BATON ROUGE, La. – The rumor was the state of Alabama had sent prison guards to protect Nick Saban. Presumably, these were the people on the payroll best suited to beat back a riot.
Considering the scene at overwrought Tiger Stadium after Saban's current team, Alabama, beat his former team, Louisiana State, 27-21 in overtime, this seemed prudent. The stands in the Southeast corner had erupted into a frenzied mix of jubilation and jeers, the two schools' fan bases side by side, the hate and hysteria palpable.
All eyes were on Saint Nick as he headed to the locker room. You couldn't miss him in the middle of a pack of state troopers who rolled 13 strong (there were no prison guards.)
Saban never bothered to look up at the scene. He kept his head down and his jog brisk, fleeing his old joint with the victory that deep down he coveted for more reasons than the BCS standings.
He's been steadfast that his four-year tenure at LSU would not be defined by the angry mob of former worshippers, the ones who feel betrayed that he left them for the NFL and then returned up the block in Tuscaloosa.
He loved Baton Rouge once. He claims he loves it still. That it hates him back doesn't matter. Or so he pretends.
"We have great memories here," he said. "Nobody will ever tarnish that, no matter what they do."
What they did Friday was make a Saban dummy, then lit it on fire. What they did Saturday was show up in record numbers with signs that declared "Saban Seaux," pins that called him "Satan" and T-shirts that said worse.
What they did from the tailgates to the sideline seats was curse him over drinks, cuss him under their breaths and scream right to his face.
"You name it, I heard it," he said.
Saban is forever a tunnel-vision guy. He loathes distractions. He hates wasting time – after the game he stood in an end zone of the empty stadium and managed to film his half-hour "Nick Saban Show" in 15 minutes flat.
He mostly abhors talking about little items such as his team's current record, its future possibilities or its past glories.
"It doesn't do anything good," he said. "In fact, it's toxic."
Pretty much anything but how the Tide can improve is unwelcome. It's what makes him one of the premier coaches in the country, capable of putting 'Bama on an inside track to the national championship in just his second season.
Other than that, he has little use for discourse. He certainly wasn't going to discuss his feelings honestly. ("My emotions for this place are positive, not negative.") He tried his best Saturday to pretend this was about the "players" and the "program" and the universities. Everything but himself. Anything but himself.
It was all a lie, and he knew it, of course. He wanted this. He needed this. Desperately. How couldn't he?
"He's been ridiculed all week," said offensive lineman Mike Johnson. "He wasn't going to say it to your face, but we knew he was thinking. We knew it meant a lot."
The only chance for the control freak to maintain any control and keep Tiger fans from taking his legacy, was to take it right back at them. To the winners go the crowded press conferences (19 television cameras), the postgame hugs and the bully pulpit to claim what this was supposedly really about.
The losers could only go home and rant on the radio.
"I didn't leave LSU to go to Alabama," he snapped. "I left LSU to go to Miami. Myself and my family learned that we didn't like professional football as much as we liked college. So we had the best opportunity to return to college football at the University of Alabama.
"There is nothing personal in that for me."
There is for a lot of other people. The above rehashing of the timeline will do nothing to douse the anger and hurt feelings and cries of greed and disloyalty.
"I know there may be some people that have a negative attitude," Saban said.
At its heart is a fear over what Alabama can become. It's already 10-0 and top-ranked. In just two years this rivalry has "flipped flopped" as Johnson put it. Wait until Saban gets his recruits in and maybe there aren't so many turnovers to overcome, Tide fans say. Maybe then LSU doesn't even have the chance to block a winning field goal to force overtime and send Tiger Stadium into an earth-rattling roar.
Time will tell. LSU (6-3) is going to get a quarterback, going to get better too. If nothing else, this quickly has turned into perhaps the fiercest blood feud in the SEC, which is full of fierce blood feuds.
By the time the man who created the passions on both sides finally prepared to leave, he hugged his wife, shook a few hands from old neighbors who remain forever loyal and posed for a picture with a friend's daughter.
The team buses were gone; so were most of the 'Bama fans and LSU haters. He had outlasted them, out-willed them. He no longer needed his security detail.
He walked to a big Ford Expedition and was whisked to the airport, off to his new home, off to a future with championship possibilities.
It was now Saturday night in Death Valley and as he was being driven away, the lights of it slowly faded behind him.
- Nick Saban