Think back, the year is 1999; the Tigers are 3-7 after losing to lowly Houston 20-7 in Tiger Stadium.
Although that was just five year ago, doesn't that seem like a lifetime ago?
It was that 13-point loss to
possibly the fifth best team in Conference-USA that finally got Gerry DiNardo's
walking papers signed and dated. He was fired the following Monday just before
the season finale. It was LSU's eighth losing season in 11 years and the Tigers'
second in a row under DiNardo's watch.
The search was on for DiNardo's replacement, while in the meantime, the Tigers dismantled postseason-bound Arkansas the next week under Hal Hunter. Just a couple of weeks passed when the news broke, LSU was going to pay Michigan State head coach Nick Saban $1.2 million to coach the Tigers.
Administrators panicked, boosters groaned, but LSU chancellor Mark Emmert knew what he was doing. Or so he thought.
A new attitude and a couple of early wins in the 2000 season made many think Emmert was a genius. Then the UAB…. Nah, let's not even talk about it. But it didn't take long for Saban tom win over the hearts of Tiger fans. A 38-31 overtime win over Tennessee helped, Saban struggled through the 2001 Florida debacle and was even booed after a loss to Ole Miss, but things quickly changed.
An unexpected SEC title in 2001 was the perfect foreshadowing for the future. A rocky ride through 2002 left many frustrated, but it was all building up to one extreme moment, the 2003 season.
"I think we have had a lot of successful sports here for a long time which is one of the reasons why I was always interested in knowing before I came here why they didn't have consistent success like they did in the 70s and 80s and 50s and 60s and all of those years," Saban said. "Skip had tremendous success with the baseball team winning national championships. Track has been phenomenal. Women's basketball is doing fairly well right now. Softball does really, really well"
"That was part of the interest initially for me to even think about coming here," Saban said. "My question was, ‘why don't you have success in football here like you used to?' Nobody could really answer that question."
"St. Nick," as many like to call him, gave the LSU faithful the biggest Christmas present of their lives – the coveted national championship the rabid fans of Tiger Stadium had been waiting 45 years to taste.
From 3-8 to the brass ring in just four years, some presidents don't have that kind of success in a four-year term. For that matter, Saban could probably run for president, at least governor of Louisiana, and probably win.
At any rate, as much as Tiger fans have relished the past seven months, sitting atop the college football world, Saban is up to his old tricks again trying to control excitement (more like expectations!) and prep his troops, and all of Tigerdom, for the 2004 season – the title defense.
Of course, in true Saban fashion, while the past has been exciting, it is the past and that is where he wants everyone to leave it.
"Let's just get this straight, I am not going to make comparisons between this year's team and last year's team," Saban said. "That's just not going to happen. We are not going to compete with the bar of what last year's team accomplished. We are going to compete to a level of the player's that we have now, getting them to play as well as they can play and help them understand what they need to do everyday to be able to play that way. Then we are going to get results accordingly."
Saban asked in a stern voice for people not to base the success of this year's team to last season. He stated it wouldn't be fair to the team or the individual players.
"We may not be as good as last year – I don't know. But we are not going to compete with that bar," Saban said. "Just because Justin Vincent ran for 1,200 yards last year, he is not going to have a good or bad year this year based on that standard. I want the guys to whatever they need to do to be the best player for our team."
While many people live by the phrase ‘you make your own luck,' Saban doesn't entirely buy into that theory. The Tigers were lucky to win the national title a year ago. Not taking anything away from the accomplishment by saying they ‘lucked out,' Saban said it was a different type of luck.
"Sometimes you have need or problems on your team and things don't work out that way," Saban said. "You need for them to and they don't work out that way. If they do, then that certainly is going to help us out a lot. Sometimes things fall into place for you nicely, which it did for our team last year.
"When I say we were lucky last year, people think that I mean we were lucky because a guy missed a field goal at Ole Miss or somebody missed a field goal against Georgia. Where I think we are lucky about is by what we had in our own house, in our own camp, with guys staying healthy and getting better and people coming through at the right positions where we needed the most help and we got it from the young guys coming up. That is what I mean by we were lucky. Everything worked out well for the team."
Saban spoke of needing things to fall into place for them to work out the way they did. Blessed with no major injuries and several clutch performances by a couple of true freshmen, those were the key factors in LSU's run to the national title.
"We had a young team last year," Saban said. "We had 12 or 13 guys sign pro contracts. We are only going to have nine or 10 seniors on our team this year. We have enough experience coming back on both sides to be decent and to build on. But every year we come out of spring practice with question marks at certain positions either depth wise – needing someone to come through and help us.
"When we sat here last year we talked about safety being a problem and an issue," Saban added. "And lo and behold, two freshmen, LaRon Landry and Jesse Daniels, made a significant contribution at that position and it helps our team. We talked about running back. Can Shyrone Carey do this? Can Joseph Addai show durability? And all of that. Then three freshmen made a contribution at that position."
Saban made a key comparison between the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Both teams began the exact same way. However, with good fortune things went LSU's way in 2003, whereas in 2002, they did not.
"We didn't not coach any different, act any different or do anything different than when we started out 6-1 in one season," Saban said. "Then we lost a couple of key contributors, quarterback, running back, safety gets kicked off the team – and finish 8-5. Then the next year we start 6-1 and then go on to not lose another game and win the whole thing."
And as shown by the good fortune (or luck), things went the Tigers way.
"It doesn't always work out that way," Saban said. "You're not always lucky. I mean, I go to church every Sunday and that doesn't make me anymore lucky than the next guy. Sometimes things work out well and things fall into place and that is why you have success."
Speaking of the 2002 season, Saban that team learned a lot from the late season decline. LSU started 6-1, and then lost four of their last six. However, the players that returned from that team remembered how to handle tough situations, which Saban said helped immensely in 2003.
"You are always going to have adverse circumstances and I always say that your ability to manage those things is really the key to success," Saban said. "The one thing that I would say is that our team struggled in the second half of that season trying to overcome those circumstances. When we were faced with this adversity, I think players on that team, instead of realizing what they had to do to overcome it, began to question whether or not we could overcome and that is not what you need."
Saban said it is strange how things seem to work out for some people at certain times, but at other times they do not. The most talented team doesn't always win the game because something unfortunate happened. The 2003 season wasn't the only time Saban and the team was fortunate. Think back to 2001 when Tennessee was making preparations to clean LSU's clock on their way to the Rose Bowl. Then an upstart Tiger squad left the Vols crying in their roses.
"And we were lucky in 2001," Saban said. "Maybe it's an even year odd year thing, I don't know. But I'm serious. Sometimes all things work out. There is always going to be changes and you always have to try and adapt to change."
One can be sure, Saban's theory of the even year, odd year thing may not be accurate. At the rate these Tigers are going, even Saban may change his opinion on making his own luck.