Come At The King, You Best Not Miss: On Les Miles and Mark Richt
As he stood on the field Saturday night at Tiger Stadium with his famous cap doffed and soaked in the adulation of his subjects, Les Miles looked every bit a king. At the time, those subjects may have thought this king was getting led to the gallows in the coming days or hours, but only because they didn't know the ongoing coup had run out of steam and had run into forces marshaled by Miles and his supporters.
When LSU athletic director Joe Alleva stood at a podium after the Tigers' 19—7 win over Texas A&M, he acted as if the previous 11 days hadn't happened. "The season is complete and I want to make it very clear and positive that Les Miles is our football coach and will continue to be our football coach. Okay? I'm looking forward to working with coach Miles as he leads this team to a bowl game and another great recruiting class," Alleva said. "Les and I have talked, we've talked about this program, and we are committed together to working to win and compete at the highest level. And I really, frankly, don't have much more to say than that. I'm very pleased about tonight's outcome and I'm very pleased that coach Miles is our coach. We're going to go forward together and win championships here at LSU."
Had Alleva really wanted to make it clear that Miles was LSU's coach, he would have done so long before Saturday night. He would not have allowed Miles to twist while stories planted by those trying to oust Miles carried news cycle after news cycle. A one-paragraph statement would have squashed everything. The fact that Alleva waited almost two weeks to say anything speaks volumes.
Meanwhile, in another part of the SEC, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity acted as if everything was business as usual. There was speculation about coach Mark Richt's future following a 27—3 loss to Florida on Oct. 31, but there were no planted stories. There would be no focus grouping of a difficult decision. There might have been public debate on radio shows and in newspaper columns, but no Georgia official or heavy-hitting booster participated. No one tried to shape the message, because no one let on that there was a message to shape. Then, on the morning after the Bulldogs squeaked by Georgia Tech 13—7 in their 2015 regular-season finale, McGarity met with Richt and it was over. The press release made their parting sound like a mutual decision, but when a person wants to continue to be the head coach and he isn't given that option, he has been fired as the head coach. The king in Athens had been deposed in a bloodless coup.
Had McGarity, his lieutenants or Georgia's boosters leaked any of the deliberations, the conversation probably would have played out much like it did at LSU. Like Miles, Richt has a stellar résumé. Like Miles, Richt has not won as many games in recent years as his program should expect to win. In both cases, a conflicted fan base has argued the merits of keeping a successful coach even though the on-field results seem to suggest the program has stagnated. In both cases, some people are happy with the outcome and some can't believe the decision made by the leadership. Only one thing is clear: The people in Athens handled their deliberation in a far more professional manner than the people in Baton Rouge.
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Though Alleva wouldn't come out and say it, Miles's job was on the line. We know this because for 11 days after a story in The Advocate was published that screamed "plant," Alleva wouldn't address the one question everyone wanted answered. This is just common sense. Why risk losing recruits if there is no debate about whether Miles will return? Whether Alleva was complicit in the attempted ouster or merely sticking his finger in the wind and waiting to see which side prevailed is another question. But Alleva certainly didn't support his coach. And, given the events of Saturday night, that puts Alleva on the wrong side of history in this case. McGarity, meanwhile, didn't have to answer the burning question because no one had seeded the clouds to produce a storm of speculation.
The people who tried to fire Miles didn't heed the advice Ralph Waldo Emerson once gave an essayist who had criticized Plato. "When you strike at a king," Emerson wrote, "you must kill him." Nor did they follow the advice of Niccolo Machiavelli, whose The Prince remains the ultimate guide to acquiring and keeping power: "Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge."
Those involved in the plot to fire Miles should stand in fear of revenge. While the LSU organizational chart lists Miles below Alleva, Miles rules by virtue of his financial clout—it's a lot cheaper to fire Alleva than Miles—and by the personal capital he has accumulated in 11 seasons as the coach. Going 14—12 in the SEC over the past three years weakened that power and made Miles vulnerable, but apparently it did not make him vulnerable enough.
