10 years: Les Miles and Hurricane Katrina

It was oddly fitting that 10 years after the LSU-North Texas game was postponed due to Hurricane Katrina, another game that was scheduled for Tiger Stadium was cancelled.

That North Texas game was supposed to be the home opener of the Les Miles era at LSU. Instead, this strange guy from Ohio with a goofy grin (his original nickname at LSU was “Less Smiles”) found himself in the middle of makeshift field hospital and landing zone at the LSU athletic area.

If you’re not familiar with the LSU campus, most of the major facilities operate in the shadow of Tiger Stadium. This included the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, which served as the triage area for new arrivals, many of whom landed in a helicopter on the infield of the Bernie Moore Track Stadium (which had hosted the NCAA meet in 2002). Care and shelter was provided to the injured at the Carl Maddox Field House.

A helicopter above the LSU athletic facilities. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center is to the right.

A helicopter above the LSU athletic facilities. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center is to the right.

Here is Miles talking about the experience recently:

The Athletic Director at the time was Skip Bertman, formerly the long-term head baseball coach with the Tigers. These were some of his comments:

This part isn’t really related to Les, but I thought it was an interesting observation. Skip said no one understood how bad it was until they got there:

Personally, I have to agree. I grew up in the New Orleans area, and I knew a lot of the locations that I saw on the news and so forth. Still, you couldn’t grasp the magnitude of it from a television set.

It’s like when you see a tornado touch down some place. Not to minimize tornadoes (which are actually one of the many risks posed by hurricanes), but everything on the screen can look completely devastated; but a few blocks away, there might not be any damage at all. This was nothing like that.

Seeing mile after mile of roofs with blue tarps on them, dead lawns, and boarded up concrete with spray paint on the front was really intense. As was traveling at night and seeing nothing but pitch black where you used to see the lights of civilization. I didn’t see any of this until a few months after Katrina, so I missed things like refrigerators bursting with rotting food and sky-high piles of trash that result from having everything in your house soak in rancid water for weeks in the natural heat and the resulting mold.

I wrote about this when I wrote on the Sporting News site, but people have this annoying habit of injecting partisan politics into this. I want to address that briefly. There were a lot of people in the federal government of both parties that neglected the levee system in the 40 years between Hurricane Betsy (the previous time hurricane winds actually reached New Orleans) and Hurricane Katrina. In the first 30 of those years consecutively the House of Representatives was predominantly Democratic, for instance. So assigning part of the blame on the federal government does not require having a dislike for George W. Bush.

It also does not imply that state and local officials did all they could to coordinate relief efforts or otherwise direct available resources to their best purposes. Even though Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin were both Democrats, I’m told they butted heads because Nagin had endorsed the Republican (who happens to be current governor, then known as Congressman Jindal). So just put that aside and realize that something like this doesn’t happen just because of one party or the people who were in office at the time.

To bring this back around to football, Miles’ home opener was then supposed to be Arizona St. This game was moved to Arizona and LSU won in a bit of a shootout (at least it was at the end), 35-31. The Tigers had scored 28 points in the fourth quarter with the winning touchdown coming with 1:13 remaining.

So after not having a home opener either of the weeks he was supposed to, surely LSU would just have it the next Saturday against Tennessee, the second consecutive top-15 opponent. It could have happened that night, but Tennessee threatened to forfeit because of another approaching Hurricane named Rita (although it was far enough away not to pose a threat to anyone in Baton Rouge that night), so the date was moved once again.

Finally, Miles’ home opener took place the following Monday, 23 days after the North Texas game was supposed to have been played. It looked good early, as LSU’s offense scored early in the first and second quarters. The Tiger defense had completely rattled Tennessee QB Erik Ainge though. He went 7 for 19 for 54 yards with an interception (pick six) and two sacks in the first half. It was 21-0 LSU at halftime. Ainge also was hit a few times, but that came back to haunt the Tigers when he was knocked out of the game. One-time LSU player Rick Clausen started the second half for the Vols with some success and Chief John Chavis’s defense held the Tigers to just three points in the second half. This allowed Tennessee to come all the way back to tie, and they won in overtime.

I remember Miles somewhat nonchalantly mentioning he thought LSU would win in overtime, which didn’t exactly make me feel better. I didn’t realize that this attitude was based on things generally working out for him one way or another.

That would be LSU’s only loss until the SEC Championship game that December, but that game didn’t affect national title hopes since the BCS championship was already going to be undefeated USC against undefeated Texas. After finally getting a break, the Tigers would dominate Miami in the Peach Bowl.

Les Miles (with Larry Coker) before his first bowl game at LSU.

Les Miles (with Larry Coker) before his first bowl game at LSU.

I’m not sure if they would have beaten Tennessee had the season proceeded as scheduled, but for your only loss in your first 11 games as an SEC coach to be in overtime under those circumstances was pretty good. I don’t care who recruited those players.

So even before witnessing some of his eccentricities, I will always have a soft spot for Miles, and this will continue even if we have an awful year or two and Les has to find a new line of work. I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of his success though.

Les has won 78% of his games in 10 seasons. His first three years he won 85%, and from 2010 to 2013 he won 83%. There have been three years, including last year, where LSU didn’t have double-digit wins. But when LSU started 13-0 for the only time in its history in 2011 (actually they were perfect in that calendar year), that was only two years removed from an 9-4 season and three years removed from an 8-5 season. Going back to Miles’ predecessor, LSU’s first BCS championship in 2003 came directly after an 8-4 year.

New Orleans has thankfully only had one big rebuilding process in the last 50 years, and hopefully it will be a long time before another is needed. College football doesn’t work that way, but whether it’s a good year or a rebuilding one it can be a welcome distraction from disasters, as it certainly was 10 years ago.

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