On This Date in Sports January 4, 2004: Nick Saban's First Title

LSU defeats Oklahoma in the Nokia Sugar Bowl 21-14 to claim a share of the National Championship. USC, who beat Michigan 28-14 in the Rose Bowl three days earlier, was voted #1 in the AP poll, while the Sugar Bowl stood as the BCS Championship. It would be the first National Championship for coach Nick Saban and the final time the writers and the press had a split national championship.

Nick Saban was born on Halloween 1951 in Fairmount, West Virginia. Saban played on the football team at Kent State under legendary coach Don James. After graduating, he served on James’ staff as a graduate assistant and later became a linebackers coach. Over the next decade, Nick Saban was a coaching nomad, working at Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State, Navy, and Michigan State. After being passed over by his Alma mater as a head coach, Saban moved on to the NFL to serve as a secondary coach on Jerry Glanville’s staff with the Houston Oilers.

In 1990, when Toledo hired him, Nick Saban finally got a chance to be a head coach. After posting a 9-2 record, Saban returned to the NFL to serve as a defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick on the Cleveland Browns. Saban, always the loyal assistant, returned to the NCAA after four seasons to become head coach for Michigan State in 1995. Saban led the Spartans to bowl appearances in four of five seasons in East Lansing before leaving after a 9-2 season in 1999 to take over as head coach at LSU.

When he was hired, LSU was a program that had been suffering through some down years, as they had back-to-back losing seasons, including a 3-8 record in 1999. The Tigers made just three bowl appearances during the 1990s and have not won the SEC Championship since 1986. Saban helped revitalize LSU right away, as they went 8-4 in 2000 and won the SEC and the Sugar Bowl the following season. It was the first time the Bayou Bengals won the Sugar Bowl since 1968. After a Cotton Bowl appearance after the 2002 season, Saban had his first full recruiting class in 2003, ready to do something special. In posting a 7-1 conference record and 11-1 overall record, LSU ranked #3 before beating Georgia in the SEC Championship Game 34-13.

While the press had USC ranked #1, the computer polls squeezed out the Trojans in favor of Oklahoma. The Sooners, led by Bob Stoops, had been #1 most of the season but were upset by Kansas State 35-7 in the Big XII Championship Game. Despite the bad loss, the computer had them ahead of USC, who had moved up to #1 in both polls, though the coaches were obligated to pick the winner of the BCS Championship Game that season at the Sugar Bowl as their National Champions. This meant even though USC beat #4 Michigan 28-14, they could not win the BCS Championship, assuring that there would be a split National Championship as Pete Carroll helped USC get their first title since 1978.

The controversy still was a hot topic as record crowds filled the Superdome in New Orleans. LSU immediately took control of the game as Skyler Green gave them a 7-0 lead with a 24-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Oklahoma tied the game with a seven-yard run by Kejuan Jones in the second quarter. However, the Tigers got the lead right back on a 16-yard touchdown run by Justin Vincent. Leading 14-7 at the half, LSU nearly blew the roof off the Superdome when Marcus Spears returned a pick-six 20 yards to build a two-touchdown lead. While LSU did not get much on offense in the second half, the 14-point lead seemed big for the best defense in the country as they held the high-powered Sooner offense to just 154 yards total offense. Oklahoma cut the lead to 21-14 with a second touchdown by Kejuan Jones in the fourth quarter. That would be all they could muster as Heisman winner Jason White had a nightmare game, completing just 13 of 37 passes for 102 yards, as he was picked off twice and sacked seven times.

The LSU 21-14 win gave the fans of LSU their first National Championship since 1958 and third overall. Following the 2004 season, Nick Saban left Baton Rouge to coach the Miami Dolphins, where he ran a once-great franchise into the ground. After two seasons in Miami, he stabbed Bayou Nation in the back and, along with the Dolphins, accepted a job at Alabama. Since taking over in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide have won six National Championships since 2009