How Les Miles went from a championship to fired at LSU

The football culture at Louisiana State University is both a beautiful and terrible thing, perpetually cycling between extremes. It is a catalyst for festive joy in the good times, and “Lord of the Flies” savagery in the bad times.

They loved the good times with Les Miles. The trick plays and the grass eating and the good luck and the great wins.

But these are bad times, and the program and its supporters have turned on Miles in vicious fashion.

They’re not bad times by the standards of most of the nation’s college football programs, of course. But bad enough that on Sunday, with an intolerable 2-2 record, a national championship-winning coach became a casualty of the culture.

The number of ways in which LSU mishandled Miles in the past 10 months is staggering. Boosters orchestrated a power play to oust him last year, leaking the plan nearly a week before the firing was to happen and leaving their national championship-winning coach twisting in pitiful limbo. The backlash was severe enough that the firing was halted at almost literally the last minute – Miles’ job was saved during the regular-season finale against Texas A&M.

What should have happened next did not happen next. Miles should have been compelled to make staff changes, specifically replacing offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who proved himself fundamentally incapable of modernizing LSU’s archaic offense or developing a competent passer. But Miles had won the power struggle and thus kept Cameron, making only the concession of reducing his huge salary from $1.5 million to $1.2 million.

The folly in that plan was revealed immediately this season, when the Tigers flailed to 14 points – half of them courtesy of a defensive touchdown – in an opening upset loss to Wisconsin. LSU followed that with a pair of unspectacular victories over Jacksonville State and Mississippi State, then lost 18-13 at Auburn on Saturday in a battle of desperate teams.

Les Miles was fired after LSU opened the season 2-2. (AP)
Les Miles was fired after LSU opened the season 2-2. (AP)

In quintessential Miles fashion, the outcome of the game came down to the thinnest margins of time and space. The Tigers somehow scored what seemed like the winning touchdown, but upon review it was discovered that they failed to get the play off before the game clock ran out. (And, had it been snapped in time, quarterback Danny Etling was past the line of scrimmage when he threw the would-be touchdown pass.)

So many times in the past, these crucial coin-flip moments had miraculously come up in favor of Miles. But not this time. And it would cost him his job.

If LSU had won that game, Les Miles would still be its coach today. Instead, after being on the wrong side of a second and the wrong side of the line of scrimmage, he was fired in September like some problem child or perennial loser.

Miles was neither. His being treated as such was the final act of administrative malpractice by LSU.

You know who gets fired at this time of year? Inveterate losers like Charlie Weis at Kansas. You know who doesn’t get fired at this time of year? A guy in his 12th season who is the second-winningest coach in the history of his school.

You know who fires coaches at this time of year? An athletic director at a second-tier program trying to get ahead of the hiring cycle, like Greg Byrne at Arizona with Mike Stoops. Or an incompetent AD who hired someone with rampant off-field problems, like Pat Haden at USC with Steve Sarkisian.

A program of LSU’s stature doesn’t fire a coach of Les Miles’ stature four games into the season. It’s a vicious panic move spawned by regret over not doing it last year – and it wasn’t done last year because the school turned it into a week-long melodrama in which Miles ultimately became a sympathetic figure.

Thus this action might be unprecedented in modern college football history.

Championship coaches have been fired – Gene Chizik at Auburn, Larry Coker at Miami – but they were flash-in-the-pan winners who had none of the sustained success that Miles has enjoyed. Mack Brown was forced to resign at Texas, but that came in December – he was spared the indignity of a September trap-dooring.

What LSU did to Miles simply doesn’t happen. Until now.

The Mad Hatter’s biggest single problem was that he had to coexist in the SEC West with the man who preceded him at LSU, Nick Saban. And while nobody continuously gets the best of Saban, only one coach has had to try to beat him at his old school.

When Saban pounded Miles 21-0 in the 2011 BCS Championship Game, that tipped the scales of approval against Miles for good. When he beat him the next four seasons and won two more national titles, that made it worse.

Remember, LSU has no rational claim regularly winning national championships. Miles did it in 2007, Saban in 2003 – and before that the only other one came in 1958. Plenty of coaches have failed Baton Rouge between Charlie McClendon and Saban, from Jerry Stovall to Mike Archer to Curley Hallman to Gerry DiNardo. But Saban’s success – and Miles’ continuation of it, has spoiled an already rabid fan base.

LSU fans have every right to be angry that Miles basically squandered the Leonard Fournette Era, three seasons with the best running back in school history. They have every right to be furious that in a time when virtually everyone can throw the ball with some panache, LSU cannot. They are entitled to their frustration over a 15-11 SEC record since 2012.

But running Les Miles out on a rail in September is a low-class move, culminating a series of amateurish events over the past 10 months. They love a winner in Louisiana, but they will turn on that man when the winning slows down. That’s the ruthless side of LSU football.

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