Quick End For The Mad Hatter

Rick Sarro Friday, October 21, 2016 Comments Off on Quick End For The Mad Hatter
Quick End For The Mad Hatter

Just maybe those blades of grass inside Tiger Stadium have a special flavor.

I wouldn’t have thought that until Les Miles plucked a few and gave them a chew.

The hat always seemed too small, but he didn’t seem to mind. And there were the odd hand claps when he was cheering on the team. There was his unique use of the English language, which Daniel Webster would have had a difficult time figuring out.

There was the way he over-enunciated the word “quality” when he described anything about football or his adopted home state of Louisiana.

And how can you forget his memorable line … “Have a nice day”?

I can’t help but chuckle when I think of that fake field goal against Steve Spurrier. Or cringe over the many time management malfunctions.

Somebody please buy a copy of Les’ The Complete Book of Clock Management, authored by the late Homer Smith, a renowned college and NFL offensive coordinator and time clock savant.

There are fun and quirky memories of Miles. But unfortunately they are buried in the misery of the four games the Tigers played over the course of September. A preseason Top 5 ranking turned into a 2-2 start and a fall from the national rankings and out of contention for college football’s playoffs.

Everyone knew where this season was headed. It was there for all to see in living, high def, big screen color.

Among those who knew were LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, members of the administration and probably every well-heeled, influential, power broker purple and gold donor. They didn’t like what they saw coming out of the gates. And that distaste grew exponentially after the chaotic 18-13 loss at Auburn.

Alleva and the same cast that failed in their attempt to fire Miles last November succeeded this time around, informing the Mad Hatter the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 25, that his 11-plus years as the Tigers’ head coach were over.

Miles’ good friend and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was also sent packing.

Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was named interim head coach; tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, a former Tigers quarterback, assumed the role of offensive coordinator.

All the game day trials and tribulations that have dogged Miles for most of his years at LSU, but that he was able to sidestep by pulling out last-second victories, finally caught up with him on the plains of Auburn.

It was an LSU offense devoid of creativity or even a whiff of anything resembling a game plan from this century. The Tigers’ quarterback lacked either the talent or coaching he needed to establish a passable passing attack that would help keep a defense honest. There was unimaginative play calling that a rookie PS 4 X Box gamer could defend against with ease. And of course, there was the bugaboo Miles just could not shake … horrendous time management.

I was in the camp of those who wanted to retain Miles last year. I was swayed mostly by how badly Alleva and the LSU brass mishandled the entire affair. The obvious media leaks.  The denials and back room dealings. It was messy, political and put LSU in an unseemly light.

Miles would have been fired if negotiations and talks with Florida State head coach and former LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher hadn’t broken down in the 11th hour.

He deserved better treatment and a longer leash. But his reprieve had to come with strings. This was no different from any other Louisiana deal, whether in business, politics and, yes, football.

Miles had to agree to modernize the offense. He’d have to allow Cameron to truly balance Miles’ beloved running game with the pass, and maybe tinker with motion, use of the tight ends and a more complex route tree for his talented and underused receivers.

Miles never came out and said it, but he intimated offensive changes that would be on the drawing board for spring and fall preseason camps.

If anything got on the boards, it didn’t make it to the field by the time LSU opened with a crushing loss to unranked Wisconsin at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

Week 2 was more of the same. It was a quick three downs and out against FCS opponent Jacksonville State. The offense was so woeful that Miles relented and replaced starting quarterback Brandon Harris with back-up Danny Etling.

The Tigers regrouped to beat Jacksonville State and escaped with a lackluster three point win over Mississippi State in week 3. And then it was time for another Auburn adventure in calamity.

A little under 3 minutes and two time-outs were what remained for a game saving drive. There were panic throws by Etling coupled with gutsy first-down scrambles by the sophomore quarterback. The receivers couldn’t get out of bounds to save time.

Tick-tock went the game clock. The Tigers’ offense and the sideline coaches showed no sense of urgency to line up as they squandered valuable time: time they could have used with a game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone to D.J. Chark.

But those precious seconds were lost a few plays before the pass would have been possible. There was no more time left for any more Miles miracles.

This offense was bogged down with the mediocrity of quarterback Brandon Harris and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron from the start.

Etling is an upgrade at quarterback. But a disturbing trend was clearly evident. The offense still lacked diversity; was easy to defend against; and had little to no scoring punch in the second half. In fact, the offense has failed to score in the fourth quarter of every game so far.

There were more facts and figures that weighed against Miles: a record of 12-10 over the last 22 games versus Power Five teams; a 4-5 overall record going back to the end of last season.  The SEC record has gotten worse every year since 2012. And throw in six straight losses to rival Alabama since that National Championship game in 2011.

Only four games into 2016, this putrid offense ranks 119th out of 128 FBS schools in passing yards, 111th in total offense and 110th in scoring offense. How can that be — when you have Leonard Fournette, the best running back in all of college football, on your roster?

Miles’ stubbornness and love of the five yards and a cloud of dust offensive mindset was still his game plan, and he had no real intention of changing.

In all honesty, he sealed his own fate in August camp when he had the time to install a new offense but failed to really do it. Once the season began, despite the change in quarterbacks, it was too late to really expect a massive offensive overhaul to be successful.

The fan base, and in particular Alleva, could have been satisfied with a dash of motion, a pinch of deception and an attempt at spreading out the defense. It’s an offensive recipe that’s simply not in Miles’ repertoire.

