It was Nov. 11, 1979, a chilly, damp Saturday night in Death Valley, and the final horn had just sounded from a scoreboard that read “Alabama 3, LSU 0.” Paul “Bear” Bryant and his state troopers marched toward midfield. The man in the houndstooth hat extended his hand to greet his former player and protégé Charlie McClendon.
“Cholly Mac, I’m so sorry,” the Bear said. “You’ve done a great job.”
McClendon, a dead Tiger walking, was going to be fired at season’s end, and everyone knew it, including Bryant, against whom LSU had just lost its eighth straight. Over 18 seasons, McClendon posted a 137-59-7 record, and 14 of those losses came at the hands of one team: Alabama. Later that night, McClendon was asked whether he was being fired because he’d failed to win a national championship. He replied: “Either that or I didn’t beat Alabama.”
Les Miles spent a dozen years on the LSU sidelines and did what McClendon could not by winning a national title in 2007. Miles’ final record was 114-34. But he was 5-7 against Alabama and 3-7 against today’s Bear, Nick Saban, the man he’d replaced on that LSU sideline (more on that later). Miles was in the midst of a five-game losing slump to the Tide when he was dismissed four weeks into the 2016 season.
“Was my record against a certain other team the biggest reason that I am no longer at LSU?” Miles asked, repeating the question just asked of him, then paused before adding, “I certainly do not believe that it helped.”
Current LSU coach Ed Orgeron grew up in Louisiana rooting for McClendon’s teams and returned home four autumns ago to join the LSU staff. When Miles was dismissed, Orgeron was chosen as his successor. His fourth game as interim head coach was a 10-0 tractor-pull loss to Bama at home. Last season LSU lost 24-10 in Tuscaloosa.
“People stop me everywhere I go — the grocery store, restaurants, you name it — and they say two things,” Coach O explained in his unmistakable Cajun growl. “They say, ‘We’re behind you, Coach, because you’re one of us.’ Then they say, ‘But you better beat Alabama.'”
From the balconies of the French Quarter to the casinos of Shreveport, if there are people gathered wearing purple and gold, they are probably measuring the Tigers against the Tide. This week the people of the Pelican State are having those discussions with even more verve than usual. Why? Because this Saturday, LSU and Bama will once again meet in Baton Rouge, a No. 1 vs. No. 3 bout with an SEC championship and likely College Football Playoff invitation on the line.
“This week the Bama talk might be a little louder than normal, but the topic of Bama is a 365-day-per-year conversation around here,” explained Jacob Hester, a former LSU QB turned sports talk radio host on the Baton Rouge ESPN Radio affiliate and nationally on Sirius XM’s SEC channel. “I’m not going to call it an obsession, but … OK, yeah, I’m totally calling it an obsession.”
However, in Louisiana, where everything — homes, music, recipes — feels and looks classically old, the intensity surrounding this rivalry is not. Yes, this weekend marks the 83rd meeting between the two teams. Yes, their first matchup was held way back on Nov. 18, 1895. Yes, the nearly 125 years since have been packed with great moments and players. During that century-plus, LSU has won three national championships and 14 conference championships, made 49 bowl appearances, produced 31 consensus All-Americans and a Heisman Trophy winner, and in 2019 probably will reach the 900-win plateau.
But the grass has always been greener — or crimson-er — just two states over.
“There’s 129 other schools who have the same Alabama problem when it comes to recruiting and resources and all of that, and it feels like it’s been that way for 100 years,” said Booger McFarland, one of those LSU All-Americans and now an ESPN analyst. “But for LSU, it’s a backyard problem. You’ve been so close so many times to achieving your dreams, but the guy who has kept you from that so many of those times, he’s standing right there in your backyard.”
Gerry DiNardo, who coached McFarland at LSU, understands.
“Charlie McClendon used to say to me all the time that he could never beat Bama, and guess what? Neither could anyone else,” said DiNardo, who was there for five seasons (1995-99) and had a 1-4 record against Alabama. He was fired one week after the last of those four losses. “But Charlie Mac also said that no one in Baton Rouge cared that no one else could beat [Alabama]. They only cared why you couldn’t.”
That hurt is understandable. The roots of that pain run deeper than a Louisiana live oak. Alabama leads the all-time series 52-25-5. The Crimson Tide have enjoyed head-to-head stretches of 12-1-3 (1903-45), 11 straight wins (1971-81, aka the run that got McClendon fired) and the current streak that stands at seven (aka, the run that got Miles fired). After the series became an annual affair in ’64, Bama won 16 of the next 18 games. In fact, the last time LSU owned the outright lead in the series was in 1903, when it stood at 2-1.
