Guilbeau: Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame does the right thing by putting in Bama's Saban
BATON ROUGE — Nick Saban is coming back after all.
The former LSU football coach, whom LSU fans have loved to hate particularly since he became rival Alabama's coach in 2007 but have frequently fantasized about his return as LSU's coach, will be forever enshrined in Louisiana.
The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame announced Tuesday that Saban, who won LSU's first national championship since 1958 in the 2003 season and set the Tigers up for their next one in 2007, will be one of eight inductees into the 2020 Hall class on Saturday, June 27, in Natchitoches.
"I'm just amazed this has happened," Saban told Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame chairman Doug Ireland and selection committee member/sports writer Ron Higgins early this month when he got the call. "I didn't know Louisiana would do this for me."
No, it was here in Louisiana that Saban was hung in effigy before his first game back at LSU as Alabama's coach in 2008 in Tiger Stadium. There were police escorts for his wife Terry after Alabama won that game, 27-21, in overtime.
Saban left LSU after the 2004 season to become the Miami Dolphins coach, but that was a normal, upwardly mobile move in the coaching profession. He went to the NFL, where he thought he always wanted to be. And he was as open about it as other coaches have been in similar moves. So any hate of Saban for that was mainly self-absorbed.
The LSU hate really heated up toward Saban when he left the NFL after two seasons to become head coach at Alabama, which LSU already had an inferiority complex from Bear Bryant's days as the Tide's coach when he was 11-0 against LSU from 1971-81. He wanted out of Miami, where he didn't like it and where he was 15-17 in two seasons. It wasn't to get back at LSU. Alabama was just clearly the best opening on the college level that year.
Then Saban proceeded to win national championships in the 2009, '11, '12, '15 and '17 seasons and is 8-0 vs. LSU beginning with the 21-0 win in the national championship game on Jan. 9, 2012.
Les Miles, who replaced Saban at LSU in 2005, beat him in three of their first five meetings from 2007-11. But the Tigers have not won since, including shutouts in two of the last three games under Miles' replacement — Ed Orgeron.
As soon as word broke Tuesday of Saban making the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, some hate resonated.
"The people on the selection committee must be from Amite and Monroe," one fan said on a LSU fan website, referencing two areas of Louisiana that Saban has recruited well while at Alabama.
"He doesn't deserve it," said an LSU fan on Facebook. "And I hate him." But another LSU fan on Facebook said: "Why not? He was good while he was here."
Saban barely made the criteria cutoff to be eligible for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, which states a coach or athlete must be active for at least five seasons on the college level in state. In Saban's only Louisiana stop in his career, he coached LSU for five seasons from 2000-04.
Ireland stressed how much Saban did in a short time - two Southeastern Conference titles and a national championship - after what he inherited - a program that had losing seasons in eight of the previous 11 years and lost 10 straight SEC games in 1998 and '99 under Coach Gerry DiNardo, whose roster was depleting of talent and numbers. The SEC title in only Saban's second season in 2001 was LSU's first since 1988.
"We understand that LSU fans are conditioned to cheer against Alabama and Nick Saban, and Nick understands that as well as anyone," Ireland said Tuesday. "But any LSU fan who looks at it objectively has to realize where LSU was when Nick arrived, where he brought LSU, and where it still is now. He brought in players, coaches, facilities, and a philosophy. He brought in the golden era of LSU football. If Nick doesn't come to Baton Rouge, one has to wonder where LSU would be right now."
Ireland and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame could have bowed to passionate, provincial pressure, including from some of its own 35-member voting committee. But it did not, and Saban got the votes. The Hall accurately went with the facts and Saban's tremendous impact on LSU and the state of Louisiana.
Ireland mused as to where all the hate for Saban would be had Saban, let's just say, retired after his last season at LSU in 2004.
"To those who do not like Saban getting in, I would say take away everything Nick did after LSU, and would you be advocating he be selected to the Hall of Fame? Without question," Ireland said. "They'd be clamoring for it. He is tremendously deserving and may be the greatest college coach ever."
Ireland's point is simply salient if you remember what happened on Oct. 30, 2005, in Tiger Stadium. Saban coached his Dolphins against the Saints there as the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans was not available because of serious damage from Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29. Saban was cheered by the local fans, who meanwhile often booed and jeered their own Saints and then-owner Tom Benson in a 21-6 loss that dropped the franchise to 2-6 on its way to 3-13.
