In one of the more bizarre stories of the 2015 college football season, LSU head coach Les Miles seemed destined to be fired … and then wasn’t.
An outpouring of support and common sense — at the very last minute — saved the job of the winningest coach in program history.
Following a 19-7 defeat of Texas A&M in the regular season finale, Les Miles was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players. The celebration was hardly the typical embrace for a coach that had just won his first game in over a month, but this was no ordinary victory. Banners of appreciation, pro-Miles chants and derisive roars at athletic director Joe Alleva filled a night that was presumed to be Miles’ final time coaching the Tigers in Death Valley.
An attempted ploy to lure Jimbo Fisher from Florida State failed, and with the university having recently endured budget cuts to combat financial problems, paying a football coach a $15 million buyout to go elsewhere seemed tone-deaf. The end result was at least one more year of the Les Miles era.
After this embarrassing blunder on the part of school administrators, Miles became a more sympathetic figure. Make no mistake, though: The 62-year-old head coach’s job is not entirely safe entering the 2016 season.
In order to understand the current state of the dynamic between Miles and the program, and how this relates to his job security going forward, it is necessary to examine the backstory to last fall’s fiasco.
LSU finished 2015 with a 9-3 record, marking back-to-back single-digit-win seasons. This in itself was not troubling, but the nature in which these losses occurred was.
The Tigers entered an early-November showdown with Alabama sitting at 7-0 and No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings. A win over the Crimson Tide would not only have ended a four-game losing streak to a division rival, but it would also have cleared a manageable path to the national championship game. The Tigers instead proceeded to lose three consecutive games to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss by 14, 17 and 21 points. In doing so, the Tigers effectively trashed their national title hopes. It was the first time since 1966 that an LSU football team had lost three consecutive games by double digits.
This alone, under ordinary circumstances, is not enough to warrant a head coach losing his job.
Only 26 FBS teams posted better winning percentages in 2015 than the Tigers’ 75-percent mark. If not for the inclement weather cancellation of their season opener against FCS opponent McNeese State, which would have undoubtedly brought their win total to 10, that number of FBS teams drops to 15. With 17 returning starters, including Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette, LSU boasts one of the nation’s most experienced rosters. What purpose would it serve to put team chemistry at risk with a head coaching overhaul?
None of this made any sense from a logical perspective, but when viewed through an emotional lens, after deep-pocketed boosters and a passionate fan base watched the Tigers throw away a golden opportunity — and former LSU head coach Nick Saban continued to solidify his legendary status with a fourth national championship at Alabama — the thought of firing one of the most successful coaches in SEC history suddenly became less absurd.
Miles has certainly gained goodwill in the aftermath of last season, especially after the team’s 29-point Texas Bowl blowout of Texas Tech, but expectations will not be tempered. Equipped with arguably the most talented team of his 12-year tenure in Baton Rouge, another single-digit-win season could put Miles’ future with the Tigers back in doubt.
However, in the wake of last season’s mismanagement by university higher-ups, as well as a newly-rediscovered appreciation for the longtime face of the program, 10 wins is a reasonable benchmark that should be enough to keep Miles off the hot seat, even if he fails to win the SEC West.
Memo to Miles: Win 11 games, and this discussion goes away.
Nevertheless, improvement from last season will make it very hard — if not impossible — for impatient factions of the LSU power structure to shove Miles out the door.