For Les Miles and LSU, football means a return to normalcy

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana -- One night last week, after even more rain fell here and forced LSU's football team into its indoor practice facility, Tigers coach Les Miles sat in his office, nibbling on a burrito bowl while pondering a reporter's question.

Has a college football coach ever survived an attempted coup and come back even stronger?

As hard as Miles tried, he couldn't immediately remember an example. There were a few times in recent college football history when a group of boosters or an athletics director tried to overthrow a popular coach, but they've been few and far between. And two of the more-high profile instances in recent history had mixed results.

In November 2003, two days before Auburn played Alabama in the Iron Bowl, then-Auburn athletics director David Housel, university president William Walker and two trustees secretly interviewed Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about replacing Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville survived to guide his team to a perfect 13-0 record the next season and spent five more seasons coaching the Tigers.

Recently, after Texas was up and down under former coach Mack Brown from 2010 to 2012, two influential UT boosters contacted Nick Saban's agent, Jimmy Sexton, to inquire about the possibility of Saban coaching the Longhorns. Brown made it clear he didn't want to retire and returned, but lasted only one more season. He was forced out after the Longhorns finished 8-5.

Now, as Miles begins his 12th season at LSU with Saturday's opener against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field (3:30 ET, ABC), he finds himself in similar uncertainty.

It has been more than nine months since Miles survived a not-so-secret coup attempt that nearly cost him his job. With the Tigers mired in a three-game losing streak heading into their 2015 regular-season finale against Texas A&M, there were widespread media reports that a group of disgruntled and influential boosters were prepared to pay $15 million to fire him.

Only after the Tigers defeated the Aggies 19-7 at Tiger Stadium on Nov. 28 did someone in power at LSU finally end the speculation and say Miles was going to remain their coach. LSU president F. King Alexander informed Miles of the decision in the locker room immediately after the game, and then athletics director Joe Alleva broke the news during a postgame news conference.

"I think there are a lot of reasons for our play through that three-game stretch," Miles said. "I felt like I was in good shape."

The reports of his demise were so fast and furious during a two-week stretch before the Texas A&M game that he and his players weren't sure what was true. Miles, who has guided the Tigers to a 112-32 record, two SEC titles and the 2007 national championship, insists he didn't spend much time figuring out who was conspiring to oust him.

"Absolutely not," Miles said. "I didn't try to spend any time trying to figure it out. It wouldn't have done me any good anyhow. I want to enjoy the people I work with, and that's really the key piece. Did I hear rumors and innuendo? Sure, you betcha. But it doesn't do you any good."

Miles couldn't have known at the time that it was only the beginning of what would become an offseason of survival in Baton Rouge. When No. 5 LSU kicks off against the Badgers on Saturday, the Tigers and their fans will finally have reason to cheer. Perhaps no place in the country needs a joyful distraction more.

And the past couple of months showed LSU never needed its popular coach more.

"I signed every kid that's back there," Miles said. "I hired every coach. I'm at a place where the stadium fills up, and they believe the Tigers are fixing to kick somebody's behind, and I'm right there with them. The community and the state have provided great opportunities for my family and this is home. I have never -- not for a second -- thought any differently."

For the past two months, Baton Rouge has been at the center of the country's racial tension. On July 5, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was shot and killed while being held on the ground by two white police officers. Sterling's death sparked massive protests in Baton Rouge and other cities around the country.

On July 17, Gavin Long, a 29-year-old black man from Kansas City, ambushed police officers responding to a 911 call on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge, not far from Miles' home. Three officers were shot and killed and three others were seriously injured. Miles knew one of the slain officers, Montrell Jackson, a six-year veteran of the Baton Rouge Police Department.

"We could hear the sirens from our home," Miles said.

In the wake of the tragedies, Miles spoke out against violence. He talked to his players about the incidents and encouraged high school coaches across the state to do the same. Miles visited the families of slain and injured police officers, and urged his players to take a more active role in the community to help heal festering wounds.

