Thursday, December 3, 2015

LSU football: "Imperfect" says it exactly

      So do I think Les Miles is a great football coach? I don't. But he has a darned good record.
     Do I think he should have been fired as the LSU coach last week? Hard as it might be to believe, I don't have a strong opinion on that. And, what difference does it make what I think? Not my call, thank goodness.
A final victory ride after the Texas A&M game? No, the "Mad Hatter"
will continue his ride as LSU's head football coach ... for now.
(The Shreveport Times photo)
     Of course, I have plenty of opinions or theories about LSU football, although -- as I've written before -- there are many, many people closer to the situation, and much more knowledgeable. I'm just an interested fan/would-be analyst from a distance, another state, away. I have been watching Tigers' teams for 5 1/2 decades.
      I'm like so many people. I can run an offense and defense better than the LSU coaches. We're all experts. (I'd sure as heck wouldn't call the confounded, predictable, old-timey short-pitch running plays -- always good for a 1- or 2-yard gain -- 25 times a game; maybe once or twice.) 
     But on the Miles firing/buyout question, I wimped out. I could argue both sides.      Because I try (and don't always succeed) not to worry about things I can't control, I'm OK with the result (he's staying). I would have been OK with a coaching change, too.
     Change doesn't have to be a bad thing. Coaching effectiveness, coaching tenures run out (see Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, Frank Beamer, etc.). But it can be unsettling, wondering who the next coach will be, and can his teams win as often as Miles' teams, will the program be run as well, will it be as much fun (and as much agony)?
     But, damn, $15 million to buy out a contract, maybe $20 million with the rest of the coaching staff's contracts added? ( (Honestly, and I told several friends this a couple of weeks ago, I did not think there was any way LSU people/boosters would come up with $15-$20 million for a buyout. I was wrong.)
    Ridiculous. Really ridiculous in a state in which funds for education have been cut to shreds. Bad message.

