LSU Football & Van Halen: Highly Successful, Highly Maligned

By Jacques Doucet - bio | email


They had HUGE shoes to fill. They apparently were in over their heads. They weren't up to the task … this gig was simply too big for them.

Meet Sammy Hagar and Les Miles.

One ran around in a yellow jumpsuit screaming about breaking the speed limit, the other wore a highly perched, pristine white hat yelling "Ya-HOO!". The two had similar success before accepting the biggest offer of their lives. Hagar rode the coattails of the slightly absurd single "I Can't Drive 55" and his platinum selling album VOA into the biggest band in the world. He was perceived as a hard worker who had built a highly loyal fan base and enjoyed a solid solo career … but certainly nothing spectacular. Ditto Les Miles at Oklahoma State. Miles got a ton of mileage out of beating Oklahoma two out of three years while coaching the Sooners' little stepbrother and likewise used that flashy accomplishment to vault his way into his own juggernaut. Hagar was basically a singer who put out gold albums, but hadn't sniffed anything the magnitude of Van Halen. Miles was a coach that went 8-5, 9-4, 7-5 during his last three years at OSU … good, but simply not on par with the 13-1 National Champion LSU fans had celebrated with St. Nick not long ago.

Hagar and Miles were also both hired for one big reason ... they were nothing like their predecessors. After dealing with pushy, pain-in-the-neck egomaniacs, Van Halen and LSU both desperately wanted a "team player". The Red Rocker and The Mad Hatter fit that criteria perfectly. Both were down to earth, approachable and not interested in being the center of attention. While Roth always had that "look-at-me" persona on stage, Hagar was more an extention of the screaming crowd. He high-fived fans, signed anything they threw on stage and talked TO them, not ABOVE them. Eddie could likewise write any music he wanted to and no one would gripe. "There's no governor, no ruler anymore," EVH said at the time, "I can do whatever I want."

And so could Skip Bertman. There was finally peace in the valley off of Nicholson Drive. Bertman no longer had to worry about a football coach going above his head to the Chancellor. Miles would report to the AD, like he should. And this Les Miles guy would feel damn fortunate to be the coach at LSU.

The results?

All Sammy Hagar and his soaring voice did was lead Van Halen to four straight #1 albums (they never had one with Roth), an endless supply of Top 40 hits and a string of sold out tours. Les Miles? He won 34 of his first 40 games at LSU while leading the Tigers to #5, #3 and #1 finishes in the national rankings. Nick Saban never enjoyed such a remarkable run with LSU. Miles would hoist the National Championship trophy in 2007. Indeed, it was the "Top of the World" for Sam and Les alike.

These career moves would make Hagar and Miles very rich men. More money and stardom than either had ever seen before. They were transformed from being somewhat unknown into household names, in large part because they were handed the keys to a Ferrari.

However … despite all their accomplishments, some fans have simply refused to accept either. They don't like the "new guy" and they never will. There's always been that "Yeah, but …" or "It just wasn't the same". Sammy Hagar and Les Miles have to be the most successful, yet under appreciated replacements of all time. Largely because under the new regimes the ends often times simply didn't justify the means for many LSU and Van Halen fans alike.

Diehard, ol' school Van Halen worshippers were simply not happy with the band's new sound or direction. To them things became way too polished, commercial and fluffy. VH with Hagar seemed to be serving up a steady diet of keyboards and power ballads. Love was in the air, for sure. This was sounding more like Journey than the take-no-prisoners outfit that delivered bone crushing anthems "Hot For Teacher" and "Unchained". The most perfect example of which was my mother over hearing me listen to "5150". "I love that song." she said, "It's so pretty." "That" song was "Love Walks In", a romantic, wedding day feel, 'ladies' choice' jingle that Diamond Dave wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole or his inflatable microphone. Indeed, this was the new goody-goody VH you could take home to momma. It was definitely more romantic than raunchy. Some critics blasted Sammy, saying he was too ordinary, boring and called him out for dopey lyrics like "Only time will tell, if we stand the test of time." As for "How do I know when it's love?" "Please!", they said, " We don't know and we don't care. This is NOT Van Halen!"

Shortly after Les Miles took over in Baton Rouge 2005, Tiger fans also feared they were quickly becoming soft. Miles' laid back persona was a stark contrast to the perpetual, energized aggression of his predecessor. Mount St. Saban was a moving, perpetually erupting volcano that would sprint from one practice field to the next, waving his hands and barking orders at players and coaches. Miles on the other hand stood very stationary with his arms folded at practice and seemed to watch most of time (at least when the media was allowed to observe practice). During games, players who committed stupid penalties were often given a pat on the butt by Miles, instead of being read the riot act as they were in years past. And LSU also seemed rarely able to put their foot on their opponent's throat and win in dominate fashion. It always seemed like the Tigers were sliding by or prevailing in some downright miraculous fashion (Yes, I know all about Saban's "Blue Grass Miracle", save it). The discipline, the fundamentals, the attention to detail appeared to be slipping. And yes, some folks simply didn't like "that goofy hat".

