After surviving an attempted coup last season, LSU's Les Miles has more power entering 2016 but still must show progress.
BATON ROUGE, La. — It could have been some other guy walking through the door of the head football coach's office at the LSU football operations building Tuesday. It could have been someone who hadn't yet fallen in love with Baton Rouge, someone who didn't quite understand the community, someone who probably would have put his head down this off-season and stuck strictly to finding new ways to gain two yards on third-and-one.
But it wasn't some other guy. It was still Les Miles.
And Miles understood that even though he lives in the same town as the governor, the LSU football coach might be the most influential person in the city. So with the town reeling after an incident in which the police shot a man led to an incident in which a man shot the police, Miles didn't stay quiet. He didn't stick to sports. He visited the families of murdered officers. He encouraged his players to talk it out. He implored Louisiana high school coaches, who hang on his every word and who have the most direct influence on the most young people in the state, to speak out in their communities to explain that violence won't solve anything.
Some other guy probably wouldn't have done that. He may have felt it wasn't his place. He may have been trying to wrap his arms around his new job instead of worrying about the wider world. But some other guy wasn't there. Les Miles was.
"The lord puts you in places," Miles said Tuesday following an interview for a camp tour show that aired Wednesday on SiriusXM's College Sports Nation channel. "Maybe that was a part of this."
Miles has resolved that as long as people care enough about what he thinks to stick microphones in his face, he will offer unvarnished opinions. He loves this place, and it hurt to watch the city seethe. A football coach isn't going to solve any of the massive societal issues ripped bare this summer in Baton Rouge, but Miles did what he could with the considerable influence he has.
Miles is grateful to still have that platform. He knows it could have been ripped away in November. He might have been somewhere else, adjusting to a new job. Someone else may have occupied his office.
An attempted coup began with stories following a 31–14 loss to Arkansas that suggested Miles would lose his job after the Texas A&M game. The noise grew deafening following a 38–17 defeat to Ole Miss. "That whole week was just a crazy feeling," tight end Colin Jeter said. "You turn on ESPN every day and they're saying he's going to get fired." They were saying that because, at that moment, he was about to get fired.
Then a funny thing happened. With powerful people doing the math on how much buying out Miles and his staff would cost, forces began marshaling behind Miles. The Texas A&M game became a referendum. Even before kickoff, the pendulum had swung back in Miles's favor. Before the game began, a report out of Florida declared that Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, the most obvious replacement, had told school officials he had no intention of leaving Tallahassee.
The night ended with a 19–7 win and Miles getting carried off the field by his players. Jeter held his coach's left leg. "When they're talking about taking that guy away, it certainly brings us even closer," Jeter said. "It's kind of like having your dad around here. When they say they're going to take your dad away, it's not going to happen."Chris Graythen/Getty Images
After a faction came at the Mad Hatter and missed, Miles wound up with most of the power. Athletic director Joe Alleva says all the right things now, but it's difficult to tell how much of that is for the benefit of the people asking the questions. "We have the best relationship we've ever had," Alleva said of he and Miles. "I think things work out for the best." At least publicly, both men have remained civil. Tuesday, Miles popped his head in and jokingly heckled Alleva as he gave an interview. Alleva, meanwhile, has been effusive in his praise of the hires of defensive coordinator Dava Aranda, receivers coach Dameyune Craig and running backs coach Jabbar Juluke*. "I think we have the best staff that we've ever assembled here," Alleva said.
*Alleva may be correct here. Those three all have the potential to be FBS head coaches.
The other decent point Alleva made is that the Tigers will have an unusual—for them—amount of senior leadership. The program has recruited raw talent so well under Miles that it's assumed the best juniors will always leave for the NFL. From 2013 to '15, 19 LSU underclassmen declared for the draft. (That doesn't include Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed before the start of the 2013 season). This past off-season, only offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins left. Linebacker Kendell Beckwith came back. So did cornerback Tre'Davious White. So did center Ethan Pocic. So did defensive end Christian LaCouture, who unfortunately will miss this season after tearing an ACL in practice this week. "I think a lot of those kids came back because they have a chip on their shoulder," Alleva said. "They want to prove last year was wrong and we're better than that."
Miles now has the upper hand. He has cemented his place in the community. He has veteran leadership. He has depth similar to what he had on his best teams. He has one of the greatest players in the program's history in tailback Leonard Fournette.
Despite all that, Miles shouldn't feel completely safe. All the political capital he's accumulated could disappear with another episode of deja vu. LSU has lost its past five games against Alabama. To win the titles his fans and his employers expect, Miles probably will have to beat the Crimson Tide. Adding a sixth consecutive loss to Alabama to a third consecutive loss to Arkansas and/or a second consecutive loss to Ole Miss could force the same analysis of the program that nearly got Miles chased last season. He knows that.
He knows the quarterback play must improve. Brandon Harris has shown flashes of potential and he should be healthy after off-season surgery to repair a sports hernia. But LSU's push to recruit Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight—who will start this season for Texas A&M—suggests the coaches aren't completely confident in Harris. Meanwhile, the Aggies' Kevin Sumlin and Auburn's Gus Malzahn find themselves as in similarly desperate need of wins.
Miles still feels like the ideal coach for LSU, but he knows he must earn that job every season. Such is life in the SEC West. But after surviving a coup attempt, he knows he chose the right players for his team, and he seems even more resolved to coach them with all the chest he can muster.
"There's an honesty that I'm going to coach the same exact way," Miles said. "They can count on me to be very consistent. It was not going to change, no matter how many games we played or what the outcome of those games might be. I've always enjoyed my team. I enjoy the guys I recruit. These are wonderful young men. I'm fortunate to represent them every Saturday."