The 2004 regular season closed out with LSU accepting a bid to take on No. 11 Iowa in the Capital One Bowl. It was a solid New Year's Day fate for a 9-2 football team still ranked 12th in the country, but there wasn't much bowl game talk that December. The Miami Dolphins, as widely expected, had come a-courtin' for LSU's head coach, Nick Saban.
There'd been a lot of dissatisfaction in the football offices around that time. Nobody had really enjoyed the season, least of all the head coach, who seemed frustrated with his inability to pull the right strings with his football team, which was inconsistent and sloppy, especially on offense. There were even some hints about transfers from some of the younger veterans unhappy with their roles.
But make no mistake, nobody was ready to start over. Saban's approval rating might not have been as high as it was 12 months prior, but nobody doubted that things were heading in the right direction. Especially with a new football operations complex and more renovations to the Academic Center for Athletes nearing completion.
Saban, of course, denied his interest and pressed fans to focus on the game. Not exactly easy as the Dolphins made their interest known. There were multiple sightings of the team jet as Wayne Huizenga flew in and out of Baton Rouge. Reports on whether Saban was staying or going seemed to change by the day. Then-athletic director Skip Bertman, who had done the NFL dance with Saban and Jimmy Sexton twice before, made it clear that there'd be no new contract or raise -- Saban was already the highest paid coach in college football.
I certainly never expected him to stay, and understood -- everybody knew Saban had always eyed the NFL, and the Dolphins were a chance to take over a team with a high draft pick coming, some veteran talent and get all of the power and control he'd want to shape the roster. And for his part, I do believe that Saban was conflicted between his desires and the knowledge that he did have a good job at LSU.
But the back and forth was bleeding into LSU's bowl prep. Eventually, the team left for practices in Orlando. Saban stayed behind as Huizenga made one last pitch, and on December 25 -- yep, Christmas Day -- Saban announced that he'd be taking the job in Miami.
Oh, and his team still had a game against the 11th-ranked team in the country in a week.
- The Hawkeyes came into this one with a matching 9-2 record, 7-1 in the Big 10 on a seven-game winning streak. Unsurprisingly, they didn't get much respect from LSU fans despite the top-12 ranking. Kirk Ferentz's club still featured five players that would get selected in the next NFL Draft (in fact, star defensive end Matt Roth would wind up getting picked by Saban's Dolpins), plus a future No. 1 pick linebacker in Chad Greenway and a dangerous quarterback named Drew Tate that had thrown for more than 2,700 yards with a combined 22 touchdowns rushing and receiving.
- For LSU, the bowl practices in Orlando were famously awkward. Saban's indecision in the process led to the players departing with his status up in the air, and by the time he would formally address the team the announcement had already been made. Meaning that players were hearing the story from their head coach second hand, which is never ideal. I don't know that many players were surprised, and of course it should surprise nobody that the reaction from the team was somewhat mixed. Some veterans were sad to see their coach depart, others angry, with some even relieved. Saban tried to carry through with preparations like normal, but found that a number of players weren't really in the mood to get shouted at by a guy that wasn't going to be coaching them much longer. Particularly, younger players like Jamarcus Russell and Dwayne Bowe, made it known (and there had been rumors that they would consider transferring had Saban stayed). Everything I was hearing from friends on the beat made it sound like there'd be an egg laid on New Year's Day.
- Actually wound up watching this one with some Hawkeye fans -- my brother-in-law's family. Made a trip up to Memphis with my folks to visit my sister and my then-year-old niece. She was a couple weeks away from bringing my godson into the world as well. Spent a lot of time watching closure football that season. Florida played in the Peach Bowl under interim head coach Charlie Strong after Ron Zook's firing, while Utah played in the Fiesta Bowl with Urban Meyer in HIS last game as head coach there.
- It didn't take long for Iowa to strike. Tigers bring a zero-blitz, Corey Webster fails to get a good jam at the line of scrimmage and Tate finds Clinton Solomon on a hot read for a 57-yard touchdown. I knew a shootout was pretty much the last thing LSU would want here.
- How about that list of names? Bobby Petrino, Houston Nutt (Saban's recommendation), Les Miles, Bobby Williams (who had just finished his first season on the LSU staff and had a previous horrible head coaching stint following Saban at Michigan State) and R.C. Slocum, who George Bush and Lod Cooke had asked LSU to give a courtesy interview as well.
