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The Madness of Les Miles

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For LSU football, it’s been a year of living dangerously

The pantheon of LSU head coaches in the memories of fans is a proud roll call of ingenuity, innovation, game-day planning and pure football tradition: Dana Bible, Bernie Moore, Paul Dietzel, Charlie McClendon, Bill Arnsparger, Nick Saban. LSU has played 117 seasons of football now, but it is possible that it has never seen a season like this one, under Les Miles.

Miles initiated the 2010 version of the Tigers when he decided to bring back last year’s number one target of fans’ ire, offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, which incited a mixture of trepidation and excitement even before the first kickoff. Crowton had taken the fall for late-game failures in clock management that made LSU fans scream with anger last year, most memorably when the team failed to run a play in the final 28 seconds from within the five-yard line in a key loss to Ole Miss. In that game, there was debate about what had happened and who had called what. Zapruder-like film emerged showing Les Miles himself gesturing wildly like Carlton Fisk for quarterback Jordan Jefferson to spike the ball, something Miles had previously denied. Words like “confusion,” “chaos,” and “mismanagement” were thrown around with frequency, not just by fans, but by players and coaches. Surely, the postseason speculation went, Miles would find a new offensive coordinator, someone who would not only maximize the talent on the field but also help Miles with the nuances of head coaching, someone who would know how to send in the kicking team with seconds elapsing in a two-point ball game. Instead, Miles stood by his man. He brought back Crowton, and the fans seemed to groan collectively, expecting the inevitable breakdown.

This year, the breakdowns have been numerous. Not only have Miles and Crowton not learned their lessons regarding time management, they seem to have become more inept at it. Meanwhile, while no one was looking, probably including Les Miles himself, the Tiger defense under coordinator John Chavis grew into one of the most exciting, capable, play-making units in all
the land. This has led to game after game in which LSU, despite being outplayed and outcoached on offense, has remained in games with opportunities to win in the waning moments. It’s been a season of absolute brinksmanship, a year of dangerous living in
which a team’s and a state’s football fate has rested squarely on the “strategery” of the very last man anyone would want calling the shots in those situations: Les Miles.

Against North Carolina, the Tigers raced out to a 30–10 lead, only to muddle the second half with a host of bizarre play calls and lineup decisions that invited a comeback by the Tar Heels. The Tigers crawled away with a win only after dodging two dropped passes for possible touchdowns by the opposition, including one with time running out from the Tigers’ six yard line. Tepid offensive performances in wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi State led into the West Virginia game, in which another commanding lead, this one 17–0, devolved into more second-half befuddlement, precipitating another near comeback. Both times, the Tigers escaped with a narrow win by identical six-point margins (30–24 against UNC, 20–14 against UWV), and only aided by two touchdowns from Heisman hopeful Patrick Peterson, sterling defensive play, and a healthy dose of luck.

Incredibly, Miles’ bipolar proclivity for drama not only continued but worsened in the next game, against Tennessee. In what had been a poorly managed offensive display throughout, the interchanging of quarterbacks from Jefferson to Jarrett Lee led to a final minute drive that left LSU at the Volunteers’ doorstep with time running out. It seemed like a nightmare revisited; it was Ole Miss all over again, as coaches barked conflicting orders on the sideline, and confused players, including the quarterbacks, shuttled in and out in the last slipping seconds. Jefferson, as in the Ole Miss game in 2009, stood with his arms outstretched, but with nothing happening.

The game seemed sure to fall into the crevasse of incompetence that has become the Miles and Crowton hallmark, when—of all people—the center, T-Bob Hebert, apparently acting on his own initiative, snapped the ball.

Slapstick mayhem ensued with the Tigers seemingly losing in ignominy. Televisions turned off around the state, the words “Fire Les Miles” emanated from the mouths of students and alumni, middle-aged men and women, and regents. Everywhere at once, there was a dawning universal awareness that Miles must go. Then, coaches were pulled back to the sidelines, players were sent back on the field, fans were called back to their seats: the refs announced that the Tigers’ confusion was so bad, so completely baffling, that the Volunteers themselves had become confused and had sent too many men on the field. Rescued from sheer oblivion, the Tigers were given another chance and emerged with a two-point win.

All of this culminated and escalated further in the next game against Florida: another lead, another comeback, Miles saw a relatively inferior Gators team outcoach and outmaneuver his into a late lead, and yet again LSU found itself with a chance to win at the end of the game. More, now standard, mismanagement of timeouts and the remaining seconds followed as the Tigers lined up for a tying field goal attempt. Simple enough, right? Wrong, not for Les Miles. Like a man gambling with someone else’s money, he called a fake kick, not an ordinary one but one involving a behind-the-back lateral, that nearly went forward, that actually bounced, and which called for a run by the kicker through four Gator defenders.

Shockingly, LSU fans everywhere twitched and howled like Chief Inspector Dreyfus upon watching Clouseau close out another successful caper: It worked. The madman had pulled off another gambit and there was nothing Tiger fans could do about it but join in the madness and rejoice in the win. Somehow, through early October, LSU emerged through all this at 4–0 in the SEC, 6–0 overall, and ranked in the Top 10, with Alabama on the horizon and with a BCS game in its sites. If the madness of Les Miles does not kill Tiger fans, it may just infect them with the same condition.