Jacques Doucet, sportscaster at WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge and VH fanatic, is posting a five-part series this week on “LSU Football & Van Halen – The Best of Both Worlds: Rock Gods, successful/highly maligned replacements and the passionate fans that fight and argue over both.”
It is basically a buildup to this Saturday’s LSU/Alabama game. The premise is this….Nick Saban is David Lee Roth and Les Miles is Sammy Hagar.
PART ONE: THE SCHOOL OF JACQUES
LSU is playing Alabama this week. What a perfect time to finally write this.
There will be no writer’s block. I will promise you that.
Yep, there’s no doubt. Not even a sliver. There are few things I have paid closer attention to during my life than LSU Football and the mighty Van Halen. C’mon Jacques, give us a break (One break, coming up.). Whether that’s cool or embarrassing, these are the facts. From the time I was a little boy until now, the two have sort of been like a religion, an escape, a hobby, my favorite reality show (VH truly gives ‘Jersey Shore’ a run for its’ money. It’s a “Situation” alright) … whatever you want to call it. I picked up on both around the same time. Sometime during the year of 1986, I bought VH’s “5150” (still my favorite). It certainly wouldn’t be the last. Without shame, I bounced around my room playing a tennis racquet to “Why Can’t This Be Love”. Despite what you’ve heard, I no longer do this. No really. Shortly after (October 3, 1987 to be exact) I attended my first Saturday night in Death Valley. #7 LSU beat the #19 Florida Gators and a freshman running back named Emmitt Smith 13-10 before 79,313 rabid fans. It was over. I was likewise hooked on the purple and gold. By the time that Monday rolled around, I could recite names like Tommy Hodson, Wendell Davis and Harvey Williams…along with their statistics. From that point forward my team/band had been established. These were my rock stars.
Through the years I’ve seen both do great things. When many high school kids around the country had moved on from the happy-go-lucky jams of the 80’s to the downtrodden despair of Pearl Jam, Nirvana & Alice N Chains in the 90’s, I stuck my chest out (Not much of one, I might’ve been 140 pounds) when Van Halen cleaned house at the 1992 MTV Awards. VH took home three awards, including “Music Video of the Year” for the smash hit “Right Now”. Everyone at my North Vermilion High School (A Garth Brooks worshipping ground at the time) cracked jokes to me about “those stupid, old headbangers” and that “cat music” I liked. The opening drill to “Poundcake” does sound a bit like a cat stuck in a dishwasher. I’ll give them that.
Likewise, no youth was a bigger advocate of Fightin’ Tiger Football than this guy. I may have been the first 13-year old ever, to get a letter published in Tiger Rag magazine. I took countless friends to games (Thank you dad, I love you) because I wanted them to get hooked on the rush just like me. Indeed, many of those childhood buddies are full blown LSU addicts to this day. I annoyed my date to senior homecoming to no end, by making countless trips to my truck for LSU/Ole Miss scoring updates. Can’t blame her, I would’ve been peeved too. After all, that LSU team went 5-6 … what was I thinking? Later on a college date, another young lady let me have it. “You didn’t talk me at all during the fourth quarter!” That fourth quarter, just so happen to be the final stanza of LSU’s epic 28-21 win over #1 Florida in 1997. It was crystal clear this striking blonde had no grasp of football or the magnitude of what we had just witnessed. It’s also equally clear why I’m still not married.
Both Van Halen and LSU Football have been major bummers to me as well. I’ve watched both go through long, disappointing periods that spanned over a decade for each. For LSU this was 1989-1999. There were eight losing seasons, three fired coaches and thousands of empty seats in Tiger Stadium. I was there the night Florida squashed LSU 58-3 in 1993 before a listless crowd in Dead Valley. ESPN actually issued an apology to their audience for airing the atrocity, although Steve Spurrier didn’t see the need. I was also part of the only 40,000 or so that gathered to watch Southern Miss beat the Tigers 20-18 in 1994. My cousin Damon looked at me with utter amazement when I turned down a Kappa Sigma party to attend that disaster. Curley Hallman was soon fired. Gerry Dinardo had some magic, but was likewise launched five years later (But I hear his old restaurant is still doing quite well).
