The sun was slowly sinking behind Tiger Stadium, and inside Les Miles' career at LSU was firmly on life support. On a glorious day early last November, time had seemingly stood still and the only sound was silence.
"What the &^%$#@% is he doing?'' said one man, who looked as if he had worked at Tiger stadium since it opened in 1924. Another chimed in, "Les Miles is the dumbest SOB on the face of the Earth.'' A woman had her hands over her eyes. Another worker looked at me as if to say, "Here we go again.''
The television series, better known as the Les Miles Reality Show, was reaching the cliffhanger.
I had made the bi-annual pilgrimage to Baton Rouge for the Alabama-LSU game. Instead of a 50-yard line seat from above the field, I watched perhaps the biggest play of Miles' career at LSU on a dirty, smudged television set right next to the press box elevators at the bottom of Tiger Stadium. I had mistakenly thought with Alabama leading and LSU way back on its own side of the field, this was the best time to make the mad dash to the field.
However, by the time I arrived, LSU, trailing 14-13 with 9:51 remaining, had moved the ball to the Alabama 26. On fourth-and-one, Miles called timeout. Much to the shock of my new friends by the elevator, he eschewed the field goal and was going for broke. Typical Miles. Most LSU fans, who had witnessed many of Miles' other gambles, were thinking Armageddon was one down away.
As the play began, the peanut gallery started screaming at the television. But it worked perfectly, a reverse with DeAngelo Peterson scampering to the three-yard line to set up the eventual go-ahead touchdown. The jeers turned to cheers and Miles went from dunce to deity. But such is life for the one of most enigmatic figures in the game.
"Miles is truly a Cool Hand Luke personality,'' said Tim Brando, the host of CBS' College Football Today and a national radio show. Brando, a Louisiana native who has a close relationship with Miles, added: "He embodies a style and swagger that the modern day Internet athlete identifies with, and he plays it for all it's worth. Down deep he doesn't like being the Hat, but rather than fight it, he embraces it.''
Since the play a year ago, LSU hasn't looked back, losing only at Arkansas late last season, and enters Saturday's showdown in Tuscaloosa with the whole world watching and wondering what tricks Houdini has up his sleeve this time.
In this business, we all jump to conclusions about coaches based on what we observe over a period of time. Usually the resulting opinions are based in facts and experience. But I have rarely been as wrong as I have been about Leslie Edwin Miles Jr.
Even when he was compiling a 34-6 record in three years, including a BCS title, I thought Miles was feasting off of Nick Saban's players. My theory seemed to be proving correct in Miles' fourth and fifth years, when he went 17-9 overall and 8-8 in the SEC. During the same stretch, Saban went 26-2 and won a national title at Alabama.
In the weeks leading up to the 2010 showdown with Alabama, Miles barely escaped games against Tennessee and Florida with trick plays and by continually gambling on fourth down. Fans were boiling mad -- even after wins -- because they sensed Miles' miraculous good luck would eventually run out. Some local pundits were suggesting Miles needed to go. LSU gained a little respect against undefeated Auburn and Cam Newton, but still lost by a touchdown.
The pressure was on for the game on Nov. 6, 2010. Even though preseason No. 1 Alabama had lost to South Carolina, the Tide had climbed back to No. 5 and essentially controlled their own destiny to get back to the title game if they could defeat LSU and Auburn.
Had the game gone in Alabama's favor, it would have marked Miles' third straight loss to Saban. In the eyes of many on the Bayou, that might have been the last straw in the boiling pot of jambalaya known as LSU football.
There was speculation that Miles may have taken the road out of town first. Don't forget he turned down Michigan, his alma mater, as he was marching toward the 2007 BCS title. With Rich Rodriguez a dead man walking in Ann Arbor, it was possible Miles would decide the time was right to return to Michigan if the fans had run out of patience.
However, since the audacious fourth down call against Alabama nearly everything has gone right on the field. Miles scored a big Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M and earned major cred in LSU circles by again turning Michigan down.
Off the field, Miles' life has been engulfed in the personal tragedy of losing his sister. He has had to deal with issues with Steve Kragthorpe (his new hire as offense coordinator struggling with his wife's recent diagnosis of MS and his own of Parkinson's), the arrest and suspension of quarterback Jordan Jefferson and the most recent one-game suspension of three of his top players. Meanwhile, Miles has done a masterful job of holding everything together. Instead of imploding, LSU has played brilliantly, clearly separating itself from every school in America -- except Alabama.
In the course of 52 weeks, Miles has gone from a coach often doubted by his own fans to a respected and somewhat beloved -- albeit bizarre -- character.
When the game of the century ends, I'm simply going to shake my head and think back to a year ago, and perhaps, I'll chew a piece of stadium turf in Miles' honor.
Win or lose, the Mad Hatter has earned my respect and that of fans everywhere.