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Really Smart or Really Dumb, The Big-Picture Genius of Les Miles

Is Miles a mad genius or simply mad?  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Is Miles a mad genius or simply mad? (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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For six years, it's become common practice to mock Les Miles. First, it was rival fanbases. Then, our own. Then, the national media. Now, it's even some combination of the three. When an end of game scenario vs. Ole Miss is bungled, completely with potential clock-killing motion, fuel is only thrown onto the flames. When personnel messes nearly bungle a home game vs. an outmatched Tennessee team, only to be out personnel-messed into a "lucky" victory, the fire grows. When he jogs from the tunnel, out to the wrong sideline, the center is blue-hot, and the flames roar higher and higher. With every press conference and post-game interview, there seems to be more and more reason to mock. As LSU fans, we're accustomed to it. Put Miles into a public speaking situation and you get speech gumbo: take everything left in the fridge, throw it in a pot, and somehow, it comes out delicious, even if you don't quite understand why. 

In some ways, the script has been flipped and members of the national media have taken to adoring him (see Van Pelt, Scott). But still, it walks that line. You just know we're one boneheaded play call away from "Miles is an idiot" being a primary talking point for the media nationwide. So frankly, I think it's time someone addressed the issue. Are we truly witnessing the luckiest man to ever don grass-stained Nikes and an over-sized hat? Or is there, perhaps, some type of twisted genius tucked under that now famous lid?

Just this year, a fantastic little movie was released called The Guard. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend. What does this have to do with anything? Well, bear with me. The Guard centers on a small town policeman who is a rough-around-the-edges, morally ambivalent, seemingly simple type of guy (played by Brendan Gleeson). When a significant drug cartel makes its way through his tiny town, he's thrown into the fray, with the aid of big-time FBI agent (played by Don Cheadle), who is your consummate, brilliant, do-good, cop. Needless to say, watching the two become acquainted to one another is enough humor all it's own.

But, in a particularly insightful moment, as the two banter back and forth about life in general and personal matters, Cheadle remarks, "I can't tell if you are really fucking smart or really fucking dumb." From the moment I heard it, my first thought was, "My god, that's Les Miles."

In many ways, Les Miles is the antithesis of the "modern" coach. As the game has evolved the importance of personality has drifted by the wayside as the supremacy of X's and O's takes hold. Just consider the premier coaches of the previous twenty years: Bill Walsh (innovator/master of the West Coast offense [continued by Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid]), Tony Dungy (Tampa 2), Nick Saban (man-to-man coverage with too many blitzes to name), Bill Belichick/Bill Parcells (Fairbanks-Bullough 3-4 defense), Urban Meyer (spread option offense), Bob Stoops (zone blitz defense), etc. etc. Each of them are attached to a very specific scheme. The lone exception to this rule is Pete Carroll (who is also  still attached to the defense), and his easy-going-Cali-fun-n'-free personality.

I may be mistaken, but it seems that every organization/school is out to hire the next "genius", and often overlooking the very human aspect to coaching, this is not to say that the above coaches did not/do not possess inter-personal skills. But, on the scale of "X and O genius" and "managing people," the scale has titled toward "X and O" genius for some time now. 

So where does Les Miles fit into this mess? Well, he's not really attached to any specific scheme. He's an offensive-minded coach, and as far as we can tell the closest approximation to scheme that he prefers is "ball-control offense." Looking purely at his tenure here, under Fisher, we ran Fisher's offense, which is "pro-style" with a heavy emphasis on screens. With Crowton, we ran some type of messy hybrid of spread, spread option and I-Form and now, under Studthorpe, we're generally an I-Formation, play action team with some shotgun wrinkles. There's really no consistency there. Bob Stoops has cycled through 3, maybe 4 different defensive coordinators, yet, the 2011 Oklahoma Sooner defense strongly mirrors the unit they trotted out in 2000... it's definitively Stoops.

