In Louisiana, a special role and place for LSU football

BATON ROUGE, La. – Les Miles was looking through some old photographs recently, and he came across one of his oldest daughter. Smacker, as everyone calls her, was 5 then. Now she’s a freshman at the University of Texas.

Anyway, it made the Louisiana State football coach think about the past and about priorities. It was just one picture, but what if its story had been erased? What if, like in the 40,000 homes of Miles’s neighbors here, including a member of his coaching staff, floodwaters came under his door and through the windows; when they receded, that photo would be ruined.

“I would never be able to replace that,” Miles said this week, standing in an office across the street from Tiger Stadium. “I have that. It’s mine and it’s dry.”

In this city, there are stark reminders – depending on which side of town you live, how closely you follow college football and the Southeastern Conference, whether your carpet is dry or now caked with mold – of both LSU’s dramatic importance and its ultimate insignificance.

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The Tigers will begin their season Saturday against Wisconsin; LSU’s roster is so packed with experience and talent that, at No. 5 in The Associated Press’s national preseason ranking, it might actually be underrated.

But last November, after the team lost three consecutive games, boosters and administrators were so frustrated by Miles that they almost fired him. For more than a week the athletic department and its vast network of financiers tried to find a way, in a state with a roughly $200 million budget deficit, to pay Miles and his staff around $17 million to collect their things and disappear. Replacements were considered, ideas were shared, meetings were held – all while Miles spent days with no idea whether he would be employed after the regular season finale against Texas A&M. In the end, LSU kept Miles after all, and here they all are.

It was such an SEC thing: A program and fan base takes football so seriously that a coach with a national title and wins in 78 percent of his games isn’t fired but is publicly shamed – before beating Texas A&M and players carried him off the field. It was, as longtime LSU booster Charles Weems put it, “a textbook example of how not to handle a possible coaching change.”

Then in July, a Baton Rouge police officer shot Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African American man; videos of the incident made nationwide headlines and fueled an ongoing debate. Less than two weeks later, a man drove from Missouri and shot six Baton Rouge police officers, three of whom died. During two days in mid-August, two feet of rain fell on southeastern Louisiana; creeks and rivers swelled, and a levee failed. Water flooded into homes and cars, men and women gathering their children and what little they could carry. More than 10,000 residents wound seek refuge in shelters; weeks later, many remain there.

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In places like this they like to say football has a galvanizing effect. It brings everyone together, the adage goes, and brings relief; just look at what the Saints meant to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Marie Wagner, who has spent nights in three shelters in the last two weeks, isn’t so sure about all that.

“I’m not worried about football,” Wagner, 29, said. “I’m worried about a place to live.”

This is how important the game is, in the same city where it doesn’t seem important at all.

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Sometime between Friday night and early Saturday afternoon, the decision was made: Miles would continue coaching LSU.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, a seasoned politician who two weeks earlier had suspended his presidential campaign, tweeted his support of Miles. Skip Bertman, the former LSU athletic director who hired Miles, arrived at Tiger Stadium and learned there would, after all this, be no coaching change. Miles himself, albeit months later, said he never truly believed he was getting fired.

Regardless, the previous days had been odd. A newspaper columnist floated that Miles, with two games remaining, could be coaching for his job. His offense was stale and unexciting, his quirks had gotten old, most of all he coached football in the time of Nick Saban – the Alabama coach who, because this is the SEC and everything is connected, is the very man Miles replaced at LSU a decade earlier. Miles hasn’t beaten Saban since 2011; Saban has won three national championships since then.

“Fans are tired of just winning,” said Kevin Mawae, the former LSU and NFL offensive lineman, and only in places like this do those words make sense.

Weems, a former president of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, said the whispers grew louder in the week before the A&M game. A faction of boosters and members of the school’s Board of Supervisors wanted Miles gone, but the obstacle was finding a way to pay for it.

By the end of 2015, Louisiana was facing its bleakest economic outlook in 30 years. Miles is, at $4.3 million per year, the state’s highest-paid public employee. Asking an economically wounded state to cover millions in buyouts plus salary and bonuses to Miles’s replacement would be an impossible sell.

