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Friday, December 29, 2006

Saban to the Rescue

Nick Saban to the Rescue?

I’ll never forget descending the I-10 exit ramp onto Poydras on Jan. 1, 1993, and seeing a sea of crimson around the Louisiana Superdome as a huge speaker system blasted out, “Sweet Home Alabama.”

"Man,", I said to myself, it would be great to cover a real football program. I covered LSU at the time for the Alexandria Town Talk, and the Tigers were coming off their worst year in football ever at 2-9 and 1-7 in the Southeastern Conference. That was their fourth straight losing season with two more to go. Their coach was from Alabama, but his name was Curley and they played like the Three Stooges.

That night Alabama upset and embarrassed No. 1 and extremely cocky Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl to finish 13-0 and win its first national championship of the post Bear era. Early in the game before the red storm, a Miami writer mocked Alabama’s old fashioned offense by saying sarcastically, “Boy, they really spread the field.”

Miami was the modern team with the fancy offense, and it received an old fashioned butt kicking by a team seemingly in leather helmets and void of chin straps and forward passes.

These were bold red times at Alabama – the best post Bear run ever. It was truly a national program. It was the king of the SEC. Florida had not quite taken over yet. Alabama owned Tennessee, Auburn, LSU and everyone else. And if you closed your eyes, you would’ve sworn coach Gene Stallings was Bear Bryant.

Eight months after that game, I left the Town Talk to cover Alabama for the Mobile (Ala.) Register. For the first time in four years, I covered games that actually meant something. There were always a few national writers around. I felt like I’d gone from rookie ball to the bigs.

From 1991 through 1994, Alabama was 45-5 with three SEC West titles, one SEC championship and one national championship. While on the beat in 1993 and 1994, Alabama was 21-4, including a 12-1 mark in 1994 with the only blemish a one-point loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. LSU was 9-13 over those two years. Alabama also went to something over the holidays I was not familiar with - a bowl. I felt sorry for my sportswriter friends still in Louisiana. So I sent them bowl postcards from Florida.

In only 12 years since then, it’s amazing how Alabama and LSU have switched universes. Alabama just left that Motel 6 in Shreveport, where it lost the Independence Bowl, which used to own LSU.

LSU is in its third Sugar Bowl this decade and will play Notre Dame on Wednesday – nearly three years to the day it won the national championship. Alabama has not played in the Sugar Bowl since that feverish night in 1993. LSU has had seven straight winning seasons and an unprecedented four straight wins over Alabama. After that 1994 season, the Crimson Tide went on the first of two NCAA probations and has had four losing seasons beginning in 1997, including two in the last four years. The probation has not hurt as bad as did the poor coaching hires of Mike DuBose and Mike Shula.

When Alabama hires its next head coach, he will be the school’s fifth since Stallings left after the 1996 season.

Alabama is now a red-faced embarrassment, based on what it was. It is the most ridiculed big time program in the country. Two coaches – Dubose and Mike Price – were let go over a three-year span partly for sexual indiscretions. Shula installed a clean image and some badly needed class to the program along with a 10-2 season in 2005, but he should never have been hired. He was fired after going 6-6 this season.

An ESPN announcer said Friday, “Maybe Joe Kines (Alabama’s interim head coach) will take the job. No one else wants it.”

Just about everybody in the SEC owns Alabama now. Even Mississippi State beat the Tide last season. Alabama has had to resort to bullying around tiny UAB, which wanted to hire offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher from LSU. But Paul Bryant Jr., who sits on the board that governs both Alabama and UAB, would not allow it. He thought Fisher was too good.

There is a cure for Alabama out there. His name is Nick Saban. On numerous occasions, Saban has said he doesn’t want the job. But the story will not go away. There is talk that Saban is unhappy as the NFL Miami Dolphins coach. He is suffering through the first losing season of his head coaching career. Some at LSU who were close to Saban when he was at LSU actually think he will take the Alabama job.

Saban could unquestionably do the job and restore Alabama to its classic crimson ways of the pre-probation 1990s. He could recruit Alabama, Florida and Louisiana. He could beat Auburn, Tennessee and LSU.

As the NFL regular season ends in a few days, it will be more important to the LSU Nation that Saban remains at Miami and doesn't take the Alabama job. Saban at Alabama would be LSU's worst nightmare and could eventually reverse those two universes.


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