For a coach who has been so embattled almost from day one, so second-guessed, so subject to such withering criticism, Les Miles took on a new persona Monday:
That of the sympathetic figure.
Miles was asked during his weekly Monday media luncheon — by all indications, his last such gathering as LSU’s football coach — what it’s meant to him for he and his wife Kathy to have raised their four children in Baton Rouge over these past 11 years.
Someone told me recently that Miles has so come to embrace this community, a community that hasn’t always embraced him back, that he had designs on retiring here one day. That was before his job was moved to the firing line in the midst of what is now a three-game losing streak by three double-digit margins, the worst such slide for the Tigers since 1966.
Still, Miles said, “This is home.”
It was heartrending, really. Emotion has always been part of the Miles’ appeal, his M.O., his calling card, really. That he spoke Monday with a general calm tone and even managed to break into an occasional, if wan, smile was the body language of a man who knows his fate has already been decided. A man who decided to take the high road and keep his eye on the task that is Saturday night’s regular-season and perhaps career finale against Texas A&M.
There seemed Monday to be a groundswell of support for Miles from the general LSU fan out there, if social media is to be any judge, fans either becoming anxious as this drama reaches its climax or simply anxious that LSU seems to be playing such a high-stakes game with its pride and joy program with no guarantee of a big payout waiting at the other end.
For his part, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva remained silent again Monday. He offered no official statement or explanation or even a “wait and see,” even as he remained the target of national media slings and arrows from all points on the compass.
Perhaps Alleva is trying to be respectful to Miles. Perhaps he was spending his time pushing his chips to the center of the table in a colossal poker game.
Both would be plausible.
The stakes couldn’t really be higher. LSU is considering letting go a coach who despite his team’s skid on the November ice has still won more than 77 percent of his games — most of any LSU coach in the Southeastern Conference era dating back to the 1930s. A coach who has won 68 percent of his conference games despite the fact his Tigers are 13-10 in the SEC the past three years and a much more damning 8-9 in the SEC West over that time.
LSU has been to this brink before with Miles, only in a different context. Three years ago, Arkansas came looking for Miles to take over its program before it eventually hired Bret Bielema. LSU gave Miles a fat new contract with a gigantic buyout that now means it’s obligated to pay him $15 million if it terminates him before Jan. 1. Reportedly, this would be the second-largest buyout in college football history (Notre Dame is about to cut the last check on Charlie Weis’ $18.9 million buyout). Indications are this still isn’t a sum large enough to make LSU and its deep-pocketed boosters swallow hard and decide to roll with Miles for another season.
It was good leverage Miles had in his corner then, having just come off a 13-1 season in 2011 even though it ended with the dud of a performance against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans. But Miles has no such cards to play now, not after his team went 8-5 (and 4-4 in SEC play) last year. Miles was even unable to get the clause erased from former defensive coordinator John Chavis’ contract (Chavis is now at Texas A&M) that said LSU can stop paying Miles’ assistant coaches after six months if he is terminated.
Miles may have been a sympathetic figure Monday and may continue to be. But football is a game, and big-time college football especially, where sympathy has little room at the table. LSU is going to make a move and has to pull in a superstar name — and maybe increase the stakes ever higher.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.