During Baton Rouge's greatest time of need, the coach that at least a few LSU boosters no longer wanted took the lead in trying to unite his city.

"I didn't learn anything new about him because he's good at that stuff," Alleva said. "He's really good in the community and he's really good at stepping up when there are problems and distress. He did it before with Hurricane Katrina. I think he's been very helpful in helping soothe things over and making things better in Baton Rouge."

Tragically, even more heartache was yet to come. Earlier this month, the skies opened and more than 20 inches of rain fell on Baton Rouge and other parts of the state. According to meteorologists, the no-named storm dumped three times as much rain on Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Thirteen people were killed and more than 145,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the historic flooding.

East Baton Rouge Parish suffered devastating damage. The parents of a handful of LSU players were affected by flooding, and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger and his family lost their home. Longtime LSU radio announcer Jim Hawthorne and his wife had to be rescued from their house, and LSU athletics department personnel participated in other rescues. The Tigers also opened the Carl Maddox Field House, a track and field venue, as a shelter for displaced residents.

Miles won't allow himself to think about what might have happened if he had been coaching somewhere else. After 11 seasons at LSU, he knows the area as well as anyone and is part of its fabric. His four children attended high school in Baton Rouge. His oldest daughter, Kathryn, whom he still calls "Smacker," is a swimmer at the University of Texas. His oldest son, Manny, is a backup quarterback at North Carolina, and his youngest son, Ben, a senior fullback at Catholic High, has committed to play at Nebraska next season. His youngest daughter, Macy, is a star softball player.

"This place is home," Miles said. "My children were raised here. When they say they want to come home and see their friends, they'll come to Baton Rouge."

If a few LSU boosters had their way, though, Miles wouldn't be coaching the Tigers this season. A common worry among LSU fans: The Tigers are going to waste star tailback Leonard Fournette, much like the men's basketball team wasted forward Ben Simmons last season. Simmons was only the fourth No. 1 pick in the NBA draft who didn't play in the NCAA tournament. LSU fans can't imagine having Fournette for three seasons -- he's expected to enter the NFL draft as a junior after this season -- without winning an SEC championship.

"One player does not make a team," Alleva said. "There have been a lot of examples where there's a great player that has never won a championship. How many championships did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar win in the NBA until he hooked up with Magic Johnson?"

Last season proved that Fournette can't do it alone. The New Orleans native ran for nearly 2,000 yards in 12 games in 2015 and was considered a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. But as LSU's passing game floundered, defenses eventually found a way to slow him down. After leading the Tigers to a 7-0 record and No. 2 ranking in the College Football Playoff rankings, he averaged only 1.6 yards on 19 carries in a 30-16 loss at Alabama on Nov. 7. Then the Tigers lost their next two games, 31-14 to Arkansas and 38-17 to Ole Miss. It was the first time since 1966 that LSU lost three straight games by 10 points or more.

Alleva, who was lured to LSU from Duke in 2008, insists that he never came close to firing Miles, despite the Tigers' late-season collapse.

"My philosophy has always been to evaluate a program at the end of the season," Alleva said. "I said I would do that and nobody wanted to listen to me. I guess I could have said after we lost three games, 'He's our coach and he's staying.' But my deal has always been I'll tell you what's going to happen after the last game. I waited until the last game and said, 'He's our coach and he's staying.'"

But others close to the LSU program aren't so sure Miles wasn't on the chopping block. Alexander told reporters in December that he made the decision to keep Miles during a meeting with Alleva and members of the LSU Board of Supervisors at halftime of the Texas A&M game. Alexander said he didn't believe paying Miles a $15 million buyout -- as well as another $5 million to pay off his assistant coaches -- was a prudent move at a time when the university's overall operating budget was being drastically reduced by the state legislature.

Alleva admitted to reporters that he made inquiries about coaching candidates in case Miles was fired, but never directly contacted a potential successor. LSU's decision to keep Miles was made on the same day Jimbo Fisher announced he was staying at Florida State. Fisher, a former LSU assistant, was considered the No. 1 candidate to replace Miles if a change was made.

