After taking LSU to a national championship, an SEC championship, 48 wins and five bowls in five seasons, coach Nick Saban knew leaving the Tigers wouldn't be easy.
"It's the most self-gratifying experience I've had as a coach," Saban said. "But I've always been driven by challenges -- the next challenge that makes driven people want to take advantage of the next opportunity."
That next opportunity will come as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
"It's a tremendous challenge for me," Saban said after accepting the job on Christmas Day, "and a great opportunity for me and my family."
Ultimately, Saban's decision to leave LSU for the NFL came down to more than money, although the money won't hurt. Saban and the Dolphins have agreed to a five-year deal worth almost $5 million per year.
After leading LSU to the 2003 national championship, Saban was only in the first year of an $18.45 million, seven-year contract at LSU when the Dolphins made their offer on Dec. 22. At the time LSU athletic director Skip Bertman admitted there was little LSU could do to sweeten the pot and reiterated that Saban never asked for anything more, but Bertman knew LSU was in trouble when the Dolphins offered the one thing Saban wanted more than money: control over personnel and his coaching staff.
"We did everything we could," Bertman said.
"We brought in all kinds of people to talk to Nick, and we changed his mind several times, but quite honestly this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a football coach, with the control that he'll have and the ability to be able to handle football situations off the 100-yard playing field."
Saban will be difficult to replace, but Bertman has known about the Dolphins' opportunity long enough to put together a list of candidates. One possibility is former Cleveland Browns and University of Miami coach Butch Davis, who is currently unemployed, and current LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher.
Then again, LSU surprised the college football world when it hired Saban from Michigan State five years ago.
"We're not going to rule out anybody," Bertman said. "In a perfect world, announcing the next coach on Jan. 2 would be wonderful. But this is a 10- to 20-year decision. We want to be right. We don't want to be fast. I want to speak to each person eyeball-to-eyeball. This is a job that requires a fit. A coach here has to show the kind of leadership and characteristics that Nick showed."
While Bertman will now turn his attention toward finding a new coach, Saban will turn his immediate attention toward one last game with the Tigers, who will play Iowa in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year's Day.
"We're taking it in stride," LSU defensive end Melvin Oliver said. "He's got to do what's best for him and his family. We understand fully. The coach is dedicated, and this won't be a distraction."
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