Matt Mauck hadn’t even dusted the confetti off his shoulders when the LSU quarterback was summoned to speak to Nick Saban. The Tigers had just won the 2003 national championship by beating Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. It was Saban’s first national championship.
The coach wanted to talk to Mauck and star wide receiver Michael Clayton. Both were juniors who had the chance to go pro early rather than return for 2004.
“I’m taking my pads off and one of the assistant coaches comes in and says, ‘Coach Saban wants to talk to you’ and grabbed me and Michael Clayton,’” Mauck said. “So we go in his office and he says, ‘Hey, I need to know what your plans are for next year.’
“To think, he just won his first national championship and he didn’t even take an hour off. He was planning for next year that quickly.”
That story would sound familiar to anyone in the Alabama locker room in Pasadena six years later. The Crimson Tide finished off its first national championship and in the midst of the celebration, Saban told players that they had work to do.
“For those of you coming back, that’s not the way we play in the second half, and you know that,” Saban said, according to Greg McElroy in an ESPN story this summer. “I’m proud of you too, but we’re going to get that stuff figured out when we get back together in a couple of weeks.”
The years may pass and the polo may turn from purple to crimson, but Saban remains steadfast in many ways.
LSU was when Saban came into his own as a head coach. He had taken the influence of Don James, George Perles, Bill Belichick and others and built Michigan State into a top-10 team. But The Process bloomed in Baton Rouge as he became a national figure.
“I think the experiences that you have wherever you coach — whether it was at Toledo, Michigan State, (with) Belichick in Cleveland,” Saban said. “I think all those things influence the way that you do things.
“Obviously I never had any experience in the SEC, so those experiences were monumental, I think, when I started coaching in this league. Not only coaching against the good competition in the league but also the recruiting part of it, the tradition of the league and all those things being exceptionally good. I think I’ve learned a lot with all the experiences that we’ve had, but probably for being in this part of the country and the competition in the SEC, whether it’s playing or recruiting, I probably learned quite a bit there.”
Saban’s success at LSU wasn’t a slam dunk. He had never coached college football in the South when he arrived in Baton Rouge in 2000. The program had gone 3-8 under Gerry DiNardo in 1999 and 54-58-1 during the decade preceding Saban. He turned the Tigers around posthaste, going 48-16 from 2000-04 and winning two SEC championships.
The SEC featured characters like Steve Spurrier, Phillip Fulmer, Tommy Tuberville, Lou Holtz, Hal Mumme and others as its head coaches. In 2000, Nick Saban was no rock star. His reputation didn’t wield the same gravitas it does today.
“He wasn’t the national brand that he is now,” former LSU offensive lineman Rodney Reed said. “Coming in from Michigan State, they were maybe a little-better-than-.500 sort of program that had won one bowl game or something like that. It was sort of him coming in and selling his program, what we were going to do going forward.”
But the blueprint was already drawn. At his first meeting with LSU players after taking the job at the end of 1999, he told them about The Process that would guide them from that day forward.
There were resources to work with. When Saban was coaching in the NFL, he read a study that showed which states produced the most players in the league. Louisiana was fourth on the list of NFL players per capita. Unlike states like Florida or Texas, LSU stood alone among major college programs in the state.
“There’s just too much in-state talent, and every kid that grows up in Louisiana wants to play at LSU,” Mauck said. “As long as you can seal the borders, you’re going to have a pretty good team.”
Recruiting Louisiana remained part of Saban’s southern strategy even when he returned to Alabama. The Crimson Tide could start six players from the state when Alabama plays LSU this week.
Central to Saban’s process at LSU was constructing a complete football program, same as he has done in Tuscaloosa. Beyond the players and coaches, he had to rally fans and boosters together. He wanted to improve academic support for players. He hired legendary strength coach Tommy Moffitt, who installed the “Fourth Quarter Program” for conditioning. The offseason program in Tuscaloosa has the same name.
LSU revamped its academic facility for players while Saban was in Baton Rouge. Tiger Stadium began renovations late in 2004 after his final season. A new football operations building was finished by 2005, not long after he left for the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Skip Bertman, LSU’s athletics director for most of Saban’s tenure, said the coach was a key to fundraising efforts.
“We invested in the weight room, we invested in the nutrition center, we invested in the academic center,” said Reed, the former LSU lineman.
Academics was a central part of Saban’s recruiting pitch at LSU, as it is now in Tuscaloosa. He made sure a member from the academic staff would be at recruiting dinners. The Tigers also needed discipline, including in class attendance. Details became important1.
Saban eventually brought many assistants who worked in Baton Rouge to Tuscaloosa at one time or another. Bo Davis, Karl Dunbar and Scott Cochran were young strength coaches with the Tigers. Future Alabama assistants Sal Sunseri, Mel Tucker, Bobby Williams and Lance Thompson all spent a season or two with Saban at LSU. Kirby Smart first joined forces with Saban in 2004. Between 2004 and 2015, he spent 11 of 12 seasons at Saban’s side.
