Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The joy, and agony, of LSU football

     LSU football can drive a person mad, specifically the person writing this.
     I was at my best -- no, worst -- Saturday night. The woman who also lives in this apartment, a Dallas Mavericks fan, also was mad ... at me. Don't blame her.
     It was a tough night, and while the game's outcome at The Swamp in Florida was a good one for us, the method was -- as usual -- maddening.
     You would think that after 10 years of Les Miles-coached LSU teams, we would be used to this. You would be wrong.
Les Miles and the LSU Tigers sing the alma mater after every victory, as
 they did Saturday at Florida, but often it is a struggle to get there. (AP photo) 
     The stress of watching the Tigers is going to take me out of this apartment in future games. I think a padded room, with me as the sole occupant, is the answer. Easier LSU victories would be a good solution. That's not likely to happen.
     The stress of watching the Dallas Cowboys live and the New York Yankees live, and even the Dallas Mavericks live, have taken them out of my television rotation. That's what U-Verse recording system is for. Late-night watching -- by myself -- is a bit easier and much quieter.
     I am writing this strictly from a fan's perspective, not a former dip-spit sports writer. I am a much more passionate fan; when I was working, I did manage to maintain a sense of decorum and -- yes -- professionalism.
     I have been following LSU football since that magic year of 1958, sometimes very closely, sometimes not. There are many, many more passionate Tigers fans that me, and many, many more with greater knowledge of LSU football history.
     But as I've written before, there are few sports teams and events that I enjoy watching more and there are few that provide more agony (see: Yankees, Cowboys, Dutch soccer).
     LSU-at-Florida on Saturday night was agony.
     I have been able to stay fairly calm this season, through the woeful first 2 1/2 quarters in the opener against Wisconsin, and through the basically one-sided SEC losses to Mississippi State and Auburn (if your offense is sporadic and your defense can't read plays and can't tackle, you get what you deserve). But I felt that this Florida team was very beatable, even by a struggling LSU team.
     Thus the impatience with this mistake-filled game. The beautiful thing was Florida was just as prone to mistakes, and in the end, even more so. But I will reveal now that when Colby Delahoussaye made that winning 50-yard field goal with 0:03 on the clock, I wasn't watching.
     As the great Jerry Byrd often said (in this case, it applied to me): No guts.
     I had to laugh when I saw that Miles said that this was "an immensely classic battle." Classic? No,  it wasn't (LSU's 2007 comeback win vs. Florida at Tiger Stadium was classic; those were two outstanding teams; programs that totaled three consecutive titles).
      This game was bizarre. This was two mediocre teams.
     At the risk of the wrath of LSU fans, and Les Miles fans, I am going to put in writing what I've been telling people for several years now: Les Miles is the luckiest coach I ever have seen in 55 years or so of following sports.
     I have tried to think of someone luckier, or equally lucky. I can't.
     Let's qualify this: This luck is a good thing. And maybe luck isn't the right word. Maybe Les is the most fortunate coach. Whatever. It works for the Tigers, doesn't it?
     Saturday's win was Miles' 100th as LSU coach. So many of those can be put in the "unbelievable" category, games when you (I) didn't think it was possible. A friend of mine said in a text after the Florida game: "Seems like every year they win two or three games they shouldn't."
     In this game, it took -- among other things -- the 50-yard field goal at the end, a tipped-pass interception of a last-minute Florida pass (a poor decision and throw by the Gators' QB), a drop of a sure touchdown pass by a Florida tight end that would have given the Gators the lead with less than 2 minutes remaining; a breakdown in the Gators' secondary that let LSU escape a third-and-25 hole when Florida led with 2 1/2 minutes left; three major breakdowns by LSU (two Florida punt returns -- one for a TD, one setting up another -- and a 79-yard Gators pass play). Etc., etc.