It was at that same time in 1999, that Van Halen embarked on its’ longest stretch of non productivity ever. From around Y-2K to the present, some of the most gifted musicians to ever walk the earth have simply wasted years, opportunities and their amazing talent. NO new albums, a whopping three new songs recorded (New VH songs are a lot like the Olympics. You get one roughly every four years) and likewise two cash-grab tours. Sure I was a sucker and went to these concerts, just like they knew I would (Las Vegas & Houston in 2004, New Orleans in 2007). I dished out my $150 to see the aging rockers go through the motions and then say goodnight. March 12, 2007 should have been a special occasion for Van Halen and those of us who have supported the band while enjoying their timeless music. The group was being inducted into “The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame”, a truly special distinction and acknowledgment of Van Halen’s incredible career. They managed to screw that up, too. Only two band members showed up. Neither of them had the last name Van Halen and neither was currently in the band (And probably never will be again). The band Velvet Revolver gave a less than heartfelt induction speech before butchering VH tunes “Ain’t Talkin Bout Love” (Soundbyte’s version is better, honest to God) and “Runaround” (No one could even recognize what the heck these guys were playing). Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony tried to salvage some of the evening by performing a tune backed by Paul Shaffer and his horn section. Pass me a tissue. This is truly sad.
The parallels between the heavyweights of college football and hard rock are endless and have become more apparent to me as the years have passed. They are both iconic forces in their respective fields. They are tried and true forces that never get old and are as timeless as Coca-Cola, although some people refer to “Van Hagar” as Pepsi (The second version, still pretty good, just a little sweeter). LSU is college football’s 15th all-time winningest program (709-387-47 entering this year). Van Halen is the music industry’s 19th all-time selling artist (56.5 million sold in the US alone according to RIAA). LSU has one Heisman Trophy winner (Billy Cannon), VH has one #1 hit (“Jump”). LSU changed college football forever with Cannon’s “Halloween Run”, while Van Halen revolutionized guitar forever roughly 20 years later with Eddie’s jaw-dropping solo on “Eruption”.
LSU and Van Halen both play for maniac fans that enjoy screaming, pumping their fists and drinking their weight in booze. These fans likewise take this stuff a little too seriously. LSU folks argue over their coaches, while VH fans debate their lead singers. Both machines mean big business and big money. LSU sells 92,000 tickets for each home game, earning the school roughly $4 million dollars every time the Tigers tee it up in Death Valley. Van Halen’s most recent tour in 2007-2008 was one of the biggest of the year, packing arenas coast to coast and earning a staggering $93 million dollars for Live Nation. VH is the only artist to ever deliver 11 straight multi-million selling albums. Not even Led Zeppelin, Elvis, Michael Jackson or The Beatles can say that. We have enjoyed them together like milk and cookies, or better yet beer and boudin. Take a walk on the LSU campus during game day and I guarantee you’ll hear “Dance the Night Away” or “Panama” blaring out of some stereo, from some tailgate party somewhere.
And finally to my ultimate point … the perceived success and sometimes the failures of both LSU football and Van Halen have often been linked very strongly to the front man. It doesn’t matter if it’s a coach or a singer … wins or album sells often fall at his feet. This article focuses on two pairs of such men so strikingly alike, I’ve come to the central conclusion they are basically the same. Let me say this pure, clean and simple … Nick Saban IS David Lee Roth and Les Miles IS Sammy Hagar.
Don’t worry, I’ll prove it. After all, I’m the devil. Come running with me.
LSU Football & Van Halen: Rock Gods
PART TWO: ROCK GODS
They were giants worshipped by the fans and they knew it. They were egotistical maniacs who devoured those who stood in their way. They intimidated their peers and likewise many members of the press. They were extremely hard to work with, even harder to work against. They were driven, relentless, extremely image conscious and yes, highly intelligent. Throw out the spandex and eyeliner and they are very much the same man. Meet the Rock Gods …. David Lee Roth and Nick Saban.