Alleva now must watch his back because whether he was a leader, an accomplice or a bystander, he botched the handling of this situation. Clearly, someone powerful wanted Miles out. Scott Rabalais, The Advocate columnist whose story on Nov. 17 suggested Miles would be coaching for his job down the stretch, would not have written that story had someone with clout not confirmed it. Rabalais doesn't have a history of writing to titillate. Either the plan was inadvertently leaked or someone wanted it out there to conduct some focus group testing. The scheme was further confirmed on Nov. 20 when LSU board of supervisors member Ronald Anderson told Glenn Guilbeau of Gannett Louisiana that Miles might not even be able to save his job by beating Ole Miss and Texas A&M. A 38—17 loss to the Rebels on Nov. 21 only turned up the heat.
At any point, Alleva could have stepped forward and crushed the rumors. Either through a press conference, a statement or a strategic leak, all speculation about the job status of Miles could have been eliminated. But Alleva never did that. He hung Miles out to dry, forcing him to answer questions about his job status that he couldn't answer because his boss wouldn't say if he was keeping or firing the coach.
The leaders of the coup blew it because they didn't understand that some things must be buttoned up before the operation begins. You don't fire a coach with Miles's pedigree if you don't already have some kind of assurance that you can replace him with a coach who will excite the fan base and make it forget its anger over Miles being tossed aside. The obvious choice to replace Miles was Florida State coach and former LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. But Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post, who has long had great connections in Tallahassee, reported Saturday that Fisher told Florida State's president he didn't plan on leaving. Had Fisher given anyone in Baton Rouge an indication he would come, he probably would have put off answering any questions from the Seminoles brass. That sort of assurance should have been secured before the first story was leaked. Without it, the entire plan should have been scrapped.
The leaders of the coup aren't entirely crazy, by the way. It isn't absurd to suggest LSU's program has stagnated in recent years. It also is a fact that LSU has lost its last five meetings against Alabama, and teams that expect to compete for SEC West, SEC and national championships—as LSU does—must be able to beat Alabama on occasion to win such titles. If Miles continues to struggle in this department, the boosters won't need a coup. The subjects will supply their own torches and pitchforks. But as Saturday proved, the base for Miles hasn't eroded yet.
There were no tweets from Georgia governor Nathan Deal imploring McGarity to keep Richt, because the Bulldogs brass had kept things quiet. They had not thrown the decision-making process so open that it could be co-opted by political forces. Just like at LSU, Georgia's football team is supposed to win its division and compete for conference and national titles. Richt hasn't won the league since 2005. He hasn't won the SEC East since '12 despite having the best team on paper in each of those years. The final straw may have come on Halloween with the puzzling decision to start third-string quarterback Faton Bauta against Florida in the only game the Bulldogs truly had to win. Had they beaten the Gators, they likely would have won the SEC East. Instead, they played one of their worst games this fall in a 24-point loss.
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Georgia and LSU have unique advantages that make the high expectations understandable. The state of Georgia has produced more Power Five recruits in the past five years than any other besides Florida and Texas. Yes, Georgia has to worry about Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Tennessee and South Carolina raiding the state, but it has a far more fertile recruiting ground than most schools. LSU, meanwhile, is the king in a state that doesn't produce the same volume as Georgia but does produce its share of freaky talent. Each program should routinely compete for the SEC title, but both have one huge problem. His name is Nick Saban. Alabama's coach is the best of his generation. As long as he stays in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide will be the favorite to win the league.
And while it would be perfectly honest for Miles or Richt to say, "I'm not as good at winning football games as Saban is," it is an unacceptable excuse when Miles is paid $4.3 million per year and Richt was paid $4 million per year to do the same job. That might be the biggest problem with the SEC's soaring coaching salaries. It's reasonable to expect a guy making $4 million annually to win almost every game. Unfortunately, while rising TV revenue has allowed ADs to create more $4 million-per-year coaches, no one has created more potential wins on the conference schedule.
