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There is a reason that Lenny Lemoine left Nick Saban at the bottom of a lake this summer.
You may have read about it. For a brief moment, the life of the Louisiana State coach was in danger. A misstep on his boat had caused Saban to fall, hit his head on a dock and sink to the bottom of a lake near his vacation home in Georgia.
|Thanks in large part to Nick Saban's scheming, LSU leads the country in scoring defense.(AP)|
"It actually knocked him out," said Lemoine, a close friend and CEO of a prominent construction company in Lafayette, La. "He actually went to the bottom and came to. It happened so fast I didn't realize he hit his head as hard as he did. In 10 seconds, when he wasn't back up I jumped off the boat and I started to dive in."
But Lemoine hesitated, not wanting to jump on top of his pal. Then here came Saban floating/paddling to the surface, the immediate present and long-range future of LSU football literally riding on every gurgle.
"People ask me, 'Did you save his life?'" said Lemoine, who grabbed the coach and hauled him out of the drink. "Saban could have woken up on the bottom of that lake an hour later and he'd still be alive. He's a fighter."
It turned out to be nothing more than great theater for a coach who provides little of his own. LSU Nation furrowed a worried brow as it read how close its coach came to tragedy -- and how quickly he rebounded. The story is now almost a forgotten anecdote as the No. 3 Tigers (9-1) speed toward what could be their second SEC title in three years.
Never one to linger over anything too long -- including his latest job over a 30-year career -- Saban has spit out the water that filled his lungs that day and moved on. No one is surprised.
"When things go bad, are you going to be able to respond to it?" Saban explained this week before one of the biggest games of his career. LSU travels to Mississippi with the SEC West Division title on the line.
"When things go well, are you going to be able to focus on the next play and keep your intensity? What I am talking about here is 'intellectual intensity,' not physical intensity."
Saban's teams have been noted for that intellectual intensity. His fourth LSU team is a victory away from its second 10-win season in that span. Before he arrived in 2000, the Tigers had won two SEC titles since 1971. Now Saban is on track for its second in three years.
"No. 1, I've coached for 42 years and he's not just the best football coach, he might be the best coach in any sport that I've ever seen," said his boss, LSU athletic director Skip Bertman. "There is nothing that he doesn't oversee, yet he doesn't micromanage it. He doesn't miss a trick. He has the gifts, he is intuitive."
While the nation watches Ohio State-Michigan and Southern California-UCLA this week, LSU-Ole Miss is The Next Best Thing. If Bob Stoops is the best coach in the country (and he is), then Saban is the next best thing. If Buckeyes and Trojans can scream about their one-loss teams in the BCS, then Tigers everywhere deserve to shout too.
But it seems no one is talking about LSU this week. Eli Manning dominates the game-day discussion. The bleatings coming from Columbus and Southern California are clogging chat rooms.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Saban, though, is not the kind to let his program do the Otis Day and the Knights routine. Shout. So on a weekly basis it's hard to get a read on Saban, 52. The world didn't know about the lake accident until two weeks later when Saban happened to bring it up in an interview. Twenty-five stitches had come and gone. What's the big deal?
He is insistent about not letting the media beyond his often expressionless faceplate. There's nothing there in postgame and weekly sessions, just the same droning one-game-at-a-time mantra.
For the most part assistants aren't allowed to speak to the media. That might have something to do with nine assistant coaches leaving Saban's side since he arrived in Baton Rouge. Only three remain -- offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher (rumored to be in line for the Mississippi State job), running backs coach Derek Dooley and receivers coach Stan Hixon.
Yeah, he's tough to work for but so are a lot of people. But with most coaches you can crack the code, pull their chain, find out what makes them tick. Not so with Saban. He is a Yankee (although he was born in West Virginia) in King Dixie's Court who constantly seems to have an itch.
Before LSU, he had held 11 different coaching jobs over 27 years with eight different teams. That lake bottom should have known: Saban is a short-timer for anything he does. He had averaged 2.6 years on the job before landing in Baton Rouge.
Of course, the other side of this is that Saban seemingly has found what qualifies as home. Four years ties the second longest he has ever been in one place. While he can't fight off rumors and concern over him eventually leaving for the NFL, he is comfortable for now.
