Saban had hand in creating LSU monster

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
10:45
AM ET
Nick SabanAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesNick Saban changed the recruiting culture in Baton Rouge when he led the LSU Tigers.
All it took was a little screen time for Nick Saban to officially say goodbye to LSU.

With his Alabama team surrounding him inside a movie theater and the popular movie "The Blind Side" playing, Crimson Tide players hooted, hollered and laughed when Saban appeared on screen, dressed as his former LSU self.

Saban played the old him, who recruited future Ole Miss star offensive lineman Michael Oher to LSU. The problem was that Saban was a few years removed from his LSU days and was coaching Alabama.

He was so uneasy about how his new players might react to his acting debut in the wrong colors that he asked Alabama’s leadership group whether it was OK for him to do the cameo.

Without hesitation, his players allowed it, but only if they could poke a little fun at his expense.

Senior center William Vlachos said he and his teammates razzed the very matter-of-fact coach, letting him know that acting wasn’t his thing, but they also informed them this was his new team and he could put his LSU thoughts behind him.

“If that had bothered us, he wouldn’t have done it,” Vlachos said. “His heart is with us.”

And Saban makes sure people know that. He sidesteps most questions dealing with him and LSU, and it’s pretty much a nonissue in Tuscaloosa.

The Saban-LSU storyline has been beaten to death, and even with Saban now facing his former school in the national championship, few have taken much time to pick his brain about the situation he’ll be in.

But it will be hard for Saban not to take a peek at the past when his second-ranked Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1) take on No. 1 LSU (13-0, 8-0) in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Monday night.

He can’t ignore the monster he helped create in Baton Rouge, La. Before Saban got his hands on LSU, the Tigers were a mere afterthought in the SEC.

LSU had suffered through two straight losing season under previous coach Gerry DiNardo and had recorded seven losing seasons in the 1990s.

Saban swooped in and conducted a complete transformation. His first objective was to instill more discipline within the program and hammer home academics. He led the way for a $15 million fundraising effort for a new academic center for LSU student-athletes and made sure he and his players were tremendously active in the community.

Facilities were upgraded; a new attitude was created; and LSU quickly became a true force in the SEC. Saban won 48 games in his five-year stint with the Tigers that included a national championship (2003), two SEC championships, three SEC Western Division championships and three bowl wins, including two Sugar Bowl victories.

To get those wins, Saban also became a bulldog in recruiting. For years, LSU had struggled to keep top Louisiana prospects in state. In the 1990s, Baton Rouge athletes Warrick Dunn and Travis Minor left to become stars at Florida State, and New Orleans high school stars Reggie Wayne and Ed Reed left and eventually became key components of Miami’s 2001 national championship squad.

But with Saban camped out in Cajun country, those kinds of players rarely stepped away from LSU’s campus.

“It didn't happen overnight, but Nick Saban turned LSU into a recruiting powerhouse by gradually winning over the state's top prospects,” ESPN recruiting analyst Corey Long said.

Saban’s 2001 SEC championship team made a real breakthrough for the program, but Long said that his 2003 recruiting class served as a major breakthrough for LSU recruiting.

Saban was able to keep most of Louisiana’s top high school prospects in state, including running backs Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent and athlete LaRon Landry. Quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn were a part of that class, as was Miami-area wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.

Saban controlled Louisiana, snagged recruits from other schools’ comfort zones and even developed a knack for finding underrated talent, such as running back Jacob Hester.

Now, LSU is a winning and recruiting machine. Miles has picked up beautifully from where Saban left off, but he certainly owes a little of his own success to Saban’s work. Miles hasn’t relinquished LSU’s stranglehold on the state of Louisiana and prides himself on building his team off of local talent.

“Before Saban arrived at LSU, the talent in Louisiana was a virtual grab bag for the top programs in surrounding states,” Long said. “These days, it's rare that a top player in the state goes anywhere but Baton Rouge.”

On Monday, Saban will meet the beast he created years ago. He doesn’t like to pump his LSU ties, but this one is different.

This one is for all the sugar, and once Saban sets foot on the Superdome field and stares at that purple-and-gold monster, he’ll have to take some pride in his work that helped create LSU’s masterpiece.

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