This Golden Age of LSU football began not with a bang but right after a Tiger whimper one September night 13 years ago.
Before Alabama coach Nick Saban was comparing a loss against UL-Monroe to Pearl Harbor bombings, his most damning loss came to UAB back in 2000 while he was coaching at LSU.
When the two teams meet in Tiger Stadium this weekend, the circumstances will be drastically different. LSU skyrocketed toward the top of the college football crop soon after the defeat, while the Blazers haven’t been to a bowl game since 2004.
And yet the small Alabama program — often ignored almost completely because of the powerhouse programs just down the road — will always have that one night.
With a new upper deck in place and Homecoming festivities in full swing for the fourth game of Saban’s inaugural season, UAB — less than a decade old as a program — pulled the upset in a sloppy 13-10 slugfest.
But here’s an uncommon view of the game, as posited by former UAB kicker Rhett Gallego, who made the game-winning, 32-yard field goal as time expired.
It wasn’t really an upset.
“We jumped out to a 10-0 lead, and controlled the play,” Gallego said. “It wasn’t like this miracle or thing where we came out of nowhere. We had a good team. It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, we’re going to LSU. Oh no, intimidation factor!’”
He’s got a compelling case.
The Blazers finished 7-4 that year, only missing the postseason because there were fewer bowls back then. Their only losses came at Kansas by three points on a late 50-yard field goal and to three bowl-bound teams that finished a combined 24-12.
Six players from their defense played some form of pro football for multiple years. Three were drafted by NFL teams, including first-rounder Bryan Thomas, who played 11 seasons as a defensive tackle for the Jets.
That defense held an LSU offense full of future All-Conference players and NFL draft picks like Josh Reed, Josh Booty, Domanick Davis and LaBrandon Toefield to 263 total yards. They picked off Booty four times and forced five fumbles, recovering two.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said former LSU recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Derek Dooley prior to the 2010 Tennessee-UAB game. “I laid in my bed [recently] thinking about it. [UAB] had some good players and we were real thin upfront, then. We had some playmakers at the skill spots. It was the turnovers that did it.”
But with the Tigers coming off a combined seven wins in 1998-99, there wasn’t quite the aura there is now.
“I remember the student section was across the field, so right behind us were a bunch of families and little kids waving at you, not knowing any better,” said Blazers quarterback Daniel Dixon. “It stuck out in my mind. The stadium was definitely hostile, but for some reason that moment took the edge off the place.”
Dixon, the normal starter, was benched after a poor start to the season, but replaced the 0-for-5 Thomas Cox in the second quarter and posted UAB’s only touchdown of the night with a 24-yard strike on his second drive.
LSU bounced back with a Davis touchdown dive in the third period and tied the game on John Corbello’s fourth-quarter field goal.
Late in the final frame, UAB corner Chris Brown picked off Booty in LSU territory and returned it 25 yards inside the Tiger 20-yard line.
Gallego’s walk-off kick followed moments later, the full impact of which was lost on him immediately but has only appreciated over time with Saban and LSU’s meteoric rise.
“It was pretty quick to figure out he was a pretty good coach because they beat [No. 11] Tennessee and [No. 13] Mississippi State in the next month,” Gallego said. “You sit there and win our ballgame, and then you’re watching them winning these games in hotel rooms. It made us realize, well, he is pretty good. But so are we.”
Gallego, now a firefighter in Tuscaloosa, works a mile from Saban’s Alabama office. He’s often wondered what he would say to the legendary coach he once beat on a balmy Baton Rouge night.
“I don’t even know if I would bring it up,” Gallego said. “My co-workers would probably do it for me. They think it’s so cool the guy driving with them and working with them beat the man himself.”
Dixon will be in attendance Saturday, returning to the scene of the triumph. History seems unlikely to repeat itself, with LSU an overwhelming five-touchdown favorite.
“I always told myself I would make it back down here and this game has just brought the whole thing back to memory,” Dixon said. “I’m sure there’s a few LSU fans who want to forget it.”