ENGSTER: Saturday is a defining moment

Nick Saban is a magnificent obsession in these parts.

Saban resembles the dashing drifter who marries the girl next door, snatches her innocence, raids her bank account and smugly moves to the next town to milk his next victim.

Tiger partisans have been down this road before with Paul Dietzel, the previous coach to lead LSU to the Promised Land. Hell hath no fury like a spurned LSU fan.

Dietzel directed LSU to a national championship at 34, and then had the audacity to take an assignment as head coach at West Point at 37. Unlike Saban, he piloted LSU to an unbeaten season in 1958 and left TigerTown on the winning end of a 26-7 Orange Bowl blowout against Colorado.

Saban, like Dietzel, made a terrible choice for his next career stop when he departed Baton Rouge. If not for the call from Alabama, Saban would be in charge of the worst team in the NFL this season – a Miami Dolphins squad that he molded into a colossal loser before he defected to Tuscaloosa.

Dietzel decided the call from Army was irresistible at the onset of the Vietnam War.

Long before the Tet Offensive, the job at West Point was considered Dietzel's destiny –the place where he would expand the legend he had already carved at LSU. Tall Paul struggled at the military academy and moved on to South Carolina in 1966. At age 42, he opened his stint at Columbia by playing Charles McClendon and LSU on September 17, 1966 in Death Valley.

LSU pounded the Gamecocks of Dietzel by a score of 28-12, and for awhile LSU got over its hatred of the man who had said with assurance, "I will never leave LSU," when he was the most coveted commodity in his profession.

Seven years after his inauspicious return to Baton Rouge, Dietzel fielded an outstanding team at South Carolina. On an October night in Columbia, he watched as his best unit at USC was nipped at the wire, 33-29, by McClendon's Tigers. But on Sept. 17, 1977, 11 years to the date that Dietzel returned to Tiger Stadium as a loser in his debut at South Carolina, the man with the Pepsodent smile tasted revenge against the Tigers.

His Indiana Hoosiers (Dietzel was athletic director and Lee Corso was coach) edged LSU 24-21 at Bloomington, and Dietzel was again marketable as athletic director at age 53. He returned a year later to LSU to succeed Carl Maddox as AD and endured four and a half rocky years in the position. Chancellor Jim Wharton pulled the plug and banished LSU's erstwhile crown prince to a desk job across campus.

His pride wounded, Dietzel moved out of Boyd Hall and traveled to Boone, N.C., to hibernate before becoming athletic director at Samford University. Now at 83, Dietzel is retired in Baton Rouge, reportedly writing his memoirs and proving you can home again and again, but things do change.

Saban was the image of the coach that LSU envisioned for the 39 years between Dietzel's first exit and Nick's arrival at TigerTown. He was leading-man material and conveyed an attitude of control and confidence. At the end of his five years, LSU was 48-16, and Saban was 53 years old and a two-time SEC winner and onetime NCAA victor.

It seemed Nick might shed his job-hopping tendencies and find LSU appealing enough to stay for another 10 to 20 years. The revolving door at East Stadium had become Saban's kingdom, but the mercurial mentor decided he had no more worlds to conquer at LSU and off to the NFL he went.

Like Lou Holtz and Pete Carroll, Saban learned football's major league was not his oyster. Players were compensated more than their coaches and occasionally talked back.

When Alabama contacted his agent, Jimmy Sexton, Saban swiftly retracted his vow to stay in Miami and forsake overtures from Tuscaloosa.

Saban's decision to return to the SEC provides both a trap and an opportunity for Les Miles. It is better for Miles to compete against the flesh-and-blood, five-foot-eight version of Saban rather than the omnipotent ghost of 2003.

LSU is favored over Alabama this Saturday, and the Tigers should prevail. The outcome will shape Saban's season, but the career of Miles will be measured by victory or defeat at Bryant-Denny Stadium. National title hopes and prospective conference honors make it essential for Miles to come home as a winner.

Miles is 29-5, the best 34-game stretch in LSU history. But three goals remain unreached in his three years as Saban's successor: Miles has yet to secure an SEC title, collect a national championship or beat Nick Saban.

A victory Saturday completes the last objective, makes LSU the solid favorite for the SEC championship in 2007, and leaves open the prospect of sauntering out of the Superdome on Jan. 7, 2008, as the BCS champion.

His counterpart in crimson relishes the role of the underdog, but there is probably no game since the BCS title game of Jan. 4, 2004, that Saban has desired to win more.

This contest will either enhance the stature of Saban or enable Miles to rid Death Valley of the shadow of his predecessor. Tiger fans, who are trekking to Tuscaloosa by the thousands, will witness more than a game. Saturday will provide a defining moment for both head coaches.

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Jim Engster is the general manager of Louisiana Network and Tiger Rag. Reach him at jim@la-net.net.


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