BATON ROUGE, La. -- Before the age of contrived commitment press conferences, before recruits began pulling bullpups from underneath a table to drive home the point they were becoming Bulldogs, all Gerry DiNardo could do was watch TV.
"I remember sitting in my office and watching Kevin Faulk tell everybody where he was going to attend school," LSU's former coach said.
A newspaper photographer came over to catch his reaction to the Tigers landing the pride of Carencro, La. When Faulk, the in-state kid with all the hype, committed to LSU, DiNardo raised both arms straight over his head. Touchdown.
"They broke into local programming for his announcement," DiNardo said. "That was January 1995. This was extraordinary in that time."
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Not so much now. An elite national program has been built in the blink of a recruiting eye because of those kids who stayed home. Kids better than Faulk, to this day the Tigers' career leading rusher. All-Americans. Pros. National champions. There will be 14 native Louisianans in the starting lineup when the Tigers travel to Alabama.
DiNardo got a lot of them in his day, just not enough. It may seem strange to solicit the opinion of a Tigers coach who won three SEC games his last two seasons, but this phenomenon had to start somewhere. If nothing else DiNardo -- LSU's coach from 1995-1999 -- was the pre-Saban, a curator of modern Tiger football history. He didn't win enough but he sure saw it coming.
"Every coach has been supported at a higher level than the previous coach because the stakes are higher," DiNardo said. "My stakes were higher than Curley's [Hallman]. Nick Saban's were higher than mine. Les Miles' are higher than Nick's. Les is at the point where 10-2 is no good."
What you probably don't know is how exactly LSU landed at this place in history -- playing Alabama on Saturday in a de facto national semifinal. The Crimson Tide are supposed to be there. Alabama has all those national championships. It has played in five of these 1 vs. 2 games. Libraries could be built to house the books written about 'Bama.
LSU is basically a 10-year phenomenon. Boise with more humidity -- really good for a short stretch. From 1962-2001 LSU won 10 games twice. The beloved Charlie McClendon ('62-'79) never did it. That's a lot of mediocre football. OK, maybe that's not fair. The program has a grand tradition and even a Heisman in its trophy case, but seldom could it consider itself on the same level as Alabama.
Until now. Until the last decade.
Game of the Century is the perfect label. Since 2000, LSU has won two national championships to Alabama's one. Together they have won two of the last four SEC titles, three of the last eight national championships. LSU is 4-0 in BCS bowls, having won both those title games in 2003 and 2007. Alabama is 1-2 all-time in BCS bowls.
Florida and Texas are shadows of their former selves. USC is on probation. Miami and Ohio State are headed there. Oklahoma has never followed up with another title after that 2000 run. Cam Newton left Auburn.
That's a snapshot of your national titlists of the 2000s minus Saturday's opponents in Tuscaloosa. Twenty-four of the 58 All-Americans claimed in the LSU media guide have stepped on campus since Faulk signed his letter of intent 16 years ago. The state's talent has been mined to the point that if the top players don't go to LSU there are shouts of disloyalty.
|Nick Saban and Les Miles made LSU a powerhouse by getting a grip on Louisiana talent. (Getty Images)|
Did we say equals? In the 1990s, LSU had the 67th-best winning percentage nationally. Alabama was 17th. Since 2000, LSU is No. 7. Alabama isn't in the top 25.
"I think people here are so uniquely wonderful," Miles said. "When the Tigers win everybody's happy. When the Tigers lose, it's like somebody died."
There haven't been many funerals lately, rather there is an LSU flow. If something goes wrong, everyone just gets over it.
"People make mistakes, but that's life," said senior offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert. "I got a DWI [in May 2010] that really ended up being a positive for me. It changed the course of my life and made me grow up.
"It probably goes back to Coach Miles. He does discipline his team. Nobody wants to suspend their quarterback the week before the opening game."
But Miles did, sitting Jordan Jefferson for his role in the infamous Shady's bar fight. Star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was one of three players suspended for the Auburn game following a reported positive drug test.