To be clear, I'm not saying Les Miles doesn't know Xs and Os. Far from it. But, it's not the defining characteristic of his coaching stamp.

That being said, there are quirks and examples that may further my point. Let's take a look at one of Miles' latest quote gems: "I don't recall that I ever suspended them." This, of course, was said, in response to Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon and Spencer Ware being "withheld from play" against Auburn. What does that even mean? Miles terms it as "withheld from play." Others say, "Well duh, that's called a 'suspension.'" To me, there is a careful delineation between the two and Miles is being sure to make it, here. 

The term suspension carries a certain implication that Miles doesn't want to use. Suspension says, "you can't play." Withheld from play says, "you could play, it's just that you are not going to." Suspension is punishment handed down from authority; withheld from play implies a self-inflicted wound ("hey this isn't my decision, you put yourself in this position"). You can be suspended from things you don't even like (like school), but being withheld from "play" implies that you've lost something you love.

And really, therein lies the difference. Les is a player's coach. He's a motivator. He's a guy that wants to stress the importance of having fun while you are out there (take this in comparison to the more business-like approach of Saban), after all, this is a game. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but each has their own approach. In this instance, I believe Nick Saban suspends the players. He wants them to know what they did wrong, because in business what's wrong/right is all that really matters. If you miss assignment x, then bad things happen. These are consequences. It's dogma. Follow the rules, get in line and things will fall in place.

Les Miles, in turn says, "I'm not suspending you, per se, but your actions, unfortunately, mean that you won't get to participate in what is the favorite part of your week: playing football." He's less concerned with what is "wrong or right." He's not even concerned with consequences (to me, him repeatedly saying, "if you play like that, I don't care what the results are" indicate this). For Les it's about understanding and appreciating the moment. There's a larger message than "don't do this or this will happen." It's big picture. It's teaching his pupils to value the moment and to have awareness of the rarity and special meaning of it. Is it a subtle, nuanced (possibly stupid semantic) difference? Of course. But that's also Les Miles... subtle, nuanced....  

And this translates to the product on the field. Early in his LSU tenure Miles was criticized for not being "animated enough" when his players made mistakes. Obviously a simple carryover emotion from a fanbase so used to seeing Nick jump down a player's ass for the slightest mistake. Instead, Miles often offers a loving pat on the helmet, or some one-on-one communication before sending them away. And what I see is a team that plays loose and wild and free (and not in a bad way). The players know that it's okay to make mistakes, because mistakes happen. Mistakes are acceptable, as long as you are making them fast and hard and fun. But not for Nick Saban. No, no mistake is acceptable. It's perfection or GTFO. And it's worked well for him.

This is what I mean when I say Les Miles is the antithesis of the modern coach. It's more about personality than scheme. At the end of his career, no one is going to say, "Well Les Miles created this offense." Or, "Les Miles perfected this scheme." He not only doesn't say the "right things" in press conferences, I'm convinced he doesn't even know the "right things" to say. It's why he freely and unconventionally calls fake field goals and TE reverses. Because, somewhere along the way, Les skipped the "standard coaching tactics" chapter. If I had to guess, he said, tl;dr.

When the regular coach says, "We tackle well." Miles says, "our contact is sincere." The regular coach says, "We need to throw it better." Miles says, "We certainly have opportunities to do some better things in the passing game if certain things open themselves up better." The regular coach says, "So and so is running as well as anyone in the country." Miles says, "I certainly like the way he anticipates and carries the football." The regular coach says, "We try to put ourselves in a position to win." Miles says, "Our team believes we will win every time we take the field. They are a joy to coach." In many ways he's saying the same thing, but in many ways, he's not... at all.

But really, he doesn't care if it's "right." There's a seeming lack of ego. He doesn't care if you think he's the greatest coach ever. Les Miles doesn't even mind if the world thinks he's an idiot. In fact, that's exactly what he wants. Because the moment you are questioning whether he is really fucking smart or really fucking dumb, well, he's already got you beat.