Previously, it is clear that Nick Saban had little on his actual coaching record to suggest he would be any good at LSU when it hired him away from Michigan State in December 1999. Nevertheless, the Tigers paid him an obscene amount of money to come to the SEC and compete in a landscape dominated by Florida and Tennessee (at the time). In 1998, the Vols had won the first-ever BCS national championship, and Saban was hired to compete with Steve Spurrier’s Gators teams as well.
The Tigers had won just seven games combined in 1998 and 1999, and Saban clearly had his work cut out for him. In his first season, he turned around the LSU program in a way he had been unable to do at MSU in the Big Ten. The Tigers posted an 8-4 record, won the Peach Bowl, and finished ranked No. 22 in the country. This was, by far, the best full-season success of Saban’s career.
What did he learn suddenly in the handful of months between leaving East Lansing and winning big in Baton Rouge? Good question. Perhaps it was the additional “resources” he was promised at LSU that helped Saban suddenly figure out how to win. Yes, there were still major problems for the Tigers: 1) LSU lost 13-10 to UAB at home; 2) Florida hammered the Tigers, 41-9; 3) A late-season loss to Arkansas on the road killed LSU’s chances at a big-bowl opportunity; and 4) The Tigers lost by 17 to eventual SEC West champion Auburn. The positives were a 38-31 victory over then-No. 11 Tennessee and a 3-1 record in close games.
Onto 2001: Despite three losses in SEC play, including to both Florida and Tennessee, Saban and the Tigers somehow won the SEC West and then upset the No. 2-ranked Vols in the SEC title game. Saban had finally won something meaningful, and he did it in just his second season in Baton Rouge. Oh, those “resources” must really have been something down there in the SEC. Despite not being ranked at Thanksgiving, LSU went on to finish No. 7 in the country at 10-3 after beating Big Ten champ Illinois in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers also were 2-0 in close games, despite losing at home to unranked Mississippi by 11 points.
This SEC title was somewhat fluky, since a team with three losses has no business being in a conference title game to begin with, but those flukes often make or break seasons. Saban was a champion of both a major conference and a major bowl game. His move to LSU had paid off, despite a “down” season in 2002 when the Tigers dropped to an 8-5 record. Four of the losses came by an average of 22 points each, although Saban did post a 2-1 record in close games (now, 7-2 overall since arriving at LSU). The unranked Tigers—SEC “resources”, indeed—somehow got an invite to the Cotton Bowl, where they lost to Texas by 15 points. Still, no one in Baton Rouge was complaining. It’s ironic to note that a down season at LSU was still better than the entire body of work Saban had put together at MSU.
Saban cemented his mythos in 2003 with a mythical national championship season that never should have happened, thanks to BCS shenanigans and those SEC “resources” so often noted. The Tigers lost to Florida at home by 12 points, but they still won the SEC Championship. The team was 3-0 in close games, now suddenly Saban’s strength with a 10-2 mark in four seasons of close games in Baton Rouge. However, there are a lot of issues with this “championship” as most college football fans will remember.
First, LSU—ranked No. 2 in the polls—somehow got to face No. 3 Oklahoma in the BCS title game, while No. 1 USC was snubbed by the BCS “formulas” used at the time. This was the first of several problematic BCS decisions of the decade, whereas certain conferences were “favored” over others due to money accrued via fan travel and TV viewership. Oklahoma had lost the Big XII title game by 28 points, yet somehow it was selected over the top team in the country to play LSU in the “title” game.
USC ended up winning the Rose Bowl over No. 4 Michigan, 28-14, and claiming the top spot in the media poll, while LSU beat Oklahoma, 21-14, to claim the top spot in the coaches poll (contractually obligated to pick the BCS title game “champ” for its No. 1 spot). Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System easily gives USC the advantage over LSU, and basically, if the BCS had done its job transparently and honestly, the Trojans would have been the consensus champions.
Thus, Saban’s first national championship was contrived and a fraud, but in the eyes of ESPN and its predominant SEC viewership—a relationship that would complicate the BCS, and later the College Football Playoff, ethically and morally for years to come—he was a legend now. How did this happen when he couldn’t coach his way out of the proverbial paper bag at Michigan State? Was it those “resources”? Only time would tell.
Saban followed up his split national title season with a solid 9-3 season in 2004, culminating in a loss to Iowa in the Capital One Bowl. After all, you cannot win it every year, right? However, some luster began chipping away, as Saban suffered two losses in close games, including the bowl game defeat. Still, a 16-4 record in close games at LSU so far defied all logic for a man who was just 12-10-1 in such games prior to coming to Baton Rouge. What did the Tigers athletic director see in the man that everyone else did not?
Poor moral character, in essence, as Saban jumped ship from LSU to the NFL for the 2005 season after swearing he wasn’t going to do it. Even if that source is biased, it also makes reference to Saban’s “middle-of-the-night” flight from East Lansing. This was a man of no ethical character, in essence, perfect for the SEC football landscape.
Now, in the NFL, Saban got his hat handed to him. Coaching is everything in the NFL where every team has talent, and the Xs and Os matter more than ever. Saban posted 15-17 record in two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, failing to make the playoffs. He posted an 8-7 record in games decided by a TD or less, once again reverting to his “norm” established at MSU. The NFL exposed Saban for what he was and remains to this day: an average coach when he doesn’t have a talent advantage.
Consider this, too: The 2005 Dolphins had a six-game winning streak to close out the season, and the 2006 Dolphins won four in a row midseason. Without those somewhat fluky streaks, Saban’s tenure in the NFL would have been a complete disaster instead of only a minor one. The final win of the 2005 season on the road against the New England Patriots was meaningless, for example, as the Pats already had the division locked up and playoff seeding cemented. The other five wins in that streak came against teams with a combined 26-54 record in 2005.
It’s clear Saban was in over his head in the NFL, so naturally, he fled back to the SEC—the only place in his career he’s been able to win anything. And once again, he lied about it to everyone, once again revealing his lack of ethical and moral integrity. This is an important pattern to define, because it goes in line with why Saban has only been able to succeed in the SEC and nowhere else.
What Saban has done at Alabama for the past 11 years needs no in-depth analysis, but there are some issues to point out: 1) His 21-15 record in close games at Alabama demonstrates his close-game success at LSU was a fluke, and that he still cannot X and O with the best coaches in the game—or even the mediocre ones; 2) Twice, in 2011 and 2017, the Crimson Tide did not win its division in the SEC, yet was selected for the postseason anyway, thanks to those SEC “resources” that have corrupted college football for the last two decades; and 3) The SEC’s well-earned reputation as the dirtiest conference in NCAA football history puts all of Saban’s “successes” into sharper focus.
Consider what one Alabama newspaper stated in 2008: “… of all the conferences, the SEC has perhaps the worst reputation for cheating.” After all, there’s a reason for the joke that SEC stands for “Surely Everybody’s Cheating”, right? Just Google “dirtiest football conference in NCAA history” and watch the hits come up SEC.
Put this all together: An average coach in the Big Ten and the NFL, if that, goes to the SEC—the most-penalized major conference in NCAA history still in existence—and succeeds like no other coach in the history of the sport, while also demonstrating a pattern of unethical and immoral lying about things publicly for decades, to boot.
Yes, this is Nick Saban, and if you think about it, there’s really no reason anyone should praise him for anything. Decades from now, the public will probably find out—like it did with John Wooden and his success at UCLA in basketball—that everything Saban did in the SEC was not on the level. Until then, however, topical praise for the man is just piss-poor journalism.