BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - For LSU head coach Les Miles, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same - meaning Miles winning games, while making fans hyperventilate along the way. His first victory with the Tigers was a wild 35-31 triumph at Arizona State in 2005, his 100th a 30-27 white knuckler at Florida last Saturday.
"Very similar," Miles laughs and recalls happily, "We come from behind, we play in tight quarters, there was never a way to slow up the Tigers. They'll play and scrap you for victory. The first and the last? Very similar."
However, the extenuating circumstances surrounding the coaches' LSU debut on Sept. 10, 2005 were unique as they come. The Les Miles era was suppose to begin with a relatively easy, warm up game against North Texas in Tiger Stadium, before hosting a highly-ranked Arizona State team the following week. But historic Hurricane Katrina and her relentless fury changed all of that, postponing the season opener vs The Mean Green until late October, while also casting serious doubt on the Tigers' matchup with the Sun Devils.
"My memory was Sean O'Keefe, the chancellor at the time, made a call," recounts LSU baseball coaching legend and then athletic director Skip Bertman, "Because of the hurricane, damage on campus, continuous use of the PMAC and indoor track...we couldn't have any control of the game."
"Nobody really wanted to go. We wanted to stay here, because it was suppose to be a home game," says former running back and current LSU staffer Justin Vincent, "But obviously we couldn't play here. The PMAC was a hospital."
"It was such a crazy time, circulating through South Louisiana," says former LSU defensive tackle and current Buffalo Bills star Kyle Williams, "I remember Coach Miles coming to the captains and saying - 'We're going to have to cancel the game or go there to play.' We said, let's go out there and play. We've got a good team, a good group of guys, let's go play."
So if the LSU players hadn't felt like traveling to Tempe, would the game have been canceled?
"Maybe, maybe not," Williams continues, "The question was brought to us - 'You guys don't want to go out there, I'm behind you.' That's the way it felt at the time. It was totally up to us."
"What I said was...I don't have the moral right to say - 'we need to play',' says Miles, "It's not my call. It's really about a team call. And, where do you feel like you need to be? Because that was Katrina. Simply put, we needed our leadership to step up and say - no, no, no, we want to play. This is what we want to do. And they did. Kyle Williams, (Andrew) Whitworth, a number of guys. They said - there's nothing we can do to help our families at this point."
"Just a wild time. Nothing could prepare you for this," says former offensive lineman and veteran Cincinnati Bengal Andrew Whitworth, "We were bringing clothes to people, helping at the PMAC. The practice schedule was weird. People were being flown in from New Orleans, there were helicopters. Then you have to prepare for a game. I just remember Les talking about getting inside those white lines. We could get away from everything and just play football."
"Les showed amazing profile and courage," Bertman recants, "Fans didn't realize what a headache it was. Players didn't know where there parents where. This wasn't a distraction, it was the mother of all distractions."
"A lot of the guys on the team were from New Orleans," says former safety and NFL veteran Craig Steltz, "I was, my brother Kevin (a senior fullback at the time) was also. It was a crazy time getting situated. Everyone was wondering what would happen."
"Tyson Jackson (LSU freshman defensive lineman on that team) said - 'I really don't know how to use a hammer, but I know how to play football. That's the way we can help the state of Louisiana," Vincent remembers.
The #5 Tigers indeed boarded the plane for the desert and took the field against #15 Arizona State on a 95 degree night.
"Remember, it was a home game, that we played on the road at Arizona State," recalls Miles a bit incredulously, "How does that work?"
LSU's head coaching change immediately became noticeable on the Tigers' first offensive possession. The ultra conservative Nick Saban would win a karaoke contest before faking a punt out of his own end zone, but that's exactly what Miles' squad did early.
"I don't think Les ever intended it," laughs Bertman.
"It was a check-with-me," says former punter and kicker Chris Jackson, "The players worked on it all during camp."
Can you even IMAGINE trying this with Saban?
"No, absolutely not. Not so much man." deadpans Jackson.
Incredibly on a 4th and 3 from LSU's own 10-yard line, Jackson lofted a 12-yard completion to defensive back Ronnie Prude.
"The ball floated for two days," quips Vincent, "Nobody covered it. That was a long, long pass for Chris Jackson."
Jackson, who didn't throw much as a quarterback at John Curtis High School, admits the effort was hardly a bullet.
"It hung up a little. When we looked back at the tape, Ronnie was initially wide open. The guy in the A-gap came out and covered it pretty quickly."
"First of all, I couldn't believe he did that," continues Vincent, "I was like - did he seriously do that?"
"Coach Miles had confidence in that play," explains Jackson, "His reaction on the sideline was a lot of things - elation, confusion and puzzled. He was happy, but a bit shocked we picked that time to run it."
Jackson recalls a member of the local media presenting Miles with a pair of coconuts the following Monday, a symbolic gesture of the coach's outrageous gamble.
"He then gave them to me immediately after practice," laughs Jackson.
Senior wide receiver Bennie Brazell was in uniform on this occasion, but admits he almost wasn't. A superstar on the Tigers' powerful track and field team, Brazell's football career had stumbled out of the blocks, making just four catches in his first three seasons.
"I almost went back to track full time," remembers Brazell, "Coach Miles talked me out of it though. I love him for that. I'm loyal to him no matter what."
