It’s never been easy with Les Miles.
Never easy to give him the credit he deserved. Never easy to know when enough criticism was enough. Never easy for multitudes of passionate LSU fans to pledge unquestioned allegiance to the winningest (by percentage) football coach in LSU history. Never easy to typecast him as a coach with no redeeming qualities or successes whatsoever.
All the way from his very first game in 2005 against Arizona State, when he allowed punter Chris Jackson to throw a pass from his own end zone (it picked up a first down), to what looks for all the world like it will be his last game at LSU on Saturday night against Texas A&M, Miles has been an enigma.
A coach so stubbornly committed to an antiquated power running game though LSU’s opponents weekly stacked the line to stop it was the same coach who called a trick-play pass to beat Florida this year when a field goal might have done the trick.
The man who directed his team to beat itself upon the rock of Alabama’s Gibraltar-like front seven is the same man who rolled dice like a Vegas craps shooter trying to get even after falling in a 50 grand hole. Who else would green light a pass like the one to beat Auburn in 2007 that ended with :01 on the clock when his team was in range to kick for the win?
Polarizing is the best word for Miles, the most polarizing coach LSU has had since Charles McClendon, his most kindred spirit among all of LSU’s coaches.
It was easy to get behind Nick Saban and Bill Arnsparger, no-nonsense defensive savants who inspired people to believe their way was THE way. It was just as easy to say Curley Hallman couldn’t cut it, or that Gerry DiNardo made moves with his coordinators that ultimately doomed him.
Miles, to use a Milesism, fits comfortably into that no man’s land that was once walked only by Jerry Stovall. He went from being national coach of the year in 1982 to out on his ear in 1983.
That, by every indication, will be Miles after this game. Only his Operation Downfall didn’t take a whole season.
Just three games.
Following LSU football since the late 1970s, I’ve witnessed the mountain range of the Tigers’ ups and downs. Never seen a season like this, though, a season in which the Tigers started 7-0 and reached No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings only to drop three successively more frightful games to fall into minor bowl territory. From running to glory behind Heisman front-runner Leonard Fournette to forgetting what it is to be a front-runner at all, the Tigers have trailed Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss by a collective 55-0.
Yet it’s much more than LSU’s first three-game skid since 1999 that has put Miles in this fix.
There’s a popular term going around Tigertown. It’s called Les Miles fatigue. Fatigue brought on by the unimaginative offense. Fatigue over the mistakes that never get fixed, the penalties that wipe out not only big gains but touchdowns. Fatigue over the 13-10 SEC record the past three years, 8-9 against the rugged SEC West. And this season a new ingredient to exhaust the patience: the kickoffs that get returned for miles unless they first bounce out of bounds.
It is the Les Miles fatigue factor all the national sports figures who express hand-wringing disbelief that LSU could be thinking of sacking a man owning a .774 winning percentage and a national championship ring can’t comprehend.
It’s kind of like surviving a natural disaster, folks. You don’t know what it’s truly like unless you’ve been through it.
Still, the points are worth making. If this was another school trying to arrange this bloodless gridiron coup, LSU’s now-anguished followers would be just as incredulous.
Athletic director Joe Alleva must have a coalition in place willing to help LSU pay off Miles’ staggering $15 million buyout for this to happen. He’s catching all the fire for this, but he couldn’t do it without approval from LSU President F. King Alexander and the Board of Supervisors.
Hardly anyone is saying the biggest reason not to terminate Miles is what a financially challenged university could do with the $15 million its boosters are fronting to make him go away. Fifteen million would go a long way to alleviating some of the brain drain and deferred maintenance backlog on the academic side of the campus savaged by years of budget cuts under the Jindal administration. The biggest reason not to move on Miles isn’t because of his record but because so many professors have moved away.
Those who criticize the notion of paying Miles the GDP of a small Caribbean nation to not coach forget there’s often no good way for coaching tenures to end. Since Paul Dietzel left for Army in 1962, only two of LSU’s eight coaches (including Bo Rein but excluding Miles) left on their own terms: Arnsparger and Saban. Going out a national champion like Nebraska’s Tom Osborne is almost always a fairy tale.
With Miles there were titles, but there were shortcomings. Not huge ones — it’s not like this team is 4-6 right now and 2-5 in the SEC — but enough apparently to force him out.
The debate will continue, as it has for 11 years with Miles. Is getting rid of him the right move, and if there is another coach leading the Tigers out of the tunnel next season, what can he possibly accomplish to justify this?
It hasn’t been easy living with Miles as LSU’s coach. Living with the legacy of his departure could be just as hard.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.