So a few boosters wondered aloud about bankrolling the buyouts themselves. They speculated about luring Jimbo Fisher, a former LSU assistant, from Florida State. They dreamed of a day beyond the power-I formation and finishing second in the SEC West. As the board considered its options, Miles waited.

“To kind of leave him in the wind,” former LSU running back Jacob Hester said, “I thought was kind of unfair.”

By the Friday before the Texas A&M game, it was largely assumed Miles was finished in Baton Rouge. He reportedly thanked a group of supporters for “a great 11 years,” and national media began predicting where Miles would coach next.

Then Friday turned to Saturday, and something changed. Negotiations between the school and Fisher reportedly fell apart. School President F. King Alexander seemed uncertain boosters would actually shoulder the massive buyout. By the time Bertman, the former AD, reached the suite level at Tiger Stadium, he said, “everything is okay again.”

LSU came back to beat Texas A&M, and the crowd chanted Miles’s name. Athletic Director Joe Alleva, who did not respond to an email requesting an interview for this story, announced afterward that Miles would remain with the school.

Miles said he tried not to think much about the week of lingering questions or the not-so-behind-the-scenes effort to remove him.

“I was going to figure it out at the end,” he said. “It didn’t make any stinking difference.”

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The young man opened the plastic bag on his single cot, searching for his running shoes. Zachary Northrop likes to put in four miles a day, a way to pass the time in the River Center shelter in downtown Baton Rouge.

For three weeks the 18-year-old has lived here. His home, a few miles away, is no longer livable, he said. He has two shirts, two pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes; water rushed in last month and took the rest.

“It’s not like home,” he was saying on a Monday afternoon. “But . . .”

“It’s like prison,” Marie Wagner said from two cots down.

“It kind of is,” Northrop said. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get used to this.”

It smells like sweat inside what is normally a performing arts center, and guards in camouflage pace the perimeter. A Red Cross volunteer estimated 700 people have taken refuge here. The doors lock at 10 p.m. and reopen at 6 a.m., Wagner said, and meals are whatever is available. Northrop said it gets noisy at night. Sometimes fights break out, and that’s interesting because it’s different.

Some pass the afternoon hours by sleeping. Others chat with neighbors or aid workers. Northrop watches the faces, trying to determine if they are familiar or new. He writes sometimes, songs or poems, or goes for walks around downtown along barricaded roads. He wears a paper bracelet with a bar code, scanned each time he re-enters the building.

He looks forward to leaving here, whenever that’ll be, and returning home. He’s considering joining the Army. Northrop, wearing an LSU intramural football shirt, said he’s a big Tigers fan. He knows the team is supposed to be good this year; maybe it’ll finally dethrone Saban and the Crimson Tide. But the coming football season cures nothing when you’re without a home. It solves no problem.

It does, however, have its purpose. “To tell you the truth,” he said, “it’s just something to look forward to.”

There’s a projector screen near the center of the arena floor; three nights earlier it showed the Saints preseason game, though there was no sound.

Northrop said he planned to watch LSU’s opener against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field; he said if the Tigers win, he will cheer no matter who’s sleeping. He smiled at the thought of it, shrugging as he pushed in his earbuds and headed for the exit for a walk. “I don’t have nothing else,” he said.

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Miles continued his story about the photograph. Not long after it was taken, Hurricane Katrina hit and Miles had to help counsel players from New Orleans through the destruction and the rebuild.

He was in his first year in Baton Rouge, and he said he learned something then. Some players liked the idea of playing for Louisiana, and others saw that as a heavy burden. Some found refuge in the game, and others found it ultimately meaningless. The Tigers won their division that season; maybe it was helpful for some Louisianans as they tried to reassemble their lives, and maybe for others it didn’t matter. Everyone had to decide that for themselves.

At some point that year, Miles said, he decided to tell his children something. Someday the nice people of Louisiana might tell him to leave. It was almost inevitable. But it should make no difference what people on TV or students at school said about their dad and his ability to coach. What mattered, Miles said, was that he loved them; that no matter what, they were going to hang together.

The rest, he said, was unimportant.