Fourteen years later, there’s reason to give new life to old memories.
In 2003, Nick Saban was in his fourth season at LSU, only beginning his climb to reach the peak of what a college football coach can become. Back then, Jimbo Fisher was the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, his reputation as one of the nation’s most-respected figures on a sideline far on the horizon.
But that fall, the fiery Saban and the folksy Fisher made LSU a devastating force. The Tigers won the national championship, Saban’s first of five as a head coach, with a 13-1 record after beating Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
On Saturday night, Saban’s Alabama team faces Fisher’s Florida State squad at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. To three former LSU players – wide receiver Michael Clayton, quarterback Matt Mauck and running back Justin Vincent – the monster game represents more than an electric season opener.
It’s a chance to look back, reflect on two mentors and consider how special that time became for all who made magic happen in Baton Rouge.
“This is a battle we’ve all been waiting for, especially the guys who played on that ’03 national championship team,” said Clayton, who had 2,582 yards receiving at LSU from 2001-03.
“We’ve come a long way, and we’ve always supported each other. Both coaches have been phenomenal in their development. Obviously, Coach Saban, the greatest coach in college [football] history, has had a lot of his coaching staff go on to do great things. And to have a guy like Jimbo with his personality, his ability to develop quarterbacks, having the success that he has had [and] winning a national championship, it is going to make for a great matchup.”
Clayton remembers the competitive fire.
It burned often during LSU’s practices that season. The chess match between Fisher and the defensive-minded Saban produced the necessary friction that delivered the Tigers’ first national title since 1958.
“We always went by a script, and it kind of fired Jimbo up a little bit when things got off script,” Clayton said. “Just going back at the guys, drawing up some plays in the dirt and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to try this. We’re going to do this, and surprise them and give it back to them.’ That happened quite often, just being spontaneous out there on the field. And that competitive nature came out quite often in practice between those guys.”
What came out of those practices was something important: A sharper offense that helped LSU cut through its schedule. The Tigers’ lone loss was a 19-7 defeat to Florida on Oct. 11 at Tiger Stadium. LSU finished No. 19 in the country in scoring (33.9 points per game), No. 27 in rushing (185.7 yards per game) and No. 43 in passing (232.6 ypg).
Fisher was the wizard behind the offensive wonder, and a close bond formed with those who grew under him.
“He was a players’ coach,” Clayton said of Fisher. “It was a situation where you knew he was the boss out there. You knew his energy. He had a head-coaching mentality, because really on the offensive side of the ball, the majority of the practice we were dealing with Jimbo. You heard him hooting and hollering and yelling and getting in people’s faces. He has always carried that demeanor.
“But at the same time, he was also a coach you had a personal relationship with. He was a great recruiter. I just fell in love with his personality, the ability to talk to him at such a young age and how he was able to relate to young players, have fun, keep practices fun, keep the meetings fun, keep the players encouraged. He just had the full package, and you just knew that he would maximize his potential and eventually go on to be a head coach based upon all of those qualities.
“I’m pulling for Jimbo. I’m always a guy who’s pulling for the underdog. We know Coach Saban’s expectations. I know how he’s prepared. And to see Jimbo win that game … he wants this game very bad.”
Mauck remembers knowing Saban and Fisher were going places.
The quarterback sensed something special was brewing because of the sweat shed and the passion shown by both men. Before the 2003 season, Saban produced only one campaign of at least 10 victories in his first nine years as a head coach. Before that fall, Fisher was known as a grinder, but he lacked a national breakthrough as an offensive coordinator.
Still, both men kept building, with small steps taken daily. In time, the desired destination was reached.
“You knew both of them were going to be successful, not only because how good they were with X’s and O’s, but they were both very extremely driven people,” said Mauck, who had 3,831 yards passing at LSU from 2001-03. “And both were just football through and through. They both loved football. From a player’s perspective, to be able to be coached by both of those guys at the same time, it was pretty unbelievable.”
Like Fisher’s mentorship of Mauck, Saban molded his offensive coordinator. Mauck recalls Saban testing the assistant’s wits and offensive wisdom.
“I know Jimbo told me Nick would give him the practice script 30 minutes before practice, and Jimbo would have to script like 100 plays in 30 minutes,” Mauck said. “At the time, you’re going through it, and you’re like, ‘God, this sucks.’ But I think what [Saban] was trying to do was to get [Fisher] to have to think on his feet. If he could do it now, when it came to game time, it would just be second nature to him.”
Now, Fisher owns a 78-17 record with one national title in seven years as Florida State’s coach. The hard knocks at LSU paid off.
“You never know how a coordinator will transfer over to a head coach, just because there are different roles and there are more things to do outside of football,” Mauck said. “I think that was the one thing I just didn’t know. Not that Jimbo couldn’t do it. I just didn’t know if he would like it, just because he loves football so much. When you’re the head coach, you’ve kind of got to step away and let other people do some things. But I don’t think there’s a better offensive mind in football.”
Vincent remembers the steady journey toward success.
Recently, the former running back listened to Saban speak on television. The familiar rhythms of the coach’s style rushed back to him. The messages were consistent, the desire was unwavering and the words stood the test of time.
“I’m like, ‘That’s the same stuff he echoed to us back in 2002 when I showed up on campus,’ ” said Vincent, who had 2,021 yards rushing at LSU from 2003-06. “It has not changed. And I think for him, consistency is the key.”
Consistency made Saban, now with a 205-61-1 career record, one of college football’s best coaches. But Fisher shares his former boss’ uncommon drive. Since those formative LSU days, Saban’s mentee has blazed a trail of his own toward the sport’s summit.
The matchup between Alabama and Florida State, fascinating for many reasons, will be a stage for Fisher to show how much he has evolved.
“He demands perfection,” Vincent said of Fisher. “He demands for you to know what you’re doing assignment-wise. … It’s wonderful for somebody who was part of something so early on in his career to see what he’s doing now and see what he has done. It’s pretty special.
“I’m going to be looking for some defense. I know Alabama is going to move the ball well. Florida State is going to move the ball well. Alabama has always been kind of stout on the back end and able to take care of some different things. But I think it will be one of those close games. It won’t be a blowout. I’ll be very shocked if it’s a blowout by either end. I think it will be one of those 17-10-type games. And the person who has the ball last in the fourth quarter will have an opportunity to win, because they’re such great teams and coached real well.
“I’ll definitely be watching. The two of them are all-time favorites.”
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