     A typical see-saw LSU victory under Miles.
     Our pal Glenn Guilbeau detailed the history of LSU's "lucky" victories under Les in his Monday column for The Shreveport Times and other Gannett Co. papers in Louisiana: http://www.shreveporttimes.com/story/sports/college/lsu/2014/10/12/next-les-miles-th-win-lsu/17176073/
     Read that; it saves me the time of recalling those agonizing games.
     It was baseball icon Branch Rickey who is credited with first saying, "Luck is the residue of design." If so, Les Miles is covered in residue.
     I look at LSU, and so often see a team that is undisciplined, scattered, and looks unprepared. Plays are signaled in late, the QB audibles and then has to rush things, the play clock runs down (or out), timeouts are wasted. Doesn't matter who the QB is or the offensive coordinator, it's happened for nearly a decade. This is by design? I don't think so.
     Defensively, what I see are more problems of execution. I think John Chavis has a strong record as a coordinator, at Tennessee and LSU; he had a great defense in 2011; I didn't hear anyone complaining then. The man knows what he's coaching. But players don't always get where there supposed to be, or tackle/break up passes when they do.
     Special teams? The punt-coverage unit almost cost the Tigers the game Saturday.
     I wish things went more smoothly more often. But all that said, when LSU can pull out games as often as it does, talent does win out, and obviously there is some good coaching going on.
     We can always second-guess the LSU play-calling.  I think it's too often too conservative and predictable. But on Saturday, the Tigers' staff obviously felt it could run the ball against a pretty tough Florida front -- and it did. This was what we'd been waiting to see from heralded freshman Leonard Fournette; he looked like a big-time running back in that game, several times one desperate Florida tackle from breaking a long TD run.
     But I am not here to be too critical of Les Miles and his staff. I think Miles knows how to run a great program. Obviously, talented players are being recruited and put in the right places.
     From everything I've heard and read, and my media friends tell me, Miles treats people well -- even the media -- and he deals with discipline problems best he can (yeah, you can criticize, and people do, but the coaches at this level everywhere have tough jobs in this area).
     I think Miles is fun, and entertaining, and we never know how he's going to express himself. He's refreshing compared to the dead serious, uptight, coach-speak types who can turn on the media (or shut off everyone else in his program from the public).
     Sometimes I wish Miles would show more emotion on the sidelines. He can get animated, but he stays mostly cool. And while I debate this aspect with myself, I come to this conclusion: Because he stays calm, so does his team. I think he instills confidence; he expects his players can perform.
     So there's not a great sense of panic; thus, his players -- such as sophomore QB Anthony Jennings on Saturday against Florida when he made some hurried decisions and rushed (missed) passes -- can make the plays they have to. Jennings made those big throws to Travin Dural and a couple of crucial shorter ones.           
     Here's what we know -- winning in college football isn't that easy. An example close to where I live: TCU upsets mighty Oklahoma one week, then leads Baylor by 21 points in the fourth quarter the next. How do you figure that TCU, with its defensive genius head coach (Gary Patterson really is a great defensive coach), gives up 24 last-quarter points and 61 in all?
     It has been one wild season. How do you explain that Mississippi State and Ole Miss are now the powers in the SEC West? It's a topsy-turvy world, and that's why we love college football.
     So this LSU team -- any LSU team -- will keep us in agony, and will give us some joy. I'll try to hang it there because watching the Tigers play is about as exciting as it gets. But it's stressful. It takes guts. And if you let it, it will drive you mad.


