LSU's Mythical Mad Hatter: Les Miles' Journey from Lucky Loser to Legendary

Henry BallSenior Analyst IOctober 29, 2011

Les Miles, getting last laugh?
Les Miles, getting last laugh?Stacy Revere/Getty Images

They say perception is reality, and maybe they are right, but apparently reality changes.

Not so long ago, LSU head coach Les Miles was dubbed the "Mad Hatter" by the national media, as much for his seemingly odd adornment of the traditional white coaching cap as for some of his "quirks."

To some—including many LSU fans—this was not a term of endearment as much as a description of the often ill-quoted, grass eating, Swatch watch-challenged, shadow-of-his-predecessor coach that happened to win some big games with inexplicable—if not lucky—play calling.

There were many methods used, by those detractors, to explain the success of "Lucky Les."

First he "won with" Nick Saban’s recruits—which could be argued in reverse since Saban’s 2004 defending national championship team limped to a 9-3 record with several lackluster performances and a disappointing loss to Iowa in the Capital One Bowl.

With virtually that same team in 2005, on the heels of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Miles energized a storm-devastated state and led the Tigers in a Herculean (and humanitarian) football campaign that netted 11 wins, an SEC West title and a 40-3 drubbing of No. 9 Miami in the Peach Bowl.

Yet over 75 percent of the starters on the 2007 team were recruited by Miles and his staff, capping the best three-year stretch in LSU history by going 35-6 with two West Division Crowns and 3-0 in bowl games, including two BCS victories and a national title.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Once "Nick Saban’s recruits" passed from the scene and LSU experienced no drop in talent level, the mantra became "Miles can’t develop talent" (especially at quarterback), which really seemed etched into the detractors’ minds as LSU experienced a complete rebuilding of the offensive line and QB position after attrition, a down year in recruiting due to Saban’s late departure in 2004 and the dismissal of veteran QB Ryan Perilloux prior to the 2008 campaign.

The emergence and overachievement of former 2- and 3-star recruits such as Jacob Hester, Brandon LaFell and Tyrann Mathieu along with a perusal of NFL rosters directly counters this argument, so… 

"He can’t manage the clock" became the favorite critique after the "debacles" at Ole Miss in 2009 and against Tennessee in 2010. 

What might have been justified criticism in a couple of cases was extended to other games using revisionist history, such as people claiming one of the best end-of-game play calls in modern history, vs. Auburn in 2007, which helped propel LSU to a national championship that year, was labeled as just some fortunate happenstance that went in Ole Lucky Les’ favor.

One might also wonder, if Les struggles so mightily with clock management, why was LSU virtually the only team in college football that never got penalized back in 2006, when the NCAA went to a running clock during possession changes? 

For that matter, where are those deficiencies in 2011? (The Maryland Terrapins and a future article might answer that question.)

Along with these critiques there were the "undisciplined," "no intensity" and "poor attitude" charges, the "Miles always plays seniority over talent" myth and the countless other "Miles will never beat this coach or that team" warnings from media, foe and fan alike.

Through it all, Les kept his hat on straight (and high) and brought in player after player and coach after coach that bought into Miles the coach, and Miles the man.

Now LSU is preparing for a game on Nov. 5 that has been described as everything from a de facto national championship game to the final day of judgment for all mankind.

It’s not likely that the fall of human civilization is actually at stake next Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but the dominion of the college football world certainly is.

If Alabama wins, as they are being picked to do by Las Vegas and a lot of the national media, then Nick Saban—the stick by which Les Miles (and all others) has constantly been measured—retains his title as King of College Football.

Saban will have his Crimson Tide at 9-0, poised to win the team's third SEC title and second BCS National Championship during his tenure—and his third BCS title as a head coach. 

He will have the advantage in the head-to-head record against Miles, and frankly, with the recurring No. 1 (or close to it) recruiting classes at Alabama, it’ll be hard—if not impossible—to dethrone him anytime soon.

On the other hand, if Les Miles takes a team completely of his own making, that plays his style of football—downhill, at-your-heart, power-running football with vicious and tenacious defense and a touch of "Beamer ball"—into the belly of the beast, Bryant-Denny Stadium, and leaves that hostile environment with LSU’s ninth win...Well, then he, not the Diminutive Dominator, will emerge as the Sovereign of Saturdays, King of the Gridiron, Ruler of All College Football.

Like a dog and its bone, the Honey Badger wants the ball
Like a dog and its bone, the Honey Badger wants the ballKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In fact, Les Miles already has a strong case for national Coach of the Year honors when you consider the adversity the coach and his team has had to endure to this point.

Shortly after the Michigan loyalty test, which may have been another case of arrogant disrespect, Round 2 played out—Miles endured the loss of a family member in a tragic accident. 

The offseason then saw the conclusion of an on-going NCAA investigation, which the NCAA lauded LSU’s compliance office and Les Miles for their work in uncovering and then dealing with a former coach and a serious recruiting violation. Yet, despite the praise of the NCAA, LSU was placed on probation, even though its own self-imposed penalties were reduced.

On the heels of the NCAA’s decision, questions came up concerning LSU’s relationship with former street agent Willie Lyles when it came to light that Oregon may have overpaid and even requested bogus material to induce Lyles to help the Ducks land Lache Seastrunk, Darron Thomas and other recruits.

During that investigation, it was allegedly learned that junior wide receiver Russell Shepard discussed the investigation with a teammate, and he was suspended for the first three games of the season.

When the Tigers reported for fall camp, the team learned that new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

When the Tigers completed fall camp, the team learned that bending the rules can have dire consequences, and LSU would be forced to start the season without senior starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson.

Despite all these distractions, Les Miles led the Tigers to a very impressive 7-0 start, which included the dismantling of each of its opponents, including four ranked teams and the then-No. 3 Oregon Ducks.

Miles seemed to have the Bayou Bengals on cruise control, heading for the Nov. 5 showdown with what could only be described as a violent running attack led by sophomore running back Spencer Ware and an electrifying (as in execution-style) defense that seemed to get its heart and electricity from ferocious and tenacious cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, known simply as the "Honey Badger." 

Yet, just to make sure we were all paying attention, Ware, Mathieu and Mathieu's backup, Tharold Simon, got themselves suspended, and LSU had to face its fifth-ranked opponent, SEC rival and the defending national champion—Auburn—without their services.

Miles turned to a utility tailback, true freshman Kenny Hilliard—who looked a lot like Ware with a hair cut—and third-string defensive back Ron Brooks to step up and fill in for the lost starters.

The results were Hilliard’s first two career touchdowns, a Brooks forced fumble, a tackle-and-a-half for loss, a pick-six to turn in the best Honey Badger impersonation since the beginning of Honey Badger impersonations, the complete annihilation of No. 23 Auburn (45-10) and a No. 1 ranking in all the major polls.

So here we are—one for the ages, for all the marbles, for no less than the rise and fall of collegiate empires.

Les Miles has the unique opportunity to step out of the shadow of his predecessor once and for all, and at the same time, he can claim dominance over the modern age of college football’s most prolific coach.

Les Miles is already known as the Man and the Myth; after "The Fifth of November," Les Miles "The Legend" will never be forgotten!

LSU 31, 'Bama 13


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.