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November 07, 2011
LSU's grass-eating, trick-play-calling, word-mangling coach will have everyone in Bryant-Denny Stadium guessing as he leads his top-ranked Tigers against No. 2 Alabama in Saturday's megamatchup
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November 07, 2011

What Will Les Miles Do Next?

LSU's grass-eating, trick-play-calling, word-mangling coach will have everyone in Bryant-Denny Stadium guessing as he leads his top-ranked Tigers against No. 2 Alabama in Saturday's megamatchup

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In 2011 the Tigers have embraced, in Kragthorpe's words, "the philosophy of the Next Man Up." With the Honey Badger out, senior Ron Brooks stepped into the breach. Brooks, who'd started one game in his career, had four tackles, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a pick-six against Auburn. Ware's absence resulted in a coming-out party for true freshman Kenny Hilliard, a 240-pound battering ram of a back who rushed for 65 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.

"The team is never about the single player," says Miles. "It's not about the injury" that keeps a star out of a certain game, "and it's not about the coach. It's about the strength, and the abilities of the sum."

Here he is back to echoing Schembechler, who "coached team as well as anybody I've been around," says Miles. "I bought in, as a player, as a person, as a family man."

Kathy LaBarge's boss put a note on her desk. She'd recently been assigned to recruit the Chicago area for the Wolverines' hoops team. The head coach wanted her to talk to Miles over in the football offices. He recruited that area and could give her some pointers.

Intimidated by the notion of venturing into the football building, LaBarge was reluctant to look him up, but one day she ran into Miles in the parking lot between their offices. He'd just returned from a Pistons playoff game. He strove, while talking hoops with her, to not betray his lack of basketball knowledge. When LaBarge ran into her boss following that friendly chat with Miles, she recalls, "I still had this grin on my face." She asked, "Why didn't you tell me he was that good looking?"

They married in 1993, their relationship having survived LaBarge's trip to Vegas. Two years later Miles took the offensive coordinator's job at Oklahoma State. After two years there and then three coaching tight ends for the Dallas Cowboys, he returned to Stillwater in '01, this time as head coach.

Taking over a program that had managed only one winning season in 13 years, Miles turned OSU into a consistent winner. In his first two seasons he led the team to upset wins over Oklahoma. He took the Cowboys to three straight bowl games. "I loved my time there," he says. "It's a wonderful place. [Billionaire booster] Boone Pickens was incredibly helpful. We needed planes, he got us planes. But there was a price to pay for that guy." Every August, Miles would have to cancel a handful of afternoon practices because of lightning storms. Coveting an indoor facility, he called the deep-pocketed Pickens, who immediately shot down the idea, informing the coach that he was focused on the renovation of the stadium, to which he would end up donating $165 million. That incident and others gave Miles the strong impression that Pickens "wanted to run" the football program. And it was clear to him, Miles says, that "I was the biggest stumbling block [he] had. At some point I was going to be in the way." When LSU offered Miles the head job before the 2005 season, he put Stillwater in his rearview mirror.

Miles went 11--2 in each of his first two years in Baton Rouge. In 2007, LSU's only losses, to Kentucky and Arkansas, came in triple overtime, and they didn't keep the Tigers out of the SEC title game. But on the morning of that contest, ESPN reported—erroneously—that Miles would be named the new coach at Michigan. Hours before the game he assured his team that he wasn't going anywhere and went on TV to deliver a forceful, angry, digression-free message: "I am the head coach at LSU. I will be the head coach at LSU. I have no interest in talking to anybody else. I've got a championship game to play, and I am excited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play in it."

The Tigers beat Tennessee 21--14, backing into the BCS title game thanks to losses by No. 1 Mizzou and No. 2 West Virginia. In what amounted to a home game in the Superdome, LSU outclassed Ohio State for its third national title.

Four seasons later the BCS title game will once again be contested in New Orleans. Yet again Miles has fielded a resilient and ridiculously talented team. "I love it," he replied when informed that his squad opened as a five-point underdog to Alabama. And why not? If the 2007 Tigers were damn strong, this group of road warriors can only be described as damn stronger.

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