In 1984 David Lee Roth was arguably the biggest rock star in the world. With his good looks, larger-than-life personality, gravel voice and acrobatic splits Van Halen reached the pinnacle of their commercial success. Behind the band’s first (and to this day only) #1 hit “Jump”, the album 1984 went on to sell over 10 million copies and launched VH into an amazing, new stratosphere. MTV played their videos like the tape machine was broken and Roth’s mug was all over the screen. Hold that thought for a moment …
Roughly 20 years later Nick Saban was the DLR of college football. His band was kicking some serious butt too. Instead of leaping from the top of drum risers, Saban thrilled his fans by throwing headsets and screaming at people. “I love it when he does that”, fans would often tell me. “Yeah, cause he’s not yelling at you”, I thought to myself. Like Roth, Saban sure had the movie star looks. Women loved him, men in purple shorts wanted to be him. Fans were hanging from the ceiling at the Superior Grill for his weekly radio show for crying out loud! There sat the Messiah, next to Jim Hawthorne and some chips and salsa. “L-S-U” chants rained down and fans were so awestruck they stared at him like teenage girls now stare at Justin Bieber. What should have been somewhat mundane, was pure madness and excitement. “Look at all the people here tonight!”, indeed. And they were all there to see the coach. Saban’s #1 act rose to the top of the charts by defeating traditional powerhouse Oklahoma for the National Championship. It was LSU’s first national title in roughly 50 years, as grown men in their 50’s cried. The world, clearly, was in Nick Saban’s hand. He had resurrected the dead. He could have stayed in Baton Rouge forever. Now, hold THAT thought for a moment …
Roth and Saban were also not the official bosses of their respected outfits, yet they called all the shots. Van Halen was Eddie’s band (it’s named after him and his brother/drummer Alex, duh!). Yet despite being the most amazing guitarist on the planet, EVH was amazingly timid, shy and insecure. Because of that he suffered through years of alcohol abuse and really played no large part in band decisions. He simply wrote and played their brilliant music, obviously the most important of contributions. Roth meanwhile basically dictated everything. He told the band what to wear for their photo shoots and videos. He chose the artwork for all the album covers. He lied about the age of the band members to make them younger. He told Eddie not to marry sweetheart Valerie Bertinelli because it would hurt Van Halen’s rock cred. He even prevented “Jump” from being released for years, because Roth said, “no one wants to see a rock god play keyboards”.
Likewise, Saban was technically not the boss at LSU. Really?!! Wow … he had all of us fooled. While Skip Bertman was officially the Athletic Director, Saban answered to Bertman about as much as Tony Soprano answered to Uncle June. Fuh-get about it! What Nick wanted, he got. A brand new, multi-million dollar, immaculate fortress used almost solely by his program known as “The Football Operations Building” (Often referred to as “SabanLand” or these days “Area 51”)? You got it! Another multi-million dollar, towering palace next to Tiger Stadium called “The Cox Communications Building For Student Athletes”? Sure! And what about a new “Tradition Fund” that will stick it to all the fans, by raising their ticket prices exponentially to pay for the first two things I talked about? Sounds good Nick! This guy rammed through a lot of stuff … however, it all benefited the LSU program tremendously.
Now back to those thoughts you’re holding. Just when David Lee Roth and Nick Saban had it all, they got bored, restless and wanted more. They needed a new challenge, a new thrill, a new rush. You could say Roth wanted to be Ozzy … you know, breakaway from his band and make it big on his own. It was the dream of enjoying success similar to that of modern day solo smashes Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé. Nick Saban meanwhile wanted to be Jimmy Johnson … prove he could win a Super Bowl, just like he’d won a college national championship. So the two super stars both turned their backs on the powerhouses that had made them famous to begin with. Don’t forget … not many of you had ever heard of Nick Saban before he arrived at LSU (We’re giving WHO 1.2 million dollars?!!) and certainly no one knew of David Lee Roth before Van Halen. Regardless, they had their fill of their respective organizations and were ready to bounce. So they did. And for years … both would truly regret it.
LSU Football & Van Halen: Highly Successful, Highly Maligned
PART THREE: HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL, HIGHLY MALIGNED REPLACEMENTS
They had HUGE shoes to fill. They apparently were in over their heads. They weren’t up to the task … this gig was simply too big for them.
Meet Sammy Hagar and Les Miles.
One ran around in a yellow jumpsuit screaming about breaking the speed limit, the other wore a highly perched, pristine white hat yelling “Ya-HOO!”. The two had similar success before accepting the biggest offer of their lives. Hagar rode the coattails of the slightly absurd single “I Can’t Drive 55” and his platinum selling album VOA into the biggest band in the world. He was perceived as a hard worker who had built a highly loyal fan base and enjoyed a solid solo career … but certainly nothing spectacular. Ditto Les Miles at Oklahoma State. Miles got a ton of mileage out of beating Oklahoma two out of three years while coaching the Sooners’ little stepbrother and likewise used that flashy accomplishment to vault his way into his own juggernaut. Hagar was basically a singer who put out gold albums, but hadn’t sniffed anything the magnitude of Van Halen. Miles was a coach that went 8-5, 9-4, 7-5 during his last three years at OSU … good, but simply not on par with the 13-1 National Champion LSU fans had celebrated with St. Nick not long ago.
