It’s easy to love or loathe a “GOAT.” It all depends on which side of the greatness that you sit on.
No one pulled harder than me for Karl “the Mailman” Malone and the Utah Jazz when they made their title runs in the late 90’s. The Mailman was a graduate of my alma mater, and his Louisiana fandom were all-in on his quest for a championship ring. There was only one problem. Our quest led us to the foot of the NBA Mount Everest, also known as the Chicago Bulls. The Jazz found themselves at the foot of this mountain in both the ’97 and ’98 finals, and the Jazz could not scale it either time.
At the time, it seemed less like a team but more like one man standing between the Jazz and the long sought-after prize. And that man was Michael Jordan. I don’t know if I could have loathed a player more than I loathed Jordan in those years. I have never seen a more fierce competitor. Nor have I ever seen a single player elevate the rest of his team like Jordan did. Nor have I ever seen a player take-over and win games seemingly by himself like Jordan did. He was the GOAT, and I hated him for it because my fandom was on the wrong side of that greatness.
But in the years and decades since those disappointments in the late 90’s, something changed. My loathing turned into recognition of what Jordan really was as a player. So much so, that I am ready to throwdown with anyone who questions whether Jordan was the GOAT. Call it the irrational vicissitudes of sports fandom. I call it the inevitable recognition of greatness.
Two days after the retirement of Nick Saban, I can already recognize that I’m experiencing a similar change of heart.
I grew up in Louisiana, but I became a rabid fan of LSU as an adult. I kind of married into it, actually. My wife and her whole family are graduates of LSU. When we moved away from Louisiana over 23 years ago, LSU was pretty much the only team from back home that played on television every week. As a Louisiana expat, pulling for LSU became more like pulling for home. We may not be good at much, but, man oh man, are we good at food and smashmouth football.
The Tigers had a new coach named Nick Saban who was on a quest for a championship, and he led the team and the entire fandom to believe it was possible. Not only was it possible, it happened in 2003. As Saban held the BCS trophy over his head in the SuperDome on January 4, 2004, we all believed that this was just the beginning.
But then he left. He not only left LSU, but he left the SEC altogether for the NFL. After a disastrous stint with the Miami Dolphins, we had to face the bitter reality of his return to the SEC in 2007 to coach one of LSU’s biggest rivals—the Alabama Crimson Tide.
For many LSU fans, that’s when their loathing of Nick Saban began. For me, however, it took a little longer. I wasn’t bothered at all by Saban’s return because I was still convinced that LSU was the better program. But that illusion was blown away in 2012 when Alabama curb-stomped undefeated LSU in the BCS Championship game. LSU did more than lose a championship game after that disappointment. The team lost its mojo. Its swagger. There was a dark lord rising in the East, and he seemed untouchable.
It would be eight long years before LSU would be able to beat Alabama again, and it took Joe Burreaux and the greatest college football team ever assembled to do it. Those eight years were eight years of frustration and loathing among the fandom as our former coach grew into the GOAT right before our very eyes, and we found ourselves time and again on the wrong side of that greatness.
It has been easy to loathe the mastermind throughout these wilderness years as an LSU fan. I know he was part of an entire team, but it really felt like one guy standing between the Tigers and the prize every year. We were on the wrong side of greatness, and we knew it. It was all him.
That is why there was a collective sigh of relief in the SEC fandom two days ago. A sense that our long nightmare was finally over. A sense that maybe none of us will have to die trying to climb that mountain again. The mountain—the man—is gone.
Is there any better tribute to Saban’s greatness than his opponents’ response to his departure? Probably not.
I am already starting to feel the change come over me. We all know he’s the GOAT. Many of us just didn’t want to say so while we were on the wrong side of his greatness. But now it feels like it might be okay. And I’m already feeling a little plucky about anyone who might want to argue with me about it.
Congratulations, Coach Saban. It was a great run.
Over those years in the wilderness, I amassed a treasure chest of irrational and fanatical public loathing of the Sith Lord Saban. The record is there for everyone to see. And it really is fanatical, which is what “fan” stands for anyway. There’s way more than this, but here’s a sample:
When Tennessee couldn’t beat Bama like I wanted them to:
Emperor Saban is doing that electricy-from-his-fingers thing on the Vols right now.
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) October 26, 2013
Practicing my SAT analogies:
Who cares? Bama is still the Slytherin of college football, and Saban is Sauron. Except the analogy breaks down for me because Sauron is so much more likeable than Saban.
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) November 4, 2018
Trolling my dear friends who are Saban fans:
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) November 22, 2015
When Saban defeated Mark Dantonio’s Spartans in the Cotton Bowl in 2015:
We’re almost to the part where Saban walks across the field and says, “Mark, I am your father. Join me, and we’ll rule the galaxy together.”
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) January 1, 2016
Jeering at the vaunted “process”:
Nick Saban says it’s all about the process. Here’s to hoping Bama is in the process of imploding. ?:^)#GeauxTigers
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) August 30, 2014
Keeping readers informed of salient news:
How Nick Saban ruined SEC football. https://t.co/5h306a4Ubt
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) November 29, 2016
Taking the opportunity to share the important work of those making fun of Saban:
*Mrs. Saban prepping thanksgiving*
“Honey, what side should we bring?”
Nick Saban: pic.twitter.com/GL9vs1jNO6
— Joey (@JoeyMulinaro) November 27, 2019
Me not daring to let myself hope that he would leave Bama:
No way. Saban already washed out once in the NFL. Why would he do that again? https://t.co/bbAB13Xarh
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) January 9, 2018
Again, hopes for Saban leaving SEC West dashed:
Wow // Texas was prepared to offer Nick Saban $100 million to coach the Longhorns. http://t.co/7xyNRXAAoW
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) July 17, 2014
Me giving a white, hot take on politics:
Let me be clear. I support building the wall, and Saban should definitely pay for it. @LSUBeatTweet https://t.co/p7r9tU6UTs
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) February 2, 2017
Making fun of deranged Saban fans:
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) May 11, 2015
And of course my recent rant to end all rants:
Please indulge a lengthy complaint about why the 2023 college playoff is complete garbage. It all boils down to this. Alabama is the Special, and everyone else can get hosed so long as the Special gets a second chance. The two teams getting hosed this year are Florida State and… pic.twitter.com/R3AR65CXO9
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) December 3, 2023
During Saban’s years at Alabama, two teams tied for the most wins against Alabama. Auburn had five wins, and LSU had five wins. In 2019, LSU finally climbed the mountain. It’s my favorite game from that season. Even better than the actual championship game.