In a way, Les Miles set himself up for failure that night in 2008 when his Tigers beat Ohio State and won the national championship.
Coaches often don’t get to go out their own way, like Bob Stoops did. Success in a college town creates a cocoon, and it rarely ends with a butterfly. Title-winning coaches aren’t immune, and they either retire in eventual, momentary disgrace (like Bobby Bowden and Phil Fulmer) or get ousted quickly (like Larry Coker and Gene Chizik).
But like with Bowden and Fulmer, time heals wounds. It was less than a year ago that Miles was fired from LSU, but now he’s back as the program celebrates his 2007 title team on the field during the Auburn game Saturday.
Les Miles receives a massive roar as players gather around him. Chants of L-S-U fill the stadium.— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) October 14, 2017
It is weird, yall.#LSU
Les Miles brings out the BCS Crystal Ball at halftime. The 2007 team looks ready to suit up and roll right now. pic.twitter.com/cN4lAcNIfA— Shea Dixon (@Sheadixon) October 14, 2017
And he even ate some grass again:
But it’s fitting that his triumphant return to Death Valley comes during a game against Auburn, for a few reasons.
In a tumultuous month of Nov. 2015, Miles seemed so fired, he had fans tearing up at what appeared to be his final radio show.
#LSU Les Miles hugs "Sadie" at radio show, who was breaking down a bit. pic.twitter.com/w6q3Vjc7mF— Jacques Doucet (@JacquesDoucet) November 26, 2015
But the Tigers saved his job by ending the season strongly, swinging public sentiment enough that AD Joe Alleva kept him around for 2016.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a great idea, as the hot seat revved right up as soon as the 2016 season started. The final nail in Miles’ coffin was the 2-2 start to the season, complete with an embarrassing loss to Auburn in which LSU had an apparent game-winning TD wiped off the board:
That was the end, but there were so many memories along the way, topped by 2007.
When he got to Baton Rouge, he won immediately, with two straight 11-2 seasons and then the 12-2 national title triumph that was 2007. It was a year so rooted in Tiger lore that a recent LSU grad jokingly confuses that year with the year in which he actually graduated.
“2009. Why did I say ‘07? I said ‘07 honestly because that’s when we won the championship,” Adam Lathan said. “That’s like one of those numbers that stands out, not my college degree.”
That 2007 season was wild for LSU, and my colleague Spencer Hall summed it up best:
Maybe the problem with every other team in 2007 was this: They insisted that things make sense, while Les Miles and LSU never did. In a season of gambles and black swans, Miles was wearing a ghillie suit at the roulette table. It’s not that he had planned it that way, mind you. It’s just what he always wore, and one day, the perfect moment would come along for the outfit.
So why did LSU pick the Auburn game to honor Miles? Partly because of that season’s Mad Hatter magic against those Tigers.
Our LSU blog remembers it fondly:
The pass was immaculate, and it needed to be because as Todd Blackledge points out, an incomplete pass ends the game. The Auburn defender played it perfectly and had his arm on it, but Byrd managed to rip it away from him while turning his body to secure the catch. The throw and the catch were absolutely perfect, which you honestly rarely see, especially in a situation like this. And then there was a frantic explosion and pure, unbridled chaos was set loose upon Death Valley and Baton Rouge.
When it all came crashing down in 2016, Miles became a victim of not being able to replicate past success.
The talent was there at every position besides quarterback, for most of his tenure. The wins were too, besides the most maddening for Tigers fans: an inability to beat Alabama. The most stinging loss was the 2011 season’s title game, in which a stunningly talented squad couldn’t cross the 50-yard line against the Tide.
But that won’t be what we think about as Miles takes the field with the rest of his former charges on Saturday.
We’ll think of the time he went for the win as time expired, not the baffling clock management that became the nail in his coffin on The Plains. We’ll remember the time Leonard Fournette did this to a poor Auburn defender, too:
In the end, Auburn won’t get the last laugh at ol’ Les.
On Saturday, he’ll march out to the 50-yard line with those players whom he helped make legends, and vice versa. A hundred thousand people will cheer as if Demetrius Byrd just caught that pass from Matt Flynn in the corner of the end zone.