    Plus, the way all this came down -- rumors, rumors, reports of a "done deal," hour after hour, day after day of speculation. An embarrassment for LSU, for the state.
     It was a fire drill, a borderline disorganized mess. Those are descriptions some of my friends will recognize because that's how often I describe the way Les Miles' LSU teams play. And they still win.
     It is difficult to explain to people who don't follow the program closely, who just see the scores and the record, why there is dissatisfaction with Miles. It has to do with the mostly conservative, run-oriented offensive style; with ragged special-teams play; and with defenses so prone to giving up big plays.
      And how the Tigers consistently play down to the level of teams that should be more easily handled, such as falling behind 31-3 to Troy (2008) and then coming back with 37 points in the last 16:26 of play  -- 30 in the fourth quarter --  to win 41-30.
      You have to see it to (not) appreciate it.
      But what we do appreciate is how many times Miles' LSU teams have come from behind to win, how resilient they've been, how he has called the trick plays that work like a charm. (The man has "Les-ticles.") It's like watching a circus act.
     You want to blame the media for blowing up the "Miles is out" story, you can. I don't.
     Sure I'm prejudiced, but I also think I am qualified to judge, and I think the coverage of LSU football is better than it's ever been. Yes, I know many of the writers involved, they are friends and some date to my time in Louisiana in the 1970s and '80s, and I'll tell you they do a great job. That's a talented group.
      On this story, though, they missed -- badly. Or that's how it turned out. The national media which picked up on the story missed, too. But everyone went with the information they were given; writers are only as good as their "sources." I'd say in this case they were misled.
      Those sources, and I'm guessing they were LSU Board of Supervisors members or in the athletic department, talked too much and too soon.
      We know it couldn't have come from LSU athletic director Joe Alleva because he didn't say anything -- not publicly -- until he told us postgame that, never mind all you've heard and read, Les Miles is still the LSU coach.
      We also know that someone, or several people, had to organize the $15-$20 million effort from the deep pockets to assure buyout could happen. Who knows how much Alleva was involved, or knew, about that?
      It's fairly clear that Alleva's unwillingness a year ago to adjust John Chavis' contract clause covering the possibility of Miles' being let go was enough for the defensive coordinator to bolt for Texas A&M. That was out of Miles' control.
      Of course, the way that LSU played against Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss on three consecutive Saturdays was out of Miles' control, too. Which is why we had this growing predicament/movement. But it's been like that for most of 11 years.
      The most on-target assessment was a head-shaking moment Saturday night, one of many during this LSU football season. In his opening remarks after the Tigers' game with Texas A&M, after addressing his job situation, Miles called the victory "an imperfect fistfight" and later said, "We were imperfect offensively."
     "Imperfect" describes so many LSU victories -- and losses -- in the Miles era.
And describes all the commotion about the program the past few weeks.
      Here's what I'm sure of: Many people in my world -- in person, on e-mail and Facebook and by phone -- wanted to talk about Les Miles and LSU football the past few weeks.
      It's taken up too much of my time and energy, but here is my view of the situation. I could write several pieces on this, but enough already.
      We have heard how likeable Miles is, how good a family man, a man of good deeds and sympathy. We've seen and heard how much his players respect him and we saw the fans' love Saturday. We know he's "quirky" with a sense of humor. I have no personal experience with him, but I know that he treats my media friends well (and we know of some coaches who can be quite peevish that way).
      I do have friends who think that Miles' act is fraudulent, that his program isn't as clean as people think. I know some people were critical of his leniency toward Jordan Jefferson and Jeremy Hill -- to use two examples -- after their off-the-field transgressions. But we also know that he's disciplined those players and others, cutting some from the program.
      For head coaches, it's like parenting, and in college programs, you're in charge of 125 kids or so. Not easy. Not as easy as being critical of the coaches.
     So when LSU loses a game, or three games in a row and is dominated in each one, coaching must be one of the reasons. The strategy is wrong, or the players weren't prepared properly. Or so we keep hearing.
     I am not a fan of coaching changes; I don't believe they necessarily fix what ails teams. What I believe is that it's about the players. Coaches can only do so much. Players win -- and lose -- the games. So that means it's also about recruiting players.
     That said, coaches' philosophies and strategy can make a difference. LSU football is often -- always? -- ripe for second-guessing.
      I have a friend who was a coach and who says that Miles "didn't have them [LSU] ready to play" in the losses. I don't quite agree; I think that's a coach's cliche'. Teams have all week to prepare; coaches prepare them for what opponents tend to do.
      So my thinking is that the players did not execute what they were taught. If they weren't taught, if the opponents' strategy was unfamiliar to them, that's on the coaches. Can't imagine LSU's coaches don't do their homework.
      One of the constant argument I hear is that LSU has as much or more talent than any team in the SEC, except Alabama. Some years, most years, I'd agree. The recruiting rankings -- which I think are over-emphasized, over-publicized -- suggest that LSU's recruits are among the nation's best.
      And if you look at the number of LSU players who have made NFL teams the past decade -- few programs can match the number -- you'd have to say that's a lot of talent.
      Because so many of those players went to the NFL and passed up another year of college eligibility, it's been a challenge for LSU's coaches, forcing them to give more playing time to sophomores and freshmen. In that way, Miles and staff have paid for excellence.
      But my opinion -- and I've had a tough time selling this to several friends -- is that this LSU team lacks the overall talent of most teams Miles has had here.
      Sure, there is some great talent -- Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre, for instance -- but this team's defense is too mistake-prone, caught out of position far too much; the offensive line was dominated by Alabama and Arkansas' defensive fronts; and the quarterback play has been increasingly erratic.
      (And we root for the QB, a kid from the area and high school -- Parkway -- in Bossier City where we used to live.)
      The early successes of Miles' tenure, and the continued success, raised the high expectations. Alabama's success, under Bear Bryant, Gene Stallings and the current reign of Nick Saban, makes it tough on LSU and all the other SEC programs.
      About Saban: LSU fans should be grateful for his five-year stay (2000-04) as the Tigers' coach. Under him, the program revived after the mediocrity of most of the 1990s. But when he left for an NFL head coaching job -- he previously had been in the league as an assistant for six years -- it was no great surprise.
       Two years later, he took the Alabama head coaching job and became a nuisance, and reviled by many LSU people. And now one of the big raps against Miles is that LSU has lost five games in a row to Alabama.
        Let me remind you: At one time, Miles' LSU teams were 5-2 against Alabama, 3-2 against Saban. Here's what else: It took Alabama last-minute drives to beat LSU in 2012 and 2014. Two of Saban's wins against LSU were in overtime. The 2013 game was tied 17-17 late in the third quarter when a fake Alabama field-goal try that worked for a first down turned the momentum. This year's game was 10-10 in the last minute of the first half.
       It's not like it's been total domination. Saban, at Alabama, is difficult for any coach to beat. He's ruining the SEC.
       Here's what else, for those with long memories: Charlie McClendon, LSU's coach for 18 seasons (1962-79), the only LSU coach to win more games than Miles, was 2-14 against Alabama and Bear Bryant (his own college coach).     
       I liken Miles to McClendon because, no question, they are the most criticized LSU football coaches in history. From the time Charlie Mac succeeded the sainted Paul Dietzel after the 1961 season, LSU fans were always ready to "Help Mac Pack." Any loss to Ole Miss -- and the Rebels were so good in McClendon's time -- was distressing.
      Miles is seven seasons and 26 victories behind McClendon's 18 and 137. After what happened the past few weeks, it's hard to see Les at LSU past next season.
      Like Charlie Mac, who had one losing season, Les has never convinced a lot of LSU people (and likely never will). Like Charlie Mac, Les will never have an offense that pleases a lot of LSU people. Tough running games, between the tackles -- no matter how many games it helps win -- isn't what they want.
     Charlie Pevey was McClendon's quarterbacks coach/play-caller. "Too conservative" was always the criticism. Cam Cameron has been LSU's QBs coach/offensive coordinator/play-caller for three years, and the last two years he's been "too conservative."

