It was just nine months ago that it was necessary to deviate in this space from politics and such to discuss LSU football, specifically the status of head coach Les Miles.
The Tigers were in the midst of a three-game losing streak back then, beginning with archrival Alabama the first week of November and two humiliating losses to follow, at home against Arkansas and on the road at Ole Miss.
Tiger Nation, by and large, wanted Miles to get the boot, but an emotional win over Texas A&M in the final game of the regular season at home in front of a crowd that had largely come to Miles’ defense saved his hide. At least that’s how it appeared on the surface.
The reality of it all is LSU President F. King Alexander spiked the move to fire Miles. Behind the scenes, it was agreed that the optics of the university spending millions of dollars to buy out Miles’ contract as well as spending millions of dollars to hire an expensive top-shelf coach would look terrible. After all, state government was broke and all of higher education in Louisiana was facing another round of budget cuts.
Never mind that the LSU football program operates on money it generates. Never mind, too, that any move to fire the football coach to make way for a new one would be financed for the most part by the men and women who contribute big money to the Tiger Athletic Foundation, a separate entity from the university that doesn’t collect a dime from the state’s general fund.
In other words, Alexander played it safe in the face of bad press and a fan base that recognized the powers that be at LSU had badly mismanaged its handling of the most important public figure in Louisiana outside of the governor. But that’s what happens when information gets leaked to the media prematurely.
Yet, here we are again discussing Miles and the state of LSU football thanks to the Tigers’ abysmal performance Saturday in the first game of the 2016 season, a 16-14 loss to a Wisconsin Badger ball club at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. On paper, it shouldn’t have been close; LSU simply was far more talented than Wisconsin.
But the same things, or the same decision-making, that landed Miles in hot water last season reared their ugly heads Saturday on national television for the entire country to witness. The offense was predictable and stale, and the quarterback failed to perform to a standard that’s necessary to win games against decent competition, much less ball clubs from the Southeastern Conference.
Surprised and somewhat shocked are how I would describe my thoughts over the Tigers on Saturday since all offseason we were told Miles was committed to dragging himself into the 21st century and would develop an offense that can compete in modern-day college football. That is, the Tigers must throw the ball and throw it often to keep the defense honest so the running game can get on track. Instead, we saw the same mess Saturday that we witnessed beginning in November of last year. The Badgers, like Alabama and Arkansas and Ole Miss a year ago, put seven or eight defenders in the box to slow down star running back Leonard Fournette in order to force the quarterback, Brandon Harris, to beat them with his arm.
The strategy paid off for Wisconsin, just like it paid off for the Crimson Tide and the like, because Harris simply has not developed into a good quarterback.
So Miles is back in the hot seat. Already sports columnists are calling for his head or they’re predicting LSU will trudge along, win a few games and at the end of year, Miles will be shown the door.
It seems plausible to suggest Miles must win no less than 10 games this season to keep his job. That means he’s got to go 9-2 the rest of the way in the regular season and win a bowl game, which is a tall order with Auburn, Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss, Arkansas and A&M on the schedule. Missouri and Miss. State are on the schedule, too, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly. Jacksonville State, LSU’s next opponent, shouldn’t be taken lightly either. A loss to the Gamecocks most likely would seal Miles’ fate.
There’s a problem, though, with all of this talk about firing Miles and going after a big-name coach who would command no less than $5 million or $6 million per year to take the LSU job. That problem is money.
We all assume money is not an issue among the movers and shakers who make those big contributions to TAF. We just assume they can dig down into their pockets and come up with millions of dollars to pay off a coach to make him go away in order to bring in a fresh face.
As a friend who has close ties to the LSU football program said over the weekend, if oil was trading at $140 a barrel, buying out Miles and hiring a new coach wouldn’t be a problem. But the oil patch is suffering, and that means the movers and the shakers are a little low on the cash front these days.
Bluntly put, LSU football is stuck in mediocrity, and we simply may have to live with it for a while.
There’s another wrinkle to this problem with the LSU football program and its coach that few people seem to contemplate. That is, whether you like it or whether you care to acknowledge it, LSU is the face of Louisiana. When the Tigers appear on national television to play a football game, they’re representing the state.
Because at the end of the day, Louisiana is known for two things: It’s a place to pass a good time and it is home to LSU.
So when the football team is playing poorly and there’s bad vibes emanating from the state’s flagship university, it reflects poorly on Louisiana.
That’s just the way it is.