Nick Saban’s long shadow over LSU

Alabama head coach Nick Saban watches from the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban watches from the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. AP file

Maybe it’s ideal to hear the story of Nick Saban’s $14,000 recruiting table while just outside Tiger Stadium, where everything is so very LSU that 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon has just strolled in toward the elevator.

Maybe it’s optimal to hear it just after attending basketball practice in the Maravich Center, listening to stories of Pete Maravich and Shaquille O’Neal and Ben Simmons before the LSU band streams indoors, pounds drums and blares horns in that familiar four-note passage.

Maybe it makes some kind of eccentric sense to hear it as LSU completes the hard digestion of a homecoming loss two Saturdays prior against — sigh — Troy.

Absolutely it’s best to hear it from Eddie Pullaro, LSU Class of 1965, former LSU lineman, former LSU first baseman, attorney from Houma, Louisiana, maestro storyteller, who has held down positions of, as he puts it, “secretary, treasurer, vice president, president, president-elect, past president,” in the Tiger Athletic Foundation, which assists LSU athletic programs with funding.

Surely nobody knows any better than Pullaro how Saban’s old table dovetails with the odd configuration of LSU and Alabama, who on Saturday at Alabama will play for the 12th time with Saban coaching the Crimson Tide after having coached the Tigers from 2000 to 2004.

“I love the college game, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, other than Alabama [winning], and that’s because of that damned coach,” Pullaro said. “He is just that good. His forte is recruiting. He flat can recruit. When he was here, we had to buy him a recruiting table. A $14,000 table. [Large laugh.] I don’t know what he did with it! But he had to have a recruiting table.

“He had two offices, his office and a little room behind. That’s where he recruited a kid. I don’t know if he pinned him up against the wall or what he did, but he didn’t lose too many.”

After all, Saban had drifted from Michigan State to LSU in 1999 foremost because he could close the borders to recruiters at outside football programs and till the rich recruiting soil in Louisiana. “He closed the borders” in his LSU days, Pullaro said, before noting that Saban’s dynasty at Alabama now includes a bushel of Louisianans (10, to be exact) on the roster: “And he’s still stealing from us, that little sawed-off S.O.B.”

Saban or Satan

Those who love LSU have had to live this era in the Alabama umbra. They’ve had to see their two national titles this century somehow outpaced, weirdly, by not only a division rival but the coach who won one of them, for LSU in 2003. They’ve had to carry on while Saban’s Alabama has won national titles in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015, come within one second of another in 2016 and reached all three College Football Playoff brackets (to none for LSU).

Further, they’ve had to undergo that normal, dreary college-town saga, that of a longtime coach wearing out (Les Miles), an interim taking over (Ed Orgeron) and then a subsequent loss to — sigh — Troy, before LSU righted things to beat Florida, Auburn and Ole Miss and reach No. 19 in the playoff rankings with a 6-2 record.

In the 72 suites on two floors on the east side of Tiger Stadium, they know all of the above to the marrow, just as they know the singularity of their own kingdom. “You don’t even think about it. It’s a part of your life,” said Mickey Guidry, who can remember not sleeping as a lad on the night of Sept. 29, 1979, when Southern California snared a late 17-12 win over LSU, and who then played quarterback for LSU from 1985 to ’88.

A suite above the 50-yard line, where Guidry spoke before the Auburn-LSU game last month, and where caterers bustled around the counter and refrigerator, lends a clear sense of LSU as a way of life. There’s carpeting rich in purple and gold, tiger-striped pillows on the sofa, a large print of a tiger above the sofa. There’s a photo of the happy aftermath of the 1962 Orange Bowl, with a player carrying assistant coach Charlie McClendon on his shoulders. Most poignantly, there’s a later photo of that player, Dexter Gary, alongside Sandra Girouard Gary, a couple married 52 years, widely beloved, called “Big D” and “Sugar,” both born in 1941, both departed in the summer of 2015, 38 days apart.

In between all of that, Guidry married their daughter, Angela, who surprised him the day after the wedding by wearing Guidry’s LSU jersey, which her father had purchased long before at charity auction.

“We all decided we wanted to keep it alive, keep this suite,” Mickey Guidry said.

Like many with purple-and-gold blood, Guidry golfed with, and very much likes, Saban. Like many, that places him across a divide from many in the LSU general public, including those of the generation rising now, which has known Saban only as Satan.

