Three Inches That Changed Les Miles’ Legacy

They say football is a game of inches, and it’s never been more true than in the case of Les Miles. The Mad Hatter was known for many things in his time as LSU’s head coach…recruiter extraordinaire, tormenting Florida with yet another trick special teams play, chewing grass, clock mismanagements, maddeningly playing down to opponents too often, and relentless belief that his team was always up to the task, no matter what. He always seemed genuinely puzzled when his team "finished second." But most of all, he was known as a winner.

At least in the early days.

In 2011, four years removed from his national title team comprised of a mix of his own players as well as players left over from Saban’s recruiting victories, Miles had assembled what was in some ways LSU’s greatest team in history, and it was completely his. Sure, the offense was vanilla and you got the sense that if a team could match talent with LSU, they could probably clamp down on it pretty well. But where was that team? After just a few weeks of play it became clear that only one such team existed, and a collision course with them was the annual norm for November. But offense, of course, was only a third of the equation. There was that defense. And those special teams. And oh, what an overall trio they made.

November came and went, and LSU escaped undefeated after an epic bout on that team’s home field…a game with defense for the ages, one that a truly unbiased observer would be forced to say was a shame someone had to lose. In the end, LSU seemed a little better conditioned for the night—perhaps because of the unique preparation they’d had to put in for the season opener against Oregon—as they appeared to have a little more in the tank for overtime than did their worthy opponents. LSU managed to drive down to the four yard line to kick the winning field goal, while their foes went backwards on three straight plays. Up front, it looked like simple wear and tear was starting to show for the hometown team.

For some—including myself—never had we been more proud of an LSU football team. Miles and his damn strong group of Tigers had gone into the belly of the beast and emerged the victors against one of the greatest teams ever put together by one of the sport’s most royal bluebloods. Tough games remained, but if the boys from Tuscaloosa couldn’t stop them, it was a daunting task to come up with a team who could.

Adding to the fun was the tantalizing prospect of the 2011 LSU Tigers putting together the greatest resume ever seen in college football history. For a decade and a half, the gold standard had been 1995 Nebraska, who not only beat, but demolished, four other teams ranked in the final top 10. This was a feat not only of team strength, but also of scheduling luck, and it stood to reason that with those two things having to coincide, that record might stand for decades to come. As 2011 rolled along, it became clear that LSU had a shot to surpass that feat, as four teams on its schedule appeared to stand a good shot of also finishing in the final top 10 rankings. The only rub that could’ve been brought up was that Nebraska had thoroughly dismantled each of its top 10 opponents, whereas LSU did something more like surviving and outlasting the assault mounted against them by Alabama. But LSU had something Nebraska did not. While Nebraska’s four victories over top 10 opponents was outstanding, the Cornhuskers had no other games that year against final-ranked opponents. LSU would have the chance to thrash four top ten final-ranked teams, and also an additional two teams who would be ranked in the final top 25. This was a team very likely headed for history. A clear claim to the record books. Not the subjective "greatest team of all time," but an objective "greatest season of all time."

But as fate would have it, two weeks later in Ames, Iowa, Oklahoma State, the Big 12 team having their own perfect season who appeared headed for a championship game against LSU--and coincidentally Miles’ former team--would narrowly miss a field goal, sending their game to overtime, which they would go on to lose. How narrowly? The ball was high enough that it sailed over one of the uprights instead of between them, and it was up to the back judge manning the left goal post to make the call. He deemed it about three inches wide. Camera replays showed the ball sailing directly over the goalpost, and one was left with the impression it had to be a pure judgment call. Had the ball been three inches more inside, or the referee made a different call, the Okies would’ve won in regulation and never had the chance to fall in overtime.

As it was, OSU took the loss, and the powers that be jumped on the chance to set up a rematch between the SEC powers who had already clashed. OSU, a team many firmly felt would’ve ultimately been outclassed in a championship game by LSU, including myself, was left out in the cold without even the chance to prove themselves.

