Every decision of consequence brings risk. It’s been suggested by some that LSU is making a tremendous risk by firing the most successful coach in school history because he’s regressed from great to merely good. Hell, it’s an idea I’ve proffered from time to time. There’s some logic to it. Miles finished at LSU with a .770 winning percentage overall. The list of coaches with a .750 winning percentage in college football history is pretty narrow. Names like Saban, Meyer, Osborne, Wilkinson, Hayes, Bryant, Switzer, Schembechler dot the list. Les remains a few percentage points shy on his overall coaching record, due to his tenure at Oklahoma State, but his time at LSU ranks.
But a deeper dive suggests this doesn’t tell the whole story.
Through his first 7 seasons (2005-2011) Miles went an unreal 75-18 (80.6%). In his last 4 1/4 seasons his record regressed to 39-16 (70.9%). He’d lost nearly as many games in his final 4 1/4 seasons as he did in his first 7 and likely would have eclipsed that amount had he continued to lead the 2016 team.
What makes this decision challenging is that winning 70.9% of your games is still damn hard. There are 67 coaches in college football history to obtain that mark with a minimum of 10 years experience.
So what LSU is attempting to do here is replace a coach with a 70% clip, at best (the additional losses this year would drop that number even lower). It’s hard to divorce yourself from history, but the Les Miles that coached this program from 2005-2011 isn’t the Les Miles that’s coached this program the past four years and change. And it’s not just an “Alabama problem” as I’ve seen many suggest. Other programs are catching up, tossing LSU closer to the middle, as they’ve finished each of the last three seasons, than the top.
Let’s be clear here, Les Miles failed this program in 2016. Going .500 in the month of September with a team that returned 18 starters and loaded with seniority is how coaches go about losing their jobs. Let’s also not forget that Miles did not tend to the issues that lead to his unstable positioning. LSU’s offense remains amongst the worst in college football, despite repeated pleas to fix. We expected to get the guy we had from 2005-2011. As I wrote about after the Wisconsin loss, we were wrong. The guy that got fired is the guy from the past 4.25 seasons. I had hope we were seeing that climb back up, much like we improved from ‘08 to ‘09 to ‘10 to ‘11. Instead, we regressed.
It’s a far less tall task to replace a 65%-70% winner than an 80% one. That’s asking your new coach to win between 8-9 games a season to simply meet the bar of the coach previously fired. LSU’s all-time winning percentage prior to 1987 was 67%. If we assume the late 80s and early 90s are outlier failures and the late 90s and 00s are outliers successes, the program is essentially banking on 40 years of history (post WWII) here in a bet against regression.
The doldrums of the Archer/Hallman years have seemingly thrust some into panic that LSU will drift back to obscurity. This ignores both LSU’s larger institutional history as well as their current positioning in the college football landscape, which is better than its ever been, in large part thanks to what Miles accomplished.
It’s possible, hell maybe even likely, that LSU will hire a coach that’s not as successful as Miles overall tenure. But it’s far more likely LSU will hire a coach that can, at worst, meet the record of the past 4 1⁄4 seasons.
LSU is making the decision to go for the gold here. Of course there is risk involved. Nebraska hasn’t recovered from their pursuit of greatness in spite of goodness. But there’s risk in keeping the holding pattern too. Standing by Mack Brown and Phillip Fulmer undid Texas and Tennessee. Those schools watched as their talent bases eroded and drifted into cultural malaise from which both are still fighting to recover. The powers that be at LSU decided to cut that outcome off at the pass.
Frankly, they are probably right. LSU’s history is on their side.