PLEASE DON’T say you’re surprised. Anything but surprised. Disappointed, perhaps, that Nick Saban — who finally built a winner at Michigan State — will not be coaching there anymore. Saddened, perhaps, that the Spartans have to start over again.

But surprised? Come on. Rumors about his departure had become a ritual with Saban. He was going to the National Football League. He was taking over the Indianapolis Colts. He was taking over the New York Giants. There were times when Michael Jackson’s marriage seemed more solid than Saban and MSU.

So please don’t say you were surprised Tuesday when the guy finally bit on one of the lures in the water. To be honest, the only question I had when I heard that Louisiana State was going to make Saban the third-highest-paid college football coach in America was simple:

Why him?

No offense to the work Nick has done in East Lansing, but the guy hadn’t exactly lit it up before this year. His record at MSU is 34-24-1. Take out this year’s excellent 9-2 season and he’s barely above .500. Does that put you right behind Hertz and Avis in the college football pecking order?

Does that get you shoulder-to-shoulder with Florida’s Steve Spurrier and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, both of whom have national championship rings and are in the hunt for No. 1 every year?

No, it does not. But Saban is no dummy. He knows heat and sizzle. And a New Year’s bowl game and a program on the upswing gives a coach heat and sizzle. Saban became an Internet stock; more promise than production.

They pay for promise in sports.

And the man got a whale of a payday.

“That’s a college job with pro money,” said former Spartans coach George Perles of Saban’s five-year contract with LSU, believed to be worth up to $1.5 million a year with incentives, “and being the third-highest-paid coach in the country is something you can be proud of.”

Even if you can’t feel so proud about the way you took it.

Recruiting’s name of the game

Remember, Saban still had a contract with MSU, a rollover deal which paid him around $700,000 a year. He still had a game to coach with this year’s Spartans, the Citrus Bowl, the school’s first New Year’s Day game in 10 years. It is a significant date for MSU fans.

But it’s also part of the sparkle that Saban traded in to get his new job. He won’t be coaching the Citrus Bowl. He shouldn’t be. LSU wouldn’t have it. MSU shouldn’t have it. Truth is, the reason LSU sent a private plane to fetch their new man was the same reason MSU is angry that he left so abruptly. Recruits. LSU wants to hold up their new coach and say, “Come to our school. Look who we just got.”

While MSU now must say, “Come to our school. We’ll get …somebody.”

Should you be mad at this? Well, in some ways, of course. Coaches are always preaching loyalty to their players. And if a kid transfers schools, he is penalized, and forced to sit out a year. No such penalty exists with coaches, who can jump on a day’s notice — which, if you believe Saban, is all he needed to decide to pack up and head south.

As for regrets? Well, consider these fond words from Saban:

“It’s a sad day for me because I love these guys and I love what this (place) has done for me. You develop a bond with your players as a coach that difficult to break.”

Nice. Except Saban didn’t say those words Tuesday.

He said them in 1995, when he left the Cleveland Browns.

So much for regrets.

He came, he saw, he fixed, he left.

Now Nick’s the Big Cheese

Now, this is not meant to castigate Saban. Most people would jump at a job that nearly doubles his salary. MSU will be all right in the long run. Besides, I believe Saban’s leap was much less financial than geographical.

Consider this: Saban, in 1999, finally got MSU off the ground. He finally got his guys to stop shooting themselves in the foot and losing the close ones. He finally gave the Spartans an exemplary season, including a win over arch-rival Michigan — and what does he have at the end of the year?

His team still finished behind U-M in the national rankings. It still is playing in a lesser bowl than Michigan.

Now compare that to LSU, down on the bayou, where they love their football, where the movie “Everybody’s All-American” was set, where the Tigers are the only show in town. There’s no Michigan to challenge the fans’ loyalty. There are no pro teams besides the Saints (if you can call them a pro team) to challenge the attention span.

If you’re looking for a telling quote from Saban, it’s this one, which he told the press down in Louisiana on Tuesday: “At Michigan State, we were never No. 1. That was always Michigan. It was always U-M this or that.”

Nick Saban left to be the Big Cheese.

The fact that they lined the mouse hole with gold is an added bonus.

And one, quite frankly, that makes me scratch my head. I always liked Nick, although he was hardly forthcoming with his comments, and you could sense a smoldering command beneath his placid demeanor.

But I never thought he was the hot stock that everyone else did. His records, in four years before this one, were 6-5-1, then 6-6, then 7-5, then 6-6.

He was awful in bowl games, getting shellacked in the three he coached in. And while he pulled off the occasional jolting win — the upset of Michigan in his first year, the stunning defeat of No. 1 Ohio State last year — there was always a regrettable loss that seemed to follow.

Even this year, when the Spartans cruised to 6-0 with the win over U-M, they promptly came back and blew all title hopes with a blowout loss the next week to Purdue, followed by another blowout loss to Wisconsin.

Where, exactly, is the genius coaching in that?

Saban is a good coach, a very good recruiter. But what he seems best at is leaving at the right time. He coached at six schools in seven years, left Toledo after one good season, left two pro teams, and now bolts from a program fighting to gain equal footing with its arch rival, to one that owns its state, and loves football so much it’s willing to pay a million bucks to get rid of its current coach.

Whose record, by the way, isn’t all that much different from Saban’s.

“Remember,” said Perles, whose messy departure led to the wooing of Saban in the first place, “all us coaches, we’re all phys-ed majors. There’s a lot of people who can do what we do, and we know it, so it makes us insecure. When you get an opportunity, you take it.”

He came, he saw, he fixed, he left. You can say that Nick Saban didn’t do anything the next guy in line wouldn’t do, except maybe teach by example.

Then again, isn’t that what college is supposed to be about?

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

ATTRACTIVE DEAL

Comparing football coach Nick Saban’s contract at Michigan State with his new deal at Louisiana State (both are five-year rollover contracts that renew annually):

Michigan State

Base salary — $203,730

TV/radio — $340,000

Supplemental pay* — $121,100

Annual bottom line — $664,830

Buyout clause — $600,000

Incentives — a mininum of $110,000 from the profits of a $1-million investment portfolio managed by MSU since April 1, 1997.

Louisiana State

Base salary — $250,000

TV/radio/internet — $550,000

Supplemental pay* — $400,000

Annual bottom line — $1.2 million

Buyout clause — $1.8 million

Incentives — Bonuses for things such as graduation rates and bowl game appearances could push Saban’s annual take to $1.5 million.

*Supplemental pay includes such things as equipment endorsements, football camps, insurance premiums, etc.

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