During a segment of ESPNU’s show “The Experts” last week, the prime subject (surprisingly enough) was Saturday’s mega-showdown between No. 1-ranked LSU and No. 2 Alabama.
Naturally, the talk turned to the teams’ coaches. In one corner, LSU’s Les Miles. In the other, Alabama’s Nick Saban.
As the discussion droned on, they started running some stock video of the two men.
Predictably, the video of Saban showed him going ballistic on the sideline during a game.
The video of Miles showed him playing basketball in his backyard this summer against his son Manny, a silly but carefully crafted bit of shtick Miles sent to ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt after Van Pelt had sent him a special pair of shoes.
The two images are stereotypical in the extreme.
Saban has been known to smile and be gracious around people who lived to tell about it. And Miles has been known to not just chew the grass but all of the scenery over a call against his team.
To be sure, though, these two men arrive at their appointed duel having followed different paths to reach the same destination.
One example of the path each has followed is also stereotypical, but based in truth: Miles embraces the enjoyment of a big game like this, mixing his business with pleasure.
“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm around here for learning and going to practice and coaching,” Miles said Tuesday. “For me to deny it is just something I can’t do.”
“This is college football. Two great teams squaring off with something to play for. It’s fun.”
Saban has heard of the concept but has decided to mix business with, well, business.
“I’m sure there’ll be a lot of hype about this game,” Saban said last week, “but everybody just needs to chill out.”
Both men are in their own way disciples of legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, a man who was hard as nails and could be downright nasty if he felt like it. Asked why he went for two at the end of a 50-14 demolition of Michigan in 1968, Hayes snarled: “Because they wouldn’t let me go for three!”
Miles learned his football at Michigan from Bo Schembechler, a Hayes disciple who later became the old coach’s greatest rival. Saban learned his football at Kent State from Don James but was certainly influenced by Hayes. “If you’re going to fight in the North Atlantic,” Saban has often quoted Hayes as saying, “you have to train in the North Atlantic.”
Saban once said he enjoys building things. It’s a task he took on at Michigan State, then LSU, briefly and unsuccessfully with the Miami Dolphins, and now with Alabama.
One could say Saban is perfecting his craft. In four-plus seasons at The Capstone, the 60-year-old Saban is 46-11 (he and Alabama had to vacate five wins by NCAA mandate in 2007) with a national championship, a Southeastern Conference championship, and once again has his Crimson Tide poised to be champions again.
“He has all of the characteristics that you look for in a coach,” said Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore, a former Bama player and assistant under Paul “Bear” Bryant. “He believes strongly in what he does. He does not compromise. And he recruits.”
There was a long time where Miles suffered in Saban’s shadow at LSU.
The wins were Saban’s wins because he recruited most of the players, up to and including LSU’s BCS national championship in 2007. The losses were all Miles’.
After the BCS title came two seasons of relative struggle - an 8-5 campaign in 2008, a 9-4 season in 2009. Then last year Miles, his program and his public image had something of a renaissance.
A 7-0 start that included a win over Florida (Miles was 3-3 under former UF coach Urban Meyer) paved the way to an 11-2 season that included a 24-21 victory in Tiger Stadium over Saban’s Crimson Tide (Miles and Saban have each won two of their meetings).
Since then LSU has lost just once (at Arkansas last season), all with Miles’ players.
His track record at LSU by now includes four seasons of 11 wins or more, four top-10 finishes, a 5-1 record in bowl games.
And Miles’ Tigers are ranked No. 1 again, with nary a Saban recruit on the roster.
“Some day, they’re going to stop staying he’s lucky,” said former LSU Athletic Director Skip Bertman, Saban’s boss and the man who hired Miles to succeed him.
“He actually had a better record with Nick’s players than Nick had. He’s proven himself in many ways.”
A win Saturday would be the 99th of Miles career between his years at Oklahoma State (where he was 2-2 against Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops) and LSU, where he is 70-17. No coach since Charles McClendon (1962-79) has lasted longer in Baton Rouge than Miles, and only McClendon (137 wins) and Bernie Moore (83 wins, 1935-47) ever won more games at LSU.
“They’d better like Les,” Bertman said. “He’s going to be here, maybe longer than Charlie Mac was. They’d better get used to this.”
Fans perhaps had also better get used to more showdowns between Miles and Saban.