Transition game: LSU’s move from Saban to Miles

Rushing from the press box, Verge Ausberry arrived on the football field just in time.

The LSU administrator got to see “The Catch,” when Iowa quarterback Drew Tate hit receiver Warren Holloway for a 56-yard touchdown pass as time expired to beat LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

Herb Vincent, another LSU administrator at the time, stood around the 10-yard line and watched Holloway race into the end zone.

Skip Bertman, then LSU’s athletic director, was in a suite filled with stunned school officials.

On the sideline, Charlie Weems, then a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, walked off the field with Nick Saban, entered the locker room and listened to a long, emotional goodbye from the coach.

For these four — Ausberry, Vincent, Bertman and Weems — that Capital One Bowl is a small, fuzzy dot from which they can’t remember much.

Hours before kickoff, the group had hired a new coach.

“All of us,” Vincent said, “were a bit distracted.”

The game played second fiddle to something far bigger: the search for a replacement of a departing giant.

“It was,” Weems says slowly, “an unsettled time.”

The Tigers are set to meet Iowa again in a Florida bowl game, the Outback, on Jan. 1 in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. The result of that coaching search, Les Miles, still leads the program.

Just days before kickoff, key members of the search for Miles recalled a wild span of days nine years ago when an immense decision rested on their shoulders.

A six-person search committee took more than a dozen flights and visited at least five cities during a five-day search preceding the Capital One Bowl.

It all began on Christmas Eve, with Saban’s non-publicized resignation. It didn’t end until New Year’s Eve or the night before, with Bertman plugging in a dying cell phone and calling Miles to offer him the job.

“Today, looking back,” Bertman said, “we were very fortunate that we did pick him. I’ll stand behind my choice.”

A Christmas surprise

Herb Vincent remembers the cigar smoke.

It engulfed the sixth floor of the LSU administration building on Christmas Day, emanating from the office of Bertman.

“Skip likes to smoke cigars when he’s very busy,” Vincent said. “He put them away that day.”

That’s the day the true search for a new head football coach began.

On Christmas Eve, Saban, finishing up his fifth year at LSU; his agent, Jimmy Sexton; and the late Richard Gill, then the Tiger Athletic Foundation president, met with Bertman and other administrators. Saban resigned during the meeting, finally ending a weeklong mental tussle by choosing to jump to professional football.

“That was one of his dreams,” said Ausberry, who was in the meeting. “We made a strong pitch. The Miami Dolphins came with a lot of money.”

Bertman still calls it “the best offer for a college coach to go pro in the history of football.”

While the team left for Orlando, Fla., for the Capital One Bowl on Christmas Day, administrators spent the day on the smoke-filled sixth floor laying the groundwork for what would be a short, furious search.

A committee formed, headed by Bertman and President William Jenkins: senior associate AD Dan Radakovich, Ausberry, Weems and Gill.

Ausberry was pulled from the team plane bound for Orlando. His wife and then-1-year-old son — and his bags — flew to the bowl site. He wouldn’t arrive there until four days later, a host of coaching interviews and 10 flights under his belt.

Remember the Alamo Bowl

On a muted television, Oklahoma State was being badly beaten in the Alamo Bowl by Ohio State.

It was Dec. 29. LSU’s search for a new football coach was winding down. The committee had a clear favorite: Miles, the coach of that Oklahoma State team and a man they interviewed two days before.

The Alamo Bowl unfolded on a TV in a hotel suite while some search committee members interviewed another candidate.

Memories are foggy. Some say it was then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. (Search committee members and others did not want their names tied to a particular candidate for this story.)

Either way, members squirmed in their seats, unable to focus on the current candidate. They were worried about their No. 1 choice, frightened about hiring a coach whose team was soundly beaten in its season finale.

“They were getting beat. Bad,” Ausberry said. “We were going, ‘Come on, come on. Please come back.’ You worry about what your fan base and people are going to think.”