That persistence would pay off. Brazell would make a crucial 28-yard reception from quarterback Jamarcus Russell on a 3rd and 9 to Arizona State's 1-yard line late in the second quarter. Explosive senior running back Joe Addai would score on the next play to tie the score 7-7. Brazell would go on to make 13 receptions that season for 293 yards and three touchdowns, numbers that certainly exceeded all expectations.
"That led me to getting drafted in the 7th round by the Bengals and staying on the team two years," says Brazell, "Nobody thought that would happen."
But Arizona State appeared to be in firm control entering the fourth quarter, leading the Tigers 17-7. New coordinator Bo Pelini appeared to be a sorry replacement for the defensive mastermind Saban, with the Sun Devils on their way to 560 yards of total offense, 461 passing by quarterback Sam Keller.
"I remember being down, not playing particularly well on defense," recounts Williams, who made eight tackles and had a quarterback sack "It was a struggle to find our footing defensively."
"It was pretty bad," admits Vincent.
But within the blink of an eye, actually about a minute and a half, LSU scored two special teams touchdowns to incredibly take a 21-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. First, senior defensive tackle Claude Wroten blocked a field goal that was returned 55 yards for a score by senior defensive back Mario Stevenson, before a young sophomore fullback named Jacob Hester stormed through the line to hit ASU's punter and force a fumble that was returned 29 yards by safety Craig Steltz for another TD.
"I was in the right place at the right time," Steltz remembers, "That was basically the beginning of my LSU career."
During their high school days, Hester's Evangel Eagles had beaten Steltz's Rummel Raiders three straight years in the playoffs. Now the prep rivals were not only roommates and teammates, they were enjoying their first big moment as Tigers together.
"I remember it being the first time we had seen the 'Shield' punt formation," says Hester, "Coach Peveto spent all week trying to come up with a block scheme. We call it 'Devil Punt Block'. We knew before the snap, they were going to rugby kick right. I remember all week them saying - 'if they get in the formation, run as fast as you can off the backside of the last blocker and you'll have a chance to block it. But don't leave your feet because we don't want a penalty.' I got there so fast the punter still had the ball. I don't know why but instead of going for the ball, my first reaction was to tackle him head on (laughs). I never thought about the ball. When I first got up off the ground, I couldn't find the ball and by the time I found it my roommate had picked it up and was heading into the end zone. It's one of the top three plays I can remember from my entire football career."
However, through all of that madness LSU still trailed Arizona State 31-28 with just over a minute to play.
"And Jamarcus Russell threw a fourth down, something or another," Miles recalls.
Yes, he did. On 4th and 10 at the Sun Devil 39-yard line, the 6'6, 252 pound Russell rolled to his right, before pivoting and reversing his field to the left. Escaping the Sun Devils rush, Russell heaved a bomb on the move for sophomore receiver Early Doucet in the end zone, who made a diving reception for the pulsating, game-winning score.
"What I really remember was JaMarcus throwing that ball," says Whitworth of the future #1 NFL Draft selection "What was that, 60 yards in the air across his body? That was one heck of a throw."
Vincent certainly agrees.
"JaMarcus with that cannon really put it out there. It was one of those broken scramble plays. Early was suppose to be running a post, but had to break it back to the corner. "
"That was big time. All I thought about, was all the work Early had put in over the summer. It really was a great moment," adds Brazell.
Arizona State would drive to the LSU 28-yard line, before four straight Keller passes missed their mark. The Tigers took over with 42 seconds left and then kneeled to secure the win.
"So that, was the start of my time here," says Miles, with somewhat humorous amazement.
"It showed the resiliency of our team. People talk about fighting through adversity. That's what we did." says Vincent.
"A special time to represent Louisiana. It was big for all of us" says Brazell.
"There was missed practice, a drain of energy, helicopters, sirens," Bertman recalls, "Just an incredible effort to win that game."
And a very appropriate, first impression Miles made. It would be the first, of what is now 23 fourth quarter comebacks for the coach with the Tigers. The 23rd came last Saturday in "The Swamp" against the Gators, along with Miles' milestone 100th victory at LSU.
That's a pretty dramatic pair of bookends, with endless drama and lost finger nails in between.
"It's really cool to be part of something like that," Whitworth reflects, "I'm proud of Les and proud to be part of it. A chance to run onto that field - that's something that really stuck with me. With everything going on around us, to have fun and enjoy football. Don't ever take that for granted."
"It's special to get 100 wins," Steltz says, "Especially in the SEC, competing against the best competition in the country. Just look at all the years the SEC has won the national championship. You play the best guys, week in and week out."
"Since he has taken over in 2005 he has taken LSU to an elite level," says Hester, "Every year they're in the hunt for the national title. Doesn't matter what coaches or players come and go, one thing is constant and that's coach Miles. His record in night games at home, nonconference games, fourth quarter comebacks and games following a loss is another level of coaching. Truly all-time kind of coaching stats. I consider him a father figure and one of the best people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."
"It's an awesome achievement," compliments Vincent, "Especially how quickly it came. I'm pretty sure all coaches dream of getting that 100th win, but getting it done at one place is huge. Coach deserved it and I'm just glad I was able to be a part of it."
"It just proves there's more then one way to skin a cat," says Williams, who played three years for Saban before his one year with Miles, "Different coaches, have different techniques and different approaches. To run one of the most successful programs in the country and to have 100 wins speaks for itself."
"Coach Miles is an incredible coach," adds Jackson, "It's well-deserved. Hopefully he reaches 200 wins as quickly as he reached 100."
"He did it in a hurry," compliments Bertman, "And he did it with class."