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Les Miles and the Metadata: Why Winning Is Never Enough

Can Les Miles ever silence his critics?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

September 26th, 2005

#10 Tennessee travels to Baton Rouge to face LSU, fresh off a "home game" in Tempe, Arizona. While much of the state of Louisiana remained ravaged from Hurricane Katrina and its after effects, LSU took the field at home for the first time of the Les Miles era. LSU stormed to a 21-0 lead at halftime. Tennessee didn't even get on the board until the mid 3rd quarter. Even then, LSU responded with a FG to end the quarter, carrying a 17 point lead with 10 minutes to go in the game. Tennessee would not only overcome that deficit but go on to win the game in overtime. This is the beginning.

When Nick Saban left LSU for the Miami Dolphins on Christmas Day in 2004, LSU was left in a bit of a lurch for finding a new head coach. Most of the premium vacancies had already been filled. Bobby Petrino was one many believed to be a front runner. Skip Bertman and the LSU trust picked Miles, a coach with just 28 wins. The move shocked some, even then. Why couldn't LSU hire a "bigger" name. Still, Miles' run at Oklahoma State still ranks among the best in school history. He won more games at Oklahoma State than Jimmy Johnson, largely considered one of the greatest coaches in football history. Furthermore, in four seasons, he beat a vastly more talented OU team twice, and took them to the brink another time. Miles was certainly a coach on the rise, but it still all felt a bit rushed. This is only to say, the hire was met with some skepticism, which would later be the source of some ex post facto arguments of his lack of quality.

October 13th, 2007

#1 LSU travels to Lexington to face a rising Kentucky squad. Ranked 17th at the time, and lead by quarterback Andre' Woodson, a player many considered a Heisman contender. A week after a grueling slugfest with then #9 Florida, the single best game of the Les Miles era, LSU walked into a trap game against a solid team, albeit it one that had no business beating LSU. The Tigers, quite literally, limped into this game. Looking not nearly like the same team that destroyed #9 Virginia Tech and physically bested Florida, LSU still showed up and jumped to a 13 point lead deep into the 3rd quarter. Then, like the Tennessee game from 2005, all air seemed to leave the balloon. Kentucky scored 13 unchecked points. LSU could barely move the football. The game went to OT, where the Wildcats pulled off a stunner. National Championship hopes evaporated...

Metadata is, by definition, data that describes other data. Its a term that came to light in the early 80s. It's become increasingly vital in digital record keeping. You might think of the old library card cataloging systems as the earliest forms of metadata. These are subsets of information that help us more easily understand exactly what we are looking at. It serves an organizational purpose as well, but often times the metadata can be more illuminating to the story than the data itself.

So far as I can tell, the entire argument regarding Les Miles comes down to this singular issue: Data vs. Metadata. Miles' staunchest defenders will put forth the major data points: 2 SEC Championships, 1 National Title, 2 National Title Appearances, seven 10-win seasons, the highest winning % in school history (> 20 games coached), regular top 5 recruiting classes, multiple high NFL draft picks, etc. There's validity to this data. Stacked up next to others' accomplishments, Les Miles' stand in elite company.

Yet, the sticky counterpoint has always been that metadata. For some, it didn't matter that LSU won, because many times, they didn't look good doing it. Sure, LSU went 11-2, 11-2, and 12-2 with a National Title in Miles first three seasons, but how could they lose to teams like Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas? These are, indisputably, losses to teams with inferior talent and coaches. These are not games LSU should lose. Never mind you the forgettable seasons like 2008 and 2014. What about poor performances in bowl games in 2009, 2012 and 2014? It's not fun to think about or admit, but there is validity in these statements.

The story the data tells sometimes varies from the one of the metadata.

Saturday October 2nd, 2010

Unranked Tennessee travels into Baton Rouge to faced undefeated LSU. The Volunteers fell on hard times in the waning years of the Fulmer era, then hiring hot shot up-and-comer Lane Kiffin to helm the program. Kiffin, of course, bolted after a single season to take the USC job, forcing the Volunteers to find yet another coach. This time, Tennessee dipped into the Saban coaching tree, hiring Derek Dooley, a man who won just 17 games in his Louisiana Tech tenure. Dooley inherited a program needing a talent infusion. His tenure started inauspiciously, after getting drubbed by #7 Oregon and #10 Florida, the Vols slugged out a tough victory at home vs. UAB. They walked into Baton Rouge 2-2, clearly a poor team. Tennessee lead with just five and a half minutes remaining, largely playing the Tigers to a draw on the afternoon.