"He said, 'Gosh this is tough for recruiting,'" Bertman said. "We said, 'Do you want a coach who is sought after or a coach no one wants?' From our standpoint he's not going anywhere. Not because we pay him so much. He likes the community. His wife likes it. The people love him."
In SEC country, there are few things better than winning football. It permeates through the community and makes rock stars out of whistle-toting curmudgeons. It can be intoxicating even for the gruffest of coaches.
"Naturally in every community winners are revered, here in football it goes a step further," Bertman said. "He might be knighted."
As long his defense stays cutting edge, Saban can Scrooge all he wants. The unit has an NFL look to it -- so sophisticated that it can scramble a quarterback's mind seconds before the snap -- jumping in and out of different sets. Thirty-two-year-old Will Muschamp is the defensive coordinator but no one doubts that Saban has a heavy influence even if he doesn't call all the defensive plays.
"He's a genius when it comes to game planning," defensive tackle Chad Lavalais said. "He knows how to scheme against quarterbacks. He has a football savvy mind."
This is as close as LSU has come to sniffing the rare air of a national title in decades. If a few far-fetched things go its way during this rivalry week (Ohio State and USC both losing), then LSU could be in line to play for the national championship 60 miles away in the Sugar Bowl.
"I'm going to tell you," Lemoine said, "it would be the equivalent of a hurricane hitting the mainland."
A Sugar Bowl doesn't seem likely but Saban showing up in Baton Rouge didn't seem likely either. He basically hopped a private plane in late November 1999 with one game left in a 10-2 season at Michigan State and never came back. He was wined and dined, identified by LSU as that next big thing.
They were right about Saban but during his four years at LSU it always seems that bigger things were going on. Oklahoma won a national championship. Miami was winning a thousand games in row. BCS this, BCS that.
Every day, every week, Saban keeps things on an even keel. It has resulted in a 35-13 record (78-39-1 overall.)
"You'll see the Yankee side of him come out, some of the jokes he may tell," Lavalais said. "Coach Saban is just coach Saban. It's a big game to ya'll. It's just another game to us. That's the way we approach every game."
Earlier this season, Saban did hand out cigars to a couple of sportswriters who had picked against the Tigers the previous week. A photo last week captured him ranting over an official's call. After an emotional victory over Georgia this year he sprinted to the student section in one corner of Tiger Stadium and saluted the fuel that gets game day up to jet engine-decibel level.
That's about as much color as you'll get with the guy.
"You don't find Nick in restaurants, in bars, out hob-nobbing," Lemoine said. "He's a great speaker but he limits what he does so that his focus is his family. He very much resents people saying things that have no basis."
But the NFL talk won't stop. When you're this good, there is only other place Saban could go and have it be considered a step up.
He already is accomplished at the highest level. His 1994 Cleveland defense went from allowing the most points in the NFL to the fewest. The time spent in Cleveland allowed Saban to get close to Bill Belichick. Before Tampa Bay hired Jon Gruden last year, Saban's name came up with the Bucs.
"I think Nick Saban is one of the finest coaches that I've ever been associated with," Belichick said during the search. "He taught me a lot about defense. I learned more from him than he learned from me when we were together in Cleveland."
In his only year as Toledo's head coach (1990), the Rockets won a share of the MAC title with the nation's No. 12 defense. Under Saban, LSU is leading the country in scoring defense (8.9 points per game) and Lavalais is a finalist for the Nagurski Award given to the best defensive player in the country.
In a volatile industry, Saban is a reliable product. He delivers. Michigan State hasn't come close to the 10-win season he helped manufacture in 1999. And if Saban stays happy and the NFL doesn't come calling with an outrageous offer, LSU will continue its rise.
"I love when Nick answers the question, 'When you going to win a national championship, coach?' since we win one every other year," Bertman said sarcastically. "He always says, 'Look when LSU is bandied about as one of the top football teams in the nation year in and year out, maybe we'll get lucky one year and put it all together."
Until then, "He's always going to be sought after in the NFL, because he's a good coach," Bertman said.
Tiger Nation will have to deal with it.