       It has been strongly suggested -- and perhaps Miles has agreed to this -- that coaching-staff changes be made. Les has done it before; the coordinators (Cameron, Kevin Steele) are the fourth he's had in each position. Some of the coaches might leave on their own.
       It also has been strongly suggested -- by everyone -- that he find a way to open up the offense.
       I strongly suggest LSU win its bowl game. An indication of how the Miles era has slipped -- the Tigers won their first four bowl games under Les; they've won two of six since then.
        If they lose this bowl game, there will be more dissatisfaction. But here is a thought: What if another school -- more impressed with Les than the "anti" faction at LSU -- offers him a deal? You wouldn't blame him for accepting, and that would make a lot of people happy. Not likely to happen.
        He has shown much more loyalty to LSU than has been shown to him.
        Obviously, it will take a much more competitive LSU team in the SEC next year to soften the anti-Miles rhetoric. Could happen because many of the young players (sophomores, freshmen) of this year's team will return. But they have to improve -- and arguably so do their coaches.
        So Les Miles in a sense is a "lame duck" coach. That is not going to help him in recruiting and maybe -- as one of my columnist friends wrote -- it is a bad situation. But Les, as we know, isn't easily deterred.
        His program has bounced back before, from 8-5 and 9-4 records in 2008 and '09 to 11-2, 13-1, 10-3, 10-3. Yeah, some (many) of those wins were ugly and agonizing, and maybe that gets to Joe Alleva and those really smart football minds -- with deep pockets -- on the LSU Board of Supervisors.
         They can keep their money, for now, or put it to better use. They can keep thinking that Jimbo Fisher or some other superstar coach will just -- snap -- jump at the LSU job.
         So they can gripe -- and plot -- for another year or, if Les Miles can be the perfect coach they want, they can jump back on the bandwagon. Hold on because if nothing else, it's a bumpy ride.


  1. From Russell Smith: Take it from this Tennessee fan, if you wanna run off a guy who won championships because 8-win seasons are no longer acceptable, you better be darn sure you replace him with someone better. Five-win seasons really stink!

  2. From Ross Montelbano: In a perfect world, a good honorable, decent, molder of young men, great judge of talent, totally in tune to the modern game, would be available. Name him. Miles is all of these but the last. He'll learn the last one next year or he'll be gone.

  3. From Charlotte Hudson Ewing: Glad we still have Les; he is a honorable man and handled himself with dignity last week amid the media hype. Any man who is beloved by his players in this day in time has my respect, for sure. He'll step it up next year; he just needs a new quarterback, kicker, offensive line, and play-caller. Geaux Tigers and Geaux Les Miles.

  4. From Sandi Tison Atkinson: Personally, I do not care for Les Miles, but as a coach at LSU, you cannot ignore his record and recruiting of quality players. I have said I wanted him gone until I thought it through -- who could they hire that would accomplish as much as Les? We had an off year. Everyone does. We can't take a chance on getting another [Gerry] DiNardo or [Curley] Hallman.

  5. From Dusty Schwab: Good job. I enjoyed reading that. I agree with just about everything you said. You obviously follow that program much closer than I do, but when I hear "Les Miles," I do not think great coach. He's a good coach, but not great, not elite. But let's be honest, how many elite coaches are there in the country? Five maybe? Saban, Meyer, Jimbo, Harbaugh and Stoops? I don't even know if all five of those coaches are elite. And then I started thinking how much Miles has won, and wondered, can LSU do better? There are so few great coaches, and they already have elite jobs. Miles' offenses are way too conservative. He can't recruit a solid QB for that very reason. But he is who he is at this point.

  6. From Meade Patton: Start of the season season virtually no one expected us to do better than 7-4. We start off winning seven straight, go down (dang it!) and Alleva and "the smart know-better-than-everyone" want Miles' head. No finer man has ever coached here. But if he weren't so good at recruiting, maybe we could retain some more seniors.