2016 Best Game Story: Glenn Guilbeau

Comment by the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This LSU-Texas A&M contest was a complex game, and thought the writer did a wonderful job capturing the emotion of what was taking place with LSU head coach Les Miles, but also gave us a feel for the actually took place in the game, too. Great depth to this piece. A pleasure to read.

By Glenn Guilbeau, Lafayette Advertiser/Gannett Louisiana Newspapers

BATON ROUGE – After two weeks of being stalked by the elephant in the room wanting to fire him, LSU football coach Les Miles rode a pair of “elephants” off into the sunrise. His sunset will have to wait.

LSU trampled Texas A&M, 19-7, Saturday night in the regular season finale to snap a three-game losing streak and save Miles’ job in front of 80,000 at Tiger Stadium. Then offensive tackle Vadal Alexander, who is 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, who is 6-5, 300, put Miles, a hefty former Michigan guard in his own right, on their shoulders and carried him across the field amid chants of “Keep Les Miles … Keep Les Miles.”

Moments later, Miles met with LSU President F. King Alexander, who assured him he would remain the Tigers’ coach following two weeks of his job hanging in the balance as LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and some members of the Board of Supervisors, cast as Miles’ executioners, readied to release him.

“Scary. I want you to know, scary,” Miles said of the players’ ride, not the walk through the valley of fired at press conferences, a radio show and a Gridiron Club booster meeting over the last week.

“I want you to know, one, they’re tall,” Miles said of his purple and gold elephants. “And when you’re sitting up there, you know, I now know what it’s like to ride an elephant. Scares you to death, and you just pray that you can hang on to the ears, because there’s just not much to grab on to. But I was thrilled. I was touched, pleased.”

Miles had little to cling to over the last two weeks as well. Three publications produced stories that said Miles was coaching for his job after 30-16 and 31-14 losses to Alabama and Arkansas that followed a 7-0 start, 4-0 opening in the Southeastern Conference and a No. 2 national ranking. Then LSU Board of Supervisors member Ronald Anderson said that even if Miles beat Ole Miss and Texas A&M to finish 9-2, “it’s still something that needs to be looked at,” in reference to Miles’ job status.

“It’s the way they lost the two games,” Anderson said.

Then LSU lost the third straight game in similar fashion, falling behind early by 24-0 at Ole Miss and only getting back in the game briefly before a 34-17 loss that completed the trilogy. Not since 1966 had the Tigers lost three in a row by 14 or more.

Suddenly, it looked over, particularly amid reports that Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and/or his agent, Jimmy Sexton, had been contacted about Fisher, who was the offensive coordinator when LSU won its first national championship in 45 years in 2003 and won the 2013 national title at Florida State, taking the job.

Miles talked like it was over or near over as well at two press conferences last week, at his radio show Wednesday night and at a Gridiron Club booster meeting on Friday where he said it looked like he would not be coaching LSU’s bowl game. All the while, Alleva said nothing, saying only that he would comment after the season.

“I’d get up in the morning early, have me a little breakfast, and I’d go off to work,” Miles said when asked about his last two weeks, knowing he may be fired. “Occasionally I’d see somebody staring at me, like, ‘Are you going to? Are you not going to?’ I’d say to them, ‘I’m going to work. I love my job. I’m doing my job as best I can.’”

Then, the momentum of the Fire Miles movement slowed by Friday as national media continued to harshly criticize LSU for being on the verge of firing the freewheeling “Mad Hatter” despite a .769 winning percentage, a national championship in 2007, a national championship game appearance in 2011, two SEC titles and four double-digit win seasons from 2010-13. On Saturday morning, Board of Supervisors member Stanley Jacobs finally broke LSU’s silence with a statement to Gannett Louisiana supportive of Miles.

“There has been much speculation that Les Miles is coaching his last game tonight,” Jacobs said. “For that to happen, there would have had to have been a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. No recommendation has been made. He is our coach, and I wish him well.”

Later Saturday, the Palm Beach Post reported Fisher had told Florida State’s president he was staying at Florida State. Then LSU defeated Texas A&M as Miles was cheered before kickoff at Senior Night ceremonies and during and after the game. Alleva, meanwhile, was roundly booed when he appeared via recording on the giant video board welcoming fans to Death Valley before the game. The fans’ signs in the stadium favored Miles in a landslide. “Keep The Hat, Fire The Rat,” said one.

“When I walked out there for Senior Day, I did expect cheers,” Miles said. “But it was their insistence of cheering and getting my attention. I wondered at first, ‘Is that for me?’ Then I said, ‘That must be for me.’ So I took my hat off, and boy I tell you, I was just really pleased.”

