The good, bad and ugly on Tide coach Nick Saban

By Staff
Over the last four months, the dominant theme of this column has dealt with the arrival of Nick Saban as the Alabama head coach. All new coaches bring attention, but in my years in Alabama, nothing has created this kind of firestorm.
There are many reasons. Perhaps the biggest is that Saban has two SEC crowns and a national title, all won at a rival SEC school, to say nothing of him being the highest paid coach in college football. For Alabama fans, losing five straight to Auburn might also play into the picture.
To say the least, the majority of material in this space has also been highly positive and supportive of Saban, someone for whom I have admired and respected since his arrival at LSU following the 1999 season.
Many fans of other schools have tried to poke holes in Saban's r/sum/, saying he is overrated.
So I decided to take a more extensive view of his last two head coaching college jobs – at Michigan State and LSU.
He was briefly the head coach at Toledo (1990). I am not ignoring his 15-17 record at the Miami Dolphins where he went 9-7 in 2005 and 6-10 in 2006. However, I don't think one can correlate coaching in the NFL (see Steve Spurrier) to what he is doing now at Alabama.
We have extensively covered his accolades over these many months and how he inherited a moribund Michigan State program which was mired in an NCAA investigation. Today, we look at the underbelly and some of the games Saban lost and how he lost.
What I found was an alarming number of bad losses. In fact, during the 10 seasons at MSU and LSU, Saban suffered 15 losses of 21 points or more and 10 of those were by 28 points or more. This caught me by surprise, perhaps because Saban is known as a defensive genius. His bowl record of 3-6 also leaves something to be desired.
At Michigan State, taking over a 5-6 program, Saban went 6-5-1, 6-6, 7-5, 6-6 and 9-2 (he left for LSU before the bowl game).
In his first season, understandably, the Spartans lost 50-10 at home to Nebraska, and took a 45-14 beating by Wisconsin. In the bowl game, LSU beat MSU 45-26.
In year two, the result was worse against Nebraska, this time a 55-14 loss at Lincoln.
There was a 45-29 pounding by arch-rival Michigan. Perhaps the most inexplicable loss was in the Sun Bowl, a 38-0 drubbing by Stanford. The Cardinal, coached by Ty Willingham, entered the game with an identical 6-5 mark as MSU.
In 1997, Saban's third at MSU, he took a 23-7 loss to Michigan, a 37-13 pounding against Ohio State and another thrashing in the postseason, this time a 51-23 loss in the Aloha Bowl to Washington. So in Saban's first three bowls at MSU, his average loss was 28 points. The record in year three was 7-5.
In 1998, the fourth season, Saban went 6-6, including a 48-14 loss to Oregon and a season-ending 51-28 clocking by Penn State.
In 1999, MSU was 9-2 but still had two ugly losses, a 52-28 defeat to Purdue and a 40-10 setback to Wisconsin.
Inheriting a program that had gone 3-8 the previous year, Saban started quickly at LSU, a 58-0 win over Western Carolina. Ironically, he will face the very same team in his opener against Alabama, setting up a very good trivia question.
In his third game, he took the first of three losses from Tommy Tuberville, this by the score of 34-17 to Auburn. The next week, a 13-10 loss on homecoming against UAB, remains probably the most ignominious defeat of Saban's career. You might want to blame this on the head coach not having his team well prepared because the following week, at home, LSU beat No. 11 Tennessee.
Saban's first encounter with Steve Spurrier went poorly the next week, a 41-9 drubbing to Florida. LSU won its bowl game to finish 8-4.
In 2001, LSU won the SEC title as well as the Sugar Bowl, going 10-3. However, Saban was schooled again by Spurrier, 44-15. In his two meetings with Spurrier, Saban came out on the short end by a total of 85-24, an average loss of 30 points.
LSU went 8-5 in Saban's third season, being embarrassed in the season opener 26-8 to Virginia Tech. Auburn destroyed LSU 31-7 on the Plains.
However, the most humiliating loss of that season came against Alabama, 31-0, on ESPN at Tiger Stadium (against Dennis Franchione).
LSU lost a shot at the SEC title game in the final regular season encounter, when Arkansas' Matt Jones eviscerated Saban's defense in the final seconds. Trailing 20-14 with 34 seconds remaining, Jones hit a 50-year completion on the first play from scrimmage. Two plays later, Jones hit DeCori Birmingham for a 31-yarder in the end zone with nine seconds left. Arkansas won 21-20.
In 2003, in spite of a 19-7 home loss to Florida, the Tigers went 13-1 and captured the BCS national championship, upsetting Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
In 2004, which would be Saban's last year at LSU, the Tigers went 9-3, which included some bizarre games, including the opener when Oregon State's kicker missed three extra points, including one in overtime, to allow the Tigers to escape.
That same year, LSU had to come from behind in the game's final minutes to beat Troy. LSU also laid an embarrassing egg at Georgia in a titanic matchup of SEC powers, falling 45-16. In Saban's final game against Iowa in the Capital One Bowl, it was the Arkansas game from 2002 all over again, giving up a 56-yard winning touchdown on the final play of the game.
Do any of these stats change my feelings toward Saban? No, I still think he is a fabulous hire and will be very successful. Still, it is interesting to look at both sides of Saban's head coaching career.
So there you have it. The good, the bad and the ugly.
Paul Finebaum is a columnist for the Franklin County Times. He can be reached at finebaumnet@yahoo.com

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