|COLLEGE FB PACKAGE: Down in Cajun country, they've had this one circled all year|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 31 October 2007 13:43|
Nothing gets college football fans more riled up than a coach who bolts for a big-money contract in the NFL.|
Wait, there's one thing that's even worse: When that same coach returns to the same conference to lead a rival school.
That's why Nick Saban is so reviled in Cajun country, this week more than ever as his former team, No. 3 LSU, gets set to play his current team, No. 17 Alabama.
At least Saban has the good fortune of playing Saturday's game in Tuscaloosa, where he'll be in the safe confines of adoring fans who have already anointed him the second coming of Bear Bryant.
Just imagine if he had to go to Death Valley this weekend.
``They may have had to add a little something extra to the police force,'' Saban quipped Wednesday.
Otherwise, he insists this matchup is nothing personal. It will be decided by the players on the field, Saban said, not the guys on the sidelines or the people in the stands.
``Look, I had a lot of great relationships with a lot of people at LSU,'' Saban said, offering up his version of a truce. ``I'm sure some of those people are anxious for this game. Anytime you know somebody and have relationships with people, it creates a tremendous opportunity when you compete against them. You don't really have to hate somebody to compete against them.''
Maybe not, but there are plenty of folks in Louisiana who despise Saban for abandoning the Tigers after the 2004 season, then returning just three years later to lead a team that's in the same division as LSU and standing in the way of a possible run at the national championship.
Saban's successor, Les Miles, chose his words carefully when asked if there was a different feeling about this game.
``I probably got more ticket requests from boosters than I normally do,'' he said. ``Knowing the opponent's coach as well as they do around here has certainly made it a little bit more interesting.''
The Web was buzzing with plenty of talk about Saban facing his former team. For instance, a chat room run by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans allowed people to vent behind the anonymity of the Internet.
``When you talk, you don't know what to believe,'' one blogger wrote. ``He always says he is happy where he is and wants his family to stay there, and then denies entertaining job offers and then before you know it he is gone. We just want someone who is upfront and honest.''
``I don't hate him,'' another LSU fan chimed in, ``but let's flip it around. Truthfully, think of any former UA coach (you have a few to choose from). When Bama was to play them, wouldn't you want Bama to win just a little more so as to remind him what he left behind? That's how I feel about Saban. He's a good coach, but I want LSU to beat him pretty good.''
Make no mistake, Tiger fans appreciate the job Saban did during his time in Baton Rouge.
LSU stumbled through the 1990s with more coaches (four) than winning seasons (three). Saban arrived in 2000 and immediately turned things around, taking advantage of the state's enormous high school talent base and shutting off other teams from swooping in to take the best players.
In Saban's second year, the Tigers won their first Southeastern Conference championship since 1988. That was only a prelude to the 2003 season, when LSU defeated Oklahoma in the BCS title game to claim a share of the national championship.
At that point, Saban was so popular he probably could have been elected governor of Louisiana. Instead, he hung around just one more season before taking a lucrative offer to coach the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
While the money was good, Saban wasn't a good fit for the pro game. He yearned for another college job and, after vehement denials that he was leaving, he took a $4-million-a-year offer from the Crimson Tide, which had fired Mike Shula after a disappointing season.
Back at LSU, there was an angry outcry against Saban, whose name was accompanied by words such as ``betrayal'' and ``turncoat.'' Everyone in purple and gold circled one date on their calendars - Nov. 3.
``I don't think it surprised anyone that he returned to college football,'' said Herb Vincent, who serves as a liaison between LSU's athletic department and its fundraising group. ``He always talked about how much he enjoyed coaching college players. What took everybody by surprise was that he would come back to not only the SEC, but right into our division. That adds a little bit of an edge to this game.''
A little bit of an edge? That's an understatement.
When LSU started taking orders for the 7,000 tickets it was allotted for Saturday's game, it was bombarded with 33,000 requests.
``That exceeds most bowl game requests,'' Vincent said. ``That in itself shows the anticipation for this game. I'm sure a lot of our fans are going just to go, even though they may not have tickets.''
Saban recruited most of LSU's starters, but the players have largely gone along with the company line. Yes, this is a very important game. No, it has nothing to do with the guy coaching the other team.
``This game is more than coach Saban,'' senior defensive end Kirston Pittman said. ``It's about winning the SEC West. I have a lot of respect for coach Saban. He brought a lot of fire to the table. He expected excellence. He didn't expect you to make a mistake. He would get in your face if you did make a mistake.''
Still, this game rekindles some long-buried emotions for those who came to LSU largely because of Saban.
``Coach Saban took it to another level,'' Pittman said. ``I was a little uneasy when he left.''
The transition to Miles has gone smoothly, though there are still those who believe he's just winning with his predecessor's players.
No doubt, there will be plenty of grumbling among the Tiger faithful if their current coach gets outsmarted by their former coach.
Quarterback Matt Flynn tried to put some of that talk to rest.
``This is no referendum on coach Miles,'' the senior said. ``One game doesn't prove he is or isn't a good coach. Coach Miles is a winning coach. He has won a lot of big games.''
Now, he's just got to win the biggest one of all.
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