- I'm not going to claim that I knew much about Les Miles at the time, other than "well...he's done a pretty nice job at Oklahoma State, and that's not easy to do..." But I will say that I found his name the most intriguing of the list, largely because I suspected Petrino would be a short-timer in college with NFL aspirations himself. The rest were non-starters.
- A blocked punt seemed to give Iowa a chance to really jump ahead, but Tate would give it back on the very next play as defensive end Melvin Oliver jumped a screen pass.
- Three-and-out for the offense featuring a sack, fumble and 1-yard gain by Marcus Randall, but then a panic throw from Tate is picked off by LaRon Landry. But all those back-to-back turnovers netted the Tigers was three points. Tough way to fly.
- Defense really was all over the Hawkeyes in the second quarter, but the offense just couldn't get out of its own way, aside from another field goal drive. And then Iowa blocks a punt, Sean Considine runs it back and now it's 14-6, and this does not look good. The offense has gained all of 63 yards through 29 minutes. Oh, and Randall would leave the game due to injury.
- And then, out of nowhere, Alley Broussard takes an off tackle play 74 yards for six, making a couple of nice moves in traffic and then turning on the jets. He finished with just 35 yards on his 12 other carries, but it really makes you wonder about his potential before all the injuries. But a series of penalties turned the two-point conversion attempt into a 35-yard kick that Chris Jackson missed.
- If you notice that Matt Flynn is taking snaps here, well, remember what I said about Russell during bowl prep? Saban wasn't afraid to at least try and cut his nose off to spite the face in his last game. Flynn would only complete one out of four passes in his limited snaps in place of Russell.
- How about a fake field goal on fourth-and-six down 17-12? Goes better under the new guy, right?
- Iowa continued to pull with another touchdown, but in the fourth quarter Saban finally went to Russell. Who immediately led an 11-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, completing 4-6 passes, including a 24-yarder to Bowe on third-a-15 and that beautiful 22-yard strike to Skyler Green for the six. Boy, Saban sure showed him!
- Russell would complete 12-15 passes in two drives, both touchdowns, both of longer than 65 yards. It was easily his best game since leading the comeback versus Oregon State in the opener and maybe a sign that the Tigers had their quarterback moving forward, regardless of the head coach.
- And there it is. Forty-six seconds to go, Russell finds Green again and the Tigers have a lead. Boring as this game had been, Russell had salvaged it in nine minutes or so.
- Forty-six seconds, Tate has the ball, but he's 70 or so yards to go. Yeah, he has two timeouts but surely the Tigers can close this out, right?
- Amazingly, LSU blitzes, several defensive backs don't get back, and there it is. Tate finds little-used receiver Warren Holloway for a 56-yard miracle as time expires. All of the jubilation of the Russell rally ripped away in a couple seconds. Helluva way to go out, huh coach?
- In the postmortem, Saban, showing all the self-awareness of a doorknob, decided to spend the immediate moments of his final game screaming at his defensive backs, only to watch several of them get back in his face this time, and be separated by assistants. It was an unceremonious exit for a guy that had done amazing things in Baton Rouge, but the awkwardness was only beginning.
Now that we've come to the end of the Saban Era in this series, allow for a moment of reflection. It's become a common narrative to say that LSU fans don't appreciate the man for what he did there. In some ways that's true, but it shouldn't be. There's no doubt that Saban left LSU in a much better state than he found it, set up for success under his successor, which Les Miles has carried over several times on his own. Saban would wash out of the NFL and return to the open Alabama job two years later, and the rest is history.
Reviewing these games have been important to provide context to the era. This final season in particular. I think between the struggles of following up a championship, combined with what he learned about roster management in the NFL, Saban learned a lot, and returned to the college game a better coach than he left it on that day. The Saban that has built a dynasty in Tuscaloosa is a different coach from the one that left Baton Rouge. He learned how to handle success and maintain his edge with his players while not wearing them down. He learned the importance of constant recruiting to cover for talent evaluation mistakes (the final class he left behind in Baton Rouge was just nine or 10 players, with Miles adding a few more before signing day). He's taken advantage of Alabama's increased resources (and continued to do so as they've increased further) and near limitless will to expend them. And most importantly, he's taken advantage of every single break that has come his way -- and there have been several. The result has been a run that is legendary by the standards of any great coach.
Had Saban done with what he's said was in his heart in December of 2004 and stayed in Baton Rouge, there certainly would have been more successes, and some failures. Things would probably look a lot like they do today with LSU considered one of the nation's elite programs. But it damn sure wouldn't have been as fun.