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Bob Ryan

Saban revives state of ecstasy

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 4, 2004

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NEW ORLEANS -- This is not your normal Sugar Bowl, even by LSU standards.

It's a home game, see, and it's a home game for half the national championship. LSU has been to 11 previous Sugar Bowls, so people pretty much know what to expect when one of college sport's ultrazealous fandoms relocates from a mere hour and a half away and sets up shop in a city that is in perpetual party mode already.

Any Sugar Bowl brings out the rowdy in an LSU fan, so just imagine the feeling here this time, when LSU is playing Oklahoma tonight for something really important.

"We can't hardly walk out of the hotel without having a parade-type atmosphere, relative to where we are going and what we are doing," says LSU coach Nick Saban.

These are partying people and these are football people -- in some order, and it probably doesn't matter which comes when. In these here parts, the phrase "laissez les bon temps rouler" includes football, just as much as it encompasses beer drinking, shrimp ingesting, and music. It's all part of the culture.

What has not been part of the culture for LSU and its devoted patrons is any involvement in the ongoing dialogue concerning a national championship in football. Not lately, anyway. LSU did win a championship, of course, and it is one of the most famous title teams ever. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of 20th century college football is aware of Paul Dietzel's 1958 champs, who nailed down LSU's sole national title with a 7-0 triumph over Clemson in the 1959 Sugar Bowl. You know, Billy Cannon, the "Chinese Bandits," and all the rest. This was LSU football at its zenith.

And it was the way LSU followers liked to frame themselves. In their minds, no one could possibly love football more than they -- nobody. The way they saw it, LSU had a right to be great.

In the decade that followed, LSU played at a consistently high level, participating in six more major (i.e. New Year's Day) bowls through 1968. The erosion began in the '70s, when LSU only played in two such games, none after 1974. Bill Arnsparger brought LSU back some during his tenure (1984-86), but the years 1987-99 constituted a Dark Age of LSU football. National championship? Hah. There was many a year when LSU's faithful would have welcomed a winning season.

People down here practically spit out the names of the coaches. Mike Archer (1987-90)? He went 27-18-1, which was bad enough. Curley Hallman (1991-94)? Flat-out ugly at 16-28, including a bottoming-out 2-9 in 1992. Gerry DiNardo (1995-99)? A little better at 32-24-1, but he ended up with 4-7 and 3-8 seasons. LSU was simply no longer a player.

Football, as such, was never any less important to the people of Louisiana than it had ever been. But there was a fundamental disconnect between the football program and the state's high schools. Everyone knew Louisiana was a football incubator, but LSU wasn't reaping the benefits.

So when the LSU people invited Michigan State coach Nick Saban to interview for the position of head coach he wound up asking more questions than his inquisitors. When he was working in the NFL (for Bill Belichick, among others), he had taken note that the state of Louisiana was something like fifth in the number of NFL-produced players. But he had not noticed LSU putting out good teams, so he needed to find out what had been going on.

"I think the most important thing to have success [at LSU] is to have the best players in Louisiana come to LSU," he explains. "I think the kind of program to attract those players is definitely important, and we have had some success doing that."

Saban has had two of his recruiting classes ranked in the top five by the pundits who actually make a living doing such things -- scary, isn't it? -- and in those two classes of 25 the in-state/out-of-state breakdowns have been 13-12 and 14-11. Given that Louisiana's population isn't all that large, it tells you about the quality of its high school football if a team can be where LSU is now while being so heavily dependent on home-grown talent.

People in football and basketball often refer to "building a fence" around a state, or in the case of Memphis, a city, in order to keep the great ones home, and this is what Saban has done at LSU.

And which states are among the close neighbors of Louisiana? Try Texas, a major abutter, and Florida, two of the most fertile high school football talent pools imaginable. Says Saban, "I think because we have some national exposure, we've been able to attract the best players in Louisiana and been able to complement them with some out-of-staters that have contributed quite a bit to the success of the program, as well."

But Mike Archer couldn't do it. Curley Hallman couldn't do it. Gerry DiNardo couldn't do it. The essentials haven't changed. LSU has always had the stadium. LSU has always had the tradition. LSU has always had the phenomenal support of incredibly passionate football fans. For whatever reason, it took Nick Saban to do it.

Saban's biggest problem is his own success. Every year he is supposed to be going to this or that NFL team, which means LSU's enemies can use that against him in recruiting. Or can they? "A recruit told me this story," Saban says. "When a school suggested he go to their place because I might be leaving for the NFL, he says he told them, `If your coach is so good, why isn't he being asked to go to the NFL?' I think it happens so often now they don't even listen to it anymore."

He says he's wary of the NFL and that there will always be unfinished business for him at LSU. It's been well documented that if LSU wins the game, and gets a share of the national title, his contract calls for him to receive a raise that will give him one more dollar than the highest-paid coach in college football, an honor that just happens to belong to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

We're talking $2.5 million, plus. If LSU wins tonight, the administration will be able to raise that money just by passing the hat on Bourbon Street. It might take five minutes.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.