Since Everybody Is Talking About LSU Football…

…I guess it qualifies as news and as such probably rates a mention in here.

Those among the Hayride’s readership who have followed my writing for years know that I’ve had a hand in a couple of journalistic ventures where LSU sports was concerned. The first one was Purple & Gold Magazine, which I published from 1997-2004. During that time we managed to get subjected to the cratering of the Tiger football program under Gerry DiNardo in 1998-99, and I happened to be the first guy in the LSU media gaggle to come out and say that DiNardo needed to go. I didn’t think that to be a particularly controversial position at the time; following a 41-7 thrashing in Tiger Stadium at the hands of a less-than-special Auburn team it seemed to me very obvious that DiNardo, who had gone from 10-2 in 1997 to 4-7 in 1998 and had looked terrible in winning over two cupcake opponents to open the 1999 season, was unsalvageable as a coach. After I published a column indicating that a change was inevitable and the sooner one was made the better off everyone would be, I found myself to be a person of suspicion and something of a pariah among the honchos in the LSU athletic department at the time.

As it turned out, I was right. LSU didn’t win another game until my prediction and advice was finally heeded and DiNardo was shown the door. The Tigers finished 3-8 that year, with the third win coming after a change was made and Hal Hunter took over as interim coach prior to the season finale. The shellacking of Arkansas that followed when Hunter ascended to DiNardo’s place atop the coaching staff showed just how poisonous the head man had become to the program; the LSU team which blew the Hogs out that day was clearly a club with the talent to win games and go to a bowl and they had clearly been mismanaged.

DiNardo’s firing ultimately came about as a result of a power struggle of sorts between then-chancellor Mark Emmert and then-athletic director Joe Dean. Emmert insisted on a quality football program and recognized that DiNardo as head coach was incompatible with that goal, while Dean was, to put it kindly, more invested in concerns other than the product on the field. After eight straight losses Emmert won the day, and the chancellor then managed to hire a star coach in Nick Saban despite inaction and worse from Dean – who shortly thereafter was sent packing.

Saban’s success at LSU is well known and doesn’t need to be rehashed here. He wasn’t perfect; as an individual he sorely lacks several elements you look for in an executive and those character problems usually begin to cause him consternation and force him to move on to the next job before long. But for the five years Saban was at LSU there was little question about the quality of the product or his command of it; that he showed himself to be an elite coach was unmistakable. As such, Saban has a large portion of LSU’s major boosters who still regard him as a cult hero and pine (some secretly, others not so much) for his return.

When Saban left LSU for the Miami Dolphins, a messy and disgraceful exit which included a heap of lies, I was a supporter of Les Miles as his replacement. Miles wasn’t the sexy choice that Bobby Petrino and Jack Del Rio were, but with Del Rio running into contract snares and Petrino bombing his interview with then-LSU AD Skip Bertman he was a reasonably well-qualified hire. After all, Miles had turned Oklahoma State, a perennial doormat, into a solid winner – in fact, his record there compared favorably to coaching legend Jimmy Johnson’s. That he showed a certain goofiness and an inexplicable failure to speak intelligible English was peculiar, but somehow he seemed to be able to make it work at a place where winning is nowhere near as easy to do as it is at LSU.

Miles has had success at LSU. In fact, for the first three years of his tenure here his record was largely unassailable. A 2007 national championship speaks for itself, as does a 34-6 record from 2005-07. You’d think a coach with a record like that would have cemented himself as a legend, even following Saban’s success.

But Miles never did it. Even in the championship year there were still people drawing comparisons to Larry Coker, dismissing Miles as winning with Saban’s players and so on. I never bought into that stuff, because 34-6 and a national championship going up against the competition he went up against is impressive regardless of the advantages he may have had.

But last year, when LSU’s program basically imploded amid horrid team chemistry and a totally substandard defensive co-coordinator regime as well as a young quarterback whose confidence evaporated as the season went along, the bloom came off Miles’ rose. And this year has been little better; while the Tigers got off to a 5-0 start and rose to No. 6 in the polls at midseason, they were wholly unimpressive in doing so and outside of nice wins against Auburn and Tulane they’ve appeared completely mediocre in the six games since. Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss will be remembered for the cascade of incompetence which cost the Tigers a chance to steal a victory away, but the real story of the game is that the Rebels thoroughly outplayed LSU for the vast majority of the game despite a clear talent advantage on the Tigers’ side.

Saturday’s loss indicates several things. First, LSU has now lost three of its last six games and the Tigers have now lost to all three of their opponents who are competitive on a national level this season. Second, Miles is now 0-8 against Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino in his last eight games against those coaches. Third, LSU is 7-9 in their last 16 SEC games.

This is a clear downturn in the fortunes of a program which was almost indestructible when Saban left it to Miles. And while there may be some holes on the roster, particularly at quarterback where unsatisfactory development of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee has had a very negative effect on the program as a whole, the material is without question on hand to win games against teams like Ole Miss and Arkansas if not Alabama and Florida.

At this point I’ll need to inject myself into the story. The readers of my LSU writings will surely remember that I had done an LSU blog called the Bayou Bengal Blog last year continuing up to this past spring, when I was offered an opportunity to partner with an outfit called Impact Sports to develop an LSU-oriented web property called EyeOnTheTigers.com. That site launched in early May and my involvement with it terminated in mid-June despite what was a budding creative and even commercial success because, I was told by its owners, Miles wouldn’t work with me. The story goes that since Miles and DiNardo are long-standing friends and I suggested DiNardo’s ouster, there was a personal beef on Miles’ part.

