A Matter of Perception: Why Many See Nick Saban as a Better Coach Than Les Miles

PaulCorrespondent IJuly 18, 2009

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 08:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide watches his team warm up before playing the Louisiana State University Tigers on November 11, 2008 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It is generally accepted that both Saban and Miles are among the best head coaches in the nation.  Each in his own way has proven he can recruit, motivate and develop quality young athletes as well as win football games.  The question arises why, despite Miles' success, Saban is thought by many to be the superior coach?    

First a little background.  Both came on to the national scene at LSU.  Prior to arriving in Baton Rouge both were reasonably successful at what one might consider the second school in their state; Saban at Michigan State and Miles at Oklahoma State.

Ironically, while at Michigan State, Saban lost the 1995 Independence Bowl 45-26 to the man he was to replace, LSU's Gerry DiNardo.

In 2000 Saban took over a program that had gone through a decade of mediocrity.  Each season, except for his last in 2004, the team exceeded pre-season expectations. 

In his first season, the Tigers were 9-4/5-3, including a Peach Bowl win over No. 15 Georgia Tech.  Bear in mind, the previous year LSU was 3-8/1-7.  

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He followed this up in 2001 with a 10-3/5-3 record, including a victory over heavily favored No. 2 ranked Tennessee in the SECCG, thus winning LSU’s first SEC championship since 1988.  He then led the Tigers to a 47-34 victory over Big 10 champion Illinois in the Sugar Bowl.

Two years later, the Tigers are 13-1/7-1 and beat the team of the century for 2003, Oklahoma, in the BCSCG.  There is a general perception that LSU is a program on the rise. 

A clear indication of how far the program had progressed is when LSU’s 2004 record 9-3/6-2, is considered by many a disappointment.  This is especially true when one considers LSU was only out of one game, a 45-16 loss to Georgia.

The other two losses were against undefeated Auburn because of a controversial call resulting in a extra point rekick at the end of the game and a last-play TD pass by Iowa in the Capital One Bowl. 

The Tigers did this well despite not having a reliable everyday QB.  Following the 2004 season, Saban left for the NFL, which is considered by everyone a step up. 

After two mediocre at best years with the Dolphins Saban took the reins of another struggling program, Alabama. 

After two seasons it seems he is on his way to nursing the Tide back to health.  To be fair it must be pointed out that his predecessor, Mike Shula had endured the unenviable job of Alabama head coach during the probation years.

Saban was brought in at the end of this period and did not have to deal with NCAA-imposed restrictions.

Miles took over a program loaded with future No. 1 draft picks in 2005.  He had the misfortune of having to deal with Hurricane Katrina his first year.

Otherwise, there is a good chance LSU ends the season ala 2004 Auburn, undefeated but at home watching others (TX - USCw) play for the national championship.

Despite all the problems, LSU goes 11-2/7-1 with a disappointing loss to Georgia in the SECCG followed by crushing favored No. 9 Miami in the Peach Bowl.

The next year, 2006, what is arguably his most talented team doesn't even play for the SEC championship.  Despite having three No. 1 draft picks on offense the Tigers manage to score only a field goal against a very good, but not great, Auburn team.

Later in the year, LSU somehow manages to give up five turnovers in a loss to underdog Florida.  Miles wins beats a very good Tennessee team in the SECCG and wins national championship in his third year, 2007, by convincingly beating Big 10 champion, Ohio State 39-24.

All this is accomplished while dealing with the media frenzy about his taking the head coaching position at Michigan.  Instead of being given due credit of his success, Miles is tagged with, “he won with Saban’s players.”

The fact that Urban Meyer won his first and Bob Stoops and Jim Tressel won their only national championships at Florida, Oklahoma, and Ohio State respectively in their second year using primarily players recruited by their predecessor is conveniently ignored. 

2008 was big for establishing the perceived abilities of the two coaches.  Saban followed a mediocre 2007 at Alabama 7-6/4-4, including a 21-14 home loss to ULM, with a 12-0/8-0 regular season in 2008.

Unfortunately, for the Tide the clock struck midnight at the end of the regular season.  Bama ended with with consecutive losses to Florida in the SECCG and a shocking 31-17 thrashing by heavy underdog Utah in the Sugar Bowl. 

An interesting side note that while many blamed 2007 on Shula, few if any bothered to point out that in 2008 the Tide rolled largely with Shula’s players.

Meanwhile, Miles, coming off of a national championship, struggles to an 8-5/3-5 record.  This is the worst follow-up season for any reigning BCS champion. 

Granted, the Tigers had QB problems.  Still there is no rationalizing away the poor defendse (by recent LSU standards). 

The one area in which Miles has bested Saban is in post-season play.  While at LSU Saban was 2-0 in SECCGs, 1-0 in BCSCGs, and 2-2 in other Bowls. 

If his record at Alabama is included, Saban is 2-1 in SECCGs, 1-0 in BCSCGs and 3-3 in other bowls.  Miles is 1-1 in SECCGs, 1-0 in BCSCGs, and 3-0 in other bowls.

Probably the comparison of the two men can be summed up in one sentence:

In most years Saban's teams have seemed to exceed pre-season expectations, while Miles' teams have underacheived.

For both Miles and Saban, 2009 is critical and could go a long way in establishing dominance in the SEC west.  Both have teams loaded with talent, but have holes to fill and questions to answer. 

Will the changes in his coaching staff enable Miles to put the Tigers back in the hunt for championships?  Or has Saban awakened another sleeping giant?   Circle Nov. 14 on your calendars and stay tuned.    

(Before any Arkansas or Ole Miss folks comment, please bear in mind the article is a comparison between Saban of Alabama and Miles of LSU.  Thus the summary pertains to them.)


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