From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 6, 1999

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / December 6, 1999

In the span of a week, the LSU football team pulled off two surprises.

The first was a 35-10 victory over then 17th-ranked Arkansas in the season finale last Friday. The second came early this week with theannouncement that Nick Saban would be the team’s 31st head football coach.

Nick Saban? Don’t bother looking back in the files on the rumor mill to find his name.

Dennis Erickson is there. So is Glen Mason, Tommy Tuberville, RichRodriguez, Jon Gruden, Mark Richt, Gary Crowton, R.C. Slocum, Butch Davis,Hal Mumme, Bob Pruett, Gary Kubiak, Steve Logan, John L. Smith, ZavenYaralian, Phil Bennett and Terry Bowden.

But no Nick Saban. LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert did one heck of a jobkeeping this one under wraps. There have been times when state secretshave not been kept this quiet. If the new president needs a CIA directornext year, he might want to take a look at Emmert.

Emmert beat his Dec. 10 deadline for hiring a coach by 11 days. Maybe asbig a surprise as the hiring of Saban is his contract – $1.2 million a yearover five years, making him the third-highest paid college coach. OnlyFlorida’s Steve Spurrier and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden make more.

Saban must have thought Christmas had come 26 days early.

LSU is banking that money on a coach who is known as a top recruiter, one that landed the Spartans their first top 10 recruiting class in 30 years according to one expert.

Saban’s defenses have been outstanding (outstanding and defense have not been two words associated too often with LSU lately). As defensivecoordinator for the Cleveland Browns in 1994, his team allowed the sixth fewest points in NFL history. Saban’s squad this year was fifth in DivisionI against the run and 11th in total defense.

Saban had also become a hot commodity after leading Michigan State to a 9-2 season, one that included wins over Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. A year ago, he had led the Spartans to wins over No. 1-ranked Ohio State and Notre Dame. In his five years, he led Michigan Stateto four bowls, counting the Citrus Bowl that he will not be coaching in this year.

But Tiger fans must also remember that Curley Hallman was also known for pulling off upsets. And Saban’s 34-24-1 record was only two winsbetter than Gerry DiNardo’s and DiNardo won all three of his bowl appearances (including one over Saban’s Spartans in the 1995 Independence Bowl) while Saban lost all three of his. Records of 6-5, 6-6,7-5 and 6-6 don’t bring to mind comparisons of Spurrier and Bowden.

Saban talked Tuesday about having to compete with Michigan for recognition while at Michigan State. Indeed this year, the Spartans had thesame record as the Wolverines and beat Michigan yet finished the season ranked lower and will be going to a lesser bowl.

But Saban must also realize that the more recognition he will receive at LSU also means more pressure. He talked about feeling the Tigers shouldalways be in the Top 25 and wanting to win the conference and playing in the championship game. Remember, this is a program that has had morehead coaches (five, counting interim coach Hal Hunter) than winning seasons (three) in the 1990s. LSU fans’ expectations have often exceededthat of the team’s performance on the field.

But Tiger fans must also give Saban time to prove himself. Five yearsfrom now will be the time to judge whether Saban, who was born on Oct.

31, 1951, was a trick or a treat for LSU’s money.

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