Saban, Miles share similar philosophies
NEW ORLEANS -- In a city known for the culinary marriages of crabmeat and butter, shrimp and spice, and bread and pudding, the only cuisine that will be served Monday night on the artificial turf beneath the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be meat and potatoes.
Were they chefs, neither Les Miles of LSU nor Nick Saban of Alabama would be twirling sauté pans and yelling "Bam!" They have risen to the top of the coaching profession because they have married the best talent in college football to the basic tenets of the game. One reason the No. 1 Tigers and the No. 2 Crimson Tide played so evenly in the Nov. 5 game -- and the reason that the BCS Championship Game is so eagerly awaited -- is that the teams are so very much alike.
In that regard, they are reflections of their head coaches. Saban and Miles have more in common than the national championships they won at LSU in 2003 and 2007, respectively. Their career records are nearly identical. Miles is 103-38 (.730) in 11 seasons. Saban, at 145-54-1 (.728) over 16 seasons, would overtake Miles with a victory.
And if LSU wins its second BCS championship, of course, Miles would pull even in crystal footballs with Saban, who won his second at Alabama in 2009.
They are reverse mirrors in personality -- while Miles' outward effervescence masks his demanding side, Saban's cold efficiency subsumes his warmer side -- but they grew up in the same school of college football. They played for exacting coaches known for the fundamental skills and the relentlessness of their players. Saban played defensive back for Don James at Kent State and helps coach that position to this day. Miles played offensive line for Bo Schembechler at Michigan.
"There is a toughness that he instilled in us as assistant coaches and a toughness that he instills in his players," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said of Miles, whom he served as offensive coordinator with the Cowboys before taking over for him in 2005. "He has a unique way about going about things that draws a lot of attention at times. But, ultimately, he is a very smart person. He is a very smart football coach."
Both men coached in the NFL before deciding they belonged in the college game (it took Saban two trips to the NFL to figure that out). Though both started out with success elsewhere (Miles at Oklahoma State, Saban at Toledo and Michigan State), they used those programs to hone and shape their philosophies before finding their greatest coaching success in the Deep South.
"At Alabama and LSU, you can recruit the best, the biggest and most physical," said Curt Cignetti, an assistant coach for Saban with the Crimson Tide from 2007-10 before leaving to become the head coach at Division II Indiana (Pa.). "Really, that is the soundest way to win a championship: to have a great defense, good special teams, be able to run it on offense and then you pick your spots to take a shot down the field."
The spread offense is a marvelous invention. When properly deployed, it wins a lot of games, as Chip Kelly has done at Oregon. It is an offense that demands speed and timing more than physical toughness. That is not meant as a backhanded compliment. Coaches like the spread because of the wear and tear it saves on their players.
But coaches also like it because it is easier to find players who can run the spread than it is to find the talent needed to line up and pound people. After taking over at Oklahoma State, Gundy moved away from the physical running game that Miles utilized with the Cowboys.
"We were downhill pound, counters, powers, practice hard, all that," Gundy said. "We never had any linemen at the end of three or four years that had any shoulders left. Most of them had one or had two surgeries on their shoulders."
But LSU and Alabama don't have to use the spread to gain an advantage. While each coach has been known to use a trick play -- Miles especially -- they line up and come right at their opponent, snap after snap.
"When you have advantages in personnel, those are the things you try to do," Miles said the week of LSU-Alabama I, won by the Tigers 9-6 in overtime. "There is not necessarily a necessity to outman your opponent. You can play. It allows you a comfort of play call and fundamental that allows you to execute extremely well. That is probably the similarities between the two teams."
Miles recommitted LSU to that style of play after 2009, a season in which the Tigers struggled to run the ball (122.8 yards per game) and finished 9-4. They lost at Alabama 24-15, in a game in which the Crimson Tide sent starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and starting tailback Charles Scott to the bench with injuries and Alabama outscored LSU 14-0 in the fourth quarter.
Two seasons later, LSU is on the other side of that transaction. In their past two games, the Tigers spotted Arkansas and Georgia double-digit leads before winning 41-17 and 42-10, respectively. One critic's slow start is another's painstaking, pain-delivering domination.
"In that league, you've got to be able to bloody your guy's nose," Cignetti said. "If you can't bloody your guy's nose, forget it. Look at LSU, the way they've won their games. They can't get anything going on offense, they make a play on special teams, they play great defense, but midway through the third quarter they've completely worn the other team out and broke their will. That's what happens when you're physically tough. You break a guy's will. You dominate your opponent and pretty soon, he's had enough."
The one opponent that didn't succumb to LSU's method is the opponent the Tigers will play Monday night.
"These are two heavyweight teams," Cignetti said. "A lot of people couldn't appreciate that 9-6 game. That was blow-for-blow. This will be interesting."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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