LSU proceeded to run behind Alexander and company to a vintage Miles victory – 244 yards rushing and only 83 passing – while the troubled defense held the Aggies to 89 yards on the ground and 250 total.

“It was a nice night,” Miles said. “Victory is always enjoyed, especially when it comes a couple of weeks late. It’s nice to be the head coach at LSU. Proud to be associated with a great institution. It’s a joy. Nice to have them come say, ‘You know the job you’ve been doing, you still can do it.’ And I like that.”

Alleva tried to make nice afterwards. “I want to make it very clear and positive that Les Miles is our football coach,” he said. “And he will continue to be our football coach. Les and I have talked, We have talked about this program, and we are committed together to work and compete at the highest level.”

Jacobs is glad Miles will be still LSU’s coach. “I’m thrilled to death that Les is staying,” Jacobs said after the game. “I did not know he would be until we started winning in the second half. He deserves to be our head coach.”

Not all board members were as happy. Anderson was reached after the game, but had no comment, though he did intimate that Miles may have had him in mind when answering a question after the game concerning those who wanted him gone.

“There’s probably a guy or two I’d like to meet in an alley and just have a little straight talk with,” Miles said. “But I’m not built that way.”

Miles won his LSU career saving game his way – with the run and not the pass. “The game itself was an imperfect fistfight,” Miles said. “The guy who delivered our body blows was Leonard Fournette.”

Fournette gained 159 yards on 32 carries, and the sophomore tailback from New Orleans became the school’s all-time leading rusher for a season with 1,741 yards, passing Charles Alexander’s 1,686 in 1977. His 4-yard touchdown run with 2:50 to go put the game on ice at 19-7 and started more of the “Keep Les Miles” chants.

“The motor seems to be pretty stinking strong,” Miles said defiantly when asked if he was told to change his offense for next year.

“I can say, it’s been one of the longest few weeks of my life,” Fournette said. “It was hard for everybody. It’s been hard – not just about Coach Miles, but when you lose three. It wasn’t easy. It’s hard to deal with.”

The Tigers (8-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) will likely return to the top 25 on Sunday, and next week will learn its bowl destination. A bowl in which Miles now plans on coaching.

“I want you to know something, I love coaching football,” Miles said.

“The players love him as our coach,” LSU wide receiver Malachi Dupre said. “I love him as my coach. He’s been a great coach since before we’ve been here. He’s built a legacy here.”

The Tigers won at least eight games in a season for the 16th consecutive season and will be going to a 16th straight bowl – 11 straight under Miles.

“We wanted to come in here, and we wanted to get a win,” LaCouture said after letting Miles off his shoulders. “We needed it. We wanted it. Coach Miles deserved it. We love him to death. We thought as a team that he deserved the win. Let’s make one thing clear – the chain of command starts with Coach Miles. That’s how we think of it. We wouldn’t want anyone else here.”

Glenn Guilbeau

Glenn Guilbeau gguilbeau@gannett.com

Glenn Guilbeau

AGE: 55

COLLEGE: University of Missouri-Columbia

BACKGROUND: Guilbeau won a first place this year  for the first time since the 2001 contest, when he took Game Story in the now-defunct “Loose Deadline” category, which appealed to him, for an account of “morning in Tiger Stadium” after a watershed upset the night before by unranked LSU and first-year coach Nick Saban over No. 11 Tennessee. His Game Story winner in the current contest on tight deadline was an account of LSU’s 19-7 victory over Texas A&M last season that saved Coach Les Miles job until early this season that is. Guilbeau also placed second this year for a Column describing the same dramatic week when Miles’ future hung in the balance a year ago. His honorable mention was for a Feature on LSU running back Leonard Fournette. … Guilbeau, a native of the New Orleans area, had honorable mention in Column in 2015 and 2014 and placed several times in early FWAA contests in the 1990s with a second in Game Story, two thirds in Column and a fourth in Enterprise. He has covered college football for more than 30 years at the Tiger Rag Magazine in Baton Rouge (1983-84), the Montgomery Advertiser (1985-86), the Alexandria Town Talk (1987-93), the Mobile Register (1993-98), the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004) and since 2004 at the Gannett Louisiana/USA Today Network, where he also covers the Saints. Guilbeau lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, Michelle, a former political reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate who is now communications director for state treasurer John Kennedy, and their boxer mix Bailey Bama, who (don’t tell LSU fans) is from a pound in Union Springs, Ala., and has never seen LSU beat Alabama in football.