TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Les Miles wasn't letting go of that game ball, his left hand wrapped right around it, inside the locker room and out if it, in front of the media and even back out on the field where his friends waited to pat his back.
He kept saying, as he had all week, that this was just another game; that it wasn't about beating Nick Saban, or, more accurately, the ghost of Nick Saban that will hang around Baton Rouge at least until he wins the big one himself.
He didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to talk about it. But everyone else did. The only two people who wouldn't acknowledge the creation of the SEC's newest blood feud were the central participants, LSU's coaches present and past.
It was Saban, people kept saying, who resurrected the LSU program. It was Saban who recruited all this talent Miles is blessed to be coaching.
It was Saban, some had even claimed, who wouldn't have lost at Kentucky, or two games last year, or even needed last-second finishes to beat Florida and Auburn. Saban wouldn't have needed all those wild play calls and all those fourth-down decisions to win.
Old Saint Nick had grown into mythical proportions in Louisiana; infallible even as he became an infidel. It's only a matter of time now, with Saban back in the SEC, back at Alabama, before order around here was restored. Or so some said.
"He's been getting criticized about how he's playing with Coach Saban's players," said Early Doucet, the incredible wideout and one of just such players.
"It's ridiculous," said Glenn Dorsey, LSU's man-eating defensive lineman.
Ridiculous or not, they understood it was being said.
So when his players finally delivered a 41-34 heart-stopping, come-from-behind victory that they had nearly kicked away, when they finally gave Miles a win he needed so much, and not just to stay in contention for SEC and national titles, when they finally sent 92,000 Crimson crazies home silent on this glorious football night in the South, they gave their coach the game ball because they knew that no matter how little he said, it all meant a lot.
"He loved it," said Chevis Jackson. "From the fans there'd been a lot of hoopla about Saban and Miles. (We) just wanted to show him we're behind him 100 percent."
Miles talks like Bo Schembechler, whom he played for at Michigan, so there wasn't going to be any emotional introspection afterward. There wasn't even going to be a lot of excitement about getting one step closer to all the team's championship goals.
He was too busy venting about all the ways LSU tried to lose this game – the three turnovers, a punt return allowed for a TD, the whopping 130 yards in penalties.
"That will never happen again, I can promise you that," Miles said. "I promise you that will be addressed slowly, painfully and over a long amount of time."
But isn't this the LSU way? Isn't this the team that can't help but take a semi-easy victory and turn it into a last-second gut check?
"It's giving me a heart attack," said Jacob Hester, the fullback who had to score another final-minutes winning TD.
Miles coaches like he has less talent, not more. He runs crazy plays, goes for it on fourth down in situations the coaching text book would deem absurd, goes full-blast with defensive blitzes no matter what the time and score. He doesn't care. He couldn't be any other way.
His team seems to follow his lead – everything over the top. For every stunningly great play here, there is an equally stupid one to follow; everything frantic until he final gun.
So his team blew a 17-3 lead. Then trailed by 10. Then kept turning the ball over. Then kept committing penalties. Then, when Miles decided to go for it in the middle of the fourth quarter, score tied at 27, on his own 37(!), they naturally turned it into 20 yards of penalties that yielded a short field kick return that almost finished them at 34-27.
"I don't think I've ever been in a game I felt like we dominated someone so thoroughly on both sides of the ball and looked up and still were behind," defensive coordinator Bo Pelini said.
LSU's 221 advantage in total yards is why this loss would have been so crushing. This would have been Saban, smooth as ever, collected as ever, absolutely stealing one from LSU. This would have been the old coach capitalizing on all the new coach's mistakes, beating him with less talent than he left back in Baton Rouge.
It would have been that old coaching adage: he'll beat you with his and then he'll beat you with yours.
But LSU just shrugged and played. It tied it with 2:49 left and then essentially won it with a gutsy blitz that forced a fumble inside the 'Bama five less than a minute later.
Next thing you know Miles was getting the game ball.
"I told them that's the last gift they ever give me," he said.
The way this season is going maybe not. LSU is 8-1, back in the top two in the BCS, and incredibly dangerous. If it gets a title chance, then this is the most fearsome team in the country because if it can ever play minus the mistakes it is virtually unbeatable.
All of which seemed so far away Saturday, so, if you can believe it, unimportant. The BCS can be all consuming but not this time. This was about surviving the emotional madness, the wild, hostile scene to beat back the ghost of Saint Nick for at least another year.
"This had nothing to with who coached for them or who coached for LSU," Miles claimed.
But after all the talk about Nick Saban this and Nick Saban that, after all the verbal heat and anger that the Crimson Tide sent crashing down onto that LSU sideline, after all the doubts circled back in Baton Rouge, after back and forth and back again, when it was all over, when it was all quiet at Bryant-Denny, Les Miles was talking to some friends and laughing.
And still holding that game ball.
- Nick Saban
- Les Miles