Because of all that, LSU-Bama didn’t become a truly big deal until the next turn of the century, just as McFarland and DiNardo’s group had moved on.
OK, perhaps it was a big deal on the western side of the matchup, where LSU stayed stuck in its perpetual pursuit. But on the Yellowhammer side of things, the Tigers always ranked, at best, third on Bama’s rivalries list behind Auburn and Tennessee, and those flashes of importance were streaky at best. Then, in 2000 there was a shift, thanks to two concurrent happenings: The Tide entered into their post-Gene Stallings funk and LSU hired DiNardo’s replacement, Mr. Nicholas Lou Saban Jr.
“At LSU, Nick Saban made everyone believe that we were second to no one, including Alabama,” said Hester, whom Saban recruited out of Shreveport. “He set a tone that has been there ever since: Forget what you’ve always been told. We can be as good as those guys.”
Saban’s teams weren’t just as good, they were better. He posted a 4-1 record against Alabama, winning the SEC West three times, the SEC conference title twice and a national championship in 2003. At the end of the ’04 season, he left to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Hester remembers an emotional farewell address from the coach, swearing to the Tigers that he was torn and that the only reason in the world he would ever leave Baton Rouge was for the opportunity to lead an NFL team.
Hester also remembers when the Bama-LSU game finally started feeling like a real rivalry.
“People always point to 2007, but it really began two years earlier, the first year with Les,” he said. “Alabama came into Death Valley ranked fourth and we were fifth. They were loaded. So were we. We won in overtime (16-13) and it got chippy out there. It felt like, ‘Yeah, we aren’t scared of you.’ And we weren’t.”
From 2000 to 2007, LSU won seven of eight against Alabama and another national title. Finally, it was the Tigers who were contributing to coach firings in Tuscaloosa.
That brings us to the oft-accepted reasoning that Hester mentioned, that ’07 was the true beginning of the LSU-Alabama rivalry that has so often swallowed up the national college football stage, including this weekend. Why 2007? That’s when the game became the Saban Bowl.
“People around here weren’t mad at Nick for leaving, because as he told us, he’d left for his dream job,” Hester said. “But then, two years later, he’s back in college football, and of all the places he could’ve gone, it’s Alabama? Everyone was mad about that. Check that, everyone is mad about that.”
For five years, Bama vs. LSU became a Deep South Rocky vs. Apollo, trading haymakers with ridiculous force behind them. A half-dozen games played from the inaugural Saban Bowl in ’07 through January 2012 were split 3-3, all but one decided by single-digit margins.
“That one game, though, the only one during that wasn’t close, it hasn’t been the same since that one game,” said Marcus Spears, who played for Saban at LSU from 2001 to ’04 and is now an SEC Network analyst. He speaks of Jan. 9, 2012.
“They played what might be the greatest regular-season game ever in November and LSU won 9-6. You think, ‘OK, Bama is gone now. We don’t have to worry about those guys again.’ You win the SEC. You win a trip to the BCS national championship. Then you get there, and who is waiting on you? That same team you already beat: Alabama.”
LSU didn’t just lose the rematch, it was skunked. Final score: 21-0. The Tigers’ offense crossed midfield only once the entire night. And it happened in New Orleans.
Even when LSU won over Bama, it lost.
“It was like all that history and all those Alabama hang-ups from back in the day, they kind of came back all at once,” said Hester, by that point playing for the San Diego Chargers.
LSU hasn’t beaten Bama since and has been forced to watch Saban pile up championship rings while wondering how many of those they might have had he stayed put at LSU. One year ago, a story in The New York Times was headlined, “Did Nick Saban Break LSU?” The Tide’s current win streak over the Tigers is up to seven, second longest in series history, trailing only the 11-game stretch that ran off McClendon. If Orgeron contributes to that total Saturday, dropping his third straight to the Tide as LSU head coach, there’s no doubt that the whispers will re-emerge to have him run off, too, no matter where he’s from or how thick his Cajun dialect might be.
“I know and you know, heck, everybody knows, how big a deal this game is. But where it is really a big deal is out there,” Coach O explained, pointing out beyond Tiger Stadium and into the state where it sits. “For the people of Louisiana, it’s a really big deal. The biggest. They know what it feels like to win this game. It wasn’t that long ago. They want to feel that again.”