No one may be more excited to see Alabama play Florida State on Sept. 2 than some of the guys who were once on the same sideline as the two coaches who helped lead them to a national championship, Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher.
“I love it,” said former LSU defensive end Marcus Spears, now an analyst for the SEC Network. “The buildup is crazy.
“You have two coaches who know each other, and two coaches who used to fight every day in practice when I was at LSU.”
When Spears says fight, he’s talking about verbally going after one another, and not backing down — which won’t surprise anyone who’s been around either coach. Practices were always scripted beforehand, so both the offense and defense could work on specific things.
COMING MONDAY: Florida State kicks off preview of Alabama’s 2017 opponents
But while Saban always wanted to know what to look for with each snap, Fisher would occasionally get tired of seeing his players continually get stuffed by the Tigers defense. One practice in particular still stands out to Spears.
“So we’re killing the offense,” he said. “When I was playing you do about three team periods (each practice). No yards. We’re getting to the quarterback. So Jimbo reaches into his bag a little bit and brings something new out. We get confused. We don’t know where to line up.
“Saban had one of those conniptions. It was a lot of words that I can’t say. The gist of it was ‘When I put something in the script, you better damn well run it, or we’re going to have a big problem right here on the football field.’ We would laugh. We knew that if it was something unscripted, it was about to be a knock-down, drag-out (day).”
This was during LSU’s title season of 2003, when Saban finished turning the Tigers into a preeminent power. Not only did the intimidating team boast a very high level of talent, but was competitive in every sense, even during workouts.
“They have a respect for each other,” Spears said about the coaches, even though Fisher has carved out a large part of his own path.
When Saban left LSU for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins in 2004, Fisher didn’t follow. He stayed in Baton Rouge for two more years under Les Miles. He also turned down a chance to join Saban at Alabama in 2007, opting to stay at Florida State where he eventually replaced legend Bobby Bowden.
Consequently, Fisher’s biggest claim to fame in the state of Alabama was interviewing for the UAB head coaching job at the end of the 2006 season, only to have the university’s Board of Trustees veto the contract offer. It was one of the major dominoes that eventually led to it becoming the first FBS program to shut down in 20 years, only to be revived following loud public outcry.
They’ve never met before as head coaches, and Saban’s record against his former assistants is still perfect, 10-0.
He’s 3-0 against Jim McElwain, including back-to-back victories in the SEC Championship Game, crushed Mark Dantonio and Michigan State twice in bowls and was 2-0 against Will Muschamp when he was at Florida.
“He’s good,” McElwain said. “I think the way we played them at Colorado State probably propelled our program as much as anything.”
But that’s about all you’ll get out of one of Saban’s former assistants about such a matchup, as they all become like Switzerland when one gets a shot at their old boss — at least publicly. Georgia’s Kirby Smart barely offered at SEC Media Days that a big difference between he and Saban is that he “texts.”
Fisher arguably has the closest thing to bragging rights among them, as he was Bowden’s offensive coordinator when FSU beat Alabama 21-14 in Jacksonville in 2007. It was Saban’s first season with the Crimson Tide.
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Alabama was No. 22 in the Associated Press poll that week while FSU was unranked. Neither ended the season in the top 25.
This time it could be No. 1 vs. No. 2.
“It ought to be a heck of a game,” Muschamp said.
Each of Saban’s former assistants are obviously a little different (or in Lane Kiffin’s case a lot different). But Fisher might be the one who’s most like his former mentor. He’s already the most successful, having amassed a strong recruiting base in a talent-rich state and won a national title. His worst season so far resulted in a 9-4 finish, and overall, he’s 78-17.
“Attention to detail,” was the first thing Spears said in describing Fisher. The second was his ability to develop players.
“It was just a culmination of things, and his command. Jimbo has a great rapport with players, knows when to go hard, when to pull back,” Spears continued. “A lot of it is relationship. A lot of being a head coach is relationship, with players and assistants. He did a great job from my observation and obviously he’s done a great job at Florida State.”
Consequently, there’s a strong belief among some in Tuscaloosa that when Saban eventually steps down, should Alabama try and hire one of his former assistants Fisher will top the wish list. By then, though, he might have 10-plus years at Florida State and the kind of legacy that could keep him from considering a move.
There are a number of key matchups when the teams meet at new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, including young quarterbacks Deondre Francois and Jalen Hurts. Both teams also have top-notch receivers going against outstanding players in the secondary.
Saban vs. Fisher is the one that will get the most attention.
There’s also the possibility that they could square off a second time in the College Football Playoff.
“They’re going to want to beat each other real bad,” Spears said.