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  • Three years ago, Tigers players had said goodbye to Les Miles and were researching how they fit into Jimbo Fisher's playbook, but the plot twists from that moment on have landed Fisher on the opposite sideline of this weekend's LSU-Texas A&M game in College Station.
By Ross Dellenger
November 20, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. – The text arrived to Will Clapp’s cell phone while he was trying to squeeze in his customary Friday nap. A message to the entire LSU football team requested that players arrive at the football facility earlier than normal for “special team meetings,” recalls Clapp, a three-year starter on the Tigers’ offensive line. LSU was scheduled to host Texas A&M the next day in the 2015 regular season finale, and its coach, Les Miles, would reportedly be fired after the game.

That afternoon, Miles held three different meetings with his team, dividing players up by classification–walk-ons, underclassmen, upperclassmen–and delivering to each a different message. He thanked the juniors and seniors for their dedication, he thanked the walk-ons for their sacrifice and he told a star-studded freshman and sophomore class, of which Clapp was a part, to continue developing. “You guys are great,” he said from inside the program’s defensive back meeting room. Miles finished. The room fell silent. The coach walked out. “It was a goodbye without saying goodbye,” Clapp says. “I was like, ‘Well, he’s gone.’”

Miles’s farewell to his team set the stage for one of the most dramatic and emotional affairs in the 94-year history of Tiger Stadium, when a fan base’s passionate outpouring for their maligned coach helped alter history and a third-quarter meeting of university leaders decided Miles’s future. One member of the school’s board of supervisors, Stanley Jacobs, remembers being told the news from his stadium suite with about five minutes remaining in LSU’s 19–7 victory over the Aggies: “We are not going to fire Les.”

You won’t find many states where politics and sports collide in such a fashion that the sitting governor and budgetary woes help save the flagship university’s football coach, with the final decision made in the middle of a game. But that’s what happened in Louisiana: Les Miles was to be fired, and then he wasn’t. “That boat had already left the dock,” a high-ranking school official says. LSU’s top target in replacing Miles was so obvious that players were preparing for his arrival. “I remember reading an article about Jimbo [Fisher] already agreeing to terms and it was a done deal. I couldn’t focus on A&M,” says Brandon Harris, the starting quarterback on that 2015 LSU team. Says Clapp, “We were talking about our new head coach and how we fit into Jimbo’s system.”

The Miles-to-Fisher swap was “really close” to happening, says Jamie Howard, a Tigers quarterback in the early 1990s and a longtime friend to Fisher going back to his days as the offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000 to ’06. Even Fisher admits to hearing from his Baton Rouge buddies about the possibility, many of them prominent boosters at the school. A key LSU decision-maker involved in the 2015 discussions told Sports Illustrated last week, “If the optics wouldn’t have been so bad and we would have pushed harder, do I think Jimbo would have come? Yes.”

That seems even more rational now that Fisher eventually left Florida State for another SEC West program with a booming budget and a fertile recruiting backyard. On Saturday Fisher will lead his first Texas A&M team into a game against LSU that offers the potential for a monumental step forward. The ramifications for the seventh-ranked Tigers are more in the present. At 9–2, their hopes of making the College Football Playoff have dimmed, but a win over the Aggies would likely send them to their first New Year’s Six bowl since their 2011 season ended in the national championship game. LSU coach Ed Orgeron can extend the school’s record against its border rival to 7–0 since Texas A&M joined the SEC West, and to do so he must beat the man who had three different chances to become LSU’s coach, in 2004, 2016 and most notably, the closest call of them all, 2015.

For the first time in 15 years, Fisher is not a realistic possibility to be LSU’s head coach in the future. He’s on the first year of a 10-year contract at Texas A&M that pays him a $7.5 million annual salary. LSU and Fisher are like a pair of star-crossed lovers who never got together and now (likely) never will. Both sides have moved on. Unfortunately, they live with their new families not only in the same neighborhood but on the same street. They see one another when walking their dogs, drive past the other on the way to work and, on Saturday in College Station, run right into each other.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It’s not a bitter thing. “There’s no resentment of Jimbo in the Tiger community,” says LSU board of supervisors member Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Jimbo is well liked and thought of here. He’ll always be a favorite son. There’s no animosity for Jimbo because we chose the coach we wanted. We wish him good luck–unless he plays us.”