  1. From Patrick Booras: Enjoyed your blog on the LSU-Florida game. [Coach] Tommy Vardeman used to say about certain good players, "Yeah, but he's keeping both teams in the game at the same time," of course meaning many good plays but too many mistakes, too. I hope that Miles can recruit enough great talent to win at least one more SEC title; certainly a tall order since everybody in SEC West has talented players, no weak sisters right now, anyway. One other thing that I think makes Les Miles successful in winning games, besides luck, at least publicly, he doesn't take himself too seriously. Therefore the LSU players are loose and don't feel as much pressure. In 10 years with Miles I hardly remember a time when a LSU kid dropped an easy pass for a game-winning TD. Now the defense has blown coverages late in some big games, the only games LSU lost in 2012-13 for the most part. I don't think the defense made mistakes because of pressure, though.

  2. From Herman Garner: Well stated. I often describe watching LSU football as an aerobic exercise without moving because my heart just pounds for three hours.

  3. From Teddy Allen: Wanted to watch baseball but agreed to watch LSU because my precious wife wanted to. Made my head hurt. I am serious. They are hard to watch this year. That was brutal. LITERAL headache. It’s like watching starts and stops at NASCAR or something. Very, very non-fluid. It’s who makes a mistake latest so they don’t have to pay for it: There’s your winner.
    Thank you for your effort that put into words my thoughts.
    Also, I am with you now in regard to a conversation we had two years ago. That one year with Sonny Dykes (at Louisiana Tech) and 50-points-plus a game was interesting. I do not like it. And no, it will not last. Can’t do it at big schools because they have adjusted enough and you have to score ABOUT EVERY TIME for it to work. Especially if you can’t throttle down and play a different game with the lead. I don’t like it at all. Glad it is on the way out. Sumlin and Texas Tech and Sonny (at Cal) will have to adjust or SEEYA, is my opinion. Regardless, I don’t like it and at least hope it’s on the way out.

  4. From Doug Bland: As my grandfather always said when we went fishing and I caught the largest fish: " I'd rather be lucky than good." We need to get coach Miles to buy us some lottery tickets. Great blog.

  5. From Maxie Hays: Amen, Nico. Makes me so mad I could spit. But I love watching LSU football. Miles drives me crazy!

  6. From John English: Good article, primarily because I agree with your assessment of coach Miles and his staff and because I have exactly the same anxiety problems with the Tigers as you. I almost turned the game off twice Saturday night (but didn’t) and was lobbying my family to leave the Wisconsin game at the end of the third quarter (but got outvoted).

  7. From Mike Richey: Loved your opinions and other comments.
    The LSU football program is a paradox. It's constantly contradicting itself. The players seem to love Les Miles. And why not? He seems to love his players. We've seen time and again the type of conversation he had with Fournette after the Heisman pose. Saban and Muschamp would have had veins popping everywhere. Les did it calmly and called it a teaching opportunity.
    All of that said, why do so many players leave after two years? It's not like our recruits are all at the bottom of the poverty line, at least no more so than those at Alabama, Oklahoma, Auburn, etc., etc. So is it because our players are so much better than the rest? If that's the case, it's not showing up on the field. Can't complain about a bunch of 10-win seasons, but like you Nico, I've aged at least 20 years just watching the last 10. Two SEC titles in 10 years isn't enough if you really have the best players.
    I don't believe for a second the LSU players are better than all the others. So the circle is complete. If they love Les so much, why do so many more leave LSU earlier than other schools? Les brags about how hard the players work in practice and I believe him. I'm sure the coaches often work until tomorrow on the details of the game plan. So why is it always so helter-skelter in the closing minutes of each half? I'm open to yours or anyone's answers. Somebody please save me from myself. My liver begs you.

  8. From Dr. Brent Boudreaux: We are who we are. LSU and Florida are evenly matched teams. Our current LSU fan base doesn't believe the cyclic nature of good and bad years with college football will affect us. Take the victory and go home (although I still believe Les is the luckiest man alive; wish I had it).
    It appears football is beginning to experience the basketball phenomena which occurred when early jumping to the NBA became prevalent. For a while if you could keep four- and five-year players, you had a distinct advantage, aka Duke. The other good schools eventually adjusted. The "one and dones" are now winning. The premier football programs will adjust.
    Yeah, I know luck is when preparation meets opportunity. The man (Miles) moves beyond this definition and is a savant.