TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – As LSU's players headed toward the locker room after a stirring 41-34 comeback victory over Alabama on Saturday, they could see a fan holding a sign that underscored the bitterness some Tigers fans have toward their former coach.
Is he a mercenary or missionary, motivated by money or principles? Where you stand on that debate probably depends on whether Saban has just started coaching your team or recently left for a higher-paying job.
But there's no arguing this point: Saban is on the verge of making sure Alabama reclaims its status as one of the nation's elite programs, assuming he sticks around long enough to finish the job.
Saban, who owns a 97-45-1 record in his college coaching career, helped LSU capture a share of the 2003 national title in his fourth season in Baton Rouge. But he stayed only one season at Toledo, five seasons each at Michigan State and LSU and two years with the NFL's Miami Dolphins before heading to Alabama.
"When he left from Michigan State, I had a bunch of friends of mine who told me we'd be sorry we accepted him from Michigan State," LSU fan Darren Elisar of Orange Beach, Ala., said before the Tigers' game with Alabama. "I didn't believe them. He did some great things for the program, but when he left the way he did, he didn't do it in a (proper) style or fashion. He did the same thing he did at Miami.
"It's a mirror image of what he did at Toledo, Michigan State and LSU. Miami was the same thing. In three years, he'll be gone from here as well."
Jimmy Calvert, a 1989 Alabama alum who lives in Birmingham, heard that prediction and offered the following reply: "If my buddy here says three years, I'll take it. He'll do something in three years that no other coach since (Gene) Stallings has done."
Alabama has earned just one Southeastern Conference title since Stallings led the Tide to the 1992 national championship. The Tide went 26-30 in SEC games from 2000-06, which explains why they were willing to pay Saban $4 million per year.
Saban has wasted no time making a difference. The Tide were one fourth-down stop away from seizing control of the SEC Western Division last week before allowing two touchdowns in the final three minutes against LSU.
"We had one of the best teams in the country on the ropes and had an opportunity to win the game, so there are a lot of positives in that," Saban said. "The players should get some confidence in that they accomplished that. Are we pleased with losing? Absolutely not. There's no such thing as moral victories."
Alabama has compiled plenty of actual victories to go along with its moral ones. The Tide (6-3 overall, 4-2 in the SEC) already has matched last season's overall win total and doubled the league victory total. In fact, Alabama is only a couple of plays away from being unbeaten in conference play.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Saturday's game for Alabama fans came after the final whistle. Alabama's players weren't satisfied with coming close against LSU. They instead spent the moments after the game discussing what they did wrong down the stretch.
"We had a chance to win," Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "We just didn't do it."
Alabama has enough youth on its roster that the Tide eventually should learn how to win these types of games. Alabama had three freshmen and six sophomores in its starting lineup last week. Left guard Justin Britt was the only senior starter on offense.
The Tide's two leading rushers are freshman Terry Grant and sophomore Glen Coffee, though Coffee has been suspended for the past two games. Freshman cornerback Kareem Jackson has picked off three passes in his past two games, and freshman linebacker Rolando McClain is second on the team in tackles.
Turning the tide
Alabama coach Nick Saban is attempting to make the Crimson Tide an annual SEC title contender again after several seasons of inconsistent performances. Here's a look at how Alabama has fared overall and within the conference each year since winning its last SEC crown in 1999.
* – Alabama finished first in its division but was ineligible to play for the conference title in 2002.
Even with all those underclassmen playing major roles, Alabama has been competitive in every game it has played this season.
"It's a credit to Nick Saban," LSU coach Les Miles said. "He's done a damn good job with his football team."
Saban's team faces the challenge of forgetting about the loss to LSU, which ended any realistic hopes the Tide had of winning the SEC West. Alabama now has to focus on beating Mississippi State this weekend, ending its five-year losing streak to Auburn and playing in a bowl.
"It's about who you are," Saban said. "If you've got pride in your performance, you will play well in the next game, you will prepare to play well in the next game, and you've got to put it behind you. That's what we need to do. It's a challenge to everyone in terms of how they will overcome adversity."
If Alabama improves at a similar rate next season, the Tide might not have settle for second-tier bowls much longer. Next season, Alabama will have to restock a receiving corps that loses DJ Hall, Matt Caddell and Keith Brown, but the Tide should be in good shape just about everywhere else.
Alabama should emerge as a player on the national scene again as long as Saban sticks around, but how long will that be? Has he finally found a home at Alabama, or is this just one more stop on his personal coaching carousel?
"He's at the greatest college football atmosphere in the country," Tide fan Mike Byrd of Andalusia, Ala., said before the LSU game. "To follow Bear Bryant, what else could you want?"
And if Saban continues his nomadic nature and leaves after a few seasons, Tide fans say they can deal with it. After all, it wouldn't be the first time a coach has fled from Alabama earlier than expected.
"I've been seasoned by (Dennis) Franchione," Calvert said.