Such youths can’t remember this: “When Saban got here,” Guidry said, “we had had kind of a period of time when we struggled, and so really, it got to a point where you came to the games, and you just hoped we would be contenders again, you know? You can see from ’88 to ’01, that period of time, those were really lean years. And then once he got here” — and went 48-16 — “it changed the whole makeup of where we stood in the national scene, and the expectations have just gone way up.”

Like other boosters, Guidry saw the firing of Miles last year during his 12th season as both understandable (the era had worn out) and awkward (coming midseason, as Guidry said, “We have a tendency around here to do things kind of abruptly.”). And like other boosters, Guidry thinks and hopes it might all work out with “Coach O,” who went 10-25 at Ole Miss from 2005 to ’07) and whom Guidry watched play in the 1970s when Orgeron and Bobby Hebert, future NFL quarterback, manned the same South Lafourche High team.

“I really thought, and still do, that a place like this can attract a top-notch coordinator, top-notch coaches,” Guidry said. “[Orgeron] has a chance to succeed here. He’s a great, motivational, hard-working guy. He can attract the kind of guy to let them do their job, let them coach. I liken him to Bobby Bowden, [the retired Hall of Fame coach at Florida State.] Bowden probably didn’t know what the first play of the game was going to be. He let his coaches coach. But it was his program. And he recruited, and he believed in his guys and the program. And that’s how Coach O is, and I hope him success. He’s a good guy. It’s just, times have changed, and now you’re the CEO of a big organization now.”

That thought turned Guidry toward whom he deems the “originator” of the coach-as-CEO model.

Does the name even bear repeating here?

Destination schools

Another man who knows and likes Saban sat in the Maravich Center an hour earlier. Jake Netterville, the current leader of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, had just attended a Friday night dinner honoring million-dollar donors, with the kind of filet mignon that people use their fingers to indicate its thickness. While new men’s basketball Coach Will Wade conducted practice, Netterville spoke a litany (if not a liturgy) of LSU lore.

He extolled Maravich as the greatest-ever college basketball player, lamented Jerry Stovall not getting the 1962 Heisman Trophy (because voters didn’t want to return it to LSU so soon after Cannon) and reeled in the lasting heartbreak of LSU’s 14-13 football loss to Tennessee on Nov. 7, 1959 (which included the only touchdowns LSU allowed all regular season).

“When Coach O was hired as interim,” Netterville said, “we went to him and said, ‘Look, there are a lot of people in our organization that have been turned off by Les Miles.’ I’m not going to get into why or anything, but he’s not real friendly. O, on the other hand, will do anything you ask him to do. So we said, look — I didn’t do this, but the CEO does it — here’s 25 names of people who have been very loyal supporters of football as well as LSU that have kind of disassociated themselves because they couldn’t go to first base with Les Miles. Would you mind calling, just introduce yourself, and say, ‘Welcome. We want you involved,’ and all that? He called five a day.

“He called me. I’m in Rome! I said, ‘Coach, I’m so glad you got the interim job,’ I said. ‘But you know, I’m in Rome.’ He said, ‘Rome? I bet they don’t serve etouffee in Rome!’”

Netterville also said, “As many times as I’ve been here, you’re going to find this hard to believe, but I still get chill bumps when the band comes out.” In that, and all around, there’s the sense that LSU is every bit as much a destination as Alabama.

Pullaro explained: “I’ve got a school here that is a draw. Maybe I can’t get Saban back. Maybe I can’t get this one back or that one back or the one who’s at Ohio State [Urban Meyer]. But I guarantee you, a good school like a Louisville, or even Nebraska, I could pull from. I could pull here better than most people because, first, I’ve got unlimited resources. I’ve got unlimited fan support. . . . I was there when we hired Saban. Here [the coaches’ agents] come, baby. I mean, they’re lined up at the door, wanting, ‘Take my man. Take my man.’ “

Netterville just wants to clarify something. He finds it absurd that people conflate booster foundations with the hiring and firing of coaches, with quiet string-pulling and arm-tugging. “We have to listen to all that crap,” he said. Such a foundation, he explained, helps build facilities, like 72 stadium suites, or like the LSU gymnastics model that helped snare back-to-back national runner-up spots and attracted two of Mary Lou Retton’s daughters.

Obviously, it also can help you secure a choice recruiting table, should you desire one. They probably have a doozy at Alabama.