Former LSU basketball player Collis Temple Jr. and other LSU dignitaries like then-Board of Supervisors member Charlie Weems and the late Richard Gill, a former director of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, hugged Saban when he went on the field before the game. There were even some efforts to bring Saban back to LSU as the NFL did not work out for him and Miles failed in his first two seasons to get the most out of the tremendous amount of talent he inherited.
In the end, what Saban left at LSU was as elite as what he brought to it.
Perhaps no college football coach in history left more talent, because most do not leave at the apex of their stay at a job, which is what Saban did after the 2004 season. Most leave after things have waned a bit or are fired. Not Saban. He left when the two best back-to-back LSU recruiting classes in history — No. 1 in 2003 and No. 2 in 2004 by Rivals.com - were only freshmen and sophomores.
As a result, nearly three full years after Saban left, 27 players from those two classes that he signed and coached were still on the team. And virtually all of those were still in playing roles in the 2007 season when LSU won the national championship under Miles, a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee himself last summer.
In the starting lineup for LSU's 38-24 win over Ohio State in the national championship game in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 7, 2008, were 18 starters from those final two classes of Saban, who was already a year into his second job since leaving LSU.
Those were quarterback Matt Flynn, tailback Jacob Hester, fullback Quinn Johnson, wide receiver Early Doucet, tight end Keith Zinger, left guard Herman Johnson, center Brett Helms and right tackle Carnell Stewart on offense. And ends Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman, tackle Glenn Dorsey, linebackers Ali Highsmith and Luke Sanders, cornerbacks Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson, and safeties Craig Steltz and Curtis Taylor on defense with punter Patrick Fisher.
Not only did Saban sign the best, he developed them to their best. Of the players signed by Saban from February, 2000, through February, 2004, 32 were drafted into the NFL from the 2004 through the 2009 drafts, including nine in the first round and at least one first rounder in each of those six drafts. Prior to Saban's signees, LSU had no first round picks from 2000 through 2003 out of DiNardo's signees with the last pre-Saban first rounder being Anthony McFarland in 1999.
Of the players signed by Miles from February, 2005, through February, 2016, 64 have been drafted, but just 10 in the first round even though Miles was at LSU for seven more years than Saban.
One of the reasons Saban took so long to make up his mind about taking the Miami Dolphins job was the talent he was leaving at LSU that someone else would get to coach. This was one of the main reasons he turned down the Chicago Bears after the 2003 national championship season.
"It's always hard because of the relationships that you have with players to just walk off and leave them," Saban said in an exclusive interview with the USA TODAY Network in May at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida.
"I thought, too, we had one of the best teams ever coming back the next year," Saban said. "Of course, Katrina, and a lot of other things probably disrupted that team's ability to be successful. But a lot of those same guys won it in 2007."
Saban said then-athletic director Skip Bertman, who was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2002, tried to convince him to stay, and he has never forgotten what he said.
"I remember Richard Gill and Skip and I meeting in Skip's office," Saban said. "And I was really torn about it. And Skip said, 'You've just got to decide what you want your legacy to be. You want it to be as a college coach? Or do you want to try to make a name for yourself as a NFL coach?'
"And I really wanted to be a college coach, but I had it in the back of my mind all the time that the ultimate thing that you could accomplish in the profession was to be a head coach in the NFL. Don't ask me why. But that was just kind of there. And I thought, probably because of Wayne Huizenga (the late Dolphins' owner) that was the right one. He was a pretty good recruiter."
Saban soon realized he should have listened to the other recruiter, Bertman, as he was going 9-7 and 6-10 with the Dolphins.
"As it turns out, what I learned from that experience in hindsight was, it was a huge mistake to leave college football," Saban said. "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."
So what will Saban wear to the induction ceremonies — a purple or red tie? The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame has him on its website in a purple shirt coaching LSU.
"Lost I think among some of the LSU fans is how much he truly enjoyed his time at LSU," Ireland said. "It was a time he still treasures. He was very pleasantly surprised, especially now that he's still coaching Alabama, and he was very flattered. You could tell it means a lot to him."
And he will be there with Terry and his family — no police escort needed.
"I think it's going to be a great time," Ireland said.
But will there be protests, boycotts?
Not if Louisiana's own Orgeron and his Tigers beat Saban and Alabama on Nov. 9.
In that case, Victory Party II in Natchitoches will be on.