You have to admire the man for many things in particular — his strong belief in himself, his system and the style of football he knows and loves.

This time around, I changed camps and agreed with the firing.

Yes, I know Miles continually recruits the nation’s Top 5 class. I know his players love, respect and play hard for him. Miles won a third national championship for the program, and his career record of 114-34 and his 77 winning percentage are the best in LSU history. He is a beloved and respected leader in the community and university.

But Miles should have attracted and signed the best of Louisiana’s rich talent pool. I could make a case that Miles should have at least two more national titles with the teams he’s had. His disdain for a new offensive attack kept the great stars that were at his disposal under-used and under-developed.

Over his nearly 12-year tenure, how in the world has LSU not had at least a Top 10 air attack?

Look at the receivers who have passed through Tiger Stadium: Odell Beckham, Jr., Reuben Randall, Jarvis Landry and Michael Clayton, to name the best of the many.

The problem hasn’t been putting talented receivers on the field. The one glaring and obvious void at LSU has been scouting, evaluating, recruiting and developing an SEC-caliber quarterback to throw the damn ball.

It boggles my mind, given the depth of talent at any and all other positions, that Miles and his staff failed to attract and sign a four-star, elite quarterback. Zach Mettenburger doesn’t count because he fell in their laps after transferring from Georgia.

How did Ohio State’s Urban Meyer end up with two starting quarterbacks in J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones two years ago? More recently, how did Houston find Greg Ward or Louisville coach Bobby Petrino sign Heisman Trophy candidate Lamar Jackson out of Boyton Beach Florida? Or better yet, why didn’t former Texas Tech walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield transfer to LSU instead of Oklahoma?

I’m not the only one asking these questions.

In the end, it was Miles’ Achilles heel. His blind spot. His undoing.

That Sunday afternoon, the players and staff were summoned to a special meeting, where Miles, Alleva and Orgeron spoke to over 100 players.

Tears were shed. Emotions ran high. The Advocate newspaper quoted sources that said Miles took the decision “well.”

In his prepared statement, Alleva said, “decisions like this are never easy ones to make.

“Coach Miles has done a tremendous job here, and he’s been a great ambassador for our University, which makes this even more difficult. However, it’s apparent in evaluating the program through the first month of the season that a change has to be made. Our commitment to excellence and competing at the highest level is unwavering, and our goals for the remainder of this season haven’t changed.

“We have an obligation to our student-athletes to put them in the best position to have success on the football field each week, and we have great confidence that coach Orgeron will do just that.”

The 55-year-old Orgeron, whose two sons — quarterback Cody and receiver Parker — signed with McNeese State earlier this year, was head coach at Ole Miss from 2005 to ‘07. He was promoted to interim head coach at USC after Lane Kiffin was fired. The LaRose, La., native led the Trojans to a 6-2 record in 2013, and was admired by the players, who wanted him named head coach. But the job went to Steve Sarkansian instead.

Alleva and LSU president F. King Alexander didn’t seem to blink at the prospect of buying out Miles’ contract for a reported $12.9 million. That figure may be trimmed some by what the 62-year-old Miles has already been paid of his $4.3 million-dollar annual salary.

No school — FBS, Power 5 or whoever — has a bottomless money well to draw from. But no doubt LSU has enough to make this change now, and deal with all the buy-outs of Miles, Cameron and possibly an incoming coach.

It’s best for LSU to clear out the big office now and take the rest of the season to work the phones; begin courting coaching candidates; and laying some ground work with their respective agents.

If LSU had waited till the end of the season, the time frame would be tight, chaotic and competitive, with other schools in the market for a big-name head coach, — possibly Auburn (did Gus Malzahn save his job with the LSU win?), Southern Cal and Texas.

Any head coach’s search, even for a plum job at LSU, can get dicey. Everyone from Alleva to Alexander, million-dollar donors and the governor will have an opinion. It will be followed closely by local, regional and national media, so the process must be handled with professional care.

The Tigers’ short list of candidates should start with Houston head coach Tom Herman. He’s young (41), energetic, innovative, media savvy (a former sports talk radio host) and offensive-minded (former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach under Meyer at Ohio State). He’s about to usher in the Cougars as the newest member of the Big 12 conference and is the hottest name out there.

Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio is worthy of consideration. LSU did pretty darn good with the last Michigan State head coach they hired 15 years ago — that being one Nick Saban.

Alleva can stay with the SEC West for three top-flight candidates in Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, Miss State’s Dan Mullen and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

The 41-year-old Kiffin has heavy baggage from his days as head coach at USC, Tennessee and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. At first glance, he doesn’t seem like a good fit for LSU or possesses a good enough resume. But it’s hard to ignore what he’s done for Saban in Tuscaloosa.

Let me plead for LSU Facebookers, Tweeters, amateur bloggers and social media circus barkers to realize that former Super Bowl-winning coach and TV guru Jon Gruden is not leaving ESPN. Jack Del Rio is not leaving the Oakland Raiders. And for the sake of all humanity, give up on Saban ever leaving Alabama for a triumphant return to Death Valley.

Back in August, many predicted this LSU team was destined to be one of the final four still standing and in college football’s play-offs; yes, possibly ahead of defending national champion Alabama as the SEC champs — or at least across the play-off bracket from the Crimson Tide.

But then the season began, and it felt like the Tigers were wallowing in the depressing “Green Day” song … “As my memory rests but never forgets what I lost. Wake me up when September ends.”

September has finally ended for LSU, and with it the Les Miles era.

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