ROARIN' TO BE A TIGER
It didn't take Nick Saban long to decide he'd rather be the
kingpin in Louisiana than continue to play second fiddle in
Who says there are no secrets anymore? LSU lured Michigan State
coach Nick Saban out of East Lansing before anyone there knew he
wanted to leave. Saban, 48, bolted for money ($6 million over
five years, after earning about $700,000 this season) and so he
could coach a team that would be tops on its own turf. "At
Michigan State, we were never Number 1 [in the state]," Saban
said last week. "That was always Michigan. It was always, 'UM
this and that.'" LSU is the only sheaux, as Cajuns might spell
it, in Louisiana.
"We don't have a Michigan and Michigan State," says LSU athletic
director Joe Dean. "We're both. That's what attracted Nick."
Apparently Saban also left East Lansing because of lack of love.
Michigan State president Peter McPherson, who twice gave Saban
raises to keep him from jumping to the NFL, didn't hear about
the Tigers' interest in Saban until the 11th hour and chose to
do nothing to counter it. One of the coach's friends says that
Saban wanted to hear, "We love what you're doing. We don't want
to see you go." No such affectionate words came.
Here's how LSU kept its pursuit of Saban quiet: After Tigers
coach Gerry DiNardo was fired on Nov. 15, Dean asked Gil Brandt,
a former Dallas Cowboys player personnel director, to help him
find a new coach. Brandt phoned Saban a couple of days before
Thanksgiving, around the same time that Miami coach Butch Davis
said he wasn't interested in the position. Saban was interested
and called his agent, Jimmy Sexton of Memphis. One of Sexton's
business associates, Sean Tuohy, a former Ole Miss basketball
player, has known Dean for years. He phoned Dean and suggested
that Dean call Sexton. If the process had gone any deeper
underground, LSU would have struck oil.
Once Dean discovered Saban could be had, he never wavered. The
Tigers made Saban an offer on Monday, Nov. 29. That same day
Saban's wife, Terry, went to Baton Rouge to check out the area.
She had lunch with DeLaine Emmert, wife of LSU chancellor Mark,
at TJ Ribs, which was polling customers about whom LSU should
hire. The women cast the first two votes for Saban. When Terry
returned home at 11 p.m., she and Nick talked for several hours
about the offer and went to bed. They woke up at 5:10 a.m.
Tuesday, talked the move over again and decided to leap.
Saban leaves Michigan State with a 34-24-1 record and no Big Ten
championship. At LSU his mission will be simple: Keep the
in-state talent at home. Here's a partial list of the stars who
have left Louisiana for colleges elsewhere during the 1990s:
Warrick Dunn, Marshall Faulk, Anthony Lucas, Peyton Manning,
Travis Minor, Kordell Stewart, Anthony Thomas and Raynoch
Thompson. Quarterback Brock Berlin of Shreveport's Evangel
Christian, the No. 2 high school team in the nation according to
USA Today, has verbally committed to Florida.
After Saban left, Michigan State put out feelers to embattled
San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, a Michigan native, and
Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham, a former Spartans quarterback.
Neither was interested. On Dec. 2, Michigan State officials
interviewed Minnesota coach Glen Mason, who has become a
candidate in more states than Al Gore. By last Saturday night,
McPherson had decided to give the job to Spartans associate head
coach Bobby Williams in hopes of keeping as much of Saban's old
staff together as possible. It was the endorsement Saban had
sought, only a week too late.
SEC Championship Game
GATORS SINK, TIDE TACKLE RISES
The SEC team of the decade petered out one month before the
decade did. Florida didn't just lose last Saturday's conference
championship game 34-7 to Alabama, it was humiliated, gaining
the fewest yards (114) and first downs (six) in coach Steve
Spurrier's 10 seasons. The woes of the struggling Gators
offense, which had existed for most of the season, finally took
their toll on team unity. "The defense is pissed at the
offense," defensive end Alex Brown said after Saturday's game.
"We had, what, 70 yards at halftime? That's awful. Somebody
needs to make a play. If the ball hits them in the hands, they
need to catch it. These guys are great athletes who don't make
Brown would know something about not making plays, having failed
to separate himself from Alabama All-America left tackle Chris
Samuels in the title game. Brown succeeded only when he lined up
on the side opposite Samuels's or when a blitz forced Samuels to
block someone else. Alabama held the ball for 40 minutes and
rushed for 300 yards, much of it over the left side.
Samuels, along with Wisconsin offensive tackle Chris McIntosh
and Florida State noseguard Corey Simon, is a finalist for the
Outland Trophy. If Samuels doesn't win it after the clinic he
put on against the Gators, the football writers shouldn't bother
to award the trophy.
NEBRASKA RUNS OVER TEXAS
Texas coach Mack Brown summed up the dominance of the Nebraska
defense in the Cornhuskers' 22-6 victory in the Big 12
championship game by saying, "We were no-dimensional." Right.
