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To understand just how quickly a coach's stock can plummet, one need only look to the afternoon of Dec 1, 2007, just less than two years ago, when Les Miles and Rich Rodriguez were the toast of their profession.
Hours before coaching LSU in that day's SEC Championship Game, Miles, coveted both by his alma mater (Michigan) and his employer, held an unusual pregame press conference to debunk an ESPN report claiming he had accepted a job in Ann Arbor. That night, West Virginia's Rodriguez, who just a year earlier had come close to signing with Alabama, coached for a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
Soon, the two men's fates became intertwined. Miles' team beat Tennessee, while Rodriguez's team fell to 4-7 Pittsburgh, opening the door for Miles' Tigers to play for a national championship. As a result, Michigan was forced to end its courtship of Miles, who, upon claiming the sport's top prize a month later, signed a lucrative new contract making him (at the time) the highest paid coach in the SEC ($3.751 million annually). Michigan turned instead to Rodriguez, thinking highly enough of his work at West Virginia to hand him the keys to the sport's all-time winningest program.
On Saturday, these same two coaches were the subject of widespread scorn from their fan bases and much mockery around the country. With a 21-10 loss to Ohio State, Rodriguez completed his second straight losing season at Michigan, an indignity Big Blue followers have not suffered since 1962-63. Between his ugly divorce from West Virginia, an NCAA investigation into allegations he violated practice limits and a 3-13 Big Ten record to date, Rodriguez's reputation as an offensive guru suddenly seems like ancient history. Now, to most, he's a man in over his head and begging for sympathy regarding his rebuilding project.
"Everybody wants instant gratification, they all want to win right now, but you have to look at what the true issues are and what we're trying to do in this program," he said Saturday. "The last three Februarys have hurt us a little bit. The next two or three first Wednesdays in February [Signing Days] will be critical to our program."
Contrary to what some media sharks would have you believe, Rodriguez isn't in danger of losing his job. "He will be our coach next year," Michigan AD Bill Martin declared after the Ohio State game. "... There's no ifs, ands or buts about it." He has, however, lost a significant chunk of the Wolverines' fans, many of whom have already thrown in the towel.
More patient followers realize Rodriguez didn't suddenly forget how to coach when he got to Ann Arbor; that true freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who showed such promise early, is still a true freshman saddled with an enormous burden; and that the defense's abundant talent deficiency won't be fixed overnight. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, those weren't the same people who sold their tickets to Saturday's game and probably won't be rejoining the bandwagon until they see a Big Ten trophy.
Rodriguez, however, does hold one advantage over the man who, under different circumstances, could well have ended up occupying his post. "Patient fan" is an oxymoron in the SEC, particularly in Baton Rouge, where in less than two years' time Miles has gone from national-championship coach to certifiable nincompoop. Mind you, many felt that wayeven before Saturday's game-management meltdown against Ole Miss, but Miles gave his critics unthinkable ammunition with one of the worst last-second coaching blunders in recent memory.
Having scored a last-minute touchdown to cut its deficit to 25-23, then recovered an onside kick, LSU had the ball at the Rebels' 32-yard-line with 1:04 left, already in range for a potential game-wining field goal. However, the Tigers called three straight pass plays. The first fell incomplete. On second down, quarterback Jordan Jefferson took a nine-yard sack. On third down, with 32 seconds left, his screen pass to Stevan Ridley lost another seven yards, relegating LSU to fourth-and-26.
And then, for 17 seconds after the play had ended, the clock inexplicably kept ticking. Only nine seconds remained when Miles finally called his last timeout. He claimed later: "Timeouts were being called verbally, but I didn't relate to the official apparently, and that was a mistake. We didn't know [the timeout] hadn't been called."
Even then, he had a chance at redemption after Jefferson completed a miraculous 43-yard heave to Terrance Toliver that got the ball down to the Ole Miss 5 with one second left. It's debatable whether the Tigers realistically could have gotten off the snap once the ball was reset, but it wouldn't have mattered even if they had: Jefferson, to the bewilderment of everyone watching, spiked it.
"When Terrance caught it, I thought the field-goal unit was going to come out and kick the field goal and we were going to win the game," Jefferson said. "[The coaches] had a lot of communication going on. Time was running out. I mean, it was just a lot of confusion."
Added Miles: "The management at the back end of the game was the issue. It's my fault that we didn't finish first in that game."
Making matters worse, Miles claimed, "I do not know who told [Jefferson] to clock it," but a local news affiliate's footage showed Miles repeatedly making the "clock" gesture himself.
A sampling of how Miles' management went over on the Bayou could be found on the "Tiger Rant" fan forum at TigerDroppings.com, where one fan asked: "All wanting off the Miles bandwagon, please be heard," and another responded, "Do you have to have been on it to get off it?"
Many outsiders might find it absurd for a fan base to turn so vehemently against a coach who led its team to a national title less than two years ago and has kept it in the top 10 nearly the entire season. But LSU fans never fully embraced Miles following Nick Saban's departure, and now their worst fear is coming true: Saban has Alabama on the brink of a second straight undefeated regular season, while the Tigers have now gone 7-8 in the SEC since last season.
Miles, like Rodriguez, isn't in danger of losing his job any time soon, but the fact that it's even become a point of discussion shows just how rapidly a coach's stock can deteriorate. Maybe both would have been better off had West Virginia simply beaten Pittsburgh that fateful December night.
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