Weems remembers it well. He and Gill looked at each other during the interview and thought the same thing: This could be Gerry DiNardo all over again.

During his last game at Vanderbilt and days before LSU hired him in 1994, DiNardo’s team was beaten 65-0 by Tennessee.

“It reminded us of that,” Weems said.

Oklahoma State lost 33-7. A few days later, on Dec. 30 or 31, Miles was offered the LSU job.

In search of the white smoke

Peering from his office window, Herb Vincent kept seeing the same thing: a car — or cars — driving a circle around the LSU administration building.

It was Christmas Day. The team had left for Orlando. Rumors were spreading that Saban had resigned; he would resign publicly at the bowl site that afternoon, and he told the team on the flight to Orlando.

Round and round the cars went, Vincent said.

“They were driving around looking up at the building like they thought there was white smoke or black smoke going to come out,” said Vincent, a reference to the method in which a pope’s election is signaled.

Inside, Bertman, several search committee members and Vincent mapped out the next few days.

The search had begun a few weeks earlier when the Dolphins opened communication with Saban. Ausberry had a list of 20 candidates he had vetted. It was quickly trimmed to about five serious candidates.

Six face-to-face interviews were conducted from Dec. 26-30: then-LSU assistants Bobby Williams and Jimbo Fisher; Nutt, who had just finished his seventh season at Arkansas; former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum; Miles; and then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino.

Then-Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio never made it to his interview. For fear of his contract being voided by the NFL team, he did not enter the restaurant in Daytona Beach where committee members waited.

They could see Del Rio in his car in the parking lot talking to his agent on the phone.

“Unbelievable,” one committee member described the ordeal.

Petrino and Miles were the favorites from the start.

Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer were Bertman’s top choices, he admits, but they were taken.

Spurrier had just returned to the college game at South Carolina, and Meyer had recently been hired at Florida. LSU was starting its search late.

“Nick put us in a tough spot,” Weems said.

If LSU got into the mix before South Carolina, “We could have had Spurrier,” one committee member said.

Trimming the field

The sign in the hotel lobby read, “Welcome Herb Vincent of LSU!”

Said Vincent laughing about it now: “I wasn’t even there.”

Vincent was the search committee’s “point man” in Baton Rouge, Ausberry said. He booked the flights, made the hotel reservations, set up the meetings with coaching candidates.

For confidentiality, he made hotel reservations in his name, hence that lobby sign.

The six face-to-face interviews were conducted in five cities, most of them in hotels: Dallas, Memphis, San Antonio, Orlando and Daytona Beach.

Petrino was the first to be interviewed Dec. 26. It took place in Memphis, site of Louisville’s Liberty Bowl game that season against Boise State.

Weems and Gill interviewed Petrino a second time on Dec. 27 because Weems missed the first interview. The coach wasn’t impressive.

“We didn’t think (he was) a guy that’d be a good fit for us,” Weems said.

Fisher, Williams and Slocum weren’t serious candidates, most felt. Fisher, now the head coach at top-ranked Florida State, was interviewed by only two members — Weems and Gill — in the team hotel in Orlando.

There was a sense, one committee member said, that Fisher, then 39, was not ready to be a major college head coach. Also, Bertman insisted in hiring a sitting head coach.

Slocum was interviewed at the request of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who called Bertman’s hotel one night.

“He said, ‘I normally don’t get involved, but I’d like to recommend somebody,’ ” Bertman said in a 2005 interview.

And then there was Nutt, who sneaked into the team hotel in Orlando to interview three days before the Capital One Bowl.

One candidate — it’s unclear who — met board members in the city in which his daughter was having a basketball game.

“We did anything to avoid the media,” Ausberry said.

Always the one

Bertman’s legacy was on the line.

Those 870 wins, seven Southeastern Conference championships and five national titles as LSU’s baseball coach mattered little in the winter of 2004.

