BATON ROUGE, La. – When LSU receiver Russell Shepard hears fans refer to Les Miles as a bumbling fool who talks funny and wins through sheer luck, he wishes people could know his embattled coach the way players do.
"A lot of people don't get his style of coaching, his style of pretty much just simply talking," Shepard said. "But coach Miles, he's a great dude, man. One thing people don't realize is, he's a great leader."
Miles might be the least popular coach that a 5-0, 12th-ranked team could ever have. His 56-15 record in six seasons at LSU, including the 2007 national champion, haven't bought him much goodwill
"It's crazy how much negativity we have going on around Baton Rouge right now," LSU running back Stevan Ridley said Monday before practice.
The negativity currently stems from the wacky ending of LSU's 16-14 victory over Tennessee on Saturday.
First, after Jarrett Lee had driven LSU 68 yards in 13 plays, Miles inserted Jordan Jefferson at quarterback and called an option on second-and-goal from the 2. The play gained only a yard and LSU, which was out of timeouts, could only stop the clock with a quick spike.
Instead, LSU started changing personal while the clock ticked so low that the Tiger Stadium crowd became hysterical. None of the offensive players could hear each other and center T-Bob Hebert, seeing the seconds melt away, snapped the ball. Jefferson mishandled the shotgun snap and Tennessee defenders piled on him and the ball as the clock struck zero.
About everyone in the stadium, including both coaches, thought Tennessee had won, unaware the Vols had been flagged for having 13 defenders on the field. The penalty gave the Tigers the reprieve they needed to punch in the winning score on Ridley's run.
It was a win, but fans on call-in shows and internet chat boards were furious.
LSU had been favored by two TDs, and not only needed a do-over to pull out a victory, they nearly lost in the same infamous way they did at Mississippi in 2009. That game ended with LSU recovering an onside kick and getting into Ole Miss territory with plenty of time to get into winning field goal range, only to lose yards, waste crucial seconds getting plays called, complete a desperation pass to the Ole Miss 5 with 1 second left and then fail to get off one last play.
Miles had promised to get that fixed, but it appeared to most of those watching Saturday that he'd failed.
There had also been other games LSU won despite seemingly risky clock management, most notably a 2007 victory over Auburn when LSU completed a touchdown pass with 1 second showing on the clock.
On Monday, Miles said he was at fault for the botched play against Tennessee that ran the last 28 seconds off the clock. The right play would have been to have the quarterback spike it, Miles said, but he thought enough time remained to get two plays off, and underestimated how confusion would reign in the frantic final seconds.
"I understand the responsibility of the way we managed the back end of the game is mine," Miles said. "I can tell you that the issue was trying to use and have utility in an extra down. We used way too much time in substitution."
Unfortunately, Miles also seemed to use up much of whatever good will fans still felt toward him. Miles said he could not worry about that and would not apologize for celebrating the victory with his players on the field after Ridley's score. He pointed out that LSU had once again played excellent defense, that the offense had racked up 434 total yards, and if not for four Tigers turnovers and untimely penalties, the game might not have been so tight.
"I enjoy victory. Certainly our football team fought their hearts out and got it," Miles said. "The fan base, I hope that like me they root for our team. I hope their support extends to the players on the field, and I will be very happy if that continues."
Hebert said LSU had learned lessons from the Ole Miss loss, when he waited for Jefferson's call and failed to snap the ball before time expired. This time, he at least initiated a play, which led to the Tennessee penalty.
"We worked on that situation if by some crazy chance we ever ended up in that again," Hebert said. "If anything, the Ole Miss game served as a learning tool and actually allowed us to avoid having the same result two times in a row."
While at LSU, Miles has become known as the Mad Hatter — not so much in reference to the film "Alice in Wonderland" as to the fact he always wears a baseball cap on the sideline, and makes comments and decisions that people find bizarre.
He recently went on a rant against boo-birds in Tiger Stadium in which he compared them to people who complain about coffee they didn't make or a man who goes to bed early because he doesn't like the way his wife looks.
LSU athletic director Joe Alleva has heard the recent boos in Tiger Stadium and the crescendo of criticism directed toward Miles, but said the end of the season is the better time to discuss it.
"I'm disappointed with the last 36 seconds of (Saturday's) game," Alleva said. "I'm really happy that we won the game and we're 5-0 and that's all that really needs to be said right now. We still have seven more games to play."
Meanwhile, LSU players offered a portrayal of Miles that painted him as a passionate, caring and inspirational coach.
"He's fiery, very fiery," Shepard said. "One thing he tries to channel to us is, you've got one chance to play college football, so he says play it with passion. ... Off the field, he's a father-figure to a lot of these players that don't have fathers. He's the reason why a lot of players have had the opportunity to have successful careers."
Left tackle and Michigan native Joseph Barksdale recalled how Miles helped him overcome homesickness when he arrived in Baton Rouge, inviting him to spend time with his family until he got comfortable.
"That really meant a lot to me because I don't have any family" nearby, Barksdale said. "If it wasn't for coach Miles, I wouldn't be here. I'm way away from home and I was having a hard time adjusting to college life."
As for Miles odd manner, Barksdale smiled as he reflected on the victory over Tennessee and said, "If I'm not mistaken, at the end of the latest, "Alice in Wonderland" movie, the Mad Hatter did his job and things ended well. So let's hope that keeps up."