So, the Bulldogs will seek a coach who can bring home championships. It might be Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart or Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen or Houston coach Tom Herman, but the expectations will be the same ones that ultimately kneecapped Richt. Whoever Georgia hires will get his wallet stuffed, but if he doesn't fill the trophy case, he'll be gone, too. Miles, meanwhile, will get more time to right the ship. Though he did it more artfully, Miles mimicked Alleva's behavior over the previous week on Saturday when he dodged a question about whether offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would return. Cameron's contract is expiring, and the offense in general and quarterback development specifically are considered the Tigers' primary problems. It won't shock anyone if LSU's offense is under new management in 2016. The bigger question is whether Miles, after this scare, will go outside his comfort zone and make a major schematic change that may or may not work.
Richt can either stay at Georgia in a non-football capacity or try to prove McGarity wrong by accepting a coaching job at another school. Miles, meanwhile, must begin repairing the relationships with recruits that were damaged by Alleva's prolonged silence. What happens to Alleva now? That may depend on Miles.
A group struck at the king, but it missed. Perhaps it didn't appreciate the chest required to perform such a task when the Mad Hatter is wearing the crown.
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Projected College Football Playoff
1. Oklahoma (11–1)
When quarterback Baker Mayfield is playing, the Sooners look like the toughest offense in America to stop. (Which is a great reason for Mayfield to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in less than two weeks.) That was a good Oklahoma State team that Oklahoma crushed 58—23 on the road Saturday. The Sooners made it look so easy. As I wrote two weeks ago, Oklahoma is the 2015 team that looks the most like Ohio State did at this point last year. But the truth of the matter is that there doesn't seem to be much separation between No. 1 and No. 4. This list represents a shuffling of last week's projection, but just like in last year's playoff, No. 4 could beat No. 1. And I don't know where Oklahoma will land in the selection committee's final rankings, but it sure looks like the Big 12 will avoid getting shut out this year.
2. Michigan State (11–1)
A week after winning at Ohio State, the Spartans put the hammer down on Penn State. Michigan State's 55—16 win gives it some serious momentum heading into a Big Ten championship showdown with undefeated Iowa (12–0). The Hawkeyes will not make life easy on the Spartans, though. That game could take a while to get going as two teams that love to feast on opponents' mistakes feel out one another. But they may as well call it a playoff quarterfinal. The winner is in.
3. Alabama (11–1)
The Crimson Tide looked mortal for the first time in November during a 29—13 Iron Bowl win over Auburn, but Alabama is fine as long as it beats Florida in the SEC title game. As for that, if you watched Florida's offense—and we use that term loosely here—in a 27—2 loss to Florida State, you know the only way the Gators could win would be with a final score of 4—3. The more likely scenario? Alabama wears down the Florida defense behind tailback Derrick Henry, who the following week joins Mayfield in the Big Apple. (Who wins the Heisman Trophy? It seems like Henry has the edge at the moment.)
4. Clemson (12–0)
Yes, South Carolina finally brought back the awesome garnet helmets that Steve Taneyhill used to wear. Perhaps the Tigers were blinded by the beauty of those lids. That's the only possible reason for them to muck around against the 3–9 team that is also the only one to beat North Carolina. This was a three-point game in the fourth quarter, for goodness sakes. After Saturday, the idea of a Tar Heels' win in the ACC title game seems far more plausible. What would that mean in the grand scheme? The Tigers hope you never find out. (But if you'd like to consider the possibility, read on to the "First-and-10" section.)
A random ranking
As usual, crowdsourcing the topic for this ranking remains the superior method of subject selection. So, thanks to Ben Whitehead for the following request.
Here you go, Ben.