“We had conversations with him,” Ausberry said. “ ‘Skip, this is career-killer stuff for us.’ It got to the point where we said, ‘All the championships you’ve won, all of the games, all of that goes down the drain if you don’t hire the right one.”

Les Miles was always the one, Bertman said.

Committee members met Miles in a San Antonio hotel two days before the Miles-led Cowboys lost to Ohio State. He was impressive. Miles didn’t just have a résumé.

“He had a plan,” Bertman said.

“For me,” Weems said, “he had all of the right answers.”

Following the craziness in Daytona on Dec. 30, Bertman had seen enough. He ended the search.

He met with search committee and board members and informed them of his choice.

“We had a meeting, and Skip was on point,” Weems said. “There wasn’t any disagreement about the fact that Les was our best candidate.”

On the night of Dec. 30 or 31, a day before the Capital One Bowl, Bertman offered the job to Miles.

Bertman’s cell phone was nearly dead. He had spent much of the day talking to coaches and board members or informing LSU’s top commitments about the search process.

He plugged in his phone from a room in the team hotel in Orlando. Surrounded by search committee members, he called Miles to deliver the news.

On Jan. 2, the day before Miles was to be introduced as coach, Bertman and Ausberry handed their new coach a list of recruits during an introductory dinner at the house of a prominent Baton Rouge businessman and LSU alumni, Richard Lipsey.

At that point, Miles made his first call as LSU’s coach. The recipient: Ryan Perrilloux, the highly rated quarterback who was kicked off the team in 2008.

Moving forward

It felt like Charlie Weems spent every day on the phone with Nick Saban in the week leading up to Christmas of 2004.

Weems had been here before. For at least the third straight year, Saban was fielding an offer from a professional team, and LSU battled to keep him.

“It seemed like every hour for days I spent trying to influence him to stay,” Weems said. “My sense is that Nick has a hard time pulling the trigger. I think he always wanted to go to the pros. The whole time he was at our place, we were fighting off suitors every year. It was an annual event that we weren’t happy about and were tired of.”

Saban was torn to the end, Weems said.

Weems was in the locker room after “The Catch” doomed Saban’s last game.

“It was as emotional as you’ll see him,” Weems said. “The message was, ‘You’ll always be my boys, I’ll always be your coach and I’ll always be a Tiger.’ ”

During the Christmas Eve meeting, when Saban officially resigned, Bertman immediately turned to the next coach.

He asked Saban for help and that the school already had a list.

“Nick was taken back by that,” Weems said.

“ ‘Y’all have names of people?’ ” a stunned Saban asked, according to Weems.

One more look?

Verge Ausberry’s hotel room phone rang.

It was 3 a.m. the morning of the Capital One Bowl, he believes.

He picked up.

“I’d be the best man for the job,” a voice on the other side said.

“It was a candidate,” Ausberry said. “He had somehow gotten my hotel number.”

That wasn’t the only last-second dash.

A day before the Capital One Bowl, the agent of Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer contacted a member of the search committee who wished to remain anonymous.

“Who knew if he was really interested,” the member said. “We kind of scrambled around and talked about that a little bit.”

Full circle

Nine years later, LSU returns to a Florida bowl game against Iowa.

“The Catch” marks this week for many.

For at least four people — and Miles — there is a different stamp. Miles declines to elaborate on his interview process with LSU and won’t mention by name the guy he replaced.

“There was a decision being made right then whether he was leaving to take another job,” Miles said. “Certainly, if he did, there would be a need there. I think that there was a rush to keep him, rush not to let him go. There was some of that going on.”

Saban’s shadow still looms large in Baton Rouge. Miles is often stacked up to the now-Alabama coach — an unfair comparison, Bertman said.

They’re different people with contrasting methods, he said.

There is one, big similarity, though. And it’s why Bertman and his search committee can relax this time around in a bowl game against Iowa.

“The results they produce,” he said, “are similar.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Monday, Dec. 23, to correct Jenkins’ first name.