Fisher was on hand for the best stretch in LSU history, during which the Tigers went 70–20 and claimed three SEC West crowns, two conference championships and a national title from 2000 to ’04 under Nick Saban and in ’05 and ’06 under Miles. LSU and Fisher were a match made in Louisiana heaven—an old-fashioned, fast-talking football mind paired with a zealous fan base with an unmistakable twang of its own.

They love him. “I love them, too,” cracks Fisher. “I know I’m sitting at A&M, but that was some phenomenal years of my life. I loved living in Baton Rouge. I love the people, honest and fun-loving. I love the honesty of them. If they didn’t like it, they’d tell you. Hey, I’m like that! If I don’t like something, I say it too. They’re good ol’ genuine people.”

The two meet Saturday for the first time since their split 12 years ago when Fisher left to become offensive coordinator at Florida State. In just 11 months, Fisher has molded the Aggies into a tougher team to play: Texas A&M is stopping the run (second nationally in yard allowed per game on the ground), running the ball (39th in rushing yards per game) and controlling the clock (second in average time of possession). This isn’t the same program that LSU has, for the most part, bludgeoned repeatedly over the last half-decade. Everyone is noticing, from Orgeron to Fisher’s friends in Baton Rouge. He has shaped the program in his image. “He’s all-boy,” says 60-year-old Chris Ewing, a former neighbor of Fisher’s who used to cook, drink and golf with him. “A&M guys ask me a lot about him. I tell them, ‘Look, he’s going to win. He’s all-guy, though. He’s not going to get you warm and fuzzy.’”

There were plenty of opportunities for Fisher to be on the opposite sideline for this game. In 2004, a 39-year-old Fisher was one of six candidates LSU leaders interviewed to replace Nick Saban, who left for the Dolphins. “The sense was Jimbo wasn’t ready,” says Charlie Weems, a longtime former board of supervisors member who served on the school’s six-person search committee that year. The committee chose Miles out of a list that included Fisher, R.C. Slocum, Houston Nutt, then LSU assistant Bobby Williams and the second-place finisher, Bobby Petrino.

The most recent opportunity to bring Fisher to LSU came in 2016, when the Tigers actually did fire Miles. Committee members discussed Fisher as a candidate at length and had his requested contract numbers. They were roughly what Texas A&M eventually agreed to, only the term of the contract was shorter. “We were not convinced he was the best candidate in our pool,” one committee member told SI. Was he really worth $7 million-plus a year? Decision-makers chose to move on to their top two candidates: then Houston coach Tom Herman and Orgeron, Miles’s interim replacement.

Ewing is like so many in Baton Rouge who believe the closest Fisher came to getting the LSU top job was in 2015, before the Tigers, somewhat unwittingly, left him at the altar. “Everybody wanted him to come back,” he says. “If we could have swung that first deal [in 2015], I think he would have come back.” The calls to fire Miles that season began after the Tigers sustained the second of what would be three straight losses. Intermediaries at LSU reached out to Fisher’s agent, Jimmy Sexton. Fisher’s requested contract numbers were a bargain compared to those in 2016 and what A&M agreed to last year. “Jimbo was interested, and we were very interested in him,” an LSU source with knowledge of the talks told SI.

The week of the 2015 regular season finale was rough. Nearly every respectable national outlet reported that Miles was expected to be fired after the Texas A&M game and that Fisher was the leading candidate. Players, staff members and even Miles himself assumed the worst. “I think Les thought it was the end of the road,” says Weems, back then a confidant to Miles. That Monday morning, Clapp gathered with some other players to watch his head coach’s weekly news conference, aired live on ESPN. “Everybody on the team had that up,” says Clapp, now an offensive lineman for the Saints. “ESPN was hyping it up like he was getting fired on live TV.”

