By now, you’ve probably heard that things are getting pretty contentious for Les Miles at LSU.
What started out as rumors last week that Miles could be “coaching for his job” in LSU’s final two regular season games, turned into a full-fledged, code red, “this guy is totally screwed” chatter just a few days later. Following a third straight loss for LSU this weekend, a separate report from the New Orleans Times-Picayune came out Sunday with more details about a potential Miles-LSU split (the most notable detail was that LSU wouldn’t hesitate to pay Miles’ astronomical $15 million buyout if they thought it was the right move) and by Monday, every outlet from ESPN to Yahoo had picked up some variation of the same story.
Simply put, things don’t look good for Miles, and not just because they recently put fertilizer on the turf at Tiger Stadium without telling him. Nope, instead it appears as though Miles will be gone at some point in the near future, and if he is, that of course opens up one of the single greatest can of worms the college football world has ever seen. There are so many layers of the story to untangle, starting by asking: How insane is LSU for even considering the possibility of getting rid of the best coach in school history (more on that coming), especially when that same coach still has a few good years left (this ain’t Bobby Bowden in the end of his run at Florida State), with a Heisman Trophy favorite coming back to campus, as well as what many consider to be the top ranked recruiting class in the country headed to Baton Rouge?
More importantly, it also raises the question of who does LSU plan on hiring who will be better than, umm, the greatest coach in the history of the school!
Most have pegged Jimbo Fisher (a former LSU offensive coordinator) as the school’s top choice, but even if you can get him, at what point does the cost of bringing in an elite candidate like that outweigh simply keeping Miles? Especially when it will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $17 million to buy out Miles and his assistant coaches, another $5 million to buyout Jimbo Fisher from his Florida State contract, plus whatever Fisher will demand in salary for himself and his assistants. In total we’re talking about a $30 million price tag, which is insane in its own right, without even factoring in the possibility that Fisher might not want the job, and that you might be firing Miles for a much less high-profile replacement.
Again, this is a huge can of worms, one which will start to be opened up over the coming days.
But before we get to all that, and what’s next for LSU and Les in general, I first want to discuss why the school seems so intent on getting rid of him in the first place. Because I think there is one underlying factor that no one is talking about.
Sure the focus will be on the obvious reasons; Miles’ inability to evolve as an offensive coach, the fact that his team’s quarterback play seems to get worse every season, or just the overall stagnation of the program. LSU has lost three straight since rising all the way to No. 2 in the polls at the beginning of the month, and is headed for a second straight season with fewer than 10 wins. Which in the bizarre, alternate universe that Miles’ has created in Baton Rouge is simply unacceptable.
Yet for all the talk about all those things, there is one reason above all others why Miles is on the hot seat and could be out of a job, and it has nothing to do with his offense, the team’s current three-game losing streak, or any of the reasons mentioned above.
Instead, the answer is much simpler than that: LSU is ready to move past Les Miles, because he isn’t Nick Saban. That’s really it, and really all it boils down to. If Nick Saban had never come along, or never returned to the SEC at Alabama, Miles would likely go down as the greatest coaches of this generation, and maybe all-time. But instead, his time at LSU will now be remembered for being good, and at times great, but never quite able to match up with the guy he once replaced in Baton Rouge.
Don’t believe me?
Well, let’s start with the big picture, and here is everything that Miles has accomplished right through this weekend while at LSU: He’s second in school history with 110 wins in just under 11 years in Baton Rouge. The only person he trails is Charlie McClendon who had 137 in 18 years at LSU, meaning that if Miles stayed in Baton Rouge as long as McClendon did, and kept winning at the current clip he is, Miles would finish those 18 years with nearly 40 more wins than any other coach in school history. Miles also has a 77 percent win percentage at LSU (including this year’s 7-3 record), which is the highest for any man in school history who coached more than 20 games. For those scoring at home, yes that means he has a higher win percentage than Nick Saban did in his time at the school.
And the incredible thing is, those stats only tell half the story.
Miles also won a National Championship, played in two National Championship games, won two SEC titles and won three division crowns. Heck, how about the simple fact that he’s won 110 games to begin with? How many coaches in college football can win an average of 10 games, over an 11 year stretch, anywhere? Well Les has not only done it, but done it in the toughest division, in the toughest conference of college football.
Not bad, only for Les Miles none of those numbers matter. The only numbers that do matter are these: 3-7 and 0-5.
Miles is 3-7 in his career against Nick Saban, and 0-5 in the five games the two have gone head-to-head since the 2012 BCS title game. And those two numbers more than any others, are why Miles finds himself in the predicament he’s in. Can you believe that of Miles 27 career SEC losses, over a quarter of them have come to Saban?
Only that’s the sad reality of being Les Miles. They say you’re judged by the company you keep. But in the case of Les Miles, he’s judged by the company he couldn’t keep up with.
It didn’t help that Miles of course had the misfortune of following Saban in Baton Rouge… something we heard about plenty during his first few years on campus. First Miles couldn’t win big like Saban, then when he did win big and took home the 2007 BCS National Championship, the narrative quickly became that he only won “because he had Saban’s players.” Poor Les Miles couldn’t win in the public’s eyes, even when he was literally winning at the highest level.
And it hasn’t gotten any better since Saban returned to the SEC in Tuscaloosa and has gone on a tear unlike any other in college football history. We all know the numbers on Saban at this point: Three National Championships at Alabama, and three other seasons (2010, 2013 and 2014) where you could argue he had the best team in the country, even if the Tide didn’t necessarily win the title.
It’s an insane standard that Saban has set, and that Miles has spent the last few years trying to keep up with. And as the news on Miles’ future broke last week and has continued to trickle out since, that’s all I could think about: Poor Les Miles had the unfortunate fate of being “the other guy” who came along at nearly the exact same time that Saban came to the peak of his powers in Tuscaloosa.
It also raises another fascinating question all together: How differently would Les Miles’ career have played out if Nick Saban had never come along? If there was an alternate, college football version of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and Saban was never born, how differently do we view Miles? Heck, even if Saban was born, but had stayed in the NFL and never returned to college football, how much different is Miles career?
Simply put, I think we’re talking about Miles as one of the greatest coaches of all-time.
Obviously it’s impossible to know, but let’s think of it from a realistic perspective. With Saban completely out of the picture, here are a few things that Les Miles likely would have accomplished over the course of his 11 years in Baton Rouge: He almost certainly would have at least one more National Championship on his resume from 2011–the year that the Tigers lost to the Tide in the BCS National Championship. He also might have a third one from a year later, when LSU would have won the SEC West, and played Georgia for a chance to face Notre Dame in the National Championship Game. Add that first-place SEC West in 2012 with another in 2009, and you’re now talking about a couple more division crowns and potentially conference titles as well. Heck, maybe if they don’t get beaten up by Alabama a few weeks ago, LSU does enough to get by Arkansas and Ole Miss the last few weeks (or even one) and make it to the college football playoff this year.
That’s a heck of a resume, especially when you add it to everything Miles actually has accomplished at LSU.
It’s pretty impressive, but unfortunately none of it matters.
This isn’t an alternative universe, Saban does exist, and Les will forever be judged because of it. For that reason alone, he’s basically become the Rafael Nadal or Phil Mickelson of college football, one of the best we’ve ever seen, who just so happened to come along at the exact same time that an all-time great came along too.
Now, should that be enough to cost Miles his job?
Frankly, I don’t think so.
Unfortunately for Les, my opinion doesn’t matter.
And his days in Baton Rouge could be numbered because of it.