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14 for '14: Les Miles and the Long Game

The art and science of long tenures.

Al Messerschmidt

Nine seasons. Five top ten finishes. A winning percentage in the high .700s. Three BCS bowls. Three SEC Championship Game appearances, with two of them being wins.

It's been an eventful run for Les Miles at LSU. Those phrases don't just describe the Mad Hatter, though. They also describe the first nine seasons for Mark Richt at Georgia.

The two aren't identical. Even if you grant three gimme wins for Richt's three seasons under the 11-game schedule, his hypothetical record of 93-27 isn't quite at Miles's 95-24. His 52-20 SEC record is nearly the same as Richt's 50-22 in his first nine seasons, though. Miles has a national title that Richt doesn't—albeit with a two-loss record that Richt has met or beat three times. The West over the past nine has been better than the East was over Richt's first nine, but still, the similarities are striking. But let's stop there, because this isn't a comparative piece between the two guys.

These days it's getting rarer to see a coach last at a school for a decade, but Miles will have completed a decade in Baton Rouge once his next bowl game is over. We're so accustomed to short coaching tenures that they all seem to fit to a narrative arc. With a longer run like what Miles is on, there isn't a nice storyline. It just goes.

The decade mark or shortly after is also roughly when long tenures begin to show signs of wear, of not decay. Tommy Tuberville's expiration date at Auburn was at exactly ten years. Richt's worst season so far was his tenth; Bob Stoops's was his 11th. Both Mack Brown and Phillip Fulmer had 12 good seasons until the wheels began to come off of their programs.

Richt and Stoops recovered; Tuberville, Brown, and Fulmer couldn't. Miles seems to be fine for this year according to the preseason consensus. The Tigers are a near-unanimous pick as a top-15 team, and that implies 10 or 11 wins on the year. They are, however, also the consensus third place team in the West divisions. After finishing third a year ago, getting there again would be the first time Miles hasn't been in the top two of the division in consecutive seasons. Even with 10 wins and a top 15 finish, would that count as slipping? Or is that simply life in today's SEC West?

I lean toward the latter. Every year, someone who is really, really good at what they do is going to end up disappointed not to be in the top couple of spots in that division. After losing a formidable offensive core of Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham, Jr., there would be no shame in winning 10 and finishing third in the division. Sometimes, that's just the way it goes.

Miles has not had to endure the hot seat talk that Richt once did; spacing out his SEC titles really helped in that regard. I can't help but wonder if he's settling into Richt's place though: the guy who had some elite success early, another great year a few years on, but otherwise the coach who hangs out near the top of the division but doesn't have the big breakthrough. A 10-3 campaign from Miles would be his third straight: better than most alternatives but not including even a division title, much less things higher. We won't really be able to make that call until a few years from now, but it is on the table.

So the Les Miles adventure continues, hitting a few peaks and finding fewer valleys. The easy stories fall away as we enter the long game.