When the coach arrived, the lights came on.
“Surprise!” the players yelled.
Saban, born 60 years ago Monday in Fairmont, W.Va., smiled as he accepted a Crimson Tide jersey bearing the coach’s lineman-numbered age.
But the good time was short-lived.
“He quickly said, ‘Thank you,’” junior offensive tackle Barrett Jones said. “Then he moved on to his speech for the day.”
When the second-ranked Crimson Tide faces No. 1 LSU on Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Saban hopes Alabama’s players will treat the hype surrounding college football’s latest “Game of the Century” the way their coach treats birthday celebrations.
You can’t get caught up in the moment, Saban said Monday at his weekly news conference. You can’t let the party around you affect the business at hand.
“It’s fun to play in games like this. It’s probably what great competitors look forward to,” Saban said. “But I also think it’s important to be able to stay focused on what you need to do to play well. You can’t drain yourself emotionally because of all the things that are happening surrounding the game.”
Saban knows the temptation is there, like trick-or-treat candy on Halloween night.
In the first 1-2 matchup in Southeastern Conference regular-season history, the winner Saturday has the inside track at playing for a national championship.
LSU and Alabama have matched each other blowout for blowout, hanging double-digit victories on every opponent so far. They are ranked first and second not only in The Associated Press poll, but also in the USA Today coaches poll, the Harris Interactive Poll and the all-important BCS rankings.
CBS moved the game from the usual 2:30 p.m. slot into primetime. ESPN’s College GameDay crew will begin broadcasting live from here Thursday.
The buzz has built Super Bowl-style, as each team is coming off an open date and with two weeks to prepare.
“We’ve got a big crowd today,” Jones said as he took his seat Monday before the media. “I wonder what’s going on.”
Saban compared keeping the focus of his players to fatherhood.
“We all have children that we give instruction to when they go out on a date,” he said. “But you never know for sure if they’re going to do it or not.”
There’s so much on the line Saturday night, the fact Saban will once again face the school he once coached has become a forgotten story line.
Saban was asked about it Monday only once.
“I really don’t think a lot about that, but there are a lot of personal relationships we have with a lot of people because of the association that we had with LSU,” he said. “The older you get — and everybody knows I’m getting old — you kind of cherish those relationships and really respect them and appreciate them. I’m happy to say a lot of those things don’t get affected by this game and what happens in this game.”
Saban, who from 2000-04 helped make LSU football a national player, enters Saturday at 2-2 against the Tigers since taking the Alabama job in 2007.
Last year, LSU rallied for a 24-21 win that ended the Crimson Tide’s hopes of a repeat national championship.
The key play came with the Tigers facing fourth-and-1 at the Alabama 30 and less than 10 minutes to go. LSU coach Les Miles called a double-pitch reverse to tight end Deangelo Peterson, who hustled 23 yards down the left sideline to set up the go-ahead score.
“Every time we play against a team we lost to, we obviously want to beat them the next year,” junior linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “We’re definitely using that as something to kind of push us forward every day. We’re definitely looking forward to playing those guys and getting revenge.”
Saban has won 12 straight “revenge” games as a college coach, going 12-0 against teams that beat him the year before. He hasn’t lost to the same team in back-to-back seasons since Steve Spurrier and Florida whipped him in 2000 and 2001, his first two seasons at LSU.
The most notable win during the streak was a 32-13 upset of then-No. 1 Florida in 2009, a year after the Gators beat Alabama with a trip to the BCS title game on the line.
“I lose sleep over just about every game, even the ones we win,” Saban said. “But I think that happens with everybody a little bit more when you’re not successful and you don’t have success in a particular game. I think there’s lessons to be learned any time you play a team year in and year out, and maybe all of that affects how you prepare for that team in the future.”