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Not even Les Miles could beat time forever

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The coach and his school were perfect for each other, literally until the last second.

Texas A&M v LSU Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

1. Les Miles was fired from his job as LSU football coach this weekend. Getting fired four games into a season would only seem premature if time ever mattered to Miles, but it rarely did. Miles ran out of time, added time to games, forced others to work against it, and sometimes just melted the clock completely.

A one-score LSU game in the last three minutes could accelerate from full-on torpor to electric insanity, mostly because of his belief that a football game can sometimes be a little longer than 60 minutes if he needed it to be. You called people, tweeted at them, and yelled in all-caps when LSU ran shit down to the wire.

Miles at the wheel meant you were guaranteed 58 minutes of reliable, red-meat, Big Ten football. It also meant you got two minutes of off-the-rails Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride banditry that LSU might or might not survive.

2. Take the 2007 Auburn game. Trailing 24-23 in Death Valley, LSU has one timeout and is letting the clock bleed because they have the ball on the Auburn 23 and are probably playing for a field goal. That’s the safe thing: kick a field goal, take the win at home, and NOPE, nope, no that is not what LSU did at all.

Against every bit of game management sense, LSU’s Matt Flynn hit wide receiver Demetrius Byrd for a TD to win. Miles pointed out to potential critics after the game that this was fine, because it left one second on the clock, a second that could have burned off with Flynn scrambling for a second, sure, or if the clock operator had twitched and started things a fraction of a second earlier, or if team hadn’t lined up exactly at the correct pace. But Les thought he had enough time.

LSU won and would go on to a national title, largely because Miles decided to be fine with having one damn second left on the clock when other coaches would have been strangling assistants to get a timeout called.

It was insane, negligent, or courageous, or all three.

3. Anyway, LSU had to fire him now. He’d been cornered before by people at the university, the state government, and Louisiana powerbrokers bent on ditching him. In 2015, after one such attempt, he gave a press conference with a lot of those people in the same room, a day after a 19-7 win over Texas A&M in which Miles received a hero’s welcome. For one day, at least, Miles vetoed them single-handedly. For a day, he was the governor of the state and got to have his athletic director and a lot of other people who wanted him gone sit and listen to him talk about how happy he was to stay.

People in power also do not like to be embarrassed. There were and are completely legitimate reasons for Miles’ firing. LSU had lost five straight games to Alabama, its closest rival in terms of talent and national stature and its natural roadblock in the SEC West.

Despite sending 67 drafted players to the NFL, LSU had just two SEC titles in Miles’ tenure, with the last coming in 2011. LSU brought in jaw-dropping talent year after year, and yet found more and more elaborate, depressing ways to squander it.

The Tigers offenses in particular were brutal, and the success of LSU offensive prospects like Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry made the contrast between their talent and their production even more glaring: If you’re so good, what the hell did they have you doing down there, dude?

The last three years of bowl destinations trace the slow, but still profitable, decline as well as anything else: Outback, Music City, Texas.

4. But don’t think for a second Miles was fired in Week 4 solely for his record. LSU’s administration had to bag him on a slow Sunday afternoon before Les got even the slightest bit of momentum behind a comeback campaign. It happened in 2015, when a late flurry of sentiment and political whiplash saved Miles’ job.

Miles could have crawled into the air ducts, hidden in the stadium, or gotten in with Mike in the tiger exhibit and swam happily in his pool each morning until reinstated. The people could have rallied, given enough time and heroics, and that possibility had to be eliminated.

That was possible, mind you, but not likely. These are the dreary facts: A 2-2 LSU team with an injured-but-still-game running back, no semblance of a passing game, and a pretty good defense lost a one-point game to SEC West rival Auburn. The fear was that they would keep losing that game forever, fall further behind Alabama, and sink into mediocrity.

5. A lot of this comes back to LSU having no clue how to develop or keep a quarterback.

That was largely on Miles, an adherent of the run game, defense, and the occasional special teams escapade who won a national title with Flynn, got to another title game with something called “Jordan Jefferson/Jarrett Lee,” and then spent the better part of a half-decade sifting through transfers and busted talent. At one point in 2008, with the rest of the team stacked with NFL draft picks and blue-chip talent, Miles started a transfer from Harvard at quarterback for three games. That guy eventually transferred back to Harvard.

That’s really it. I can’t summarize this any better than: “Miles started a Harvard QB in the SEC and got away with it, then had the guy go back to Massachusetts.”

That was before the five-star quarterback who was questioned regarding his involvement in a riverboat casino/counterfeiting incident, the other five-star who fizzled after Miles moved him to wide receiver, and the four-star who lost his job to a Purdue transfer. The last one was Brandon Harris, and that happened this year, but even when he signed, you could assume he was doomed.

When he hired an NFL offensive coordinator most famous for having his team improve to Super Bowl quality after he was fired midseason, it was over. It had been over for quite a while, and the rest was simply capering.

