Les Miles V. Big Money

by John Mikell

The LSU administration’s third quarter decision to retain Miles was a reaction to LSU fans’ and the general public’s revulsion to the idea that affluent fans alone decide the direction of LSU and its football program.

LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva stood before the press soon after the Tigers’ 19-7 win over Texas A&M at the end of a long campaign. The results were in and he had suffered a humiliating loss. For three weeks events had seemed to break his way. Yet, despite $15 million in dark money, and a supportive local media providing comparisons of his adversary to a “natural disaster,” Alleva had lost at the wire. He spoke slowly and without emotion as he acquiesced to what had been decided. “I want to make it very clear and positive that Les Miles is our football coach and he will continue to be our football coach.” Alleva dropped his head and grimaced, “OK?” All that was missing was a softly weeping family at his side.

Alleva’s was not a solitary campaign. Many fans turned against Miles after the 21-0 National Championship game loss to Nick Saban, ur, Alabama. Since then LSU had lost four more to Saban, ur, Bama. Before then there was a substitution fiasco against Tennesse in 2010, a time management problem against Ole Miss in 2009, and an 8-5 season in 2008. And then there’s Miles’ slightly goofy personality and unique manner of speaking. Endearing to many but embarrassing to those whose identity and self-worth are bound to LSU football. So he doesn’t talk like Saban either. His conservative offensive needs a strong defense to thrive and results in many close games. That can be stressful. If you need examples of more complaints tune in to talk radio or read the comments section online.

If Alleva wasn’t alone he was the operative. A year ago he ran off Miles’ ablest assistant, John Chavis, who ended up at A&M. Chavis found it odd that a clause needed to be added to his contact that limited its length to Miles’ employment. Didn’t Miles have five years to go with a $15 million buyout? Smelling trouble Chavis bolted and the Tiger defense declined as a result. Point Alleva.

LSU’s 7-0 start to the season complicated Alleva’s mission but once again the specter of Nick Saban loomed over Miles’ future. A 30-16 loss to the Tide led directly to a disappointing 31-14 home loss to Arkansas. Meanwhile injuries, especially on the offensive line, piled up and both the defense and quarterback play regressed. Suddenly, just two games after ranking number two in the country, Miles seemed vulnerable.

Miles was not unaware. As far back as his first game in Tiger Stadium when his team, exhausted by the chaos of Katrina and Rita, blew a 21-0 lead and lost to Tennessee in overtime he knew the stakes, “We won out first game at Arizona State and lost our second game, and I knew we were soon to be fired. And so what I’ve always done, and it’s a strength and a weakness, I put my head down and I try to do the best things.” That philosophy has served Miles and LSU football well. He is the second winningest coach in LSU history and was 2011 National Coach of the Year. His teams have won two SEC Championships and played in two National Championship games, winning one.

After the Arkansas game Alleva or someone similar leaked to the Advocate that Miles was “coaching for his job against Ole Miss and A&M.” After an expected loss against a superior Ole Miss team (2015 was supposed to be their year) Miles seemed to face a win or go home situation against the Aggies. Meanwhile Alleva declined to answer questions about Miles’ status.

The crowd before the game was wildly pro-Miles. A video of Alleva on the scoreboard brought boos. The first half ended 7-6 A&M and things looked dire for the Tigers before one of the most impactful third periods in LSU football history. According to ESPN’s Joe Schad, Alleva, LSU President King Alexander, and “decision-makers” made the decision to retain Miles during the third quarter. Schad reported they feared LSU would appear “mean-spirited because Miles had become a sympathetic figure” and even though the $15 million to buy out Miles’ contract would come from private rather university sources, the idea that such much would be spent on football during a time of academic financial duress could jeopardize future state funding. It’s surprising the decisions LSU’s top “decision-makers” have to make. But Schad had no explanation for the weird timing of the process. I’d like to think it was made immediately after Shaq O’Neal’s sideline interview when a question about Miles led to his classic scowl and the command, “The man shouldn’t have to read on the ticker tape his job is in jeopardy. Hopefully he stays. A lot of people want him to stay. We should show him a lot more respect. Show the man some respect.”

If the “decision-makers” listened to Shaq he gets credit for another big win not just for LSU but for Louisiana. That $15 million buyout contribution to the Tiger Athletic Foundation is tax-deductible so, in effect we all would have contributed to helping Les pack. (Any plan to bring college football finances back to a sane level has to include the elimination of tax deductions for athletic contributions, corporate suites, and priority seating). Most disturbing of all is the presence of wealthy LSU football boosters (not to be confused with LSU boosters) some apparently on LSU’s Board of Supervisors who place football above the university itself. Disturbing, sad, and an embarrassment to Louisiana.

Apparently Big Money lost this time. Miles’ reprieve has been described as a “reaction to a reaction.” The administration’s third quarter decision was a reaction to LSU fans’ and the general public’s revulsion to the idea that affluent fans alone decide the direction of LSU and its football program. It was the biggest win of the season.