ATLANTA -- Les Miles exchanged hugs and a few private sentiments with Glenn Dorsey and Jacob Hester before taking the SEC championshp trophy from commissioner Mike Slive. Grabbing one side of the award, he and Dorsey held it aloft as blue and white confetti shot up from behind the podium, reaching toward the Georgia Dome ceiling before falling onto the collection of players amid the celebration.
With a 21-14 win over No. 14 Tennessee, the fifth-ranked Tigers will head back to Baton Rouge with a conference title, at least a Sugar Bowl berth -- and something else it seemed they wouldn't be leaving Atlanta with: their coach.
Since Lloyd Carr's retirement announcement Nov. 19, speculation has run rampant that sometime after the SEC title game, Miles would stand in front of a podium in Ann Arbor, framed by a backdrop of maize block Ms and return to the school he can't help himself from publicly fawning over.
Consider what's been a widespread certainty put to rest, for the time being, as an irate Miles addressed a day that began with ESPN saying that not only was he going to take over the Wolverines, but he was taking Georgia Tech blitz guru Jon Tenuta with him.
"I don't know how that information gets out," Miles said. "I challenge [anyone] to find out who exactly said what. There should be some accountability. It's not right. When someone says 'This is reported.' Let me tell you something, they ought to confirm it with me. It's not true. It's not right."
Before he made a statement two hours prior to kickoff Saturday, Miles addressed his team and told them he was sorry for what's been an undeniable distraction.
"He even apologized to us for it even being brought up," Hester said. "That shows the kind of character he has."
Miles has reportedly agreed to a new contract, a multi-year deal that is expected to pay him more than $3.5 million a year, a figure that would make him among the nation's highest-paid. Michigan athletic director Bill Martin has stated they were willing to offer in the $3 million range for their next coach.
Until he formally signs a deal -- with LSU or Michigan -- we're still going to hear rumors. Consider it a sign of the times. Martin has asked for permission to talk to Miles and LSU gave it, with the disclaimer that UM wait until after the SEC title game.
But if it's truly over and Miles isn't heading anywhere, it may end up being a deft move to move his salary ahead of Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, who makes $3.3 million a year.
LSU was well aware of Miles' fascination with all things Michigan. This is a man who broke down when discussing Michigan after Carr announced he would step down. Miles' commitment to late UM coach Bo Schembechler was so deep that last month, before the Ohio State-Michigan game, he went on Jim Rome's radio show to promote a book co-authored by Schembechler, and said of the OSU-UM rivalry, "I don't think there's any question, it's fundamental that [he and his family are] Michigan. We're rooting for the Blue. There's no question."
Miles played guard under Schembechler in 1974 and '75 and also served as a graduate assistant and a full-time assistant on Schembechler's staff. After five years at Colorado, Miles returned to Michigan for the end of the Bo era and stayed on with Gary Moeller until 1994.
LSU even built a clause into Miles' contract that subjects him to a $1.25 million penalty if he leaves for Michigan, compared to a $500,000 buyout for any other destination. But Miles is adamant that while he'll wear his maize-and-blue love on his sleeve, he won't be trading in his trademark white LSU hat for a UM one.
"There's a proud tradition and they have to do the things they have to do," Miles said. "I'm for them and if there's any way I can help, I'd love to help them. But I'm not going there. It saddens me at times. I can't be at two places. I've got a great place. I'm at home."
If Michigan comes calling tonight, tomorrow or the next day and Miles sticks to his guns, he can endear himself to LSU fans in a way that Nick Saban never could. Miles has led the Tigers to the best three-year stretch in team history and helped mend a community riddled by Hurricane Katrina. Despite that, he has largely operated in the shadow of Saban, who led the Tigers to the 2003 national title and recruited 27 of the players on the current roster. If Miles spurns Michigan, he could run for governor of Louisiana.
You have to believe Miles knew this and he picked the biggest moment of his tenure, thus far, to make his intentions clear.
"There is no finer time to make a decision than before we play the championship game," Miles said. "That's how it comes."
It appears, as if for now, the fate of Miles, and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini are set. Numerous reports have circulated saying Nebraska interim athletic director Tom Osborne could introduce Pelini as the heir to Cornhuskers Nation as early as Monday. Osborne has refused to comment, but Miles talked in passing about his search for a new defensive leader.
A former Cornhuskers defensive coordinator, Pelini is charged with bringing the swagger back to a "Blackshirts" defense that ranked 112th this season and allowed nearly 40 points a game. He'll bring youth -- Pelini turns 40 on Dec. 13 -- and fire to a program that saw its stock fall on Callahan's watch.
Nebraska has its man, and it looks as if LSU won't have to worry about jumping onto the coaching carousel. But where does Michigan go from here? There's talk of Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, who won two Division II national titles at Grand Valley State and a MAC crown at Central Michigan, and Cal's Jeff Tedford, a rumored favorite of Michigan's administration.
This morning, it looked as if the winningest program in college football history would swoop in and steal Miles right under the Bayou Bengals' noses. There's always that possibility that Martin will still call and Miles will still listen and we'll still see him put on a Michigan hat after all and tell us how happy he is to come home.
But for now, at least, it looks as if Miles has cast the cloud of speculation that has hung over LSU out of the Bayou.