Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Everybody Loves Nick

What's Job 1 for sportswriters and talk jocks when an NFL coach gets fired these days? Mention LSU head coach Nick Saban as the most likely replacement.

And with the dismissal of Dan Reeves by the Falcons today, that's all the buzz here in Atlanta.

Of course Saban is on every NFL owner's wish list - he's got to be among the top 5 coaches in college football; he's got NFL coaching experience; he's young, dynamic and intelligent.

But as my team's coach, I take it kind of personally that the talk of Saban leaving for the NFL is not about "if", but "when." And not "when" in the sense of 10 years; every winter for the past three years the "experts" have said there's no way Saban goes back to LSU for the next season.

Do I think Saban stays at LSU for 20 years? No. Ten years? Not out of the question. Does he leave after his 4th season? Um ... maybe?

Saban is very much a goal-oriented kind of guy. In four seasons, Saban has won two SEC championships, a Sugar Bowl and a Peach Bowl (we'll forget about last year's Cotton Bowl for a second). And now - 45 years after our only national championship - he's got LSU in a position to win the BCS title. This in just four years after LSU suffered back-to-back losing seasons.

So if Saban beats Oklahoma Jan. 4, has he done all he set out to do at LSU? Probably so. LSU is no Miami - if we played for a national championship every 10 years rather than every 45 years, we'd be pretty happy with that.

But maybe he's driven by a greater goal - to make LSU truly a football power, a team mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Miami, Florida State, Michigan.

It's impossible to say. I don't think, however, Saban is chomping at the bit to head back to the NFL. Get a few more SEC titles under the belt and a couple more BCS bowl wins, and maybe the NFL becomes the next (and maybe last) challenge.

I do like how LSU A.D. Skip Bertman is playing the situation. Skip's attitude is to keep Saban as happy as possible to make him want to stick around LSU as long as possible. Skip knows LSU won't be Saban's last coaching job, and he's structured Saban's contract in ways that reward his sticking around without trying to force him to.

As Skip said in an Advocate (the Baton Rouge daily, not the national gay newspaper) piece this week:
"The reason Nick is going to stay is because he wants to stay," Bertman said. "He's not going to stay because there's a lot of money because we can't compete with the pros. What we have to do at the university is show Nick that he is appreciated.

"There is no contract that I am going to be the architect of that will lock Nick Saban in. There is no 'golden handcuff' contract. That's not the way to court your best coach. What I want to do is indicate to Nick and his family how valuable I think he is."

Skip's pretty bright for an old baseball coach.

His strategy for retaining Saban is to offer the moon to stay at LSU, but leave the door open if and when Saban decides it's time to go.

Saban reportedly will get a $1 million annuity if he stays another two years. He'll be guaranteed to be the NCAA's top-paid coach if he wins the national title. The new contract Skip plans to offer Saban after the Sugar Bowl will add even more long-term retention goodies.

And despite having an automatic-renewal clause (with built-in raises) in his contract, there's absolutely no buy-out penalty if Saban leaves LSU for another job.

In effect, the LSU job is Saban's as long as he wants it (unless LSU buys him out), and he's free to leave whenever he wants (with no penalty).

It's a counter-intuitive move of brilliant proportions. Most programs look to retain their coach by making it painful to leave. LSU, recognizing early on how hot a commodity Saban is, plans to retain him by letting him be free to leave, but demonstrating how much we'd like him to stay.

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