Rabalais: Emotional coaches in Chick-fil-A Bowl

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU coach Les Miles
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU coach Les Miles

This is the town that gave the world Coca-Cola, but considering the mood surrounding Monday night’s matchup between LSU and Clemson, maybe a better venue for the Chick-fil-A Bowl would have been Elkart, Ind.

That’s the town that gave the world Alka-Seltzer.

If there is one phrase that encapsulates this game between the Tigers and Tigers, it would be “hangover effect.”

This time last year, LSU was about to play Alabama for the BCS national championship. Clemson, fresh from its first ACC title in 20 years, was gearing up to face West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

In some ways, the hangover effect from humbling defeats in those games has never completely faded. This season, LSU was maybe one stop or one more score against Alabama away from taking the Crimson Tide’s place in the BCS title game. Clemson fell flat in its biggest games against Florida State and South Carolina, losing by double digits both times.

But whatever the temperature of the fans, be it lukewarm or cold, there is one thing to be sure of:

Both of these teams will make it a hot time under the Georgia Dome’s big circus tent roof Monday night.

Their coaches wouldn’t have it any other way.

If it’s true that teams take on the personality of their coaches, LSU and Clemson could be exhibits A and B.

Passionate. Determined. And, at times, just slightly out of focus.

At the media hotel here, the nightly turndown service comes with an inspirational quote from the likes of John Wooden and others. It does not include any pearls from TheQuotableLesMiles.com.

And somewhere back in South Carolina, Steve Spurrier has a team of comedy writers working on the next piece of bait that will hook Swinney and have him thrashing back with an angry response while Spurrier has a hearty smirk at his expense.

No, neither coach possesses the equipoise of a Wooden or even the stoic and disheveled intensity of a Bill Belichick. But both bring a delightful zeal for the game that clearly transfers to their teams.

These are men who love football for football’s sake — anytime, anywhere. They happen to be two of the nation’s highest-profile and highest-paid college coaches — Miles at $3.75 million and climbing, Swinney at just over $2 million but surrounded by what USA Today said is the nation’s highest-paid staff. But had their career paths deemed that Miles was a high school coach back in Ohio and Swinney was still toiling as a position coach somewhere, they would bring no less a joie de football to their profession than they do now.

If they decided just to play the Chick-fil-A Bowl on a grassy field in Centennial Olympic Park, Miles and Swinney would have their teams ready, as Miles would say, to scrap for the ball.

For them, it’s football for football’s sake, whether it’s a bowl game or a Tuesday practice.

“It’s fun to work for that guy, for me,” LSU offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said. “We are kind of like vagrants at times, job to job in this coaching profession, until you meet people in a certain place that you want to develop friendships. It’s a fun place to come to work every day.”

Winning makes everything more fun. LSU won the BCS title under Miles in 2007, played for one a year ago, came within a few plays — three to five of them in a season can make all the difference, defensive coordinator John Chavis said — of a shot at another this season. If LSU wins, it will be the Tigers’ sixth 11-win season under Miles. Certainly a 12-game regular-season schedule helps, but there were only two 11-win seasons in LSU’s history before that (1958 and 2003).

In LSU, Swinney sees the program he wants Clemson to become. He knows what winning a national championship takes –— he was a wide receiver on Alabama’s 1992 title team — and wants his Tigers to compete at the same consistently high level as Miles’ Tigers have.

A win in this game may help either team become a national title contender in 2013. It shouldn’t mean anything, but the truth is a bowl win will usually help bump a team’s preseason ranking the following summer.

But this game comes first. A game for its own sake, important to these coaches and these teams because it is the next one on the schedule if for no other reason.

For LSU and Clemson, the New Year’s Day hangover will be from a victory celebration or a continued dull ache where satisfaction over being one of the nation’s best programs should be.

Miles and Swinney will be there, too, one reveling in a victory for victory’s sake, the other laid low because to finish second — to borrow from the quotable Miles — is worse than not starting at all.