the second-to-last season of his 4-year tenure.
Former LSU athletic director Bob Brodhead made an unconventional but astute hire when he brought in 57-year-old Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger, who took the Tigers to 3 consecutive bowl games and didn’t finish worse than second in the SEC in any of his 3 seasons.
But Arnsparger was 0-3 in bowl games, wound up feuding with the man who hired him and abruptly left to become AD at Florida.
Mike Archer, a bright young defensive assistant on Arsnparger’s staff, succeeded him and LSU finished No. 5 in the country in his first season in 1987, but went downhill in his final 3 seasons.
Then came 4 consecutive losing seasons under Curley Hallman before DiNardo arrived and managed a brief turnaround before his last 2 teams went 4-7 and 3-8.
AD Joe Dean knew Saban was the one who could bring reality in line with LSU’s expectations.
He gave the coach everything he asked for and Saban went to work. His first team made a leap to an 8-4 finish, a trip to the Peach Bowl and No. 22 ranking in the final poll.
Then came 10-3 and 8-5 seasons before the breakthrough of 2003 when Saban guided the Tigers to a 13-1 record and the school’s first national championship since 1958.
After a 9-4 season in 2004, Saban was off to the Miami Dolphins to scratch an NFL itch he had long felt. He struggled for 2 seasons (15-17) and quickly discovered that he was meant to be a college coach and not an NFL coach, even though he had been a well-regarded defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick in Cleveland for 4 seasons during his formative years.
“As it turns out, what I learned from that experience in hindsight was, it was a huge mistake to leave college football,” Saban told the USA Today Network. “And I know a lot of LSU fans think I left for whatever reasons, but I left because I wanted to be a pro coach, or thought I wanted to be a pro coach. We loved LSU. We worked hard to build the program. If there was one thing professionally that I would do over again, it would’ve been not to leave LSU.”
After Saban realized his mistake he started looking for a path back into college football. LSU was not an option after the Tigers had hired Miles, then head coach at Oklahoma State, as Saban’s successor in a selection arguably as astute as Saban was.
So Saban wound up at Alabama and rebuilt a storied program that had slipped before his arrival into the gold standard of college football. Saban is now in the conversation regarding the best college football coach ever.
He gained that status primarily through his success at Alabama, but the success he had at LSU launched his career and brought the Tigers program in line with its fans’ expectations.
Miles, who preceded Saban into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame earlier this summer, won a national championship in 2007 and is second only to McClendon in victories at LSU. Miles has 114. Saban is 4th in program history with 48 wins.
Orgeron, in his 3rd full season after replacing Miles, has the Tigers ranked No. 4 in the country.
It’s inarguable that the foundation that Saban built made it easier for Miles and Orgeron to have the success they’ve had and for LSU to maintain a high level of success ever since Saban arrived.
Saban’s mark on LSU football and Louisiana sports is significant and transcends his tenure.
It’ll be an odd weekend in Natchitoches next June when the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inducts Alabama’s football coach.
But Louisiana sports fans, especially LSU fans, should welcome him with a warm and sincere “thank you.”