Louisiana State has won just three Southeastern Conference games the past two seasons, so new Tigers football coach Nick Saban doesn't quite comprehend the talk of winning seasons and bowl bids.
"A lot of people make statements about the quality of players we have coming back, and I don't know exactly where those high expectations come from," Saban said.
He can chalk it up to the price of being a coach in the football-mad cauldron of Baton Rouge, La., -- not to mention the hefty price LSU paid to lure him from his previous post at Michigan State to replace the fired Gerry DiNardo.
An annual paycheck of $1.25 million has a way of bolstering the belief that Saban will orchestrate a quick fix, but the 48-year-old isn't predicting any bowl appearances or SEC titles for a squad that's gone 7-15 the past two seasons.
Still, the Tigers aren't entirely devoid of talent. They return 19 starters, and a league-high six players earned All-SEC freshmen honors last season. Four starters return on the offensive line, and receiver Jerel Myers is back after setting an SEC freshman receiving record with 64 catches. The Tigers have experience at quarterback with juniors Josh Booty and Rohan Davey, who are battling for the starter's spot during fall drills.
So the potential is there. But Saban said his task is more psychological than physical.
"I do think we have some good football players, but we have three quarters of our team that has never won," said Saban, who inherited a program that has posted three winning seasons in the past 11 years. "Whether they know how to win is something they're going to have to demonstrate, and maybe even have to go through a process of understanding how to do that."
Gaining trust is a must for a team that was said to have quit on DiNardo in 1999. The Tigers showed plenty of formidability in close losses to Georgia (23-22), Mississippi State (17-16) and Alabama (23-17); inexplicable blowouts to Auburn (41-7), Kentucky (31-5), Ole Miss (42-23) and Houston (20-7) cemented DiNardo's demise.
"Not everybody was following his plan anymore," offensive tackle Louis Williams said of DiNardo, who led the Tigers to two SEC West titles and three bowl wins during his five-year tenure. "Half the team was; half the team wasn't. Ultimately, it broke the team apart and caused a quick downfall of LSU."
Another key for Saban is changing the perception that he employs a "prison-guard mentality." None of his assistants at Michigan State followed him to Baton Rouge, which fostered the notion that he was hard to work for.
Also, his demeanor appears mostly frosty on the surface, which caused some to question the credentials of a coach whose past is rooted firmly in the North.
"I can't believe some of the things I've heard about myself since I came down here to coach," said Saban, who spent four seasons in the NFL as the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator joining Michigan State in 1995.
Senior cornerback Fred Booker has heard the talk, but he said all that matters is that the team is sold on the new guy.
"The big thing is, coach Saban is a player's coach," said Booker, whose defense returns three of its top five tacklers from a unit that gave up 350 yards per game, ninth in the SEC. "DiNardo was a media coach. Coach Saban would rather be with us than the media."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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