BATON ROUGE, La. — The man who walks in the room could be an equipment manager or some sort of program booster with a sense of entitlement if it weren’t for the entourage flanking him.
Les Miles — the most unassuming, unaffected coach in college football — wears his LSU ball cap high on his head, apparently without a care in the world.
He’s called the “Mad Hatter” for the seemingly crazy gambits conjured up in the noggin beneath that cap. His motivations are inscrutable. His knack for making the right call at the right time — even when it’s the wrong call at the wrong time — is a new-age bayou legend.
When No. 3 South Carolina ventures into Death Valley to face the No. 9 Tigers on Saturday night, the Gamecocks had better hope the game isn’t close late, for it is quite likely Miles will pull something unlikely out of his hat.
How else can you explain:
• Dec. 1, 2007: A two-loss LSU team sits idly by while No. 1 Missouri loses to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship and a 4-7 Pittsburgh defeats No. 2 West Virginia, allowing LSU to fail upward into the BCS title game against Ohio State. They win, becoming the only two-loss national champ in the BCS era.
• Oct. 2, 2010: LSU is on Tennessee’s 1-yard line on third down and trailing 14-10 with the clock dwindling away. But instead of spiking the ball to get the right players in, LSU starts subbing players frantically, as does Tennessee. In the confusion, LSU center T-Bob Hebert panics and snaps the ball to get the play off in time. The ball goes over quarterback Jordan Jefferson’s head and time runs out. But … Tennessee is flagged for 13 players on the field, giving LSU one last chance. They punch it in and win, 16-14.
• Oct. 9, 2010: With 35 seconds remaining, LSU lines up for a game-tying field goal against Florida. For a reason known only to Miles, it’s a fake. The play appears botched when holder Derek Helton’s no-look pitch to kicker Josh Jasper one-hops. But Jasper scoops it up on a good bounce and somehow scampers for a first down. LSU scores the game-winning touchdown 29 seconds later.
ESPN.com’s Bruce Feldman summed it up best in the wake of that Florida game when he wrote, “You can’t make it more than a paragraph or so without including the word ‘somehow’ when speaking of the wizardry that is Les Miles. If nothing else, he is maddeningly instinctive.”
There are many other instances of his bayou voodoo. Like the time Georgia’s A.J. Green was called for a phantom celebration penalty on a go-ahead touchdown that tripped a string of dominos to another LSU win. Or the day Auburn kicker John Vaughn missed four field goals. Or the time against Auburn when LSU trailed by one point with time for just one play, but instead of kicking a field goal, went for a touchdown and succeeded. Or the time he went for it on fourth down five times against Florida. Or … yeah.
Perhaps as much as LSU’s home field advantage, perhaps as much as the Tigers themselves, USC will be trying to overcome Miles and whatever it is that goes through his mind in crunch time.
As for what goes through his mind any time? That is anyone’s guess, and perhaps it is best left to future sports historians to decipher. When Miles speaks, he doesn’t so much answer a question as he takes it for a walk with no particular destination in sight.
For example, what does he think of the Gamecocks?
“I think they’re a good team. I don’t know if (their) mindset is that big a deal. They have a good quarterback, nice running back, good defense, nice scheme, quality special teams. I think that’s … I just like how we play. I think we will play well in Tiger Stadium and be just a lot of fun.”
What about USC’s “rabbit” scheme with four defensive ends to speed-rush the quarterback?
“When they want a pass rush and look for a little more speed. I’ve heard of them a little bit.”
Heck, what about your own team, Miles?
“Practice this week is going well. It’s been a little different. It’s not the same chipper group. … A little more sense of urgency. It’s probably good. Yeah. I think the preparation’s been good. … So, uh … good week, in all.”
He’s mystifying. He’s magical. He’s mysterious. He’s maddening. He’s Les Miles, the Mad Hatter.
Consider yourself warned.