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Very early in her courtship with Les Miles, Kathy LaBarge delivered a piece of not especially welcome news to her future husband. She was going to Las Vegas on a previously arranged trip with a group that included a fellow she'd dated in the past. Two decades later she is still amused by Miles's reaction: "He leaned his head back and said, 'What would Bo do?'"
Theirs was a union of assistant coaches. She was a former Central Michigan point guard working for the Michigan women's basketball team. He was a onetime Wolverines offensive lineman who had recently returned to Ann Arbor to join the staff of the renowned Bo Schembechler.
Like all Schembechler disciples, Miles uploaded the core principles of his boss: integrity, discipline, toughness and the primacy of group over individual. This Saturday night, in a battle for SEC West supremacy that will double as a de facto national championship game, Miles will lead his top-ranked, 8--0 Tigers against second-ranked, 8--0 Alabama. But one of the reasons Miles is in contention for his second BCS national title in five years—and one of the reasons he has an .805 winning percentage in 6½ seasons at LSU—is this: Once he determines the answer to the question What would Bo do?, he's not afraid to go the other way. Indeed, at times Miles seems to have borrowed his philosophy of life from Tom Cruise's Risky Business character, Joel Goodson: Sometimes you gotta say, What the f---?
Schembechler, you see, never went for it on fourth down five times in one game, as Miles did against Florida in 2007. While not averse to a few trick plays per decade, Bo preached "execution before innovation." Miles is all about execution, too, but he never saw a trick play that he didn't want to add to his quiver. Like the fake field goal that he busted out last season at Florida on fourth-and-three, trailing 29--26 with 35 seconds to play. (LSU moved the chains and scored the game-winning touchdown four snaps later.) Or, also last season, the successful fake punt followed by the fourth-down reverse that covered 23 yards and set up the go-ahead TD against Alabama.
"Bo was a stickler for team play, and I'm sure that's how Les coaches his guys," says former Seattle Seahawks safety Don Dufek, who played with Miles at Michigan, "but Les is a lot more innovative. He likes a style of play that keeps you on the edge of your seat."
The same might be said for Miles's speech, an always original and sometimes comprehensible gumbo of declarations, digressions, distressed syntax and so-called Mile-a-props, such as his recent expression of gratitude to the "thong" of LSU fans who made the trip to Knoxville for the Tigers' 38--7 drubbing of Tennessee. "You've got to use your context clues," says left guard Will Blackwell, "to kind of decipher the meaning." The only thing odder than the sight of Miles plucking, then chewing a sprig of stadium grass during that 2010 victory over the Tide was his postgame explanation: "I have a little tradition that humbles me as a man, that lets me know that I'm a part of the field and part of the game."
For the longest time Miles didn't need to chew grass to humble himself as a man. He had the LSU fan base to do that for him. Entering the 2010 season, he'd gone 51--15 in five years in Baton Rouge. He wasn't quite three seasons removed from a national championship, only the third in school history, yet there was his name featured on various preseason Coaches on the Hot Seat lists. Disgruntled fans still suspected he would dump them for Michigan, the way his predecessor, that carpetbagging Nick Saban, had used their program as a stepping stone to the NFL.
Despising Saban didn't stop the fans from carping that Miles had won that national title with talent recruited by the man he succeeded. That criticism implies that Saban was the far superior recruiter. Not so. For six straight years under Miles, LSU's recruiting classes have been among the top 10 in the nation, in lockstep with Alabama's.
Still, critics questioned Miles's deployment of that talent. They zeroed in on his occasional misadventures in clock management, such as the bungled use of timeouts that kneecapped a possible LSU rally at Ole Miss in 2009. "I understand the criticism from the fans," Miles allowed after that loss. "I'm responsible. I'm the head coach."
He seemed to make a breakthrough with the fans by beating 'Bama last year, handing the Tide its second loss of the season and knocking Saban out of the hunt for his second straight national title. That, of course, was the game in which Miles chewed grass on national TV. Eccentricities such as these, combined with the coach's penchant for gambling on the field, his ever-present ball cap (giving rise to his nicknames: the Hat and the Mad Hatter) and his boldly original linguistic excursions, have tended to distract attention from this emerging truth: Les Miles is a fearless, smart winner. He's on his way to his fifth season of at least 11 victories—this in the toughest division of the toughest conference in the country. He is, in his unorthodox way, one of the top two or three college coaches in the country.