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Record setting coach revered, reviled and ready for the game of the year

By Steve Hummer, Special to CNN
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Fri November 4, 2011
Alabama, led by coach Nick Saban, plays LSU in a matchup of college football's top two teams Saturday night.
Alabama, led by coach Nick Saban, plays LSU in a matchup of college football's top two teams Saturday night.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • No. 1 LSU faces No. 2 Alabama Saturday in college football game of the year
  • Alabama coach Nick Saban has coached both teams to national championsips
  • Saban has angered some with his ugly departures from previous coaching jobs
  • Saban is only coach to take two different schools to college football's BCS championship

Editor's note: Steve Hummer is a sports writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(CNN) -- Back in 2005, when he stopped studying third down tendencies long enough to work on a motivational self-help book, Nick Saban kept hammering on one phrase.

The book's title was "How Good Do You Want to Be? A Champion's Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in Life."

The phrase the University of Alabama's football coach was stuck on was mercifully shorter.

"Eliminate the clutter."

The clutter is you. The clutter is me. The clutter is this story, another horn in the vast media brass section trumpeting a college football game taking on Homeric proportions.

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"It's everything out there that can take away from your focus," said Saban's co-writer, Brian Curtis.

This week Saban -- called "the most powerful coach in sports" by Forbes magazine in 2008 -- is up to his furrowed brow in clutter. His No. 2 Crimson Tide plays No. 1 Louisiana State Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the most anticipated college football game in years. Both teams are undefeated, and it's the first ever SEC regular season game matching the country's two top teams.

SI.com: LSU vs. Alabama really does mean everything to some, and that's OK

Saban, who just turned 60, is not exactly a willing contributor to the ruckus that surrounds big-time college football.

When his own players doused him with the traditional Gatorade victory shower after Alabama won the BCS Championship Game in January, 2010, he looked genuinely irked by the display.

Saban's no-nonsense nature -- he and a statue of him outside Alabama's football stadium are tied for number of memorable one-liners -- perfectly equips him for a moment like Saturday night.

"It's fun to play in games like this," Saban said this week. And then he broke out the wet blanket. "But I also think it's important to be able to stay focused on what you need to do to play well. You can't drain yourself emotionally because of all the things that are happening surrounding the game."

SI.com: Alabama hosts LSU in the Game of the Year

The Saban method certainly has paid off. His overall college coaching record is 137-53-1, a .717 winning percentage. He has won as many national titles (two) as all-time major college wins leader Joe Paterno. But Saban is the only coach to win a BCS championship with two different programs.

It is a testament to both Saban's coaching genius and his tumbleweed past that his DNA is on both programs involved in Saturday's showdown. Here's how he got there:

The son of a West Virginia gas station owner, he began coaching as a grad assistant at alma mater Kent State in 1973. Over a lengthy career, he has been employed by nine different college programs, and three more NFL franchises.

Following four years as head coach at Michigan State, Saban was brought to Baton Rouge in 2000 after LSU had gone 7-15 the previous two seasons.

Within four years, Saban delivered a national title.

His professional travelogue didn't end there. Saban left to test himself as an NFL head coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2005. Two seasons there produced a 15-17 record, and then Saban was seduced by a once proud southern belle who had fallen into disrepute.

"I'm not going to be the Alabama coach," Saban infamously declared on December 21, 2006.

On January 4, 2007, he was introduced as the Crimson Tide's next coach.

He was apologizing for that one three years later in a Sporting News interview. Sort of. "I apologize for any professional mishandling that might have occurred," he said.

But there is a reason Alabama ponied up $4 million a year for Saban (university President Robert Witt makes a reported base of $490,000 a year). He is one rainmaker of a coach.

While perhaps not always so dedicated to the truth about his comings and goings, Saban is all in with building winning football programs. And in 2007 Alabama needed him badly.

With 13 national championships in the bank, and the legend of Bear Bryant growing dim, the Alabama football program of the early 2000s was a mess. One coach was tangled up in a sexual harassment charge and eventually got the program placed on NCAA probation. One hire never coached a game, fired after an off-season Florida strip-club romp became public. One abandoned ship after two seasons, informing his team he was leaving for Texas A&M via video conference. Another had the name (Mike Shula, son of Hall of Fame NFL coach Don Shula) but won few hearts with his 26-23 record.

Then came Saban, whose stern dictatorship cut through all the nonsense. He is 51-11 at 'Bama, with one national title and the hopes of another resting on Saturday.

His success did not sit well a couple states to the left. When Saban first left for the pros, LSU fans were mostly understanding. They even cheered him when he returned to Baton Rouge with the Dolphins in 2005 to take on the New Orleans Saints, who had been displaced from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

But when he took over a conference rival, he was a direct threat to their team and the game changed.

On Saban's trip to Baton Rouge in 2008, he was greeted with the requisite effigy burning. The LSU student newspaper produced an editorial that proclaimed: "For the record, Nick, the Tiger faithful hate your guts."

"What people suddenly didn't seem to understand is that he didn't leave LSU for Alabama," said Glenn Guilbeau, who covers the Tigers for Gannett News Service. After ditching the Dolphins, "the only open jobs were Alabama, Louisville and Tulane. What was he supposed to do?"

Time has somewhat softened the Saban-is-Satan storyline when LSU and Alabama play now.

His connection to LSU was brought up only once in his press conference last Monday. In response, Saban sounded almost wistful.

"I really don't think a lot about that, but there are a lot of personal relationships we have with a lot of people because of the association we had with LSU," he said. "The older you get -- and everybody knows I'm getting old -- you kind of cherish those relationships and really respect and appreciate them. I'm happy to say a lot of those things don't get affected by this game and what happens in this game."

Are the halcyon days of Saban-hating gone?

After his clumsy departure from the Dolphins, Saban appeared as No. 9 on a Forbes top 10 list of most disliked people in sports. He has not made the last two editions of that list.

When he completes this season, his fifth, it will match his longest stay at any of his coaching posts. "I think there's a feeling that this is the right place for him and his wife at this stage of their lives," Curtis said.

The Saban family was out front in the recovery effort after a devastating tornado swept through Tuscaloosa in April, only reinforcing his Alabama identity.

Saban's Nick's Kids Foundation provided the $50,000 seed money to start Project Team Up, which coordinates aid for those who lost homes and loved ones to the storm. Saban, his wife Terry and his team have been out front throughout the recovery process, said Riz Shakir, Project Team Up's managing director.

"As you know, Nick is not one to be exuberant, but he shows he really cares through his actions," Shakir said. "When he cracks a little smile (doing the relief work), it's like you or me jumping for joy."

Maybe some will even begin taking him at his word that, "When I came here, I came here with the idea I'd be here for the rest of my career."

Saban may never be the warm and fuzzy good ol' boy kind of southern football coach. Because that is just the kind of clutter that has nothing to do with a final score, he's unlikely to spend much time courting favor.

At least he has settled into one place long enough now that those who wish to appreciate him know where to find him.

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