6. It is amazing that anyone lasts 11-plus years in the SEC, so consider what a freak of nature it is that Miles lasted this long. Miles was not an overt workaholic, back-slapping good ol’ boy, or tactical genius of any sort. He never countried up or softened his Ohio accent. He never claimed to not take vacation. He made time for his kids, and breezed through press conferences without the periodic tantrums and hip-checking most coaches rely on to keep the press at bay. He appeared in commercials and rappelled off buildings for charity and made cameos in movies. He pushed his lunches on visiting reporters when they said they were hungry, ran red lights on camera because he was distracted, and congratulated a reporter and his wife on the birth of their first child after a miscarriage. He kissed pigs for charity and answered press questions honestly but in a syntax so garbled that diagramming just one answer would risk breaking your understanding of language as you know it. He somehow stayed largely human in a profession bent towards inhuman work hours and cold management practices.

He is in many senses an evolutionary football accident, and thus needed the perfect environment to survive. For a long time, Miles had that at LSU, but LSU also had that in Miles. Miles’ unflappable, but affable weirdness was the perfect match for a team that had to start his first season with Hurricane Katrina. That 2005 team didn’t even get a fall camp and had to postpone two games and play another on the road at Arizona State. They still finished 11-2, even with helicopters swarming Baton Rouge and legendary musician Fats Domino sleeping on starting QB JaMarcus Russell’s couch.

7. His peak came during a raucous, disorderly, and supremely entertaining 2007 season, when LSU became the only two-loss team in the modern era to win a national championship. Miles’ LSU beat Florida in the best football game I have ever seen by going for it on five fourth downs; lost two hair-raising, triple-OT games vs. Arkansas and Kentucky; beat Tennessee in the SEC Championship with a backup QB; and then came home to New Orleans to rout Ohio State for the title after an inexplicable series of events that college football historians are still trying to understand. (They won’t, ever. Stop trying. 2007 is the most perfect season ever and makes absolutely no sense.)

I got one of my first credentials for that 2007 SEC Championship. Before the game, Kirk Herbstreit had reported on ESPN that a deal between Miles and the University of Michigan was all but done. This wasn’t new: The rumor that Miles would return to his alma mater had been a thing all season, and LSU’s success didn’t do much to dispel that. The news got leaked. This happened all the time.

The press was mostly milling around when someone put out word that “Les wants to address the media.” Keep in mind, I had no idea how any of this worked. Maybe coaches did this all the time? Sure, maybe they did this all the time. There was a short intro, and then Les Miles cut a WWE promo in a hallway in the Georgia Dome.

MY DAMN STRONG FOOTBALL TEAM. Miles basically used the phrase “large adult sons” in reference to his football team, and then told everyone to “have a great day” in the most full-stop Ohio accent possible. I thought that maybe this was how they all were, and it turns out I was so, so wrong.

LSU would paint “Have a great day” on the back of their equipment truck after that, and that was it. LSU and Miles were in that moment perfect for each other, and really good for a long time afterward, even with the notorious clock disasters and last-minute wins and endless fake field goals against Florida. Maybe as much because of those, as anything else.

8. His legacy is, to borrow his own words, a damn strong one. Miles leaves with a higher winning percentage than Saban had at the school, two SEC titles, and that 2007 national championship. He’ll be paid an absurd amount of money not to coach football, and is not the sort of dude who gets bent about much, including losing the job he held with seemingly little obvious effort for more than 11 years. He’ll be fine, and it should be over. There are so many reasons for it to be over for Miles at LSU, but reasons don’t ever matter past the moment of action.

It’s not just that Miles was beyond fun. It’s that he and LSU together were so much fun, and that the sight of fans in banana costumes and purple and yellow batman gear and making T-Rex celebrations just seemed to spawn around him. He was fine by himself, sure, but in the daily surreal of Louisiana, Miles not only fit, but thrived.

9. Even the end is on key for Miles.

ESPN

He lost a game at the wire, one of those games when the two-minute mark hit and you began frantically DMing friends: Here it goes again. LSU won, then they didn’t, and then they lost, and in between all that all hell broke loose. Miles took not one, but two football teams and their fans through all three phases of football existence in a second. He was a self-contained uncertainty principle, a quantum maypole for random football outcomes, a charmed quark that lived most happily and vibrantly in the last 15 seconds.

10. It all kind of works. Miles debuted at LSU during hurricane season and leaves during hurricane season, too early for some, too late for others, and perfectly on schedule for his personal brand of doing things on his unknowable calendar.

He had risked disaster for years, but it finally happened. After so many last-minute debacles and dramatic escapes, after tossing seconds away casually at the gun, Miles disappeared into a wormhole for good because he lost a second he couldn’t spare.

I’ll miss that, I really will. But if there has to be an ending, I’d write this one for Miles as a coach. The one where he almost survives 2016 by daring and effort and luck. The one with sudden hyperventilating, chaos, and the trademark flurry of brilliance at the last minute. The one where suddenly, as soon as he’d come back, just when you think he might claw his way out of it, the clock he’d kept on a low simmer for years melts in his hands. An ending where Miles, after as charmed a coaching life as a charismatic lunatic can have, finally runs out of ti-