ORLANDO, Fla. LSU coach Nick Saban finally turned pro Saturday, prompting a Christmas night celebration at the home of Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga.
''My wife and I high-fived each other,'' Huizenga said.
The billionaire businessman anxiously watched from Fort Lauderdale as Saban held a televised news conference in Orlando to announce he would accept an offer to coach the Dolphins.
Saban, courted repeatedly by the NFL in recent years, mulled over the offer for three days before disclosing his decision shortly after the Tigers arrived in Orlando for their Jan. 1 bowl game against Iowa.
''It's a tremendous challenge for me,'' he said, ''and a great opportunity for me and my family.''
No contract has been signed, but Saban agreed to a five-year deal worth almost $5 million per year.
He first interviewed for the job last week at his home in Baton Rouge, La., hosting Huizenga and president Eddie Jones for dinner. He met with them again Friday and said he agreed in principle to a deal.
But Huizenga said he was unsure they had an agreement until the news conference.
''If somebody held a gun to my head 10 minutes ago, I couldn't tell you,'' Huizenga said moments after Saban's announcement. ''I had a good feeling, but I really did not know.''
Saban, 53, will coach LSU in the bowl game before taking over a long-proud Dolphins franchise enduring its worst season since the 1960s. He becomes the sixth coach in team history, and the fourth since Huizenga took over as owner in 1994.
Touted as NFL material even when he was at Michigan State in the late 1990s, Saban has turned down previous overtures from at least five pro teams, including Atlanta and Chicago a year ago. He has been considered the favorite to become the Dolphins' coach since Dave Wannstedt resigned last month when they were 1-8.
Upon arriving in Orlando, Saban met with his players to inform them he was leaving. Accompanied by four uniformed Louisiana police officers, he then walked through a nearly deserted hotel lobby to a huge ballroom, where he spoke to about a dozen reporters and cameramen.
He said the Dolphins' job carried special appeal even though they're one of the NFL's worst teams at 3-11.
''I have a lot of respect and gratitude for everybody who has been interested in me through the years,'' Saban said. ''I just felt like this opportunity, with this organization, was one of the best that's ever been presented to me in terms of how you can control your destiny in the organization, the commitment the organization has to winning and the tradition that they have in winning.''
Huizenga's willingness to give Saban full authority over the football operation could mean the demotion or departure of general manager Rick Spielman.
Saban is 9-2 this season and 48-15 in five years at LSU, taking his team to a bowl game every season.
''It's the most self-gratifying experience I've had as a coach,'' Saban said. ''But I've always been driven by challenges the next challenge that makes driven people want to take advantage of the next opportunity.''
The highest-paid coach in college football, Saban is in the first year of an $18.45 million, seven-year contract at LSU, but the deal has no buyout clause penalizing him for taking another job.
LSU went 3-8 the year before he arrived and 8-4 in his first season. An SEC title followed in 2001, and he led the Tigers to last season's BCS national championship.
''You look around and say, 'OK, who's out there that's better than that?''' Huizenga said. ''I couldn't find anybody.''
The other candidates interviewed by Huizenga were former Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell and Dolphins interim coach Jim Bates. Many Miami players lobbied for Huizenga to keep Bates, who is 2-3 since being promoted from defensive coordinator. His team plays Cleveland on Sunday night.
Bates may return to his former job next season.
''I think if we talk about it, we'll know if it works for both of us,'' Saban said. He and Bates were assistants together with the Browns in 1991-1993.
Also on that staff was Saban's close friend Bill Belichick, coach of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. They now become AFC East rivals.
Saban's other NFL experience was as an assistant coach with the Houston Oilers in 1988-89.
LSU defensive end Melvin Oliver said players recognized Saban had an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
''We're taking it in stride,'' Oliver said. ''He's got to do what's best for him and his family. We understand fully.''
Oliver also said Saban's decision won't affect the team's preparations for the bowl game.
''The coach is dedicated, and this won't be a distraction,'' Oliver said.
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