Can Les Miles Variety Hour avoid cancellation in 2016?
HOOVER, Ala. — The Les Miles Variety Hour rambled into SEC Media Days amid fanfare Thursday, hitting all the usual stops along the way. Miles, the longtime head coach at LSU, spent nearly 20 minutes regaling attendees in Hoover with a "Miles family summer update". The diatribe featured notes on his four children and Miles's own eclectic off-season activities.
Among the highlights: a trip to Cleveland last month to attend Game 6 of the NBA Finals, where Miles rooted for eventual champion LeBron James. "I'm so happy for him," Miles said. "I could not tell you." The coach described catching a few pitches from his youngest daughter, Macy, a softball pitcher in Louisiana, learning an important lesson on flip-flop safety along the way. "When you sit on the can, you put your feet on the can, and it's an obvious position to be hit," he said. "So I broke two toes in my right foot catching her." Miles even took a spring trip to formerly embargoed Cuba. "Cuba is a communist country," he said, "and that was kind of the reason that I went."
Miles hit all these points before so much as touching on his LSU football team, which should enter 2016 as a playoff contender. For a moment, at least, the wry smile from the Tigers coach erased painful memories from last season, when the Les Miles Variety Hour was almost cancelled. Miles was all but fired late in the 2015 season before LSU's brass changed course at the 11 th hour. Though he was spared to coach another year, Miles's future remains uncertain heading into the 2016 season. But at Media Days the benevolent Miles took his awkward circumstance in stride, using his time—and his unique grasp of the English language—to emphasize that LSU's direction remains the same.
"Our goals have not changed," Miles said. "We were 100% graduation, and we wanted to win the West and play in the conference championship and then go on to the playoffs and win the national championship again."
Again is an important word in that statement because it's a reminder just how remarkably successful Miles has been at LSU. He has gone 112–32 in 11 seasons, which averages out to 10 wins per season. He won the 2007 BCS National Championship and has two SEC titles ('07, '11) to his name. Miles is already the second-winningest coach in Tigers history and is currently the longest-tenured coach in the SEC, or the "dean" of the league's coaches. "I think really being called a dean, I should probably get like a robe, right?" Miles quipped Thursday.
So considering Miles's success, why was his job on the line in 2015? Because the LSU product has dropped off in recent years. Since reaching the national title game in the 2011 season—where the Tigers fell to Alabama—Miles has a 20–12 record in SEC games. In the last three seasons, LSU is 14–10 against league opponents. And perhaps most damning, Miles has not beaten Nick Saban and Alabama since the '11 regular season. That's five straight years of futility against the SEC's standard-bearer.
LSU appeared to have broken out of its funk midway through last season. The Tigers were 7–0 and No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings as they headed into a road matchup against then-No. 4 Alabama in November. But the Crimson Tide took a convincing 30–16 victory in Tuscaloosa, the first of three straight defeats for LSU. By the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, the temperature of Miles's seat had reached triple digits.
Reports indicated Miles's job status had been decided prior to facing the Aggies. But a swell of support for the coach—and perhaps a rejection from Florida State's Jimbo Fisher—seemingly turned the tide for athletic director Joe Alleva, who announced after LSU's 19–7 win that Miles would remain as the program's head coach after all. After the game, Tigers players carried Miles across the field on their shoulders. LSU went on to finish the season 9–3 with a Texas Bowl win over Texas Tech.
"I think coach Miles just has a way of making things very exciting," senior center Ethan Pocic said. "That game, we were just playing for coach Miles. He's the coach who brought us in. He's the one who took a chance on us, and offered us. We just wanted to fulfill and play for him, and I think we did that."
On Thursday Miles was asked about the drama surrounding the win over Texas A&M. Do uncomfortable circumstances change a person? "I am not changed, nor was I changed by that event," Miles said. "I am attached to my team. I'm gonna coach 'em, I'm gonna coach 'em, and that's not going to ever change until it's time."
But change might come whether Miles likes it or not. He coaches in a division in which every coach makes at least $4 million per year. That money comes with expectations, and fair or not, LSU has not met expectations in recent years. An inability to compete at the top of the SEC has plagued the program, particularly in games it has been expected to win.
Still, the biggest roadblock to Miles's future resides in Tuscaloosa. LSU hosts Alabama on Nov. 5 in Baton Rouge, and if Miles loses to Saban for a sixth straight time, all bets are off. Even Miles's steep buyout—LSU would owe him $12.9 million, payable over a six-year period, if he is fired before Dec. 31—might not be enough to save his job.
And so, despite legitimate playoff aspirations, a cloud continues to linger over Miles as LSU leaves Hoover. On Thursday, the Tigers said they use Miles's own demeanor as an example of how to handle 2016. "He was cool the whole time," Fournette said. "He always told us just to play for ourselves, but at the end of the day he is our head coach. Without his signature on those letters, we wouldn't be here. We play for him."
The Tigers will likely have to play for Miles again in 2016, when much will be expected in Baton Rouge. LSU brings back 18 starters including Fournette and a deep and talented defense. Miles lured Dave Aranda, who held the reins of Wisconsin's top scoring defense (13.7 points allowed per game) last year, to take over as defensive coordinator for the departed Kevin Steele. Much is made of Miles's refusal to deviate from his pro-style offense, but if returning quarterback Brandon Harris can find his footing, LSU should be built to go toe-to-toe with Alabama for the SEC West crown.
Miles eschewed specifics surrounding his job security, but he seemed to recognize the pressure that will soon accompany the coming season. "Right now, in every phase, every coach that comes up here has exactly the same thoughts, quietly: Fix this, fix this, fix this," Miles said. "Fix? There's nothing broken at this point, but you want to get to your best at the front."
If Miles ever needed his best, it's now. Otherwise the 60 minutes might be up on the Les Miles Variety Hour.