Much of Saban’s coaching tree also took root on the bayou2. Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley were assistants at LSU who branched off on their own rather than follow Saban to Alabama. Dooley’s first head coaching job was at Louisiana Tech. Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase was a graduate assistant and recruiting assistant at LSU.
An LSU playbook from 2001 has floated around the internet, and much of the verbiage remains the same. “Blue” personnel denotes three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back. “Red” personnel is four wide receivers and a running back. LSU defensive backs required time to learn the complex coverage system that he installed; the playbook is 336 pages.
“We played Ole Miss against Eli Manning and we had two calls in the huddle on defense because when he checked, we checked,” former safety Jack Hunt said. “If we wanted to check again, we had multiple hand signals. There was once in that game where he checked, we checked, he checked, we checked and he called timeout. That game plan for that game, on defense we could check to anything and do anything and out-scheme Eli Manning, pretty much.”
The Alabama defense has often looked like LSU’s did when the Tigers won their national championship in 2003. LSU finished No. 1 in total defense and No. 1 in points allowed per game that season. In Saban’s first 11 years at Alabama, the Crimson Tide led the nation in scoring defense four times and led the nation in yardage allowed four times.
Many of the buzz words that could make up a “Saban’s Greatest Hits” album at Alabama were familiar to his former players at LSU. When opponents gashed the Tiger defense, he said it was “Like s*** through a tin horn.” When players were inattentive or lost, he said they had a “brook trout look.” He told players they were “only as good as their last play” and invoked the ultimate coaching cliché, to take things “one game at a time” and “one play at a time.” Reed and Hunt both laughed when remembering his mannerisms and hand motions when speaking that are still trademarks.
“One of the things that Coach Saban said was, ‘Root and stay for 60 minutes. We’re going to play for 60 minutes, you stay for 60 minutes.’ Now he’s done that at Alabama, too,” Bertman said.
The playbook also includes many Saban missives3 that have scarcely changed in nearly the two decades since he arrived at LSU. Saban is synonymous with Alabama, but much of the foundation for his coaching was set before he touched down in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s all the exact same (stuff) we heard 15, 20 years ago,” Hunt said. “There may be some new words here or there, but for the most part it’s the same old stuff.”
Those lessons didn’t just stay with Saban when he left, but also stayed with his former players. Saban’s recruiting pitch was to prepare players not just for the NFL, but for life afterward. Reed played briefly for the Miami Dolphins under Saban and is now a vice president at National Oilwell Varco in Houston4.
“It’s still the same lessons learned now as at the company that I’m an executive at now,” Reed said. “It’s really about accountability and consistency. So it’s really taking that group who might practice hard two days a week and now you practice hard four days a week. You might work hard two days a week in the offseason, now you work hard four days a week in the offseason. Really kind of getting that mindset of ‘How are we going to get better every day?’”
The foundation at LSU remained strong even after Saban left for the NFL. The Tigers’ 54-58-1 record in the 90s became 99-31 in the 2000s under Saban and Les Miles. LSU had won its only national championship in 1958; it finished the decade with two more. LSU’s current era of success began with Saban.
“We like ourselves now,” Bertman said. “Nick did that. He taught us how to be champions.”
Saban likely would have continued to have success if he had stayed there. In a different world, The Process could still be in play at LSU rather than Alabama.
Alabama’s success under Saban was hardly a surprise to those who had been around him at LSU. No one foresaw a run of five national championships, but there was no doubt Saban knew how to win. Alabama had the tradition and the resources. Saban just needed time.
“I knew what they were likely to become,” Reed said.
Saban had the system to win and the ring to prove it when Mal Moore brought him to Tuscaloosa. LSU knew what it was losing when he left for the Dolphins after the 2004 season. Bertman, the former LSU athletics director, gave Saban his best pitch to keep the coach in Baton Rouge. College was his best chance to become a legend, Bertman reasoned.
“He said to me, ‘Skip, if I turn this one down, I’ll never get another pro offer,”’ Bertman said. “I remember saying, ‘You can’t be Vince Lombardi because of the way the draft is set. Nobody can be Vince Lombardi anymore. But you can be Bear Bryant.’”
Bertman was more right than he ever could have known.
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.
1)He was always a fastidious football coach. LSU’s win against Kentucky in the “Bluegrass Miracle” in 2004 was possible in part because after losing the coin toss, Saban’s players knew which end zone to defend to have the wind at their back in the fourth quarter. That gave LSU an advantage at the end of close games, when a long field goal or impossible pass could use an extra boost.
2)The Tigers’ athletic department and university had other rising stars. LSU president Mark Emmert is now the NCAA president. Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich and Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward also worked in the athletic department at the time.
3)One such entry: “Respect the goals, principles and values of your team and teammates and the chemistry will create success for all and a feeling of accomplishment shared by many that will be fun and the most self-gratification you will ever experience.”
4)All three players who spoke to The Tuscaloosa News for this story had professional success after short NFL careers. Mauck works as a dentist in Colorado. Hunt works for his family’s engineering consulting firm in Baton Rouge.