Why LSU had to fire Les Miles
The clock ran out on Les Miles twice in one weekend. It’s hard to imagine a national championship coach’s 12-year tenure ending more cruelly yet fittingly than that.
If Danny Etling had one more second to throw his ultimately nullified touchdown pass to D.J. Chark against Auburn, Miles would almost certainly still be the coach of LSU on Monday. But it also would have been delaying the inevitable.
The fact that Miles’ fortunes were dependent in the first place on a Purdue castoff quarterback trying to rally against a 1-2 opponent that itself couldn’t get in the end zone pretty much summed up the state of Miles’ program. A team with national championship talent and a once-in-a-generation running back couldn’t score two offensive touchdowns in a game against Wisconsin or Auburn.
Miles, despite winning one national title and playing for another, despite averaging double-digit wins per season, and despite a Hall of Fame stable of quirky quotes and mannerisms, had to go. You might say it’s mean and abrupt for LSU to fire such an impactful coach four games into the season, but that’s what college football coaching has become. Miles was not even the first FBS coach to be canned Sunday (that honor went to FIU’s Ron Turner), nor was Cam Cameron the only Power 5 coordinator to be let go (Notre Dame’s Brian VanGorder).
If anything, the fact Miles survived this long is a testament to his staying power, because in many ways he spent much of the past 12 years trying not to get fired. As early as the second game of 2005, when LSU blew a home game to Tennessee, a certain contingent of Tigers fans made up their mind that this Bo Schembechler disciple was no Nick Saban, the man who resuscitated the program before bolting for the Miami Dolphins.
Two years later, Saban took over at LSU’s nemesis Alabama, and beginning with that horrific 21-0 loss to the Tide in the 2011 BCS title game, the rest of the fan base also came to the conclusion that Miles was no Saban.
Five straight losses to the Tide later, Miles is out in large part because Saban’s program continued to evolve while LSU continued to regress. While Alabama hired Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, started embracing the no-huddle, the shotgun, run-pass options and now a dangerous runner at quarterback (Jalen Hurts), Miles and Cameron doubled down on the same Schembechler-era smashmouth approach. The lack of a competent passing threat allowed defenses to zero in completely on stopping Leonard Fournette, who’s currently averaging 128.7 yards in his three games played.
Many, myself included, defended Miles amidst the LSU brass’ awkward dance late last season in which it very nearly fired him the first time. He deserved better. But even I can’t argue with Sunday’s decision. The Tigers got worse, not better since the end of last season.
It’s a shame, because few coaches were more memorably amusing than Les, from his fiery and clunky sound bytes to eating grass to, in perhaps his defining moment, “Have a great day.” That last line was part of a surreal-even-by-LSU-standards moment when Miles, the morning of the 2007 SEC championship game, gave a hastily called 60-second press conference to refute reports he was taking the vacant Michigan job.
Of course, some of Miles’ lighter moments also contributed to a perception at times that Miles could not be taken seriously as a coach. At the heart of that was his many infamous clock-management gaffes, some of which LSU won in spite of (2007 against Auburn, 2010 against Tennessee), some of which cost him the game (2009 Ole Miss).
Which brings us to Saturday.
I devoted a lot of column space last week to the so-called LSU-Auburn Hot Seat Bowl, including an SEC coaches hot seat survival guide in which I gave Miles just a 27 percent chance of making to 2017. At the time, I did not expect either school to pull the plug the next day. But when LSU lost the way it did – on yet another clock gaffe in yet another ugly offensive game – I knew it was now a possibility.
Good luck to interim coach Ed Orgeron in his quest to rescue LSU’s season the way he did USC’s in 2013. The fact that he’ll now hold his lifelong dream job for at least eight games is pretty darn cool.
But make no mistake, college football is now a little Les fun without Miles on the sideline.