The good news for everybody who cares about LSU football last night was that the Tigers managed to avoid having their ignominious three-game November losing streak become an even more ignominious four-game 0-for-November schnide.
The good news for some of the folks who care about LSU football last night was that Les Miles saved his job with a 19-7 victory over his former defensive coordinator-turned-adverse-litigant John Chavis and the latter’s current employer, Texas A&M. The Aggies being the one team in the SEC West Miles is still undefeated against during his LSU career. The scene following the victory, which was anything but a thing of beauty, was a heartwarming one – the fans, a large number of whom probably thought they were giving Miles a nice sendoff more than voicing convictions in favor of keeping him, a ride on his players’ shoulders, a televised rendition by Miles of the school’s alma mater – all of it good enough for the big screen.
And after two weeks of a media circus over Miles’ job status, which commenced after the second of November’s ignominious losses, a 31-14 home beatdown by a 7-5 Arkansas team which had lost to Toledo and Texas Tech, thanks to a Baton Rouge Advocate article by Scott Rabalais painting the coach as a goner if he wasn’t able to right the ship, the on-field celebration was at least something positive about LSU athletics to show the world. Whether what’s beneath the surface is all that great or not we’re about to discuss, but the change in the optics was at least welcome.
If you want to feel good about last night, you might want to close this window or click on a link someplace. Click here, maybe. Because you won’t like what’s coming.
Les Miles, who has been LSU’s head coach for 11 years, was told he was coming back to coach his team next year, in the tunnel on the way to his press conference after the game. That’s how this went down. And supposedly, the decision to keep Miles was made in the official LSU suite during the 3rd quarter of the game when Miles was holding a precarious 13-7 lead over an unranked team while his quarterback was working on a 7-for-21, 83-yard passing performance that validated the reasons why lots of influential LSU supporters wanted Miles gone in the first place.
All week long, the assumption was that Miles would be coaching his last game, and that a cake that had been slowly baking since the Jan. 9, 2012 disaster of a 21-0 loss to Alabama in the national championship game was finally ready for serving. Fueling that assumption were reliable reports that a deal was in the works to replace Miles with Florida State’s head coach Jimbo Fisher, who had been the offensive coordinator in Baton Rouge during the five years of Nick Saban’s tenure and the first two of Miles’, with a $30 million contract over five years.
Something went wrong with the Fisher deal Friday or Saturday. Saturday Fisher was reported to have told the president at Florida State that he was staying and had no interest in any other jobs. The word on the street initially was that Fisher’s agent, the somewhat-infamous Jimmy Sexton, had surfaced late in the process with some additional demands which were deal-breakers. But after the game a different word surfaced; namely that it wasn’t Fisher or Sexton who blew up the deal but that it happened on LSU’s end. Specifically, that LSU’s president F. King Alexander blanched at spending the money to hire Fisher.
Fisher’s buyout was $5 million, a princely sum but hardly an unbearable one. To buy out Miles’ contract would cost some $15 million, but that’s an irrelevant figure for two reasons. First, the university was never going to come across with that money; it would be paid as a donation to the Tiger Athletic Foundation from a number of wealthy contributors taking up a collection, and each of them would be taking a tax writeoff for their portion. And second, Miles’ buyout would have been washed against his salary in another job which he certainly would have been hired for – and in the case of a Missouri or South Carolina, two SEC schools who would certainly have approached him, his contract would have unquestionably been more than $15 million. Meaning LSU’s responsibility for that buyout was far more theoretical than practical.
But Alexander, it’s said, didn’t want the appearance of committing to “$50 million” for football while LSU is in dire financial straits. This is of a piece with the decision earlier this year to halt construction of the school’s athletic nutrition center, a dressed-up name for an athletic dining hall, with money from donors earmarked specifically for that project, because at the time LSU’s budget situation was uncertain and Alexander was in the midst of a political and PR campaign to lobby the legislature to raise taxes rather than cut his budget. LSU has more funding now than ever before, thanks to an increase in tuition and fees paid by students which has displaced, and then some, the state general fund dollars which used to make up the bulk of its revenue. But Alexander, largely for ideological purposes, takes the position that if LSU isn’t funded through the state general fund it isn’t funded at all, and tuition from students even if it’s paid for through the state’s TOPS program doesn’t make his budget work.
It’s also worth mentioning that Alexander blew up a bond issue for the school by crying wolf about “academic bankruptcy” in the spring, before the final budget was passed and no major cuts to his budget were made at all.
Not to mention that where LSU is concerned athletics is anything but a distraction for the university as a whole. The athletic department dumps some $8 million per year into the university’s coffers, so investments from donors into athletics which produce victories, championships and revenue function largely as free venture capital for Alexander’s purposes.
And yet, if the stories are true, Alexander blew up the hire of a national championship coach whose last four starting quarterbacks heading into this year have all been first-round draft picks to replace Miles – so that he could preserve his Poor F. King Alexander narrative.
When the actual cost to the university for this change would have been exactly nil. Miles’ buyout, to the extent one would have needed to be paid, would have come from voluntary contributions outside the school and any increase in spending on Fisher would have come from increased donations to the school, either voluntarily or courtesy of a Tiger Athletic Foundation ticket surcharge increase the fans would not have objected to. And if a Fisher hire had the intended effect of bringing LSU back into the national championship picture on an annual basis, that would have generated a sizable increase in revenue to more than offset the $1.5 or $2 million more in salary that he’d make compared to what Miles is making now.
And Fisher was, supposedly, the only potential replacement for Miles given any serious consideration. The powers that be never made serious inquiries about former Oregon and current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who is about to become available, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, Houston head coach Tom Herman, Temple head coach Matt Rhule or any of the other big names or hot names who could be enticed with the right offer. It was either Fisher or Miles. We’d blame that on LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, but that would presuppose he’s in control of this process and I can’t be sure that was ever true.