The Miles family endured a hellish week, as the head coach watched and read the reports of his imminent doom. “I’ve never seen the writing and the studio personnel to be as nasty as they were,” says Miles, who last weekend was introduced as the next head coach at Kansas. He was told nothing one way or the other about his future that week. Alleva dropped into his office Wednesday “to say ‘You know, you have to win these games,’” Miles recalls. “I said, ‘Yessir.’”

Alleva spent more time that week at the football facility than normal, Harris says, observing practice and walking through the hallways. At one point, the athletic director posed what the quarterback thought was a peculiar question: “How do you guys feel about Les?” Inside the football facility, staff members were worried about their future. Others were preparing to work for Fisher. “That was a crazy week,” says Ryan Pugh, a graduate assistant on the 2015 staff who is now the offensive line coach at BYU. “That was a week where you’re sitting in the office and you hear that Les is fired and you’re sitting in the same office as him.”

Opinons differ on when the plan to fire Miles collapsed. A key decision-maker claims it was much earlier that week, even as early as Monday; another says Wednesday; a third says Friday night or Saturday morning. The reasons for the deal’s downfall are clearer: political pressure from on high, budgetary issues and a swell of fan support for Miles.

At some point that week, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a close friend to Miles, contacted university leaders to show his support and encourage them to keep the coach. Also, the exorbitant price tag to fire Miles and hire Fisher–more than $30 million–spooked school president King Alexander at a time when the state and school were experiencing budget struggles. Jacobs believes the outpouring during the Texas A&M game fueled the decision over any another factor. It’s why the final verdict was rendered during the game, despite leaders claiming it happened earlier that week. “I give the credit to the fans,” Jacobs says. “They saved Les.”

It was an electric, emotional scene from start to finish. The support directed at Miles was as strong as the venom toward the school’s athletic director. Alleva was heavily booed during a taped message that played on the video board before kickoff. During the first quarter, a banner hung from a suite on the east side of Tiger Stadium that read, “Keep Les Miles. Fire Joe Alleva.” Signs in support of Miles were sprinkled throughout Tiger Stadium: We love you Les! Keep Les! Les 4-ever! “I don’t remember ever seeing as many LSU fans crying in the crowd,” Harris says. “You’d-a thought there was a funeral going on.”

Up in the suites, Jacobs let the school president have it. “I went to King and said, ‘You’re an enabler. You’re letting Alleva string this thing out.’ I told him he had failed and he had a failed coup on his hands.” On the field, LSU secured the win with a typical Miles drive–13 plays, 12 runs–and players carried him off the field on their shoulders. He then sang the alma mater in front of a rocking student section on live national television, with sideline reporter Maria Taylor holding a mic to his lips. He walked off the field as students roared, chanting his name and then serenading the stadium with “You! Can’t! Fire! Him!” Alleva announced LSU was keeping Miles in the postgame news conference, minutes before telling the coach himself.

“Boy, didn’t I make them miserable they couldn’t fire me!” said Miles in an interview earlier this month. The team learned of the news in various ways. Harris saw a reporter’s tweet from the news conference. Pugh, already on his way home, heard it on the radio. Clapp was told by his father outside of the locker room. “We were in shock,” Clapp says.

A week after the Texas A&M game, in a meeting with local reporters, Alleva only admitted to making “inquiries” with potential candidates to replace Miles. He declined a request for an interview for this story. Jacobs, the former board of supervisors member, says he spoke to Sexton about the ordeal in 2016. LSU never made an official offer to Fisher in either ’15 or ’16, the agent told him.

Miles lasted 10 more months. LSU went on to whip Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl and finish 9–3, signed the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class and began the 2016 season ranked fifth, before a 2–2 start that led to Miles’s ouster. The third and final flirtation with Fisher transpired, a deal with Tom Herman crumbled and then the school hired Orgeron permanently. Now, LSU and Fisher are finally getting together again. And just to throw more juice in this drama, one of A&M’s fullbacks is Ben Miles, the son of the man whose rally to save his job in 2015, kept Fisher and LSU on separate paths but has them now fighting against one another for the foreseeable future. Says Howard, “It might be our biggest game every year going forward.”

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