"Screw being a Heisman Trophy winner," an LSU source within the program said of Mathieu. "Screw being the Honey Badger. Screw all that. Be a great kid."
And they usually are. The net effect is that LSU isn't perceived as a renegade program when the spit hits the fan. The coach is laid back. LSU's game day might be the best in America. In a conference of super powers, the Tigers are still perceived as loveable underdogs. They'll certainly be 'dogs -- loveable or not -- when they go to Alabama. Of course, the common ancestor of the two programs is a 60-year-old from West Virginia who spews venom on the field and mostly clichés off of it. Saban turned the program around. Miles sustained it. But how?
"Saban came in here and changed the identity, paid attention to detail," said Josh Booty, an LSU quarterback at the end of the DiNardo era and the beginning of Saban's.
"He was an old-school coach. I remember little things no one would ever talk about. Under DiNardo, we played with these large-girth Nike footballs because he felt running backs could hold onto it better. The large-girth was like a rugby ball ... We were so behind the times."
Compare that to today. During the bye week quarterback Jarrett Lee met with a ball manufacturer who wanted his input so he could find a better grip.
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"Off the field [Saban's] a wonderful person, on the field he's a butt kicker," said Booty, who came out of Shreveport's Evangel Christian. "He doesn't accept losing even a day in practice. We all took on his personality. You felt like you were a machine because you worked so hard in the offseason."
We've seen it. In games, in press conferences, in all-access documentaries, even in Saban's own movie released after the 2009 championship season. The perfect off-field Nick can be summed up in the morning-after presser in Newport Beach, Calif. Instead of reveling in the moment, he went on a mini-rant about "tolerating" the press conference.
A slice of the perfect on-field Nick emerged last season when he ripped his team for being focused -- following a 10-3 season.
"He is a control freak," Booty said. "He likes to have his hand on the pulse of everything. College football is perfect for him. Kids respond to him because he's such an authoritative guy. The guy wins. How can you not listen to him?"
The Tigers went from 3-8 in 1999, DiNardo's last season, to 8-4 in Saban's first season. In his fourth year, Saban won LSU's second national championship. Two years later he was gone.
And things somehow got better at a place that couldn't sustain greatness. Coming into 2011 Miles has the most wins (62) of any LSU coach in his first six seasons. How an offensive lineman from Michigan by way of Oklahoma State came to rule Louisiana, the SEC and perhaps the country is a question that still hasn't been answered.
Like Saban, he related to the locals. Defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey became the most decorated defender in school history. Safety LaRon Landry was a No. 6 pick in the 2007 draft. Both were All-Americans. Both played for Saban and Miles. Both were from Louisiana.
Current safety Eric Reid from nearby Geismar, La., could have gone anywhere. USC, Alabama, Oregon, Stanford, even Ivy League schools, were interested. Reid could have written his ticket with a 4.4 GPA on a scale of 4.0 coming out of Dutchtown High School. His dad, Eric Sr., practically begged him to at least take his visits, see the world a little bit.
Mom and dad had gone to LSU. But little Eric had grown up in Tiger Stadium. In his 11th career start, Reid will be trying to beat Alabama for the second consecutive year.
"They are really the kings of their state," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "They have the state of Louisiana locked up pretty well."
Unlike Saban, Miles ate grass and took risks on it. Lesticles, they called him. The success created so much demand that the 2007 game against Florida was known for who didn't see it -- an estimated 50,000 outside Tiger Stadium without tickets. Two years later, the Florida-LSU game drew the largest crowd in Tiger Stadium history.
It's always been expected. In the last decade, the Tigers have been delivering.
"It's part of who they are," said DiNardo, now an analyst on the Big Ten Network. "I know Michigan fans love football, but they don't love football like Louisiana fans. They go to work Monday after a loss. I'm not sure you can go to work Monday after a loss in Louisiana."