Louisiana State's Miles Balances Risk, Reward

Les Miles, with linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, decided to stay at LSU instead of heading to Michigan, his alma mater.
Les Miles, with linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, decided to stay at LSU instead of heading to Michigan, his alma mater. (By Charlie Riedel -- Associated Press)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 5 -- The most fascinating figure in Monday's BCS national championship game likely won't be a player, but rather a coach, a son of a Navy man who will be on the Louisiana State sideline wearing a hat one size too small.

The matchup between top-ranked Ohio State and second-ranked LSU largely is devoid of recognizable offensive stars, which means the spotlight will again shine on Les Miles, the Tigers' blunt, blue-collar head coach who has been unable to avoid headlines all season.

"We have the most special coach in college football," LSU wide receiver Early Doucet said. "It's his whole demeanor. His way of things just kinds of rubs off on us."

Conservative only in appearance, Miles has surprised much of the college football world this season with both his risky play-calling and his public displays of affection for his alma mater, Michigan. His tough, passionate persona stands in sharp contrast to that of Ohio State's Jim Tressel, the straight-laced, sweater-vested head coach who will face Miles at the Louisiana Superdome on Monday.

Throughout the season, Miles never denied his interest in the head coaching job at Michigan. Late-season speculation that Miles was a clear favorite to succeed the retiring Lloyd Carr almost overshadowed the improbable turn of events for the Tigers, who became the first team to reach the BCS title game with two losses.

A victory Monday night would enable Miles to finally emerge from the shadow left by Nick Saban, who led the Tigers to the 2003 BCS championship. On Monday, Miles, a self-described "Michigan Man," also will get a unique opportunity to beat his alma mater's fiercest rival on the largest stage in college football.

"I think if we were playing another opponent, it would be every bit the honor, the type of enthusiasm for the game," Miles said. "I think playing Ohio State, certainly with this background, Michigan, there will be a little added fun there. Enjoyment."

The journey the Tigers took to the national title game largely was affected by the words or actions of their head coach. Before the season even started, Miles inflamed Pacific-10 Conference enthusiasts when he said that Southern California had an easier road to the national title game and sarcastically referred to some of the Trojans' opponents as "real juggernauts."

On Oct. 6, a hard-fought 28-24 victory over defending national champion Florida helped Miles strengthen his reputation as a riverboat gambler. The Tigers converted all five of their fourth-down attempts, scoring two touchdowns on fourth-down plays.

"I trust this team," Miles said. "There are not a lot of risks taken without thought. I'm not calling plays we just make up; I don't want to go for it on fourth down ever. I like to have everything done by third. And I enjoy punting. I really do. We'll kick a field goal, too."

Said LSU tackle Ciron Black: "Every day we practice and we say, 'If we get put in this situation and we need to go for it, he has trust that we will get it done.' We take that into account how Coach trusts us to do our jobs."

The fourth-down calls in the Florida game paled in comparison to the questionable and gutsy decision Miles made in the closing seconds of a 30-24 victory over Auburn on Oct. 20. Instead of calling a timeout to attempt a game-winning field goal, Miles inexplicably opted for his quarterback, Matt Flynn, to heave a pass to the end zone. When wide receiver Demetrius Byrd caught the 22-yard fade in the back of the end zone, just one second remained on the clock. Had the pass been incomplete, there was a chance that time could have elapsed.

Nevertheless, Miles takes exception to the reputation of being a risk-taker: "I stop at red lights. I give it gas when I am supposed to. I don't think I'm a specific risk-taker on game day."

The one decision that much of the college football world expected Miles to make involved the Michigan job. The story line appeared to reach a conclusion the morning of Dec. 1, before LSU played Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference championship game. ESPN reported that Miles, a former Michigan player and assistant, would be Michigan's next coach. Miles called an impromptu news conference before the SEC title game, calling the story inaccurate and pledging to remain at LSU. "That would be the only thing I felt that would be regretful," Miles said, "that I had to very unusually take the podium before a game."

Players, however, said they respected their coach even more because he moved to immediately dispel rumors. LSU beat Tennessee, 21-14, and then watched as both No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia lost. The Tigers found themselves with an unexpected berth in the national title game.

After a season of tumult and adversity, Miles provided a rare glimpse of a lighter side Saturday. A reporter asked whether Miles would sport a Mohawk haircut if LSU won Monday night in place of the tight game-day hat he's been wearing since he started coaching. Miles said no. As a follow-up, the reporter asked what was the weirdest question Miles has been asked all week.

"About a Mohawk," Miles said, drawing laughs.

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