Anti-vanilla Miles not afraid to buck conventional wisdom
NEW ORLEANS -- Les is more. Sometimes so much more that you shake your head in disbelief.
Did Les Miles, with only nine seconds remaining and LSU's national title hopes hanging by the width of a Mike VI's tiger whisker, really go for a touchdown on third-and-7 from the Auburn 22 when all he needed was a semi-chip shot field goal to win?
Did he really end his bizarre, Take that, ESPN, I'm-Not-Going-To-Michigan news conference with, "I'm busy. Thank you very much. Have a great day"?
Did he really refer to his Tigers as, "my damn strong football team"?
The pop quiz answers are: yes, yes, and damn yes.
Miles doesn't wear his emotions just on his sleeve. He wears them everywhere: on the sideline while pumping his fist, in the postgame locker room, at news conferences. His face has three dial settings: elation, determination, or I'm Going To Cry. Elation, though, is getting the most work, thanks to the domino effect of upsets and losses all the way from Morgantown, W.Va., to San Antonio.
Somehow -- and not even Miles is sure how the reprieve happened -- LSU is in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, and better yet, playing the game just 80 miles from its Baton Rouge campus. The Tigers have two losses (a BCS Championship first), they're tracking, statistically speaking, the wrong way during their past eight games, and, depending on the published account you read, almost lost their coach to his beloved alma mater, Michigan.
But whatever the circumstances, LSU is here, and so is Miles, who arrived at the team hotel at French Quarter's edge late Wednesday afternoon. The team was greeted by a ragtime quartet, a dozen or so bowl officials and enough LSU fans to line both sides of the metal restraining barriers just off Canal Street. A three-deep receiving line awaited Miles and the Tigers as they entered the hotel through the side lobby entrance.
From there, Miles was escorted up an escalator, past a semicircle of 16 or so TV cameras, and onto a small stage, complete with podium and moderator, where he conducted a brief Q-and-A with reporters. Late in the session, someone asked if playing for the national title in New Orleans would be like BCS Championship opponent Ohio State playing for it in Columbus.
"More like Toledo," Miles said. "Not quite Columbus. You know, Toledo might be a little distant too. Maybe Marietta."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel didn't get a stage when he met the media earlier in the day. Or a moderator. Or fans lining the hallways as he walked to the ballroom. Hotel workers didn't wheel out a podium until minutes before his arrival and even then he had to hold his own BCS microphone.
But it didn't take long for Tressel to gush about LSU.
"The thing I love about them, they're tough," said Tressel, whose football staff spent time at LSU before the season began. "They're as far from vanilla as you can get."
Makes sense. Miles is the same way -- the anti-vanilla. He isn't afraid to pop off or tell conventional wisdom to take a day hike. He called a fake field goal against South Carolina that became a YouTube favorite. He went for it on fourth down five times in the win against Florida ("Like it's nothing," said LSU safety Craig Steltz). And the touchdown pass to beat Auburn with 1 second left -- Auburn coaches still can't believe he called it and that it worked -- was an absolute stunner.
"I wasn't surprised at all," said LSU quarterback Matt Flynn of the decision. "They have confidence in us. A lot of times against Florida and different games like that, if we wouldn't have gone for it, we would have thought he was crazy."
That's not exactly true. Wide receiver Early Doucet was "kind of shocked" when Miles kept calling fourth-down plays against Florida.
"It's like, 'Hold on. What's Coach, doing?'" Doucet said.
Miles has a long and distinguished history of audaciousness, including his late-season decision to remain at LSU and not pursue the Michigan job opening created by Lloyd Carr's resignation. The December announcement puts Monday evening's game against No. 1-ranked Ohio State in easy-to-understand terms.
If he beats the Buckeyes, LSU wins its second BCS title in the last five years and Miles becomes an instant coaching legend at the school. If he doesn't, you wonder if somewhere in the recesses of Miles' mind he'll regret not pursuing his dream job.
