Les's Last Stand That Wasn't
BATON ROUGE, La.—They could have been pallbearers. They might have been protesters. In the end, though, they were elephants.
When LSU's football players hoisted their coach onto their shoulders Saturday night and swarmed him off the field at Tiger Stadium following their 19–7 victory over Texas A&M, they had not the faintest idea what awaited them once they reached the locker room. The gesture—which preceded Miles singing the LSU alma mater during his postgame interview and holding court with the student section before he exited the field—was certainly not a celebration. Not in the moment, at least. Miles himself, at that point, was clueless as to what the LSU brass had decided about his job status when the game clock ticked to zero. But neither was it a funeral, not when the Tigers, in large part, refused to believe Miles could be done.
Instead, they screamed support, if not defiance. This is our coach, and we will celebrate him. If this were Miles's exit, it would have been a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series—the beaming, the waving, the chanting, his arms raised like some kind of self-anointed king.
It would have sufficed, but it didn't have to, not when Miles entered the locker room and received word from LSU president F. King Alexander and athletic director Joe Alleva that he would, in fact, retain his job. It was the outcome no one expected—and the one most in Baton Rouge hoped might somehow come true.
"I now know what it's like to ride an elephant," Miles said of his postgame exit. "It scares you to death, and you just pray you can hang onto the ears. There's not much to grab on to. I was like, 'Just get me down.'"
Ladies and gentlemen, Leslie Edwin Miles is off the elephant, and there is no need to pack your formalwear. The night that was anticipated to be a funeral quickly became an Irish wake, and then it wound up a circus of a victory party. As Alleva introduced Miles at his postgame press conference, assuring the crowd that the coach did not, in fact, have to win Saturday's game to remain employed, the only appropriate response was an eye roll and a sigh. Suuuure. Or maybe that's the truth. Maybe LSU's targeted successor had backed out, in which case: eye roll, sigh again.
To put Miles and the program through what they did last week, the LSU brass should have had their 2016 coach's unofficial contract already signed in blood.
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Ask any longtime tailgater Saturday night, and his or her answer was the same: This isn't how it used to be. Traffic that afternoon through the swamp, the pilgrimage to LSU's regular-season finale, was sparse. It picked up a bit near the rusted-out amusement park 10 miles east of town, but even then, unremarkable. The closest free parking lots, to the east of Tiger Stadium across Highland Road, still offered spots as the clock ticked toward noon. Unheard of.
That's all to state the obvious: It's a down year at LSU, which finished its campaign at 8–3 on Saturday. A month ago, however, the Tigers were 7–0, ranked second in the initial College Football Playoff rankings of 2015. But LSU Football, the proper noun, the phenomenon, is a thing of such magnitude that even in a so-called lull, up close, it is almost indistinguishable from the height of its frenzied, beer-fueled self. No matter the traffic, no matter the abundance of parking—the chanting fans streaming into Tiger Stadium are still deafening Saturday night, their volume as impressive as their coordination. The tailgates still boast 60-inch flat-screen televisions and silver-plated buffet-line serveware, and sorority girls still look as though they've put as much effort into assembling their purple and gold ensembles as they've devoted to, say, an entire semester of biology class.
At a purple tent off South Campus Drive, just east of the stadium, two preteen boys are coloring the top and bottom of a white gift box. "Geaux Tigers," one side reads. "We love you, Les" is scribbled on the other. Miles's hot seat, apparently, has inspired not just art, but clever tweaks to the dictionary. Several men sport purple T-shirts that read "LESbian" in gold. More than one sign references "Lesticles." These fans may be laughing, hoping, but they're also a little bit angry, calling for Alleva's job, as if someone has to go after this mess of a week.
Yes, this isn't how it used to be.
When Miles took over at LSU in 2005, he hardly inherited a program in flux. Nick Saban had just left for the Miami Dolphins, and the Tigers had gone a respectable 9–3 in '04. Still, Miles was able to improve upon his predecessor's work, leading his team to back-to-back 11–2 seasons in '05 and '06 and a 12–2 record and a BCS national championship in '07, in just his third year on the job. It was the Tigers' second such title in five seasons, and it set a (near impossible) precedent: This kind of success would be the norm.
It hasn't. That's not to say LSU hasn't had an impressive decade; it has gone 111–32 under Miles. That's a .776 winning percentage, and only five teams can boast better ones in that time frame: TCU (.786), Oregon (.799), Alabama (.814), Boise State (.840) and Ohio State (.846). Only one, TCU, has, like LSU, maintained the same coach throughout. But after going 8–5 in 2014 (4–4 in the SEC) and losing the Music City Bowl to Notre Dame, Miles entered 2015 on a note of uncertainty. As he led his team to a 7–0 start, though, that feeling dissipated, but after three straight November losses, preseason frustration returned with an extra bite. This team boasted perhaps the best player in college football, sophomore tailback Leonard Fournette, and it looked a lot like it had quit.
Cue last week, the speculation, the vague statements by Miles and Alleva about the future. Did Miles tell boosters he was done? Had Alleva really lined up a successor, potentially Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher? By Saturday afternoon, it seemed as if Miles was all but gone, like he might have movers waiting at his house at 10 p.m. should the game be quick, his updated résumé ready to drop in the mail on Monday. The only people, it seems, who believed the coach might remain in purple and gold were his players.
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Vadal Alexander received a text message from his parents. He'd been celebrating Saturday's win in LSU's locker room when he decided to check his phone. Coach Miles would be staying, the message read. Before that, the senior offensive tackle didn't have a clue.
As Miles addressed the media after Saturday's game and Alleva's vote of confidence, he conceded that he wasn't sure his players knew the fate of his job. After all, he'd only just found out himself. And so the dozens of men in the locker room just feet from Miles's microphone relied on Twitter and on text messages to learn the future of their program.
Still, as they filed into the interview room after the game, the players were resolute: They never thought Saturday would be Miles's final game. Junior cornerback Tre'Davious White says Miles urged his team to ignore his "situation" all week, and it did, believing all the while he'd retain his job. Alexander, too, cuts the week of speculation down to size. "Can y'all imagine [LSU] without coach Miles?" he joked. "Let's be real. The man is LSU football."
No, we didn't think we had to win the game to keep him. No, we never worried about him being fired. But yes, this week was a distraction. Such was the chorus from the players in the locker room, and even if you don't believe them, you have to admire their sincerity. When asked about that walk-off moment, about the hoisting and the chanting and the singing, players demurred. If not a finale, then what was it? It was a celebration, they argued, to a man.
This is a team that will celebrate its coach at any chance, that speaks of Miles with a degree of reverence. In just five minutes, Alexander called his coach a "great man" six times. "We planned on winning this game. We planned on going out and making a statement, and he deserved it," Alexander said.
"We showed our support," he continued, "and how much we'd fight for him, how much we care about our head coach."
He deserved it. He deserved it because perhaps 8–3 shouldn't be a fireable offense. He deserved it because he seems willing to reevaluate, to change. And he deserved it because of the man he is. "He's a genuine guy," White said. "There's not one thing that he's told us that isn't true." Alexander added: "Every time he speaks to you, he cares, he wants you to get better. That doesn't mean lovey-dovey, tell you what you want to hear. But it's always pushing you, always letting you know he's on your side."
And so for all the years Miles was on his players' side, on Saturday night—and all week—they were on his. They were loyal until the end, until it wasn't the end, however unbelievable that may be.