They carried the dead-coach-walking off the field like a king, an action that was as symbolic as it was powerful. As they lifted this living, breathing trophy to the sky—a man who looked defeated and demoralized just hours earlier—the chants rained down.
“Les Miles,” Tiger Stadium yelled following LSU’s sloppy 19-7 win over Texas A&M on Saturday. That victory didn’t matter at the moment. Neither did the losses or the jumbled expectations, for that matter.
At the moment, as Miles was grabbed by his players, all that mattered was the LSU fight song and each other. Together they sang, and suddenly everything felt different. A strange and turbulent week drifted away.
After the game, something strange happened. LSU announced, in a surprise, that it was keeping its successful head coach around a little while longer.
"I want to make it very clear that Les Miles is our football coach and will continue to be our football coach," LSU athletic director athletic Joe Alleva told reporters following the win.
Consider the week that was. Media outlets, including this one, lined up to discuss Miles’ impending firing or “resignation” at LSU almost hourly. The leaks within the program were loud and clear.
The response from LSU denying these rumors—something the school could have provided a week ago had it wished to do so—was nonexistent. For all intents and purposes, this was happening.
So things snowballed. Talks of Miles’ removal, as strange as they seemed even at the onset, evolved into something more as additional outlets and “sources” chimed in. By the time Thanksgiving arrived, it seemed like Miles’ departure was a foregone conclusion.
Still, the coach refused to give in. He took the high road throughout. Finally, once the final game had been decided and the news had been released, Miles uncorked a moment of honesty.
“There's probably a guy or two I'd like to meet in an alley and have a little straight-talk with," Miles told reporters after the game, the furthest he would allow his frustration to go. "But I'm not built that way.”
According to ESPN's Joe Schad, “pressure” and “sentiment” were key factors in LSU's decision to keep Miles.
Perhaps even more perplexing is the fact that LSU, according to Schad once again, made the final decision to retain Miles in the third quarter of a meaningless game.
Decision to retain Les Miles was made in meeting of LSU decision makers during 3rd quarter of tonight’s game, per source— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) November 29, 2015
As strange as this seems—and goodness, think about this sequence of events for a moment—it makes quite a bit of sense. Watching the game live, you could feel it. There was an energy, some sort of new coach elixir, in the air.
Miles’ introduction to the crowd was an event that captured the full applause of the stadium. It was passed around through social media. As LSU took control of a contest that tumbled along, it built up a bit more.
By the time the clock had drained and those in the stands poured their hearts and souls into the air, and the players grabbed their head coach like they had just clinched a College Football Playoff berth, it all made sense.
Earlier in the week, I spoke with former LSU running back Jacob Hester. Although Hester is years removed from the program, he has stayed close with Miles. Through his time in the NFL and now his new life covering the LSU football team, Hester has always held a special place for Miles in his heart. So much so that the former player plans to give his next-born son the middle name “Miles.”
“To me Coach Miles is another father figure in my life,” Hester said. “I’m many years removed from LSU, and he knows my wife’s name, my kids’ names, my brother’s name, my mom and dad, and he asks how those people are doing every time I see him. He was the first person that called me when I got drafted. He was the first person to call me when I was released.”
Hester, having spoken to more than 10 players over the past week, still couldn’t process the possibility of Miles leaving now. Neither could many others he spoke with, including former LSU quarterback Matt Flynn and former safety Craig Steltz—two fixtures of successful eras.
This, in some ways, was personal for them. It would be different if Miles had bottomed out in Baton Rouge, although that wasn’t the case. While the program has fallen short of matching incredible expectations—expectations that the coach himself helped create—there were still plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
And above all, there was Les. The personal side to this unexpected revival cannot be overstated.
Former LSU lineman T-Bob Hebert shared a similar sentiment. When asked about the possibility of Miles being removed last week, with rumors swirling, Hebert reflected on his relationship with the head coach.
“I got a DWI during my time in college, and he wasn’t coddling,” Herbert said. “He punished me and rightfully so. He made me realized that the punishment was needed in order to avoid making the same mistakes. It was not a lovey-dovey relationship, but he was very positive in my life. I have no regrets about going to LSU and playing for Les Miles.”
There are hundreds of these stories—former players with wonderful individual anecdotes about a head coach with a big heart and big eccentrics.
Over time, Miles has accumulated plenty of good faith with his players. And yes, despite the fact that he has been unable to win more than one national championship, fans share a similar relationship with the head coach. In many ways, this extends to the media as well.
Rarely does an emotional attachment get in the way of business, but this was different. What became clear from the onset of this strange, twisting journey was that the money behind the program—the boosters tired of losing to Nick Saban—wanted something new. Others, many, many others, felt otherwise.
Perhaps that something (or someone) new was Jimbo Fisher. Maybe over the course of the last 48 hours, it was someone else. No one will ever know exactly what went on behind the curtain at LSU to prompt the apparent change of heart, but we now know the immediate, end result.
The coach who has won 111 of his last 143 games gets to keep his job. The coach with the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, as rated by 247Sports, will have an opportunity to keep this class together, as it was on the verge of falling apart.
Had Fisher said yes to LSU’s alleged interest, perhaps this would be different. Had LSU lost an ugly game in ugly fashion Saturday night—and for the majority of the game it felt like it was coming—perhaps the administration would have found a window to make a change.
Firing a head coach normally comes somewhat easy. That’s not to say it’s ever easy on a personal level, but more times than not we know when it’s coming. You can sense it. This, however, was different. It came from nowhere and grew from nowhere.
And then, without an ounce of warning, momentum in Miles’ favor bubbled over as the coach graced the sideline. Business, for once, was outdone by something else—a movement that is hard to define.
After Miles was left drifting in the middle of the ocean without a life jacket, LSU was suddenly backed into a corner. Having seemingly lost the battle internally and with PR, it altered course.
Alive and well, Miles will have the opportunity to right the ship that many assumed was broken beyond repair. Having come so close to a different result—a life on television or a different city entirely—LSU’s head coach, having been carried by his young team that will be expected to win bigger for him next year, will entertain us at least awhile longer.
Following the game, Miles was asked little about the ugly football contest that might have saved his job. But when asked about the feeling of being carried off the field by his players—players who will carry with them magnificent stories of their head coach for decades—he found his stride once more.
“When you’re sitting up there, I know now what it’s like to ride an elephant,” Miles said in his press conference. “It scares you to death, and you pray you can hang on to the ears, because there’s not much to hang on to. I was thrilled. I was touched.”
It’s good, again, to be king.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.