'Mad Hatter' gets mileage from image

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Walking out of LSU's fan day on Saturday, a young boy smiled with a Les Miles signed football, his prize for the day.

He waited in line more than an hour to get it, and perhaps his proudest moment was when he finally got to the coach.

"I asked him how the grass tastes in there," the boy said, beaming at the joke he got to tell.

Miles probably heard that kind of humor dozens of times on this particular Saturday. He brought it upon himself on a November afternoon in 2010 when, during a tense moment in what would eventually be a 24-21 win over Alabama, TV cameras caught him reaching down and eating grass off the Tiger Stadium field.

It's now part of the Miles' mystique. He's no generic stuffed golf shirt with a headset and a head full of cliches roaming a college sideline. He's the guy in the sometimes ill-fitting baseball cap -- "The Mad Hatter" -- LSU's grass-chewing, trick-play calling, time-out forgetting, phrase-mangling, lovable character of a coach.

Miles embraces it. Heck, he'll even promote it.

Many, however make the mistake of thinking that's all there is to him.

"For the media, he'll have fun and be lighthearted," said senior offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk, who had the unique perspective of being a de-facto assistant coach while sitting out the 2011 season with a knee injury. "But when it comes time to practice, or to get down to it, he's all business."

And substance.

That was never more evident than Friday when Miles somberly announced that his most celebrated player, returning Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu, had been dismissed from the Tigers for violating team rules.

Since then, Miles has been lauded for taking a stand against the bad behavior of a star in an age when most expect top players to be coddled. For those who follow Miles, it was not that much of a surprise.

LSU has the second-highest graduation rate in the SEC behind only Vanderbilt. LSU's graduation rate has increased for five consecutive years under Miles.

He also wins on the field, going 75-18 with one national championship and last year's runner-up finish in his first seven seasons in Baton Rouge.

So laugh at his quirky ballcap all you want. The man gets the job done.

"He's more like Big Papa," defensive end Sam Montgomery said. "Out there on that field, he makes sure we get our stuff done and we're doing the right thing. If you don't run it, he's all about perfection. No mad hatter, it's all business.

"Instead of having a piece of grass in his mouth, he has a whistle. And he blows it."

Some complain that he he has blown some games, too.

They point to the Ole Miss game in 2010 and the clock management meltdown or the totally helpless way the undefeated Tigers went down in a 21-0 loss in the BCS championship game.

In those moments, the perception of quirkiness turns into a condemnation of ineptness. It's in those moments where being the Mad Hatter isn't what it's cracked up to be.

"I have to be real honest with you," Miles said as August camp began. "I don't like wearing this hat around, kind of like, 'Here I am, this hat guy.'"

His current players don't think he needs to apologize and neither do the players he's pursuing. Losing to Alabama has not seemed to bother LSU's recruiting. The Tigers indeed appear headed for another banner recruiting class.

They understand him. Dworaczyk says the fun side comes out at practice. The coach is not afraid to use levity to help a team get through a hot day of work or long meetings. He jokes, appreciates a good Miles impersonation and might poke fun back at his players.

But when it's time to leave the joking behind, Miles and his famous hat can give a visual cue.

"Whenever the hat comes down [closer to his eyes] a little bit and he kind of narrows his vision … we all know it's time to go, time to take on whatever opponent is unfortunate enough to be in front of us," Dworaczyk said.

When the bill gets lowered, the Mad Hatter disappears and it's time for Les Miles and his team to go to work.