When Les Miles returned to LSU after a failed coup last November, LSU administrators basically brought him back as the full-time interim coach. The same problems that brought Miles to the brink of being fired in 2015 weren’t going away, and the Tigers showed that in resplendent fashion on Saturday. They started a quarterback who couldn’t win the job at Purdue, bungled the clock at the end and lost to a bad Auburn team with inferior talent.
When the inevitability of Miles’ exit became a reality on Sunday, it led to the question that will hover over the 2016 college football season: Who will replace Miles at one of the top jobs in college football?
A two-horse race has clearly emerged to replace Miles between Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Houston coach Tom Herman. Fisher was the top candidate on the board of LSU’s administrators—and some might say the only candidate—when LSU flirted with firing Miles last season.
Each candidate would bring a skill set that LSU has desperately lacked throughout Miles’ 12-year tenure—distinguished offensive acumen and an ability to develop quarterbacks.
Fisher’s credentials are unquestioned. He has a 71–15 record at Florida State, he won a national title after the 2013 season and developed first-round picks Jameis Winston, Christian Ponder and EJ Manuel. Fisher also spent seven years as an LSU assistant, meaning he knows exactly what he’s getting into. (He developed JaMarcus Russell into a No. 1 overall pick while in Baton Rouge.)
Herman has emerged as the hottest coaching candidate in college football after leading Houston to a 17–1 record the past two seasons. Herman’s two years as a head coach are highlighted by a Peach Bowl victory over Fisher’s Seminoles last year. He has also developed a reputation as a quarterback whisperer, tutoring Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett while he was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator and turning current Houston star Greg Ward Jr., a converted wide receiver, into one of the most dynamic players in college football.
After Fisher and Herman, compiling a list of candidates at LSU gets dicey. Gary Patterson would be the most logical available name. But would he ever leave TCU?
Would the administration consider former Baylor coach Art Briles? He was fired this off-season amid Baylor’s sexual assault scandal and will be a controversial choice wherever he lands. Would they make a run at Louisville’s Bobby Petrino? He comes with his own off-field baggage and just signed a seven-year deal with the Cardinals in the off-season. Both would be highly unlikely.
There simply aren’t a lot of quality names out there that would realistically fit a job the magnitude of LSU. The SEC is so down right now that Hugh Freeze is the only qualified replacement, but he’s untouchable because of NCAA issues. (Could Arkansas’ Bret Bielema be a B-list candidate? Or maybe UNC’s Larry Fedora?) Beyond Fisher and Herman, there are no obvious names. Go through all the other sitting ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 coaches and there’s few who would both consider the job and be seriously considered.
Luring a coach like Fisher or Herman won’t be simple. Financially, it won’t be an issue for LSU. Fisher would need to pay off a $5 million buyout and Herman a $2.5 million one, neither of which would make a wealthy school like LSU flinch. But there are a number of variables hanging over the job right now that need to play out. The biggest question looming is whether athletic director Joe Alleva will be around to make the hire? That’s probably a coin flip at this point, as Miles’ departure was spectacularly bungled last year and there’s a sense in the industry that Alleva has been a poor fit since he arrived in Baton Rouge in 2008. If LSU fires Alleva, it needs to do it soon. Few established coaches will take a job, even one the caliber of LSU, without knowing who they’ll be working for.
The next variable will be how Herman and Fisher navigate the endless speculation over the next two months. By firing Miles, LSU has put all of its potential coaching candidates into a hailstorm of speculative misery.
What if Houston continues its undefeated season and makes a College Football Playoff run? Can Herman really take the job if the Cougars reach the CFP? Could LSU wait until January to hire a coach after making a move in September?
What if Florida State regroups after getting blown out by Louisville and Fisher leads the Seminoles to the playoff? How would FSU’s administrators react if the LSU vacancy isn’t filled and all the speculation points to Fisher as the school is attempting to win a national title? That wouldn’t sit well at Florida State, which doesn’t want to play second fiddle to any program.
By firing Miles so soon, LSU administrators also endangered LSU’s current recruiting class, which includes 20 verbal commitments and is No. 6 in the Scout.com rankings. A November firing would give committed recruits less of a chance to get a wandering eye and take visits to other schools.
By firing Miles so early, LSU can theoretically get a jump on its competition in its coaching search. But that’s not perfect, either. Just ask USC, which fired Lane Kiffin in September 2013 and still ended up hiring Steve Sarkisian, who failed spectacularly on and off the field.
LSU struck first among prominent schools looking to replace coaches this year. That list could well include USC, as Clay Helton’s tenure as full-time head coach has been every bit the abject failure that his 1–5 record indicates. USC isn’t likely to target Fisher, but Herman grew up in Southern California and a Trojan opening would certainly create a competitive market for his services. (LSU would likely be a better fit for Herman than USC despite his roots in Southern California. LSU’s primary recruiting ground outside of the Louisiana is in Texas, where Herman has spent a majority of his professional career.)
The other dynamic that LSU created is the potential domino effect. Does this move put extra pressure on Texas administrators to make a move on Charlie Strong if the Longhorn defense continues to struggle? Would Texas fire Strong if it knew it had a chance at Herman?
Miles’ firing sets the stage for a captivating next two months. Two obvious candidates have emerged in Fisher and Herman. Can LSU navigate a tricky landscape to lure one of them? And if not, where would they turn?
To borrow one of Miles’ favorite pet words, it will be fascinating theater to “enjoy.”