He'll be sharing the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday with another member of that select group. Both Miles and Saban are old school in certain ways: They are not bashful about chewing out players who displease them, and both put in long, long hours on the field and in the office. After that, similarities are harder to come by.
Jacob Hester, a fullback and special teams commando for the San Diego Chargers, was a co-captain on LSU's 2007 national championship team. He played one year for Saban and three for Miles. "Coach Miles got the most out of his players," recalls Hester. "He just did it in a different way than Coach Saban."
And what way was that? "He trusted us," Hester says. "I think Les Miles trusts his players more than any coach I've ever seen or been around." How does this trust manifest itself? "When he calls your number on a trick play or goes for it on a fourth down," Hester says, "the message he's sending is, I believe in you."
LSU fans may love Miles now: Let's see who's still on the bandwagon if 'Bama beats his Tigers by more than, say, two touchdowns. And if the Hat has an uneasy relationship with certain members of Tiger Nation, the bonds that matter—the ones with his players—are stout.
"They're great kids, great young people, and they fight like hell," Miles was saying after LSU's tune-up for the Tide, a 45--10 beatdown of Auburn on Oct. 22, when his train of thought, as so often happens, jumped the tracks. "Do you realize how much fun was had tonight?" he asked rhetorically. "You gotta understand something now: These guys are at risk, and they enjoy it fully. So, I, uh ... I like 'em. It's fun to coach 'em."
Working late in his office two nights later, he filled in that thought: "We ask these players to do some very difficult things, for the team, the coaching staff, the school—at risk of injury. And when they do those things, I feel as if I'm in their debt. It's an honor to coach those guys. I want to do service to them."
Even when that means suspending them. The coaching job done by Miles and his staff this season is all the more impressive when one considers the cavalcade of misfortune, self-inflicted and otherwise, that the team has suffered since the summer. "He's done a great job handling curveballs," says Steve Kragthorpe, a former head coach at Tulsa and Louisville whom Miles hired in the off-season to coordinate his offense.
In August, Kragthorpe announced he had Parkinson's disease. While retaining his duties as quarterbacks coach, he handed off the bulk of his coordinating duties to offensive line coach Greg Studrawa. Then, eight days before LSU's opener against third-ranked Oregon, the team's starting quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, was charged with second-degree battery after allegedly kicking a man in the face during a brawl outside a Baton Rouge bar. While the charges against Jefferson were later reduced to simple battery (his arraignment hearing is pending), he sat out the first four games while serving a suspension. He was replaced by Jarret Lee, a fifth-year senior whose modus operandi has been to back up more talented but less disciplined quarterbacks—Ryan Perrilloux, then Jefferson—and then take the controls when they are suspended.
Unsteady in LSU's otherwise commanding 40--27 win over Oregon, Lee has since found a rhythm—just as Kragthorpe has become comfortable using Lee and Jefferson on alternating series. "It's a luxury," Kragthorpe says of LSU's two-quarterback system. "I've got two guys I know can play and win."
Jefferson had been back on the field for three weeks when Miles suspended three more players—including starting running back Spencer Ware and the sensational, ball hawking cornerback Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu—for violating team policy. "Some guys don't have the great decision-making process just yet," says Miles, "but eventually they'll be very quality husbands, fathers, businessmen. They just need to outdistance their youth."