The Longhorns' offense was held to a school-record-low nine
yards rushing. As good as the Nebraska defense is, the offense
remains a step slow by Huskers standards. Take Correll
Buckhalter's 55-yard run in the third quarter. When was the last
time a Nebraska I-back burst through the line and got caught
from behind, as Buckhalter was at the Texas three-yard line by
Ahmad Brooks?... Though the Fiesta Bowl could have selected
Alabama, it chose Tennessee because the champion Crimson Tide
preferred the Orange Bowl. More Tide fans can get to Miami than
to Tempe, Ariz.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Saban will make $1.2 million a year, but LSU's in-state recruiting edge may be a bigger bonanza.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Marcus Godfrey and the Owls ran on empty.
We're the Worst
Plenty of attention has been given to Virginia Tech, the first
team since Florida State in 1993 to finish first in scoring
offense and scoring defense. Now lend an ear to the stories
behind the teams that finished last in the main statistical
categories, if for no other reason than that those tales are
often amusing. There's a reason that Division I-A rookie Buffalo
finished 114th in pass-efficiency defense and total defense:
There are only 114 teams. A paean to 10 painful seasons:
RUSHING, Temple (left), 61.6 yards per game
LOW POINT: Minus two yards in 28 attempts versus Virginia Tech.
EXCUSE: Owls would rather pass. Also finished last in rush
attempts (22.4 per game). COMMENT: Hokies' low point: Gave up
one of Owls' four rushing touchdowns.
PASSING, Rice, 54.7 yards per game
LOW POINT: Quarterback Chad Richardson's line in 37-3 loss at
Michigan: 1-3-2, 15 yards. Hey, no incompletions. EXCUSE: These
Owls would rather run the ball. They use the triple option.
COMMENT: One touchdown every 13.6 passes (7 in 95) is better
than the ratio of Purdue's Drew Brees (21 in 494; 1:23.5).
SCORING, South Carolina, 7.9 points per game
LOW POINT: Scored one touchdown in first five games. EXCUSE:
Used six quarterbacks, none successfully. COMMENT: Scored less
than Frasier Crane.
TOTAL OFFENSE, South Carolina, 228.6 yards per game
LOW POINT: Started four freshmen on offensive line against
Kentucky. Result: 55 yards rushing. EXCUSE: Injuries,
inexperience. COMMENT: Losing streak at 21.
RUSHING DEFENSE, Iowa, 246.9 yards per game
LOW POINT: Gave up 341 yards to Penn State, one more than the
Nittany Lions gained in their last three games combined. EXCUSE:
Suffered from poor recruiting by Hayden Fry's staff, which was
dismantled in 1998. COMMENT: Hawkeyes are in the wrong league to
fail to stop the run. Petition to join the Pac-10?
PASS-EFFICIENCY DEFENSE, Buffalo, 174.1 rating
LOW POINT: Quarterback Dan Ellis of Virginia riddled the Bulls:
16-19-0, 363 yards, six touchdowns. EXCUSE: Try playing a
Division I-A schedule with a I-AA roster. COMMENT: Marshall
quarterback Chad Pennington and Western Michigan signal-caller
Tim Lester made it a bad year to join the MAC.
SCORING DEFENSE, San Jose State, 40.2 points per game
LOW POINT: Stretch drive: Spartans overtake Rutgers (38.8) by
allowing Hawaii 62 points and Fresno State 63. EXCUSE: Young
secondary, weak pass rush. COMMENT: Title tainted because game
against low-scoring SMU was canceled.
TOTAL DEFENSE, Buffalo, 494.2 yards per game
LOW POINT: Central Michigan gained 562 yards versus Buffalo;
averaged 340 yards against other teams. EXCUSE: Try playing a
Division I-A schedule with a Division I-AA roster. COMMENT: List
of players with personal bests against the Bulls stretches
longer than the team's 0-11 season.
TURNOVER MARGIN, Georgia Tech, minus 12
LOW POINT: The real crime, coach George O'Leary says, is that
quarterback Joe Hamilton lost the Heisman race because of Tech
defense. EXCUSE: Started a young defense. COMMENT: Recovered one
fumble in 10 games. Got two in finale against Georgia, one on a
call so bad that the SEC suspended the crew.
NET PUNTING, Central Michigan, 28.7 yards
LOW POINT: Of 62 punts, four were blocked and two were returned
for touchdowns. EXCUSE: Not for lack of work: Jake Kemp set
school record in 1998 with 80 kicks. COMMENT: Former Michigan
offensive coordinator Mike DeBord replaced head coach Dick Flynn
PUNT RETURNS, North Carolina, 3.1 yards per return
LOW POINT: Three returns for minus 14 yards in a 45-7 loss to
Maryland. EXCUSE: Blocking stunk. COMMENT: Tar Heels offense was
so bad that only a return for a touchdown would have mattered.
KICKOFF RETURNS, Illinois, 16.3 yards per return
LOW POINT: Down 3-0 at Louisville, Rocky Harvey fumbled the
kickoff. Cards recovered and took 10-0 lead before Illini took a
snap. EXCUSE: Misleading, Illini say. Fifth in nation during 3-8
season in '98, they received more onside and squib kicks while
going 7-4 this fall. COMMENT: Hope? Freshman Brandon Lloyd broke
off a 41-yarder against Minnesota on Oct. 16.