The Making of Champions
The 2003 Season
Becoming a champion is not an easy process, and the 2003 season is a great example of how it is done. By focusing on what it takes to get there, and not on getting there, our LSU team was able to win the BCS national title. All along the way, we as coaches imparted ideas, philosophies, and practices that helped shape the team. The story of our championship is exciting, but just as important are the lessons we learned and taught along the way. To make sure these stand out, I’ve highlighted them for you.
Most people think that the Louisiana State University football team won the national championship on the night of January 4, 2004, at the Nokia Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. They believe that because we were the better team that night against Oklahoma—because we had better players making bigger plays and coaches making better moves—we won the championship. But I tend to disagree. I think we actually won the national title almost four hundred days earlier in Little Rock, Arkansas.
After we captured the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship in 2001, expectations were obviously quite high in Baton Rouge for our 2002 squad. We were led by strong seniors, including Bradie James, and gifted underclassmen, including quarterbacks Matt Mauck and Marcus Randall and receivers Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson. We certainly were going to miss the seniors’ abilities and leadership, but I thought we had a solid team, particularly on defense. I’ve been coaching the game long enough to know that, as defending SEC champions, we had a big red target on our back. We knew that every SEC game would be a war. And, boy, were we right.
Ranked #14 in the nation, we started off the season against #16 Virginia Tech in a nationally televised game in Blacksburg, in front of sixty-five thousand screaming fans. It was a difficult environment to play in, and we did nothing to help our cause. With eight first-time starters in the game, our inexperience showed early and often. Fumbles, interceptions, blocked punts, and penalties gave us little chance, and we trailed 24–0 before scoring in the fourth quarter. It was not a great start to the season. But we rebounded and defeated The Citadel and Miami of Ohio at home before winning our SEC opener against Mississippi State, 31–13. Our confidence was high and, after routing University of Louisiana—Lafayette the following week and dominating Florida 36–7 at Gainesville, we were a team to be reckoned with. Except for one thing. We had lost starting quarterback Matt Mauck to a broken foot in the Florida game. We managed to keep the winning streak going with a win over South Carolina. We were 6–1, atop the SEC and ranked #10 in the nation. But then we headed to Auburn.
We fumbled on our first play from scrimmage, and it didn’t get much better from there. We turned the ball over five times and lost 31–7. The following week against Kentucky, we won only by virtue of the “Bluegrass Miracle,” when Marcus Randall connected on a 75-yard Hail Mary to Devery Henderson on the last play of the game. Truth told, we probably should not have won. Alabama made sure there was no miracle the next week, soundly trouncing us at home, 31–0. After a fourth-quarter comeback against Ole Miss the following week, we were in a position to win the SEC West again and make a return trip to the SEC title game—if we could get past Arkansas in the season finale. With forty seconds left in the game, we led 20–14. The game was ours if we could simply stop Arkansas from a full-field drive. We couldn’t. Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones threw the ball over the top of our prevent defense to Richard Smith for a 50-yard gain. A few plays later, he connected with receiver DeCori Birmingham on a 30-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left. The extra point was good, and the wind was officially kicked out of us.
In my opinion, that’s when we began our march toward the national championship.
After the crushing loss to Arkansas, we all rededicated ourselves to the little things. The awful feeling of that last-second loss had an indelible impact on everyone in the LSU program. Never again would we squander a lead; never again would we be outplayed in the fourth quarter; never again would we be outworked any day of the year. It was then that the championship team was born.
Immediately after the Cotton Bowl loss to Texas, the coaches hit the road—recruiting like never before—and the players hit the weight room. They voluntarily worked out almost every day, often in large groups, well before the official off-season conditioning began. In February, in the first official team meeting before off-season conditioning began, I asked everyone in the room—players, coaches, managers—to close their eyes and think about how they’d felt just months earlier, in the moments after the Arkansas loss. I didn’t want them to forget it. When team workouts began in earnest, there was a renewed optimism and a clear sense of commitment on the part of the players. They arrived early for workouts and stayed late. They encouraged one another and kept each other in line. In the winter of 2003, we enjoyed the highest attendance rate of any off-season. The work ethic and positive attitude apparent in the strength and conditioning workouts continued into the spring, and the spring practices were more impressive than I could have hoped. Every single man played as if each down was his last. There was no letup.
In the late spring, the seniors on the team gathered to set out the goals for the 2003 LSU program. We had no outspoken or easily identifiable leader on our team—there were even some worries that there was an absence of the kind of strong, recognizable leader we’d had in the past. Our concerns about a vacuum of leadership vanished when the seniors presented me with the team goals.
1. Be a Team—Together Everyone Accomplishes More.
2. Work to Dominate Your Opponent.
3. Positively Affect Our Teammates.
4. Individual Responsibility for Self-Determination.
5. Be Champions On and Off the Field.
None of the five goals says anything about how many games we wanted to win or what titles we were striving for. No, these goals were about performance—on and off the field—and they set the tone for the 2003 season. We did indeed have some true leaders—and we were proud of them.
Come summertime, we had more players pass our summer conditioning tests than ever before. The players hung out together away from the field and stayed out of trouble. They attended summer school classes, did their work, and got along great. The older guys welcomed the newcomers with open arms. When camp began in August, everyone involved—coaches, players, managers, and trainers—was as focused as in any program I’ve been a part of. There was simply no selfishness on this team. The upperclassmen helped teach the freshmen, competitors for starting positions respected one another, and both sides of the ball took pride in their effort. Players didn’t complain of the heat, and the coaches didn’t talk about the long hours. We shared a purpose; we all knew what we wanted to accomplish. And there was some additional inspiration. Our longtime equipment manager and friend, Jeff Boss, had been suffering from cancer, and his condition was not good. It affected all of us.