Many theories and opinions abound on exactly what happened leading up to the championship rematch, and the perplexing things that happened in it. I myself was never comfortable with the game because I’d been watching ESPN as they announced the opponent selected to play LSU. It would either be the OSU Cowboys or the division rivals Crimson Tide. The cameras were on the team in their meeting room, and when the rematch was announced, the usual cheering and clapping and general excitement of "Yeah! Let’s go get ‘em!" was noticeably absent. It looked neither like dread nor boredom, rather it looked more like disappointment. Defensive back Morris Claiborne seemed to sum it up when he said in an ensuing interview, "We’re gonna go out and do our best, but we already played Alabama. This whole team, our defense, we looked forward to showing the country what we can do against a new opponent, we were wanting to play a high powered passing attack. We want to show the world we can handle those offenses in other conferences." Despite the fact they had done as much versus Oregon and West Virginia, the sentiment seemed nevertheless understandable…yet extraordinarily dangerous.

The rest, of course, is history. The offense rightly took much of the blame, but the defense and special teams did not have good outings either. Whether the problem was preparation, motivation, bad coaching, or some combination of the three, probably no one will ever know for sure. LSU’s run into history was not to be, and Les Miles’ pinnacle achievement in terms of recruiting and coaching a team that was completely made in his image saw its dream of LSU’s first undefeated season in nearly 60 years evaporate over the span of a few hours.

A football far away in Iowa, more than a month earlier, three inches to the left, and this story—and his legacy in fans’ minds—likely plays out much differently.

No one could suggest that Les Miles’ fate today would be any different had they won that game, or gotten Oklahoma State for an opponent instead. Failure to meet expectations is failure to meet expectations. Had the same problems developed that we see today, a change would still have been needed. But undoubtedly, Miles’ place in the minds of the LSU fan base at large would be very different. Many don’t look at the W’s and L’s for whatever reasons, they look at the championships, and even then, not even at conference championships. Miles and his men had brought home only one national championship, and that was a long time ago. The team that was undeniably and completely his failed to bring home the most recent one fans thought should’ve been theirs.

Adding insult to injury was the fact that very national championship instead belonged to a division rival, in the middle of a run never before seen in college football. Perhaps that, more than anything, is why the number of wins began to seem so hollow. The rings were just so shiny, but they weren’t ours anymore. And sometimes it’s hard to focus on how nice your house is when your neighbor’s is better.

The problems accumulated over the last few seasons would’ve made change a necessity anyway, assuming everything else stayed the same. But the memory of 2005-2011 and even through 2013 would probably feel different in the minds of many purple-and-gold-clad fans. For even as things began to fade from that mountaintop, the 2012 defense and special teams remained elite, and even as they began to slip, LSU would put together an SEC record-setting offense in 2013, becoming the only SEC team to ever feature a 1,000 yard rusher, a 3,000 yard passer, and two 1,000 yard receivers. It probably would’ve been acceptable, even downright enjoyable, had the sweet taste of a 2011 championship completely engineered in Miles’ preferred design still lingered on the tongues of the faithful.

But it didn’t. It never had the chance. And 2012 and 2013’s shortcomings stung all the worse, as did each additional slip in subsequent years. Instead of cementing his place in people’s minds as the man who bit a chunk out of Alabama’s otherwise stranglehold on college football, he became the man who had won a championship a long time ago, and probably only because Alabama wasn’t "back."

Miles had worked hard, recruited harder, and done everything he knew how to do on his way to admirably battling some of the game’s best minds, such as Urban Meyer with whom he ultimately achieved a 3-3 stalemate in six tries. Meyer may have been a legend, but often as not his Florida teams had no answer for Miles and his Tigers. He routinely made other elite coaches such as Chip Kelly and Jim Tressel look downright silly when their teams scrapped in out-of-conference games. Over Saban’s first five years in returning to the SEC, Miles actually bested him 3-2. And this was not nothing, for Alabama took only one year to return to prominence and even had their only undefeated season under Saban in that span, winning their first NC with him. But as Saban pulled the score even at 3-3, it all seemed to change for Les. If not on the field right away, then at least in the minds of the Tiger faithful.

Les Miles, the man of high character, of quirky personality, the man you wanted to love and cheer for, the man you wanted your son to play for, often frustrating, often maddening, but always entertaining, the man with a penchant for mismanaging clocks, had perhaps fittingly finally run out of time. And just as with Les with the clocks, in the minds of the fans, it just took them a while to realize it.

Three inches to the left.