Hagar and Miles were also both hired for one big reason … they were nothing like their predecessors. After dealing with pushy, pain-in-the-neck egomaniacs, Van Halen and LSU both desperately wanted a “team player”. The Red Rocker and The Mad Hatter fit that criteria perfectly. Both were down to earth, approachable and not interested in being the center of attention. While Roth always had that “look-at-me” persona on stage, Hagar was more an extention of the screaming crowd. He high-fived fans, signed anything they threw on stage and talked TO them, not ABOVE them. Eddie could likewise write any music he wanted to and no one would gripe. “There’s no governor, no ruler anymore,” EVH said at the time, “I can do whatever I want.”
And so could Skip Bertman. There was finally peace in the valley off of Nicholson Drive. Bertman no longer had to worry about a football coach going above his head to the Chancellor. Miles would report to the AD, like he should. And this Les Miles guy would feel damn fortunate to be the coach at LSU.
All Sammy Hagar and his soaring voice did was lead Van Halen to four straight #1 albums (they never had one with Roth), an endless supply of Top 40 hits and a string of sold out tours. Les Miles? He won 34 of his first 40 games at LSU while leading the Tigers to #5, #3 and #1 finishes in the national rankings. Nick Saban never enjoyed such a remarkable run with LSU. Miles would hoist the National Championship trophy in 2007. Indeed, it was the “Top of the World” for Sam and Les alike.
These career moves would make Hagar and Miles very rich men. More money and stardom than either had ever seen before. They were transformed from being somewhat unknown into household names, in large part because they were handed the keys to a Ferrari.
However … despite all their accomplishments, some fans have simply refused to accept either. They don’t like the “new guy” and they never will. There’s always been that “Yeah, but …” or “It just wasn’t the same”. Sammy Hagar and Les Miles have to be the most successful, yet under appreciated replacements of all time. Largely because under the new regimes the ends often times simply didn’t justify the means for many LSU and Van Halen fans alike.
Diehard, ol’ school Van Halen worshippers were simply not happy with the band’s new sound or direction. To them things became way too polished, commercial and fluffy. VH with Hagar seemed to be serving up a steady diet of keyboards and power ballads. Love was in the air, for sure. This was sounding more like Journey than the take-no-prisoners outfit that delivered bone crushing anthems “Hot For Teacher” and “Unchained”. The most perfect example of which was my mother over hearing me listen to “5150”. “I love that song.” she said, “It’s so pretty.” “That” song was “Love Walks In”, a romantic, wedding day feel, ‘ladies’ choice’ jingle that Diamond Dave wouldn’t have touched with a ten foot pole or his inflatable microphone. Indeed, this was the new goody-goody VH you could take home to momma. It was definitely more romantic than raunchy. Some critics blasted Sammy, saying he was too ordinary, boring and called him out for dopey lyrics like “Only time will tell, if we stand the test of time.” As for “How do I know when it’s love?” “Please!”, they said, ” We don’t know and we don’t care. This is NOT Van Halen!”
Shortly after Les Miles took over in Baton Rouge 2005, Tiger fans also feared they were quickly becoming soft. Miles’ laid back persona was a stark contrast to the perpetual, energized aggression of his predecessor. Mount St. Saban was a moving, perpetually erupting volcano that would sprint from one practice field to the next, waving his hands and barking orders at players and coaches. Miles on the other hand stood very stationary with his arms folded at practice and seemed to watch most of time (at least when the media was allowed to observe practice). During games, players who committed stupid penalties were often given a pat on the butt by Miles, instead of being read the riot act as they were in years past. And LSU also seemed rarely able to put their foot on their opponent’s throat and win in dominate fashion. It always seemed like the Tigers were sliding by or prevailing in some downright miraculous fashion (Yes, I know all about Saban’s “Blue Grass Miracle”, save it). The discipline, the fundamentals, the attention to detail appeared to be slipping. And yes, some folks simply didn’t like “that goofy hat”.