At least one former LSU assistant believed the university was working to oust Miles more than two years ago. Former Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis, now at Texas A&M, told Miles that LSU officials were treating him like former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who was fired after the 2008 season. Under a new provision added to LSU assistants' contracts, their deals won't be fully honored if Miles is fired or resigns.

"This kind of reminds me of Phillip Fulmer," Chavis told Miles in 2014, according to a deposition filed in LSU's ongoing civil lawsuit against Chavis. LSU is trying to make Chavis pay a $400,000 buyout for leaving for Texas A&M.

LSU's players aren't sure what would have happened if they hadn't beaten the Aggies to finish the regular season.

"Everybody in that locker room knew what we were playing for against Texas A&M and we wanted to go out there and do it for him," guard William Clapp said. "We really didn't know what the parameters were, but we knew we wanted to win to save his job or win to send him out right. We were going to win for him."

After beating the Aggies, the Tigers defeated Texas Tech 56-27 in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl to finish 9-3 (their Sept. 5 opener against FCS foe McNeese State was canceled because of lightning, which probably cost Miles an eighth 10-win season).

Nine months later, it's still unclear what the Tigers have to do this season for Miles to keep his job. His teams have averaged 10 wins per season and they've won nearly twice as many games against ranked opponents as they've lost (42-23 since 2005).

"He wins 10 or 11 games every year," center Ethan Pocic said. "I know it's a cutthroat business, but he's won a lot of ballgames."

Alleva, who says his relationship with Miles is better than ever before, is taking the same approach as last year: He'll evaluate his coach after the regular season. With 18 starters coming back, the Tigers are expected to challenge Alabama in the SEC West and compete for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff.

"Let's evaluate things: The guy wins about 80 percent of his games, he's a great recruiter, he's really good in the community, and the players really like playing for him," Alleva said. "The only knock on him from some places is the kind of offense he runs."

After last season's late collapse, Miles made several changes to his coaching staff. He hired former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to replace Kevin Steele, who left for Auburn. He also hired former Auburn co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig to coach receivers and former Louisiana Tech assistant Jabbar Juluke to coach running backs.

Miles retained offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was heavily criticized after LSU ranked 12th in the SEC in passing (180.4 yards per game) in 2015. The Tigers are banking on junior Brandon Harris being much better in his second season as a starter; he completed 53.7 percent of his passes for 2,165 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions last season.

"It's not just about the quarterback," Alleva said. "It's about play selection and having confidence in your quarterback. Two years ago, when we had Zach Mettenberger, we threw the ball all over the place. It's not the fact that Les won't throw the ball, but you have to try to put your kids in positions where they can succeed and not ask too much of them."

The other knock on Miles: He can't beat Alabama. The Tigers have dropped five consecutive games to the Crimson Tide, who are coached by Saban, who spent five seasons at LSU and guided the Tigers to the 2003 national title. The Tigers are 5-7 against Alabama under Miles, and haven't won a game in the series since a 9-6 overtime victory in 2011. Alabama won the rematch that season, 21-0 in the BCS National Championship.

Miles' predicament is similar to the one former LSU coach Charlie McClendon faced in the 1960s and 1970s. McClendon had a 137-59-7 record as LSU's coach from 1962 to 1979, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986. But his teams had a 2-14 record against Alabama, which was coached by Paul "Bear" Bryant.

"Charlie Mac got run out of town here because he couldn't beat Bear Bryant," Alleva said. "Well, nobody beat Bear Bryant. I'm not saying no one beats Nick Saban, but right now he really has things going well."

Miles won't have to worry about Alabama until Nov. 5, when the Crimson Tide come to Tiger Stadium. The first two months of the season will dictate how big that game will be.

"I think Les has changed," Alleva said. "I think we all have, to be honest. I think last November was a good wake-up call for everybody, not just him and me. I think it made everybody better. I think our players have a little chip on their shoulders, and I think everyone is really looking forward to this season."