1. Sean Connery
2. Daniel Craig
3. George Lazenby
4. Pierce Brosnan
5. Timothy Dalton
6. Roger Moore
Big Ugly of the Week
I know I made Michigan State center Jack Allen one of the honorees in this section last week for his blocking performance in the Spartans' 17—14 win at Ohio State. But I never said we couldn't have a repeat winner. Click and behold the most beautiful play ever run in a football game. Go ahead and hand him the Piesman.
1. The most interesting game this week is the ACC championship, which will either serve as a play-in game or an agent of chaos. It's obvious that Clemson would make the College Football Playoff by winning in Charlotte. More difficult to predict is what would happen if North Carolina wins.
Assuming the selection committee leaves the Tigers at No. 1, a Tar Heels' victory would give them the best win of any of the contenders. But that win would likely be North Carolina's only one against a team ranked in the committee's Top 25. The Tar Heels would also have the worst loss of any contender (to 3–9 South Carolina in the season opener on Sept. 3) and wins over two FCS opponents (North Carolina A&T and Delaware). So, would North Carolina, the winner of 12 in a row and the ACC champion, make the field? Or would it be Stanford, which would improve to 11–2 if it beats USC in the Pac-12 title game and would have played a schedule that included 12 games against Power Five foes? Or would it be 11–1 Ohio State, which didn't win its division and has only one quality win (this past Saturday at Michigan) but would probably be favored over everyone except Alabama by Las Vegas handicappers?
Committee members will have it easy if Clemson wins. If North Carolina wins, prepare for fierce debate.
2. Elsewhere in the ACC, Virginia Tech announced the hiring of Justin Fuente from Memphis. In news that might be just as big, the school announced longtime Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster will stay with the program in the same role.
"I've been privileged to work for a legendary coach who always did it the right way," Foster said in a statement. "I enjoyed that chapter and the success we've had, however, I am equally excited for the next chapter and working for Justin. Justin and I share a vision for the future of our program. After spending time together, I'm convinced he's the right person to continue building on the standard we've established at Virginia Tech. I'm truly looking forward to working with him and supporting him."
With Fuente running the offense and Foster running the defense, expect Virginia Tech to be competitive in the ACC again very quickly.
3. In another part of the commonwealth, Virginia fired Mike London. London, who went 27–46 in six seasons in Charlottesville, will get a $2.7 million buyout. The only real surprise is this didn't happen last year.
The Cavaliers will need an inspired hire, because they'll compete against several more desirable openings. Virginia Tech's vacancy has already been filled, but with Maryland also seeking a coach, the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region should be very interesting next year.
4. Rutgers didn't just fire coach Kyle Flood on Sunday. The school also jettisoned athletic director Julie Hermann, who had generated nothing but negative headlines since replacing Tim Pernetti.
In a letter sent Sunday to the Rutgers community, president Robert Barchi wrote that Pat Hobbs, the dean emeritus of Seton Hall's law school, would replace Hermann. Hobbs was supposed to be the interim AD, but Barchi and Rutgers officials liked him so much during the interview process that they gave him the job on a permanent basis. Next up for Hobbs? Finding a football coach.
5. Anyone who has read or heard me over the years knows I don't care if 5–7 teams make bowl games. I like football, and therefore I have no problem with more teams playing in bowls. Let them all play.
But since there is still a rule about who gets to play in a bowl, it seems worth noting that there are currently only 75 teams with six wins or more and 80 bowl spots to fill. Because Kansas State, Georgia State and South Alabama are the only five-win teams with games left, at least two five-win teams are guaranteed to make a bowl. Since all three of those teams will be underdogs this weekend, it's possible that five five-win teams will make bowl games.
It has been reported that if five-win teams are to play in bowl games, they will be selected on the basis of Academic Progress Rate scores. Unfortunately, no one seems to know how that would work. Would the five-win teams with the highest APR scores go to bowls? Or would a five-win team with the highest APR score in a conference that has a contract with a particular bowl game get the nod?
In case you're wondering, the five-win teams with the highest APR scores are Nebraska (985), Missouri (976), San Jose State (975), Minnesota (975), Illinois (973) and Rice (973).
