Maddening, eccentric, mocked -- Miles a coach in a league of his own
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LSU has managed to start its season 5-0, but it's hard to blame Tigers fans for thinking this year is heading into the toilet. Just ask Rusty Welch, LSU tailgating czar and loyal Mailbag reader, who e-mailed me this account from Saturday's mystifying 16-14 win over Tennessee.
"My friend and I sit in the game until the third quarter ended. Go back to the tailgate. Game ends, I go to the Port-a-Potty knowing we had lost. I step out of the Port-a-Potty and we had won. Must have been some kind of magical time-warp Port-a-Potty."
There's a magician at LSU, all right. His name is Les Miles, and his latest train wreck-turned-Houdini escape instantly became the most infamous moment yet for one of the most fascinating figures in the sport today. LSU's offensively putrid games are borderline-unwatchable, but we can't turn away from them because they're so perversely dramatic.
I watched the final minutes of LSU-Tennessee with a pack of sportswriters huddled around a press-box television in Tuscaloosa. As the Tigers began intermittently moving down the field while trailing 14-10 in the final minutes, the inevitable Miles-related snickers poured forth.
"You watch," said one scribe. "He's going to pull it out."
The clock ticked. "He'll find a way to blow it," said another. On fourth-and-10 from the Vols' 39, LSU called timeout -- only to draw a delay of game penalty coming out of it.
"Are you kidding me, Les???" (That was me.)
But then quarterback Jarrett Lee, making a triumphant comeback after nearly two years on the bench, completed a clutch 21-yard pass to Terrance Toliver. Soon enough, the whole country got to watch Miles simultaneously blow the game AND pull it out.
If you haven't yet seen the unfathomable final 32-second sequence, please, watch it now. I'd say we've never seen anything like it before -- except we have, at least two other times, from Miles. There was the time against Auburn, when the clock nearly ran out on Matt Flynn before he delivered a game-winning touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd. And then there was the time last season, when the clock did run out on Jordan Jefferson after the quarterback erroneously spiked the ball against Ole Miss to end the game amid utter confusion on the LSU sideline.
Lessons learned, right? Wrong.
Against Tennessee, there again was a confused-looking Jefferson, trying frantically to get his team lined up on third-and-goal after LSU stunningly tried to sub in three new players, the clock ticking dangerously close to zero until T-Bob Hebert finally went ahead and snapped the ball. The ball tumbled past the not-ready Jefferson, sealing the Tigers' fate, sending Derek Dooley and the Vols into a full-on celebration -- and a disgusted Rusty to the Port-a-Potty.
But wait -- suddenly, the official is on his headset. And now he's signaling something. Turns out, Dooley had out-Miles'd Miles, sending in his own subs to counter LSU's subs -- two too many, it turned out. What had seemed like The Mad Hatter's most flagrant clock-management breakdown yet had magically worked in his favor. Given new life, the Tigers ran another play, and won in the wildest finish this season.
Afterward, in classic Les fashion, Miles explained exactly what happened in excruciating detail, but in his patently strange speech pattern. At one point, he's yelling at his audience, as if the reporters were the ones who messed up the substitutions. Twenty-seconds later, he's chuckling and happy again.
College football runs the full gamut of coaching personalities. It has its charmers (Mack Brown), its evil geniuses (Nick Saban), its icons (Joe Paterno), its wizards (Chip Kelly) and its villains (Lane Kiffin). Miles has come to occupy his own category.
He's eccentric. He's maddening. He's widely mocked. Some would say his most appropriate label is "lucky." He owns a BCS championship ring, a .789 winning percentage at LSU and a 5-0 record this season, yet most of the 93,000 celebrants at Tiger Stadium on Saturday still want his head on a platter.
Mind you, only one of the Tigers' five wins has come against a respected foe (West Virginia), and it's widely assumed Miles' offensively challenged team will get its comeuppance soon enough, most likely this weekend at No. 14 Florida. But don't be so sure.
For one thing, if you watched the Gators' 31-6 meltdown at Alabama on Saturday night, you know Florida has its own offensive issues (like its undying loyalty to the spread-option despite employing pro-style quarterback John Brantley). Maybe Lee, who made several big throws (and one ghastly end zone interception) after replacing Jefferson for most of the second half, will be the sparkplug for a previously woeful offense. The Tigers certainly have a championship-caliber defense.
The predictable endgame would be for LSU to lose three or four as it hits the meat of its conference schedule (which includes dates with Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas) and for Miles to beat it out of town before the masses get to him first. But that seems too predictable. More likely, he'll write an accidental script which keeps us scratching our heads -- and which, as my guy Rusty has learned, you can never turn away from.
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