I’ve never met Miles. And given my exposure to the character and credibility of the people at Impact Sports, I am wary of making firm judgements about what I was told, though it seems clear that something was passed along to them from someone in the LSU football family.

When the EyeOnTheTigers situation went away at the cost of a not insignificant amount of embarrassment, inconvenience and wasted effort on my part, I said I was done writing about LSU. And incidentally I am. I’m writing this post as a discussion of current Louisiana events about which I can offer some perspective, nothing more. But one major reason I made that choice rather than resurrect the Bayou Bengal Blog was that I didn’t feel I could be objective about Miles given what I was told, and I wasn’t interested in airing personal agendas at the expense of my credibility. Instead, I made a career change and chose to pursue this blog as an outlet for my writing – with what’s going on in the country now I’m a lot more passionate about the news than LSU.

But given what has happened this fall and the quality of the work product, my objective judgement of Miles has caught up with my personal feelings. For the amount of money this man is making at LSU there is no excuse for the kind of embarrassing show we saw on Saturday and the uninspired effort this team has put forth this season. It’s obvious that Miles doesn’t command the loyalty or confidence of his players; it was obvious last year and it’s obvious again this fall. I see a team going through the motions, lacking initiative (11 players on the field stood silently by and watched 17 seconds come off the clock prior to the final play of Saturday’s game; virtually anyone with some high school football under his belt would know that getting a time out there would be crucial to having a chance to win) and being outhit and outfought all year long. The consistent fact that opponents are outgaining and outpossessing LSU week after week – Louisiana Tech, of all people, was able to do it – is a disgrace.

LSU isn’t a bad team yet, but they were at the end of last season and they look like they’re headed that way again right now. I fear that the current direction will result in an ugly loss on Saturday with Arkansas coming to town and as AD Joe Alleva worried today the Tigers could fall all the way to the Liberty Bowl – where a Houston team more than capable of further embarrassing LSU would likely await. And while it seems insane to think you would fire a coach just two years from a national championship, that title seems more and more distant as the days go by.

The current word LSU that I’m hearing is that if all things were even Alleva would be preparing a gallows for his football coach as you read this piece. The problem is, I’m told, that Miles’ contract agreement made on the eve of his SEC championship win over Tennessee in 2007 would entitle him and his coordinators to something in the neighborhood of $18 million in buyout cash – and that figure is just too rich for anyone to justify in this economy. In another year the figure could drop by $5 million or so, when buyouts for the assistants go away as well as another year off Miles’ deal, and it becomes a lot more manageable to make a change. So Miles will likely get a year on the hot seat next year, likely with a host of new coaches on offense but possibly not a new coordinator; word is the relationship between Miles and Gary Crowton may be adjusted rather than severed.

This means a wasted year for LSU football. Miles isn’t going to engineer the Tommy Tuberville-esque miracle to save his job when it’s pretty clear he’ll be outcoached by at least half the SEC coaches on his schedule and next year’s LSU club doesn’t look on paper like it will be considerably better than this one without a total change in approach. So an 8-5 or 9-4 season on the high end and possibly a .500 season on the low end awaits, which means a rebuilding job for a new coach a year from now.

But the one thing I do take from what I’m hearing is that Alleva is no Joe Dean. This is a man whose standards of performance for LSU sports are commensurate with those Emmert instilled in the program, and his fealty is to excellence rather than the status quo. Alleva aimed high when he hired Trent Johnson away from Stanford as LSU basketball coach almost immediately upon becoming LSU’s athletic director, and when he gets an opportunity to hire a football coach the list will be a very good one.

I have heard through a couple of sources that among the candidates Alleva would approach when a search commenced, four constitute the “A” list – TCU head coach Gary Patterson, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, Arizona head coach Mike Stoops and Nebraska head man Bo Pelini, whose departure from LSU following the 2007 season represented the turning point in the Tiger program. That’s a strong list, for certain. Patterson’s resume at TCU is sensational and the job he’s done keeping a small private school from a non-BCS conference as a nationally prominent program speaks for itself. Ferentz is reminiscent of Saban at Michigan State; drawing raves from football people and maintaining a competitive program at a murderously difficult place to win. Stoops has put Arizona back on the map after taking over one of the most dysfunctional programs in the country from John Mackovic. And the job Pelini has done at Nebraska the last two years after inheriting a train wreck from Bill Callahan makes him potentially the best of all candidates.

Is it possible a change might be made this year? I’m told that’s not the plan, but if Saturday goes poorly the likelihood could increase. Negotiated buyouts do happen and Miles could easily be greased out the door to someplace like Colorado, where he had a good run as an assistant and would be a big improvement over the current coach. If such an arrangement could be made the $18 million figure currently being lamented might not be operative.

And there are no question several big-money people who were never fans of Miles to begin with stand at the ready to help in whatever way necessary to assist in escorting him out the door. That last bit might be Miles’ greatest undoing at LSU; his relationship with the supporters of the program was never a good one and he has done nothing at all to build it; as such he has few allies within the LSU community despite a general consensus that he’s an honorable man and a decent individual.

So the news where LSU football is concerned isn’t good in the short run; in that respect it seems it doesn’t differ greatly from the national political and economic scene. But like all things, this too shall pass. Hopefully wise decisions will be in the offing and improved circumstances may prevail in the end – both for LSU’s football fortunes and in the life of this great nation.

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