Did Nick Saban Break L.S.U.?

Did Nick Saban Break L.S.U.?

“He could go 0-11 and we’d have a banquet for him here,” Gisclair said, referring to Larose. “The state would want to hang him.”

The last two months have been a baleful beginning for Orgeron’s full-time tenure, which follows a 6-2 finish last season after he took over. While the Tigers began ranked 13th nationally, in tribute to their reputation and still stellar recruiting, they are floundering at 3-2, including a home loss last weekend to lower-tier Troy. They travel to No. 21 Florida (3-1) on Saturday.

All unhappy college fan bases are unhappy in their own ways. Texas fans consider success their birthright and are disappointed when it fails to come their way. Nebraska fans know it is not their birthright and fret it will never be theirs again. Notre Dame fans wrestle with the compromises the maintenance of their mystique requires.


“He could go 0-11 and we’d have a banquet for him here,” the local politician Jerry Gisclair said of Orgeron. “The state would want to hang him.”

William Widmer for The New York Times

And L.S.U. fans have had their heart broken by the one who got away.

That was not Miles but Nick Saban, the greatest coach of this era and the head of L.S.U.’s Southeastern Conference division archrival, Alabama. But it was not always so. Saban arrived in Baton Rouge in late 1999, and in four years rebuilt a floundering program into a national champion. Even after leaving L.S.U. — for two years in the N.F.L., with the Miami Dolphins, and then Alabama — Saban’s recruiting laid the groundwork for the national title L.S.U. won under Miles in the 2007 season.

“Nick Saban really turned L.S.U.’s football fortunes around,” said Jim Hawthorne, who recently retired as the university’s chief radio play-by-play announcer. Referring to a run from 1989 to 1994, he added, “I can’t hardly even say this, but L.S.U. had six consecutive years of losing seasons, six in a row, and I sat through all of them.”

Saban “was able to right the ship and get the program up,” Hawthorne said. “Les pretty much was able to keep it there.”


Scenes from the Louisiana bayou. Clockwise from top, a shrimping trawler docked in Bayou Lafourche, along Highway 1; a small cemetery paved in concrete to withstand tidal flooding in Leeville; and eroded wetlands lining Highway 1 on the way toward Grand Isle and Port Fourchon.

Photographs by William Widmer for The New York Times

And then, it could be said, Saban broke L.S.U. In hindsight, the mortal wound was the 2011 season’s national title game between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide, a 21-0 Alabama victory in the Superdome in which the Tigers’ offense, littered with future N.F.L. players like Odell Beckham Jr., did not cross the 50-yard line until the second half. It was the first of six consecutive Saban wins against L.S.U., a streak most expect him to extend when the Tigers and the No. 1 Crimson Tide (5-0) meet Nov. 4 in Tuscaloosa.

“The turning point was that Alabama national championship game,” said Judson Sanders, a Baton Rouge lawyer who said he has tailgated at every L.S.U. home game since 2001. “That game changed the entire program. In a lot of ways, people haven’t totally recovered.”

Talk to L.S.U. fans about Saban now, and one might mistake them for jilted lovers who have not quite arrived at the acceptance stage of mourning.


Trent Richardson, right, scored for Alabama in its victory over L.S.U. in the 2012 B.C.S. national championship game. The victory was the first of six in a row for the Tide against the Tigers under Nick Saban.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“If Saban had stayed, you’d be talking about L.S.U. winning five, six national championships,” said David Landers, a co-founder of the Tiger Athletic Foundation. He added of Saban: “He’ll always be the most intimidating, most hated — but respectfully hated. They love to hate him, but wish they had him.”

Ask an L.S.U. fan about Miles, meanwhile, and one might mistake the head coach who was 114-34 for a no-good scoundrel who never returned one’s calls.

“We got a joke around here: When he was in the credit card business, he was Les Miles and no points,” said Dean Blanchard, who runs a shrimping business on the Gulf Coast but drives north to Baton Rouge to tailgate before every home game.

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