Technically speaking, it's a moot point because Miles and his white LSU ballcap are re-upped through 2012, while Michigan turned once again to its coaching farm system, West Virginia University. Rich Rodriguez, not Michigan Man Miles, is the newest office occupant at Schembechler Hall.
Miles, whose blood type is Maize and Blue Positive, played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. In fact, it was Schembechler who told then-Oklahoma State athletic director Terry Don Phillips that he should hire Miles for the Cowboys' vacant head coaching job (first choice Dirk Koetter backed out). Phillips was already leaning that way, but the recommendation sealed the 2001 deal.
"You could really tell just how strongly coach Schembechler felt about him as a player and as a coach," said Phillips, now the Clemson AD.
Still, these must be slightly bittersweet days for Miles. He's days away from playing for a national championship, but his football dream of returning to Ann Arbor is dead for the foreseeable future, maybe forever.
"I know he has a great love for Michigan," Phillips said. "But I'm not shocked that he's still at LSU. Sometimes the dynamics become such that you're put in the position where, even if you're inclined to go back to your old school, it's hard to lay yourself on the altar and say that personally that's what you want to do."
In other words, there were no guarantees Miles would have been the next Michigan coach. Would Carr, whose 13-year Michigan head coaching career ended with Tuesday's Capital One Bowl win against Florida, have endorsed Miles' candidacy? Would Miles have been considered too flamboyant, relatively speaking, for a program that historically values bland?
We'll never know for sure, though Miles might have answered some of those questions by staying at LSU. But, as Phillips will remind you, LSU gives Miles what he craves most as a coach: the chance to compete for a national championship. That's mostly why Miles left Oklahoma State for LSU in 2005 (but not before insisting he was staying put), and mostly why he's still at LSU today.
"There's only two teams going to play this late," Miles said. "This will be our 14th game. We enjoy that. We enjoy the achievement in being at the back end of the season, being the last teams to play."
Miles is hard-wired for emotion. Some of his staff meetings are as subtle as a crowbar to the face. And he can leave verbal scorch marks on a player during practice. The guy gets so worked up that his neck veins can be charted on topographical maps.
"People sometimes see him on television and they say, 'My gosh,'" said Phillips. "I say, 'Hey, that's the way he is.' He's an extremely intense person. It's like you're playing in the Sugar Bowl every day."
Miles isn't afraid to chirp. In 2003, less than a week before his 14th-ranked Oklahoma State team played No. 1-ranked Oklahoma, Miles said of the Sooners: "They're the best team in college football we're told."
And then there was this beaut: "Next Saturday, two teams are going to play. One is maybe the best team in college football and the other one is a darn good football team. We're going to figure out which one is which."
Final score: OU 52, Oklahoma State 9. Needless to say, the postgame handshake between Miles and Sooners coach Bob Stoops was on the frosty side.
But here's the thing: Cowboys fans loved Miles' boldness. They loved it right until he bolted for LSU.
"Admittedly, there were some people who felt wounded by his departure," Phillips said.
Just think if he had ditched LSU for Michigan after just three seasons. Tiger fans would have understood the gravitational pull of his alma mater, but that doesn't mean they would have liked it.
Instead, Miles stayed. He and his team have survived two triple-overtime losses to Kentucky and Arkansas. They've survived near-losses against Florida, Auburn and Alabama. They've survived the Michigan rumors that percolated until just hours before the start of the SEC Championship Game.
Watching from a distance was Tressel, who knew exactly what Miles was going through.
"I've been playing for the national championship and had one of the illustrious media folks come up to me on the sideline during the game and ask me if I'm going somewhere," Tressel said. "So, believe me, it's no fun. So for [LSU] to do what they did -- we won that game, by the way -- with an additional hardship like that, I thought Les handled it well."
Miles wants what Tressel already has: a national championship ring (Ohio State won the 2002 title). He wants it so much that he's monitoring his geeked-for-the-game levels.
"Right now I think my governor switch is doing well," he said.
That was on Wednesday. By Monday night his emotions will be bouncing from his shirt sleeve to the Superdome ceiling. Anything less wouldn't be Miles.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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