As a coach, you are often more optimistic than realistic before the first kickoff, but we had a lot of faith in the personality of this team. Still, to be successful, you also have to be lucky. Could we stay injury-free this year? Would we avoid the off-the-field pitfalls that can break a team apart? Would we get some lucky bounces and make the big plays when we had to? You see, it’s not just about having the best players—it’s about being relentless in the pursuit of your goal and resilient in the face of bad luck and adversity.
On offense, we had Matt Mauck at quarterback, backed up by an equally experienced Marcus Randall. Matt was intelligent and mature and athletic, and though he wasn’t the greatest natural passer on the field, he commanded respect and the team felt comfortable with him at the helm. In the backfield, there was a plethora of backs, from Shyrone Carey to Joseph Addai to a trio of outstanding newcomers. On the offensive line, All-Everything guard Stephen Peterman and tackle Andrew Whitworth were joined by center Ben Wilkerson and tackle Rodney Reed. It was the most experienced group we’d ever had. The receiving corps was one of the best in the country, with Michael Clayton, Skyler Green, and Devery Henderson leading the way. So our offense was strong and armed with a number of weapons.
Then there was the defense. The 2003 LSU defense looked like the finest I have ever had the privilege of coaching. The defensive line included senior Chad Lavalais and junior ends Marquise Hill and Marcus Spears. Lionel Turner led the linebackers, and the secondary was phenomenal, with safety Jack Hunt, corners Corey Webster and Travis Daniels, nickel back Randall Gay, and freshman LaRon Landry vying for playing time. We moved Eric Alexander from safety to linebacker, and he did not disappoint.
We opened the season, as I noted, ranked #14 in the country, but that didn’t matter to us. The players and coaches were focused on the daily practices and game planning, not who was on our schedule, where we were ranked, or who on the team was going to the NFL after the season. To the team’s credit, the focus on the process of being champions never wavered. And our opening game was a pretty good sign.
The offense amassed 474 yards and 23 first downs, and the defense allowed just one score in a 49–7 win over the University of Louisiana—Monroe. A week later, on September 6, we traveled to the Far West and took on Arizona on their turf. At the end of the first quarter, we led 17–0. At the half, 38–0. After the third quarter, 45–0, and the final score was 59–13. It was not perfect, as we fumbled four times, but Matt and Marcus looked solid behind center. We had one more nonconference game to go before opening up SEC play. Again, we didn’t play great against Western Illinois, losing three fumbles and suffering poor special teams, but we played well enough to move to 3–0 with a 35–7 win.
We try to never look at the schedule or think about it in terms of nonconference, conference, and postseason games, but, clearly, the SEC games raise the stakes. We want our players to treat Western Illinois the same way they would approach Georgia or Auburn or Florida. After all, the opponent should never determine your level of competitive spirit. Still, I can tell you we were very excited on September 20 to welcome Georgia to Baton Rouge.
As I’ve said, one thing about championship teams is that they’re resilient. No matter what is thrown at them, no matter how deep the hole, they find a way to bounce back and overcome adversity. And, for us, no game throughout the entire 2003 season was more emblematic of that than our game against Georgia.
The Bulldogs scored first on a Billy Bennett field goal in the first quarter to go ahead 3–0. On our next series, quarterback Matt Mauck dropped back to pass and was intercepted. Not only were we trailing, but we’d just given Georgia a gift. But we bounced back. A few plays after Matt’s interception throw, Georgia quarterback David Greene fumbled the ball on our 8-yard line. We had escaped. On their next offensive possession, Billy Bennett’s field goal was nullified by offsetting penalties, and his second attempt was no good. Again, we had dodged a bullet. He missed another field goal attempt in the second quarter. Our defense was giving up good field position, but our offense was moving the sticks consistently to get that field position back.
We finally got on the board late in the first half when Matt connected on a 31-yard pass play to receiver Skyler Green and running back Shyrone Carey scored on a 21-yard run with 3:10 left before halftime, giving us a 7–3 lead. Unbelievably, Billy Bennett missed a third field goal attempt late in the half. After all that we had done wrong—the interception, the poor defense, the stagnant offense—we still led a very good Georgia team at the half.
We opened the scoring in the second half when Ryan Gaudet kicked a field goal to put us ahead 10–3 and linebacker Lionel Turner picked off David Greene shortly thereafter. We had the ball and the momentum. But football is a crazy game and, just like that, we lost both the ball and momentum when Ryan’s 31-yard field goal attempt was blocked. The adversity continued when we got the ball back and Matt fumbled inside the 25-yard line. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This wasn’t the team that had dominated the first three games of the season. On second and 13 from his own 7-yard line, David Greene threw a screen pass to Tyson Browning, who did the rest—running 93 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 10–10 with just 4:25 left.
To me, that was the defining moment of our season. We had just allowed a huge play late in a big game after a critical turnover. How would we respond? No one blinked—not the coaches, not the players, not the crowd.
Devery Henderson returned the ensuing kickoff 52 yards, then Matt hit Skyler for a 34-yard touchdown with 3:03 left to give us a 17–10 lead, which we did not relinquish. We won the heavyweight battle not by dominating, but by exhibiting sheer determination and resiliency. The tendency is to think that we won because they missed three field goals, dropped some passes, and so forth; but it was our resiliency that allowed us to overcome our own errors and mistakes. There was relief in the postgame locker room, but I also noticed a determination on the faces of the players. They weren’t satisfied with the win—they knew they hadn’t played to their potential and they knew that it was just one game. I liked that attitude.
The following week against Mississippi State, we played much better on both sides of the ball in a convincing 41–6 win, which was tougher than the score indicated. With the 5–0 start, LSU had its best start to a season since 1973. We were on a roll as we prepared to take on rival Florida at home.
Copyright © 2004 by Nick Saban. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.