6. Clay Helton got the USC job permanently after the Trojans clinched the Pac-12 South title with a 40–21 win over UCLA. Helton has done a terrific job in leading USC to the Pac-12 title game and put the program in a great place for 2016.
"This was a great opportunity for our seniors to leave their legacy. It has been since 2008 that a USC football player was able to call themselves a champion," Helton told reporters Saturday. "For this team to leave their mark and lead their stable back into the light. I can't tell you how proud I am of them. They are leaving their mark not only now, but for years to come. What they have done for the second half of this season will continue to next season."
7. Iowa State announced the hiring of Toledo's Matt Campbell on Sunday. He is in Ames already, and he'll talk more about the new gig Monday.
8. Southern Miss continued its incredible turnaround Saturday by beating Louisiana Tech 58–24 to win Conference USA's West Division. When you have players like Mike Thomas making plays like this, you tend to win more games.
9. There was a Dab epidemic this weekend. Even Lane's Kiffin's son got into the act.
10. Want to shed a tear? Watch this from Rice senior running back Luke Turner. Owls coach David Bailiff is beloved in the coaching community, and here's a glimpse into why.
What's eating Andy?
Is the Dab really even a dance? It kind of seems more like a stance. Of course, I shouldn't complain. It might be the only dance craze I can pull off. My Stanky Leg is terrible.
What's Andy eating?
Friday began in my bed in Florida. Then came three hours in the Atlanta airport. Then a mad dash west on Interstate 80 from Omaha to Lincoln ending at Memorial Stadium a few minutes before Iowa and Nebraska kicked off. Later, jubilant Iowa players were interviewed and a story was written. When it was filed, I looked at the clock. It read 8:53 p.m. Central time. One thought thundered through my brain and down to my stomach. (Or maybe it traveled in the opposite direction.)
I might just make it.
I was 47 miles from The Drover, which closed at 10 p.m. If there wasn't any postgame traffic on the interstate, I'd get there just in time. Hopefully, it would still have a Whiskey Ribeye for me.
The first time I ate at The Drover was in 2001. I had come to Omaha to cover Tennessee in the College World Series for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. I was 22 and hadn't yet discovered the true joy of eating on the road. I was the young hack content to wolf down Little King sandwiches and cover the games.
But one night, when the Volunteers didn't have a game, some of the old hacks asked if I wanted to join them at The Drover. It's one of those places that gets whispered in press boxes across America. Every hack who passes through Omaha eats a steak there, probably because it seems made for us. Most of our physiques tip off our love of meat. But lots of places serve steak. We love The Drover so much because, like most of us, it isn't cool. It might have never been cool. If it ever was, those days are long past. Now the place is aggressively, unapologetically uncool. No pretentious foodie would be caught dead there, and that's what makes it perfect.
The giant wooden door looks like it was repurposed from a ranch-style castle. At the salad bar—yes, it still has one—iceberg lettuce is the only available base. The theme that best describes the decor is bordello-that-serves-cowboys, and the lights stay dimmed throughout. It's especially dark in the bar, where the flicker of televisions and the twinkle of Christmas lights provide the illumination.
There are many items on the menu, but you are only ordering one of two entrees. If you prefer your steak lean, you're ordering the Whiskey Filet. This is a 12-ounce filet marinated in whiskey, grilled exactly as you order it and served by an employee who is genuinely thrilled to host you and allow you to taste this delicious steak. If you prefer a more marbled cut, you're ordering the bone-in Whiskey Ribeye. (You're only ordering them rare or medium rare, but hopefully you already knew that.) When whiskey-soaked beef hits a flame, that whiskey caramelizes. So, you get a steak with a slightly sweet crust that compliments the salty seasoning and the savory beef. You're also ordering the sautéed mushrooms—if you have room.
But the steak is all that really matters. It's all that ever mattered at The Drover. That's why I couldn't believe my luck Friday when I saw that the lights were still on and the grill remained lit.