Both Hagar and Miles also ruffled a few feathers by not embracing the past. Sammy basically refused to sing Roth-VH material in concert, establishing a limit of four for each show. One of those tunes typically was "You Really Got Me" (VH's first Top 40 hit, but a cover of The Kinks nonetheless). Fan favorites like "Jamie's Crying" and "The Cradle Will Rock" went into permanent hibernation, which frustrated and angered many of the bands tried and true fans. And while Miles wasn't unfriendly to former LSU Tigers that played for Saban, he didn't exactly bend over backwards for them either. There were grumblings the new coach didn't really reach out to or utilize the Tigers who were now in the NFL. It just didn't seem to be something he was overly interested in doing. And naturally, if there was an opportunity to eliminate Saban out of an old picture, the new regime (Like VH did to Roth) certainly took it.

Both replacements were also perceived to be extremely lucky. If I need to document the perceived luck Les Miles has experienced during his 5 ½ years at LSU … perhaps you too are stuck in 1984.

I have often heard many DLR fans say Sammy Hagar should thank his lucky stars for David Lee Roth every morning. They say otherwise, Hagar would've drifted into obscurity like Loverboy, Eddie Money and Billy Squier. Likewise, Miles detractors can ask, "Where would Les Miles be right now, had Nick Saban never left LSU?"

And how could they NOT be successful? Hagar inherited a band from God and Miles enough NFL talent to give the current Dallas Cowboys a challenge (That's a joke!).

However … Van Halen and LSU's new directions earned them their share of new fans. Those aboard the Van Hagar train said the band hadn't "sold out", they were simply expanding their creative boundaries and horizons. Instead of singing about booze and babes all the time (which they still did plenty, although Sammy seemed to prefer herbs of the earth), VH was growing up and maturing as a band. To this day "Dreams" is one of those true spiritual pick-me-ups … an astounding anthem that continues to be played in sports arenas around the world. Sammy's vocal range was quite astounding and nobody could imagine DLR trying to pull off such a number, and no one wanted to see him try. Hagar was indeed a singer that could sing anything … high, low, fast, slow, ballad, rocker … whatever Eddie threw at him. If you never have, do yourself a favor and listen to Sammy's final wail on the song "5150". Case closed. And for the critics who said Van Hagar was "too soft" … apparently they had never listened to "Get Up" or "Judgment Day" … tunes just as heavy as anything VH had ever recorded with Roth. And unlike DLR, Hagar was a talented guitarist, opening the door for many new options during the live show. Hagar sang actually against the use of drugs and greedy televangelists in the self-reflective, VH cult classic "Mine All Mine" and ominously belted lyrics about the end of the world on "Seventh Seal". There was even a little country with the VH rock-n-roll in the 1988, #13 hit "Finish What Ya Started".

And there were plenty of LSU fans that seemed to embrace Miles and his more in-control-demeanor. They said only out of control maniacs like Saban screamed and yelled all the time. That kind of behavior was unproductive and unprofessional. CEO's don't act like that, children do. Likewise, they didn't even want to imagine what Saban would've been like, had he been forced to deal with two storms called Katrina and Rita. The king of control would've likely lost his mind. Saban could dictate to his football program, he could try to dictate to the media, but Mother Nature was one opponent he simply could not defeat. Skip Bertman would praise Miles' handling of his team during the two hurricanes for years to come. "One of the most noble and incredible things I've ever seen in sports." Skip would say.

Many fans also loved Miles "let 'er rip" philosophy over Saban's conservative approach. Les would fake punts (out of his end zone during his first game for Pete's sake!), field goals (Meet Colt David and Josh Jasper) go for it on fourth down (Amen Jacob Hester!) and take big gambles. These were all things Nick cringed over, and at times got beat at LSU. One of Saban's biggest flaws was sitting on leads and placing too much pressure on his defense. It cost him the SEC West in 2002 in a last second loss to Arkansas.

Those of us that live and will die here in South Louisiana, could also appreciate Miles' priority on his family. From the get go he has spoken of them at press conferences and on his weekly radio show. He makes a place for them, and that place is very high.

As the years passed … even the most staunch anti-Miles/anti-Hagar pundits began to quiet down some. LSU delivered a national title during Miles' third year, Van Halen delivered their hardest-hitting Hagar rock during third album with Sammy (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge). Not so many people were begging for DLR or "Little Nicky" to return. "The replacements" were building a legacy of their own.

Thursday ... Part Four ... "Oh No! Coach Cherone! and Unperfect Parallels"

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