The biggest story in all of college football this season has no doubt between the entire Nick Saban / Alabama / LSU melodrama. The upcoming game will likely quiet a lot of that talk for a while, but nevertheless this has been the story ever since Saban left Miami in early January. In terms of hype, this is with little doubt the most publicized Alabama v. LSU game in decades, and arguably the most publicized in the series history.
And we all know that LSU people hate Nick Saban. Well, that's not entirely true, some don't, but unfortunately those who don't are a small minority. And we get it, he killed Jesus. Twice. But I will be very frank, I really do not understand the hatred. I just cannot understand the hatred towards him at all.
When Nick Saban arrived in Baton Rouge, he took over a football program that was, by any objective measure, nothing short of terrible. The Bayou Bengals had just suffered through eight losing seasons in the previous eleven years. They had not won a major bowl game -- or just a New Year's Day bowl game -- in the previous thirty-two years. They had not beaten Alabama in Tiger Stadium in thirty-one years. They had only won the SEC outright once in the previous thirty years. And despite having played football almost 110 years, the Tigers had only one national championship.
Nick Saban changed all of that instantly. He beat Alabama in year one, ending an unbeaten streak that spanned six presidencies. In year two, he not only won the SEC outright, but he brought a major bowl trophy back to Baton Rouge for the first time since before "Watergate" was introduced to the American vocabulary. And in year four, he brought a national championship home, something that had happened only one other time in the then-111 year history of LSU football. And yes he did leave the Bayou for Miami at the end of the 2004 season, but it's hard to feel much sympathy for those who bleed purple and gold. It was a well known fact that Saban, who spent several years as a top defensive coordinator in the NFL in the mid-1990's, had long been eying a return to the NFL, this time as a head coach, and even if he did leave he left behind a massive stockpile of talent unlike any other in the country, except -- and you could even argue this one -- possibly USC. Excuse me if I'm not exactly shedding tears at the moment.
And I'm not trying to say that Nick Saban is the greatest, or that he is going to do the same thing at Alabama. And I'm not trying to be an Alabama homer. But the fact of the matter is that when Nick Saban arrived in Baton Rouge, LSU had a terrible football program, when he left they were a powerhouse, and he is the reason why. Some LSU fans, particularly those who hate him with every fiber of their being, like to talk -- to themselves, perhaps -- about how it was really that LSU was great, and not Saban, but there is just no legitimate evidence to support that. If LSU were really as great as the Saban haters claim, it wouldn't have been generally mediocre-at-best in the thirty years prior to his arrival.
So why would you hate someone who did so much for you? It's tantamount to suddenly hating your mother after she raised you and paied your tuition through four years at Harvard. It makes no rational sense.
And it's just the hatred. It's the level of the hatred. It's hard to believe the level of hatred and obsession regarding Nick Saban and Alabama in South Louisiana. After the LSU v. Auburn game, and before the New Orleans Saints game, vendors were selling shirts saying, "Alabama Sucks... Nick Saban Swallows." "Beat 'Bama" is on everything, all the way from hats to t-shirts to bumper stickers. One political candidate -- Steve Carter, a former associate athletics director at LSU, running for state representative -- gave out tons of campaign signs that were printed in purple and gold with "Beat 'Bama" on them (click here). Mike Anderson's, a popular seafood restaurant in Baton Rouge, spurned their typical team-based predictions this week for, "Les 38, Nick 21." Almost the entire fan base is seemingly gripped with a hatred-fueled obsession with all things Saban and 'Bama.
And the hatred isn't solely because Saban returned to a fellow SEC West team, either. Butch Davis, i.e. the man who revitalized the downtrodden Miami football program, just returned to be the head coach at North Carolina after a few years in the NFL. If you look, North Carolina and Miami are both in the ACC's Coastal Division, yet there are no massive amounts of vitriol spewing forth from South Florida. Apparently even the Miami people -- not exactly known as the classiest bunch -- can appreciate what has been done for them.
Again, there's just no rational way to understand all of that hatred. I'm not saying that the LSU people should still like Nick Saban or anything, but hatred on this level is simply baseless.
On the other hand, there is no love lost on the Alabama end of the spectrum. The level of hatred and obsession is minute compared to what LSU is currently experiencing, but nevertheless this is a game that the Crimson Tide faithful wants badly, and for four major reasons: One, you always want to win, regardless of you play, it doesn't matter if it's Louisiana State or Middle Tennessee State. Two, a win here likely sends the Tide to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game. And third, the LSU people hate Nick Saban, and the 'Bama people are madly in love with him. It's only natural to hate the ones that hate your loved ones, and thus it's an added importance from that perspective.
And it's a weird game, it really is.
Almost every impact player for the Tigers was recruited by Nick Saban. You'll see them play this Saturday: Matt Flynn, Early Doucet, Herman Johnson, Jacob Hester, Glenn Dorsey, Ali Highsmith, Chevis Jackson, etc. All of those guys are Saban recruits. Nick Saban and company looked at the high school film on all of them. He is the one that decided to offer them a scholarship. He was the one with the phone calls and the text messages. He brought them in so they could be wined and dined on official visits. And at the end of the day, every single one of those guys signed their name on the dotted line and said something to the effect of, "Coach Saban, I want to be an LSU Tiger."
Now, Saban must take his newly-inherited team and try to beat all of those guys he recruited. I wonder how that must feel on both ends of the spectrum? Despite all of the vitriol for Saban by the LSU people, all of the player comments I have ever seen are positive about him. And you know it must be weird for Saban. Obviously, he has nothing against the kids he recruited to LSU, and I imagine it will be tough staring at them on the opposing sideline.
The game itself will be just that, a game. And the result of it, regardless of how it turns out, won't mean very much, despite what people on both sides will probably say. Anything can happen in a single game -- even Bill Curry and Ears Whitworth both scored wins over Bear Bryant -- and the real measure of things will be over the long haul, how things develop in the next few years.
But don't tell that to anyone on Saturday. This match-up has been talked about and talked about and talked about for almost a year now, and the immediate aftermath will bring about extreme reactions from both Alabama and LSU fans, regardless of how the game plays out.
Either way, for better or for worse, it's a game that you likely won't be forgetting any time soon.