Les Miles was hatless.
Almost every time you see him in public, the LSU football coach tops off his outfit with a Tigers ball cap. Somehow it enhances his reputation as a guy who understands that football is a game, a guy who eats grass from the sidelines and does a commercial where he tells the Mike the Tiger mascot to put on some pants.
He looks different without the hat.
“Difficult times,” Miles said.
He called the press conference at the LSU football complex to announce that Tyrann Mathieu was off the team, effective now. On the roster Mathieu played cornerback, but on the field his position was YouTube clip creator. A strip-and-score against Oregon. A drive-by, slap-the-ball-free, pick-it-up-and-run against Kentucky. A long punt returnagainst Arkansas. And the capper, a punt return against Georgia that included four cutbacks, three broken tackles and one demoralized Bulldogs team. At the moment Mathieu caught that punt, the Dawgs were up 10-0. They lost 42-10.
He was a finalist for the Heisman. He was nicknamed the Honey Badger. He was the best-known returning player in college football. And now he was done at LSU.
“An adjustment that needs to be made,” Les Miles said.
He did not elaborate, except that it was a violation of team and school rules. Mathieu was suspended for one game last year, reportedly for a drug violation.
Mathieu grew up in New Orleans. His dad is serving a life sentence for murder. His mom, who had four children already, decided that Tyrann was too much for her to raise. His aunt and uncle raised him. Katrina flooded their house. He’s small for a football player, 5-foot-9 and 183 pounds. He plays with fury.
He is hesitant, sometimes, in interviews. He opens up more on his Twitter feed. But you get the feeling that Mathieu, like so many great athletes, found his greatest expression in the game, being part of a team.
“He came to life in this room,” Miles said.
Other coaches will offer Mathieu a place in other rooms. He could play in a lower division right away, or he could sit out a year and transfer to another big-time football school. He’s only 20. Sometimes getting kicked off a team can be the moment that turns a player’s life around.
More often, it seems, it’s the beginning of that aching gap between how a life turned out and what it could have been.
The Tigers are ranked no. 1 in the USA TODAY preseason coaches’ poll. LSU can stripe the field with NFL-ready defenders. As great as Mathieu is, the Tigers might go undefeated without him. But if they end up 11-2, fans will always wonder about their own gap, between the team they saw and the team they could’ve seen.
Mathieu’s Twitter feed was silent Friday.
Miles stood at the podium and answered all the questions, although there was one that went unasked, because there wasn’t much point in asking it:
The only person who knows the answer was not at the news conference. And he might not know, either.
Miles took one more question. Then he was done. He picked up his water bottle and headed down a hallway.
He had no hat.
He looked much older.