By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- LSU coach Les Miles can be hard to take seriously, chomping on grass, jumbling phrases and words, wrestling with the game clock.
Even with all his success, it's taken a while for Tigers fans to appreciate him.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, on the other hand, often makes football seem as serious as surgery. Crimson Tide fans greeted him as a savior from Day 1 and their admiration for the man Miles replaced at LSU has only grown.
Miles no longer coaches in the shadow of Saban, is no longer derisively compared to his predecessor.
Heading into the BCS championship Monday night between the top-ranked Tigers and No. 2 Tide, Miles has shed his Lucky Les nickname and is now viewed as a legitimate and formidable rival to Saban in the Southeastern Conference.
"You can't have the level of success that they've had on a consistent basis without doing a fantastic job as a coach and a leader," Saban said Friday during media day at the Superdome. "And I think Les has done that. I think he's done a marvelous job."
Saban did a marvelous job at LSU first, leading the Tigers to the 2003 BCS championship, before bolting to the Miami Dolphins after the 2004 season.
Miles was hired away from Oklahoma State to replace Saban, and LSU fans were skeptical.
Eleven victories in each of his first two seasons wasn't enough to satisfy many of them, and even when Miles led the Tigers to another national championship in 2007, Miles was viewed by many as a guy who simply stepped into a ready-made situation.
The 58-year-old Miles, who is 3-2 against Saban, said he never felt burdened by the sky-high expectations Saban left behind.
"I've kind of always felt like, you know, (the program) was in a tremendous position," he said. "Certainly we're grateful for the position that it's in. But I never felt that there was a shadow, or something that needed to be done."
Some high-profile issues with clock management made Miles an easy target for critics. Not to mention his admission that he'll pick a blade of grass from the field and eat it during the game, and his penchant for ... let's call it creative English.
On Friday while answering a question about his team, Miles said: "I'm just letting you know that this football team, irrespective of the coach, deserves to play well in this next game."
Maybe he meant regardless of the coach?
It happens a lot at LSU.
"We'll be in the meeting room, and I can't even think of the words he'll group together, and we'll just look at each other like, `What does that mean?'" defensive end Barkevious Mingo said.
But make no mistake, Mingo said, players don't take kindly to others taking shots at their coach.
And his daring style emboldens his team.
"That feeds down to our players," offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said. "The trick plays, the going for it on fourth down, the fake field goals over the head -- the kids buy into that, and know that their head coach is doing everything he can to fight for them for victory. I know that's why our kids play with so much enthusiasm."
They also play very well. Miles is 75-17 at LSU and, like Saban, is among the highest-paid coaches in the sport, with a salary that will surpass $4 million this season.
All Saban had to do to win over Alabama fans was take the job.
The proud program had been more about melodrama than championships for more than two decades following the retirement of the great Bear Bryant after the 1982 season.
Saban had it playing for an SEC title in his second season and he won the national championship in Year 3. His formula is simple and has less to do with Xs and Os than management and motivational skills that he learned from his time working for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"First of all, there's certain things that we think are important to being a champion. And hard work is one of those things, a tremendous commitment to the goals and things that are important to you," he said. "But I also think it's important that people learn how to be responsible for their own self-determination, which is accountability. And to have that in an organization, any organization, you have to define what the expectation is of the people in the organization."
The 60-year-old Saban, 54-12 at Alabama, doesn't reveal his lighter side as readily as Miles does, but his players insist he's not quite the taskmaster outsiders perceive.
Asked what the biggest misconception about Saban is, Alabama running back Trent Richardson said: "Everybody thinks he's mean."
Col. Mike Edmonson, now the superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, was the personal security officer for both Saban and Miles.
"Personality-wise, they are different people," Edmonson said. "But intensity-wise, they are very similar. The desire to put together the perfect game plan, to win, to help the kids get better, is evident."
He said Saban can be as affable as Miles, but has a harder time turning off the intensity.
Take the day after each won the BCS title for LSU.
Saban was still in New Orleans and talked with Edmonson about walking to a hotel in the French Quarter and celebrating with some fans, but ultimately decided to stay in his room, calling recruits and focusing on winning the next title.
When it was suggested to Miles that he take the crystal football trophy into the Quarter to revel with the fans, Edmonson recalled that Miles said: "Let's do it!"
Tide fans will forgive their coach for being less social than Miles, as long as he keeps winning. The long-term forecast is good.
Conventional wisdom has been that as long as Saban is at Alabama, the Tide should contend for national titles for years.
Now, it seems the same can be said of Miles and LSU.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.