Both Hagar and Miles also ruffled a few feathers by not embracing the past. Sammy basically refused to sing Roth-VH material in concert, establishing a limit of four for each show. One of those tunes typically was “You Really Got Me” (VH’s first Top 40 hit, but a cover of The Kinks nonetheless). Fan favorites like “Jamie’s Crying” and “The Cradle Will Rock” went into permanent hibernation, which frustrated and angered many of the bands tried and true fans. And while Miles wasn’t unfriendly to former LSU Tigers that played for Saban, he didn’t exactly bend over backwards for them either. There were grumblings the new coach didn’t really reach out to or utilize the Tigers who were now in the NFL. It just didn’t seem to be something he was overly interested in doing. And naturally, if there was an opportunity to eliminate Saban out of an old picture, the new regime (Like VH did to Roth) certainly took it.
Both replacements were also perceived to be extremely lucky. If I need to document the perceived luck Les Miles has experienced during his 5 ½ years at LSU … perhaps you too are stuck in 1984.
I have often heard many DLR fans say Sammy Hagar should thank his lucky stars for David Lee Roth every morning. They say otherwise, Hagar would’ve drifted into obscurity like Loverboy, Eddie Money and Billy Squier. Likewise, Miles detractors can ask, “Where would Les Miles be right now, had Nick Saban never left LSU?”
And how could they NOT be successful? Hagar inherited a band from God and Miles enough NFL talent to give the current Dallas Cowboys a challenge (That’s a joke!).
However … Van Halen and LSU’s new directions earned them their share of new fans. Those aboard the Van Hagar train said the band hadn’t “sold out”, they were simply expanding their creative boundaries and horizons. Instead of singing about booze and babes all the time (which they still did plenty, although Sammy seemed to prefer herbs of the earth), VH was growing up and maturing as a band. To this day “Dreams” is one of those true spiritual pick-me-ups … an astounding anthem that continues to be played in sports arenas around the world. Sammy’s vocal range was quite astounding and nobody could imagine DLR trying to pull off such a number, and no one wanted to see him try. Hagar was indeed a singer that could sing anything … high, low, fast, slow, ballad, rocker … whatever Eddie threw at him. If you never have, do yourself a favor and listen to Sammy’s final wail on the song “5150”. Case closed. And for the critics who said Van Hagar was “too soft” … apparently they had never listened to “Get Up” or “Judgment Day” … tunes just as heavy as anything VH had ever recorded with Roth. And unlike DLR, Hagar was a talented guitarist, opening the door for many new options during the live show. Hagar sang actually against the use of drugs and greedy televangelists in the self-reflective, VH cult classic “Mine All Mine” and ominously belted lyrics about the end of the world on “Seventh Seal”. There was even a little country with the VH rock-n-roll in the 1988, #13 hit “Finish What Ya Started”.
And there were plenty of LSU fans that seemed to embrace Miles and his more in-control-demeanor. They said only out of control maniacs like Saban screamed and yelled all the time. That kind of behavior was unproductive and unprofessional. CEO’s don’t act like that, children do. Likewise, they didn’t even want to imagine what Saban would’ve been like, had he been forced to deal with two storms called Katrina and Rita. The king of control would’ve likely lost his mind. Saban could dictate to his football program, he could try to dictate to the media, but Mother Nature was one opponent he simply could not defeat. Skip Bertman would praise Miles’ handling of his team during the two hurricanes for years to come. “One of the most noble and incredible things I’ve ever seen in sports.” Skip would say.
Many fans also loved Miles “let ‘er rip” philosophy over Saban’s conservative approach. Les would fake punts (out of his end zone during his first game for Pete’s sake!), field goals (Meet Colt David and Josh Jasper) go for it on fourth down (Amen Jacob Hester!) and take big gambles. These were all things Nick cringed over, and at times got beat at LSU. One of Saban’s biggest flaws was sitting on leads and placing too much pressure on his defense. It cost him the SEC West in 2002 in a last second loss to Arkansas.
Those of us that live and will die here in South Louisiana, could also appreciate Miles’ priority on his family. From the get go he has spoken of them at press conferences and on his weekly radio show. He makes a place for them, and that place is very high.
As the years passed … even the most staunch anti-Miles/anti-Hagar pundits began to quiet down some. LSU delivered a national title during Miles’ third year, Van Halen delivered their hardest-hitting Hagar rock during third album with Sammy (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge). Not so many people were begging for DLR or “Little Nicky” to return. “The replacements” were building a legacy of their own.