LSU drove 68 yards in the final five and a half minutes, to the Tennesssee. On 1st down, Jarrett Lee threw an incomplete pass. Miles subbed in Jordan Jefferson and called a designed QB run right on 2nd down. The Volunteer defense snuffed it out and tackled Jefferson at the 1. The clock continued to tick and LSU had no remaining timeouts. Visibly confused, the LSU offense looked to the sideline awaiting a play call. Tick tick tick. Players ran in for a substitution. Tick tick tick. Players scrambled, unable to get lined up correctly. 8, 7, 6. Three seconds remaining on the clock, T-Bob Hebert snaps the ball to an unaware Jordan Jefferson. It tumbles past him out back to the 20. The remaining seconds tick away. Tennessee players storm the field. Dan Bourne announces over the PA, "Ballgame. Final Score: Tennessee 14, LSU 10." Sheriffs escorted Dooley to his midfield handshake with Miles. After a minute or so of confusion, officials start clearing the field and directing players back to their benches.

Penn Wagers takes the field and announces the call. "Illegal Participation on the defense. 12 men on the field. Half the distance to the goal. Replay 3rd down." The crowd erupts. LSU lines up. Toss left to Ridley. Touchdown. LSU wins.

Saban returning to the SEC West meant a lot of things. Alabama's return to prominence. An even more dangerous arms race for upgrading facilities and escalating coaching salaries. More competition on the recruiting trail. Not to mention the history between Saban and LSU, the constant nagging comparisons from LSU fans, who seem to distinctly misremember his tenure as the LSU head coach. It was added pressure.

More interestingly, Saban serves as a stark contrast to Miles. Saban often comes across as joyless and business oriented. Miles is goofy and fun. Saban eats the same lunch at the same time every day. Everything is scheduled, organized, on point. Miles comes across more laissez faire and relaxed. Reality is, neither of these stark portrayals of either coach is entirely true. Saban isn't credited enough for his relationship to his players and the times where he can flow with personality. Miles isn't credited enough for being disciplined and organized.

This fed a storyline that's permeated into the LSU fanbase. Stories of Nick Saban and "the process" are told and re-told by the media. But the short summary is that what Saban believes and teaches is that if you focus on doing all the small things correctly, the big results will come.* The stark contrast of the two coaches comes into focus when LSU makes mind-bending clock mismanagement errors, like the one discussed above vs. Tennessee. Or the infamous spike on 4th down vs. Ole Miss the year previous. Fairly or not, the perception becomes the reality. Les Miles, and LSU by extension, are a team that "lacks focus and discipline." This is the metadata.

*This, by the way, is not some unique teaching that originates with Saban. Gobs of leadership experts have espoused similar beliefs in the past.

November 14th, 2015

Following their 5th consecutive loss to Alabama, LSU players and coaches vowed to correct the issues and that there would be no hangover in the coming weeks. Against yet another inferior Arkansas team, LSU took a pounding on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as Arkansas had their way with the Tigers in Tiger Stadium. Pre-game, Arkansas players danced on the Tiger Eye, and LSU players sheepishly warned them to stop, before backing down. Their play did nothing to combat the attitude. LSU, again, was thoroughly beaten by an inferior team.

The real trouble comes when the data and metadata begin to tell the same story. LSU lost five games last season. No one expected the 2015 team to compete for a National Championship, but perspectives grew out of whack when LSU literally ran over the first 3/4ths of their schedule on the way to a no. 2 spot in the initial playoff rankings with a leading Heisman candidate in tow. Maybe this was all coming around after all? Then Alabama happened. Then Arkansas happened.

Now, voices are again rising for Miles to be fired. This time, the climate is different. Vocal supporters of the program and long-time defenders of Miles are growing restless with routine top-flight recruiting classes and on-field results that don't match. Is it fair? I don't know. Outsiders insistent LSU fans are insane for wanting to run Miles off. But then, outsiders are typically focused on the data and not the metadata.

Metadata defenders have long insisted Miles' success could not hold. There is some merit to this line of thinking. But they are also victims of being entirely too close to their subject. They don't watch other teams with the same microscope. So they sit and judge LSU based on metadata while judging other programs by data alone. If LSU were to win out, most would remember this team as one that stumbled vs. Alabama and Arkansas. If Alabama were to win out, those same people would be asking why LSU couldn't do that, ignoring the Bama stumble vs. Ole Miss. They would look right past Alabama's ugly victory vs. Tennessee and never consider that an indictment of Saban's ability to get his team to play well, no matter the quality of the opponent.

The reality is, we're here with the same argument we've been having for 11 years. It's the data vs. the metadata. But if those two elements continue telling the same story, well, then it truly will be time to move on.