And Alleva, or the powers that be who he represents, touched off a two-week media firestorm surrounding Miles’ future by leaking word to Rabalais that he was coaching for his job in the final two weeks of the season…for, as it turns out, no reason. If the stories are true, Alleva had leveraged private money in order to upgrade the LSU football program and reinject it with energy and lifeblood by making one of the largest coaching hires in the history of college football, and promptly had his legs cut out from under him because of politics.
To me, it sounds far-fetched, because I wouldn’t have thought Alleva capable of pulling off such a coup. But I’m reliably told that’s precisely what happened. F. King Alexander’s narrative about LSU’s financial disaster, which is not actually true, was more important than doing what it takes to upgrade the most important program within the athletic department and put it in position to compete for championships.
That Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards supposedly weighed in against buying Miles’ contract out, and outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal tweeted his support for Miles, probably had an effect as well. As ever, prudent decisions made by professionals are to be submerged under the weight of politicians preening in front of the mob. When ESPN ran polls of college football fans the majority of whom couldn’t care less about LSU and found 82 percent support for keeping Miles where he is, that was all Edwards and Jindal needed. That, and a mentality which holds that money in the bank accounts of high-flying TAF donors is actually LSU’s money to be used how LSU’s administrators would like, and those donors are not free to use it in a manner they believe is most prudent, and you have a true dumpster fire.
So where are we now?
Supposedly, Alleva and Miles met last week about the future of the program, along the lines of “what direction does this go in if you’re still the coach?” and Miles agreed to open up the offense. But of course Miles now has the politicians and the school president on his side, and Alleva had to publicly announce he was the coach for next year – so whatever guarantees or representations Miles may have made are Miles’ to keep and not Alleva’s to force. And in his postgame press conference Miles hinted that yeah, maybe there might be changes to make…but not so much.
“The motor (Leonard Fournette) seems to be pretty stinkin’ strong,” he said. “But a serious overhaul seems to be a little much.”
So that’s the end of that.
You can bet Cam Cameron, the NFL quarterback guru who made Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco three of the League’s highest-paid players but can’t even get a 50 percent completion rate or a decent execution of a zone read option out of Brandon Harris, will be made a scapegoat. Cameron’s contract is up and it won’t likely be renewed. That would give Miles an opportunity to go out and hire a game-changing offensive coordinator like Lincoln Riley has been for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, but don’t bet on that happening. For one thing, Cameron was the fourth offensive coordinator Miles has had and while Fisher had enough stroke to preserve some degree of autonomy, the three since Fisher have run Miles’ offense and nothing else. They all had high-powered offensive production on their resumes and saw that record go up in flames calling toss dives out of two-tight end formations for two-yard gains; the next offensive coordinator can’t expect anything different. Serving as Miles’ offensive coordinator is the closest thing to career suicide you can get in football.
And for another thing, there is zero reason to believe taking that job would convey any security at all. It’s a one-year hitch. If you don’t turn things around lickety-split, the fan reaction to Miles next year will make the politicians blow with the wind in another direction and F. King Alexander will then decide keeping Miles will put his precious general fund money at more risk than firing him will.
Those factors will mean that a great offensive coordinator isn’t coming. Even a talented young coordinator like Major Applewhite, a Baton Rouge native who has had a bit of an up-and-down career but is back on the upswing as Tom Herman’s offensive coordinator at Houston, probably turns it down. So Miles is likely to hire somebody he knows will run his offense. Josh Henson, who used to be his tight ends coach at Oklahoma State and at LSU from 2005-08, might be a possibility. Henson is the offensive coordinator at Missouri, and he’s now out of a job after his offense averaged just 280 yards a game this year. Two years ago they averaged 500 yards a game, though, and the style Missouri plays is not dissimilar to what LSU plays when the offense doesn’t implode.
And it’s Miles who has all the leverage. Alleva and the boosters had a plan, it would have resulted in one of the biggest moves in college football history and it could have ushered in an era where LSU could have matched its stellar recruiting with an actually dangerous and fun offense, and the legs were cut out from under them. Now the question is whether Miles decides to press that leverage, flirt with Missouri and South Carolina and play this mess for a raise and an extension.
Alleva is now being targeted by virtually everyone for a firing. I don’t oppose that, for lots of reasons not involving this mess. If he’s smart, he’ll get the hell out of here before the axe falls and he’ll be well justified in doing so. Alexander not only killed his big coup but wiped out the chance to land a solid Plan B choice who could have halted the decline of the program in similar fashion to what Fisher would have, and Alleva is catching the blame for the entire thing. I feel strange defending him but if the story is true he is being unfairly trashed.
Meanwhile, Georgia fired Mark Richt after a 9-3 season remarkably similar to the one Les Miles survived. Guess the politics at Georgia aren’t as much of an obstacle to the adults doing what needs doing in order to fix a stagnant program.
As for LSU, it’s back to being a political chew toy with a clown in charge. Louisiana has come full circle.
Just don’t expect the big donors to cough up any sizable checks to make any big moves happen anytime soon. Once bitten, twice shy.
UPDATE: Per a follow-up conversation with a source close to the athletic program, one change to make – it wasn’t Saturday morning when Alexander tubed the buyout of Miles; it was Wednesday. But for the same reason.
We’re also told that Alleva actually told Miles his job was no longer in jeopardy after Alexander’s scuppering of the buyout, but the coach didn’t believe him. Which explains the rather strange and chaotic circumstance whereby Miles implied to his Friday Gridiron Club luncheon guests that he was on his way out and the athletic department had to hastily deny reports which surfaced to that effect out of that meeting.