2 coaches, 2 styles, both winners
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - One wears a perpetual scowl, his words robotic and succinct. With Nick Saban, it's all about "the process," which means running his football program with the meticulousness of a CEO. It may come across as cold and detached - even ruthless - but it sure works.
Then there's Les Miles. He eats grass and sings with his players. He mangles words so badly there's an entire website dedicated to his malaprops. He thrives on gambles and trick plays, even if it gives the impression he's running a game by the seat of his pants.
Guess what? His methods work, too.
When No. 1 LSU travels to Tuscaloosa on Saturday night to face No. 2 Alabama in one of the most anticipated regular-season games in years, the contrasting styles of the two coaches figure to be broken down as much as the astounding talent on the field.
That Saban once coached at LSU - and Miles was the one who replaced him - only adds to the intrigue.
Certainly, no one can question the results of either man.
The 60-year-old Saban won a BCS championship with the Tigers, then claimed another national title at Alabama after quickly rebuilding a glamorous program that had fallen on hard times. Miles, who's 57, has a championship of his own, and his success over the last couple of seasons has allowed him to finally escape his predecessor's large, lingering shadow in Baton Rouge.
One's gruff, the other's a bit goofy.
Both are winners.
"There's just a standard of excellence for everyone in the organization," said Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. "Some people just worry about football, I guess. But coach Saban takes over every aspect of a program, from top to bottom. From the equipment managers and training staff to the (graduate assistants) and all the coaches, no stone goes unturned. He gets everyone on the same program with him."
Miles wouldn't be where he is without a similar level of organization, but that side of him tends to go largely unrecognized. Mostly, the focus is on the unorthodox tactics that spawned his nickname, "The Mad Hatter," and his Yogi Berra-like way of expressing himself.
Just check out the website "The Quotable Les Miles," which has more than 600 well-documented quips from the LSU coach. Among the baffling words of wisdom:
- "We never considered what ended up being going for a first down, which is what we got with the fake anyway."
- "The want to get to the call that we eventually win the game with is certainly a burden that I'm carrying."
- "I told my guys, `We made our bed, and now it's time to get it right.'"
No wonder it's so hard to take this guy seriously.
"I don't know that anybody has more than a very generalistic view of any football coach out there. They need to spend a little more time on the inside," Miles said this week, speaking in his own defense. "I don't give much thought to how I'm perceived except for maybe within this football building and certainly on the campus here at LSU. But I have not given a lot of thought to my language or my feel or any of those things."
Certainly, he's comfortable in his own shoes. Miles prefers an old-school baseball cap (another reason for his nickname) and is known to eat grass during a game, some sort of weird ritual that allows him to be one with the field - and might just lead to a second career on the Food Network.
"The grass in Tiger Stadium," he has reported, "tastes best." We can see it now. Tune in for tonight's episode of "Les Does More With Grass," where the coach goes wild with zoysia and pumpkin spice.
Saban, on the other hand, does everything by the book. His book. It starts with defense - an aggressive yet gap-sound scheme that brings pressure from every direction, a 3-4 alignment that counts on the nose guard drawing double teams so it doesn't have to cheat with an eighth player against the run.
"Saban's teams, they take your top five plays and really do a good job defending them," said former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who went against both teams during his time with the Gators and will be in Tuscaloosa working as an analyst for ESPN.
The Crimson Tide has allowed a nation-low 44.9 yards per game on the ground (only one other team is within 30 yards), the second-fewest passing yards (135.6) and a mere 6.9 points each time out (yep, that leads the nation, too). Saban's defense is especially tough after halftime, when his one-step-ahead-of-everyone-else mind has a chance to see what the opponent is doing and tweak things a bit.
In eight games - a total of 16 third and fourth quarters - Alabama has allowed 22 points.
"His philosophy is not to let anybody run the ball on us," star linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "We play seven guys in the box. When you can stop the run with seven guys, that helps out the secondary because you don't have an extra guy in the box. But that puts a lot of pressure on the guys in the box to stop the run."
Saban's demeanor never changes. He can seem cold and unapproachable, even when discussing his program's widely praised response to a deadly tornado that wiped out a large swath of Tuscaloosa this past spring. Naturally, he spoke of Saturday's game with all the emotion of a party apparatchik.
"We stay on the same routine. We try to function the same way," he said. "From a time management standpoint, from a preparation standpoint, from our disposition on the field with the players, all those things, I try to do them pretty much the same. You want to be pretty much the same with everyone because they're all going to feed off what you do."
LSU is a similarly built team on the field, just a shade behind Alabama in most defensive categories. Certainly, points will be at a premium Saturday night. But Miles is known more for his gutsy calls on offense, his willingness to break out a fake punt or field goal at any time.
A few years ago at Auburn, the coach brazenly elected to go for the end zone in the closing seconds when only a field goal was needed to win the game. Of course, the pass was caught for a touchdown - with one tick remaining on the clock.
Even when things go wrong, they often turn out right, leading some to wonder if Miles has made some sort of pact with the netherworld. Last year against Tennessee, the Tigers did their best to fritter away the final seconds but they were in such a confused state, the Vols wound up with too many defenders on the field. LSU got an extra play after time ran out. Of course, it resulted in the winning touchdown.
"Coach Miles is one of the better people I've seen handle these situations, any negative situation," said LSU receiver Russell Shepard. "He doesn't, in a sense, confront the negative things and really talk about it and let it affect us as a team. He really moves on as if nothing happened."
While Louisiana is one of the nation's more eclectic states, it took a while for Miles to win over the purple-and-gold faithful. Even during the national championship season of 2007, there were some who grumbled he wouldn't have won without Saban's leftover recruits. When the Tigers slumped to a 17-9 over the 2008 and `09 seasons - including an 8-8 mark in the SEC - Miles' job security was in question.
"With anything, any sport, or anything in life, you're going to have your ups and downs, but coach Miles has really done a great job of bouncing back," LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee said.
Indeed, LSU turned things around last season, going 11-2 and finishing No. 8 in the rankings - a prelude to this team, which might go down as the best in school history.
"I always thought LSU was the most talented team, basically every year in the league," Meyer said. "They've adapted this year. This is as good a defensive personnel that I have seen LSU have, and they've adapted to that. That means they're not doing as much as they've done in the past. Just letting them play."