There’s a faction in Baton Rouge and throughout LSU Nation that’s still dumping confetti following the party that broke out after Les Miles was fired last Sunday.
But those same voices celebrating Miles’ demise should worry about what comes next for a program entering uncertain territory after the coach went 114-34 over 12 years. LSU is at risk of chasing a ghost — surpassing Alabama in the SEC West — that might lead the program off a cliff.
After all, there’s no guarantee that what comes next for the Tigers will be better than what they left behind. Change can be soothing for a fan base that feels it should own a loftier position within college football’s pecking order. But booting a coach of Miles’ caliber – and parting from a vision that led to seven double-digit-win seasons, two SEC crowns, two appearances in the national championship game and one national title – might become a failed gamble that makes LSU less relevant.
We could look back on Miles’ firing and call it one of the dumbest moves in recent memory.
At its heart, the decision to oust Miles is a result of LSU not getting over Nick Saban leaving the program after the 2004 season and the ex-lover eventually turning the Crimson Tide into one of the sport’s best modern dynasties under the Tigers’ nose. It’s hard to imagine Miles being unemployed if Saban had built a monster in the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten or ACC.
Proximity as much as Saban’s production in Tuscaloosa led to Miles being canned. Alabama’s rise produced jealousy at LSU, which formed a directive for Miles – overtaking the Crimson Tide as the SEC West’s premier program – that the now-former Tigers coach couldn’t achieve. He was a victim of circumstance.
Now that Miles is gone, LSU must ask itself what it should be in the modern college football landscape, not what it aches to become.
The Tigers have a fine tradition, but they don’t have the historical prestige of Alabama, Notre Dame or Michigan. Before Saban, LSU slopped around with Mike Archer, Curley Hallman and Gerry DiNardo during a stretch from 1989 to 1999 in which the Tigers produced only three bowl berths and one season of at least 10 wins. LSU isn’t owed anything.
The Tigers aren’t entitled to a spot among the nation’s elite, and one of Miles’ greatest accomplishments in Baton Rouge was his ability to prolong the expectation of excellence that Saban began there. But because Saban romped through Miles’ division in recent years, LSU’s appearances in the Outback, Music City and Texas bowls looked terrible to some.
That brand of jealousy happens in other areas of life. Sometimes we find ourselves wanting another person’s house, their car, their job and their lifestyle. It’s human nature to peek around, look at something better and wonder, “Why not us?” It’s one of our greatest faults.
LSU isn’t the first program to turn greedy and chase dreams of something more. But there are cautionary tales.
Nebraska made a mistake firing Frank Solich in 2003, after the coach produced three double-digit-win seasons from 1999 to 2001. Miami hasn’t been relevant since firing Larry Coker, who led the Hurricanes to a national championship and at least 11 victories three times.
Sure, Miles had faults. The offense has underachieved with perhaps the best running back, Leonard Fournette, the school has ever seen. And the Tigers struggled to develop consistent quarterback play in recent years despite being smack in the middle of one of the country’s most fertile recruiting areas. Those problems, coupled with rough losses to Wisconsin and Auburn this year after all the preseason hype, were huge hits to the coach.
Yet it’s fair to wonder if the Saban years and the best of Miles’ time in Baton Rouge were more fleeting phenomena than accurate depictions of what LSU will be in the post-Miles era.
A new coach, whether it’s Ed Orgeron or someone else, must continue to chase Alabama. But the Tigers and the rest of the SEC West should realize their best chance to overtake the Crimson Tide consistently won’t happen until Saban leaves or retires. That ghost will remain, and the jealousy in Baton Rouge will stay as strong as ever.
For LSU fans, any confetti released with Miles gone should come with caution. There’s a fresh beginning, hope for grander gains in a new era has arrived and anything seems possible.
But there’s a possible dark side to changing course. LSU has gambled that what follows will be better than the consistency left behind, and only time will show if there will be more prosperity than pain.