Miles to go before we sleep? Not exactly.
LSU power brokers evidently slept on the decision to fire Les Miles Saturday night, and then arrived at the conclusion Sunday afternoon. The coming days will bring appraisals of this successful but very complicated career. For now, one is left to make sense of the mess at LSU, how it came to be, and how it might be fixed.
The most striking feature of — in a stroke of irony — Thanksgiving week of 2015 is how ungrateful many members of the LSU power structure were to Les Miles.
Yes, November of last season was a disaster for the Tigers, but the team entered that month without having been tested at a supremely high level. Alabama and Ole Miss — two teams clearly superior to LSU in 2015 — had not yet appeared on the schedule. LSU did embarrass itself against Arkansas, but the Tigers were simply beaten by quality opposition in Tuscaloosa and Oxford.
The idea that Miles royally screwed up never seemed to fit the facts.
In many ways, the frustrations of many people inside LSU’s inner circles did not appear to be a reaction to the 2015 season’s wrong turn; this was more a response to accumulating years without an SEC championship or a BCS/New Year’s Six bowl game. The 2015 season wasn’t the problem with LSU football; the long drought in a larger context — made that much more acute by the totality of Saban’s reign at Alabama — got under the skin of the LSU family. Saban, of course, had made that family so happy and proud in his 2003 national title season.
Saban — it cannot be escaped — put Les Miles in a position to succeed.
For several years, Miles did.
The problem with 2015 is that it imitated 2012, 2013 and 2014. Alabama will win its share of championships, but LSU rightly expected to get its shots in and snag a piece of hardware every two to four seasons. When 2015 blew up, LSU reached four seasons without a mountaintop accomplishment.
Football’s biological clock was ticking in Baton Rouge. A 2007 national title and a 2011 runner-up finish could only buy Miles so much leverage. This is why a 9-3 regular season in 2015 didn’t translate to job security for Miles.
“Thanksgiving week” was instead a time when LSU fans — most not wanting Les to leave — and college football writers kept watch over the coach’s career deathbed. We all waited for the news, and as the weekend wore on, bleeding into an emotionally-charged regular season finale against Texas A&M, it seemed that Miles was just about gone. One foot was out the door.
The other foot never left.
Pushing out a coach who has captured a national title and won consistently over many years requires a lot of maneuverings. The buyout is one piece of the puzzle, but only one. Knowing a suitable replacement could be found is another. Those and other considerations must be folded inside the larger architecture of a complete plan.
The people who wanted to make it work… couldn’t make it work.
The attempt to oust Miles collapsed, and The Hat left Thanksgiving weekend with his job intact.
A coach had survived. Moreover, for all he had accomplished in Baton Rouge, he deserved to. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva never should have allowed the situation to devolve to the point it did. A strong leader in the AD chair would have stood firm to keep Miles on the job.
The trade-off most — if not all — LSU fans and boosters surely hoped for: Miles — in exchange for staying on in 2016 — should have been forced to make one relevant staffing change.
He had to fire Cam Cameron, the man whose inability to cultivate quality quarterbacks (Zach Mettenberger is the only one who produced for him) dragged down the LSU offense and, by extension, the program. John Chavis, the former defensive coordinator for the Tigers, has had a career-long problem with two-minute-drill defense, but for the most part, he’s a superb coordinator. The offensive coordinator spot is where LSU lagged behind the SEC, lacking the cleverness and sophistication to outflank Saban on most occasions.
Cameron had to go. Yet, Miles was the primary recipient of the pressure inside the LSU system last November. It didn’t make sense then. It doesn’t make sense now.
Alleva — the former Duke AD who isn’t a fraction of the athletic director Skip Bertman (a College World Series-winning baseball coach) was in Baton Rouge — simply could not impose order on the internal politics of LSU athletics.
The quality head coach endured more grief and stress than he should have.
The not-very-good offensive coordinator who needed to be booted remained on the job.
Here we are, 10 months after that cluster-truck in Red Stick, and LSU’s 2016 season lies in ruins. It could have been avoided if Cameron’s departure in 2015 had been a necessary, non-negotiable condition of Miles remaining in power.
What does LSU do next? There is a conventional option for the school, and a not-as-conventional choice it should think strongly about.
The No. 1 target for LSU cannot and should not be anyone other than Tom Herman.
It doesn’t need to be discussed at any great length. Everyone knows it, too.
Herman has a winning personality. His players love him. He recruits well. He schemes well. He teaches well. He learned from Urban Meyer, the one coach who can arguably be viewed as superior to Saban. There’s simply nothing to discuss.
The more intriguing question, by far, is what LSU does if Herman says no.
This is where the Bayou Bengals and Alleva have to be ready and willing to be unconventional if they can’t find a rock-star No. 2 option, such as Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher (who was the offensive coordinator for the 2003 LSU national championship team under Saban and also worked for Miles in Baton Rouge).
If LSU can’t get a sexy coach to work at Tiger Stadium on Saturdays in the fall, Alleva must consider this option, especially if dollars are limited.
A lot of college football programs have head coaches who know a lot about one side of the ball, but hire “opposite” coordinators who aren’t very good. As a result, those programs become “half-a-loaf” programs, excellent on offense and poor on defense or vice-versa. Those programs don’t win championships.
In the future of the coaching industry, programs and the ADs who run them must consider the notion of hiring co-coaches — an expert offensive mind and an expert defensive mind. One of the two men becomes the head coach in a larger public-relations sense, but the other man has complete control over how he runs his half of the team, his side of the ball. The two men agree, and the program functions accordingly.
LSU has a top-tier defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda. LSU’s defense has played well in the team’s two losses this season. There’s nothing about the defense which needs to be repaired. This is all about the offense.
Ergo, if Herman or Fisher say no, Alleva should think about pairing Aranda — as a co-coach — with Kliff Kingsbury of Texas Tech or Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma.
Kingsbury or Riley would coach and recruit for the offense, while Aranda would coach and recruit for the defense. Kliff or Riley wouldn’t encroach upon Aranda’s business, and vice-versa. Would Aranda, as the resident coordinator, approve? Maybe he wouldn’t, but if Alleva and other power brokers could convince him of the arrangement, it could be a rather affordable way for LSU to succeed Miles, instead of paying Herman eight or nine (maybe 10) million bucks per season.
Where does Les Miles go from here? He’s in his early 60s. Like Mack Brown, he might want to be a TV analyst for a few years. We’ll be in a better position to address that question in two months, when vacancies open.
For now, LSU has to think long and hard — not just about Miles’ successor, but about creating an internal situation in which politics and coaching arrangements can be handled thoughtfully.
That’s something the program lacked last November — it blew up this season, creating a messy ending to an LSU career which frankly didn’t deserve one.