Saturday, June 23, 2018
Colleges

Did Nick Saban break LSU, which faces Florida and the future with fretting fans?

LAROSE, La. — In other parts of the country, Bayou Lafourche might be called a creek. It creeps away from the Mississippi River and passes through this speed-trap town on the way to the Gulf of Mexico, a liquid median between the parallel roads that take unceasing punishment from the 18-wheelers that service the offshore oil rigs.

As you drive closer to the coast here, land gives way to marshes and water: Because of erosion and other factors, the land is disappearing, a can't-miss metaphor for precarious survival.

"When people out there say you're from the Bayou, they mean here," said Jerry Gisclair, a local politician who also owns a sports radio station.

Ed Orgeron, who is in his first full season as Louisiana State's head football coach, hails from here, making him the first native leader of the state's sole top-tier college football team in more than three decades. Orgeron began last season as LSU's defensive line coach, was promoted to interim after Les Miles was fired four games in, and was made the permanent head coach shortly after the Tigers' final game.

"Growing up in south Louisiana, being the head coach at LSU is a dream," Orgeron said in September 2016 in his thick Creole accent, which could be mistaken for one from the Caribbean or the Bronx. "But it is a well-respected position that I am holding right now," he added, "and I hold it in high esteem and I understand the expectations at LSU."

Those expectations are the rub. They are why Miles is not in his 13th season as arguably the most accomplished coach in LSU history. They are why some fans could never be satisfied with Orgeron, whose only head coaching experience was a mediocre tenure at Mississippi. And they are why the local-boy-made-good angle has limited explanatory power when it comes to Orgeron.

"He could go 0-11 and we'd have a banquet for him here," Gisclair said, referring to Larose. "The state would want to hang him."

Trying times

The last two months have been a baleful beginning for Orgeron's full-time tenure, which follows a 6-2 finish last season after he took over. While the Tigers began ranked 13th nationally, in tribute to their reputation and still stellar recruiting, they are floundering at 3-2, including a home loss last weekend to lower-tier Troy. They travel to No. 21 Florida (3-1) on Saturday.

All unhappy college fan bases are unhappy in their own ways. Texas fans consider success their birthright and are disappointed when it fails to come their way. Nebraska fans know it is not their birthright and fret it will never be theirs again. Notre Dame fans wrestle with the compromises that the maintenance of their mystique requires.

And LSU fans' hearts have been broken by the one who got away.

That was not Miles but Nick Saban, the greatest coach of this era and the head of LSU's Southeastern Conference division archrival, Alabama. But it was not always so. Saban arrived in Baton Rouge in late 1999, and in four years rebuilt a floundering program into a national champion. Even after Saban left LSU — for two years in the NFL, with the Miami Dolphins, and then Alabama — his recruiting had laid the groundwork for the national title that LSU won under Miles in the 2007 season.

"Nick Saban really turned LSU's football fortunes around," said Jim Hawthorne, who recently retired as the university's chief radio play-by-play announcer. Referring to a run from 1989 to 1994, he added, "I can't hardly even say this, but LSU had six consecutive years of losing seasons, six in a row, and I sat through all of them."

Saban "was able to right the ship and get the program up," Hawthorne said. "Les pretty much was able to keep it there."

A pivotal game

And then, it could be said, Saban broke LSU. In hindsight, the mortal wound was the 2011 season's national title game between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide, a 21-0 Alabama victory in the Superdome in which the Tigers' offense, littered with future NFL players like Odell Beckham, did not cross the 50-yard line until the second half. It was the first of six consecutive Saban wins against LSU, a streak most expect him to extend when the Tigers and the No. 1 Crimson Tide (5-0) meet Nov. 4 in Tuscaloosa.

"The turning point was that Alabama national championship game," said Judson Sanders, a Baton Rouge lawyer who said he has tailgated at every LSU home game since 2001. "That game changed the entire program. In a lot of ways, people haven't totally recovered."

Talk to LSU fans about Saban now, and one might mistake them for jilted lovers who have not quite arrived at the acceptance stage of mourning.

"If Saban had stayed, you'd be talking about LSU winning five, six national championships," said David Landers, a co-founder of the Tiger Athletic Foundation. He added of Saban: "He'll always be the most intimidating, most hated — but respectfully hated. They love to hate him, but wish they had him."

The Les Miles joke

Ask an LSU fan about Miles, meanwhile, and one might mistake the head coach who was 114-34 for a no-good scoundrel who never returned one's calls.

"We got a joke around here: When he was in the credit card business, he was Les Miles and no points," said Dean Blanchard, who runs a shrimping business on the Gulf Coast but drives north to Baton Rouge to tailgate before every home game.

More concrete arguments against Miles might be cited, too: A former Michigan player and offensive line coach, he stubbornly stuck to run-heavy, pro-style offenses long after most of the SEC had gone to the spread; his grass-eating "Mad Hatter" personality had arguably grown old; and he had a tendency to lose (or win) games in the unlikeliest and most bizarre manners conceivable.

But ultimately, Miles' sin appeared to be that he was not Saban. It is a sin of which every other coach is guilty. At LSU, it was a fireable offense.

This is the hot seat Orgeron accepted. If his unfortunate early-season trajectory continues, many will blame athletic director Joe Alleva for mishandling Miles' exit. Landers confirmed news reports that Miles was all set to exit after the 2015 finale against Texas A&M, but a win that day, his players' support and a subsequent bowl victory saved his job.

So instead of using the subsequent offseason to find a new coach, Alleva kept Miles on, then fired him last September after an embarrassing loss at Auburn — a quintessentially Miles-ian defeat, with a last-second go-ahead touchdown overturned because of a late snap — and changed Orgeron's status from interim to permanent. This was after LSU reportedly whiffed on overtures to Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Houston's Tom Herman, who was instead lured to Texas. (LSU did not make Alleva available for this article.)

While Orgeron's contract pays him $3.5 million annually — practically a bargain in the money-drenched SEC West — his buyout after this season would total nearly eight figures, in addition to the nearly $10 million LSU reportedly owed Miles, who now works for Fox Sports.

No pleasing fans

But in the end, the true failing may lie with LSU's fanatical fan base, a group guilty of loving not wisely but too well. The fans look at their team, which does not split its talent-stocked state with any other Power 5 programs and freely spends on facilities and coaches (LSU's offensive and defensive coordinators make a combined $3.3 million, probably the highest anywhere), and expect it to win 10 games as a matter of course.

They perhaps lost sight of the fact that Miles, who is 63 — only 7 years older than Orgeron — did just that in seven of his 11 full seasons. And that Miles was still recruiting with tremendous results, still representing the university well on the national stage with his colorful shtick, and, had he never been fired, would have begun this season as one of only five active head coaches to have won a national title.

Sanders, who hails from a Crimson Tide family in Mobile, Alabama, understood why the LSU fan base's exhaustion with Miles might seem confusing.

"From an outsider perspective," he said, "you're like, he's the winningest coach in LSU history" — technically he won the second most behind Charles McClendon, who coached LSU for more seasons — "it's unreasonable to expect to win the SEC, much less compete for the national championship, every year. What kind of level of success is good enough?"

As the waters rise in the Bayou, Sanders articulated the fear that he and many of LSU's fans shared:

"Are the good times," he said, "over for good?"

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