LSU's Miles brushes off scrutiny as 12th season nears
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) The topic of discussion in Les Miles' second-floor office at LSU's expansive football complex centered on how the coach intended to handle the ever-heightening scrutiny upon him this season - particularly in light of the raging speculation that he was on the brink of being fired last November.
At one point, Miles casually leaned forward from the sofa he sat upon, peaked inside a crinkled paper bag on the coffee table in front of him and uttered, ''That's a bummer.''
Either his wife, Kathy, or 13-year-old daughter, Macy, had finished the tortilla chips while dining with Miles following LSU's evening practice, and the coach asked, ''How the heck are you supposed to eat guacamole without chips?''
That might have been the toughest question facing LSU's charismatic, hat-wearing, grass-chewing coach that evening. When it came to how he'll deal with the perception of uncertainty swirling around him heading into his 12th season with the Tigers, Miles offered a straight-forward response that seemed obvious to him.
''Our plan would be to win and to play very, very well and not to really worry or commiserate and waste time about things you cannot control,'' Miles said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''You can only put the plan in place to win. ... You can't be the best you can be if you're not fully consumed with that very, very specific goal.''
In Baton Rouge, many fans are fed up with the Tigers' five-game losing streak against Alabama and question why a program with LSU's profile, highly rated recruiting classes and first-class facilities hasn't played in an elite bowl game for four seasons. That's why pressure mounted on LSU's administration to fire Miles during a three-game skid late last season.
But Miles and his famously unconventional syntax are back for what many see as make-or-break campaign.
In terms of pure numbers, the Miles era has involved plenty of winning - 112 victories in 11 seasons, second only at LSU to Charlie McClendon's 137 victories in 18 seasons (1962-79). Miles' highlights include the 2007 national title. He'd never lost three straight at LSU before last year.
Miles' backers see him as a friendly, funny, well-grounded family man who is committed to his community for the long-term. All four of his children have spent at least part of their childhood in Baton Rouge, and the 62-year-old Miles doesn't sound inclined to entertain leaving, even if his tenure as LSU coach ends before he'd prefer.
''I see four kids who grew up here and have lifetime friends here and will always want to come back to Baton Rouge,'' Miles said. ''I've had tremendous experiences in Tiger Stadium with young men I've been fortunate to coach and I am not going to minimize that for a moment.''
Kathy Miles said her husband has always been steady through rough patches, even last season.
''In terms of Les, (last season) never felt any different at all from the first day we got here,'' she said. ''You just put your head down, you just try to win and you hope that you do that a great majority of the time - especially at LSU - because the expectations are high. But Les knew that when he got here.''
Similar sentiments echo from Miles' players.
''All the speculation that was going on, I know he had to feel some type of way about it,'' receiver Malachi Dupre said. ''But through that whole process, seeing him stay the same just shows the way you have to handle things in life.
''He did a great job of handling it and taught us all a lesson about fighting through it and doing the best you possibly can.''
Miles said that when he travels around Louisiana, fans continue to greet him graciously.
Some thank him for making LSU football a bright spot during tough times, such as in his first season in 2005, when the Tigers had a strong season amid disruptions caused by devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita. More recently, Miles has sought to lend moral support to law enforcement in the wake of a deadly police shooting in Baton Rouge in July. Now Miles is eyeing ways to help victims of flooding that has damaged an estimated 40,000 south Louisiana homes; LSU players were helping out at a shelter for flood victims this past week.
Miles' backers were out in force during LSU's regular season finale last season, when his job status appeared in doubt. They roared for him when he walked from the team bus to the stadium, and again when he appeared on the field.
But it wasn't until after the Tigers' triumph in that game that LSU confirmed Miles' return in 2016 - an unpopular decision among fans who believe LSU should have won more in recent years - particularly against rival Alabama and coach Nick Saban, a former LSU coach who has won four national titles with the Crimson Tide since 2009.
''The reason LSU fired Charlie McClendon was he couldn't beat Bear Bryant, but nobody would take a step back and realize nobody else could beat Bear Bryant, either,'' said Baton Rouge sports talk radio host Derek Ponamsky. ''Now people are saying Miles has got to beat Saban. Who else is consistently doing that?''
The Tigers host Alabama on Nov. 5. Before that, LSU's slate includes a challenging season opener against Wisconsin at Green Bay's Lambeau Field and a visit to resurgent Florida.
Most starters have returned to a Tigers squad that won nine games last season, including a lopsided bowl victory over Texas Tech. Those back on offense include junior running back Leonard Fournette, who is a Heisman Trophy candidate, along with junior quarterback Brandon Harris and his top two receivers, senior Travin Dural and Dupre. The defensive standouts returning include linebacker Kendell Beckwith, cornerback Tre'Davious White and lineman Arden Key.
Yet, if LSU falls short of the College Football Playoff, Miles could be blamed for squandering what many view as LSU's best team since 2011.
Harris grinned when asked if he's noticed anything different about Miles this season and called Miles ''the chilliest coach I've ever been around.''
''A lot of fans don't like me, either, but I don't think me or coach cares,'' Harris said. ''The only thing that matters is what your family thinks about you and we're his family and we love the dude to death.''
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org