Michigan transplant Les Miles left unique, indelible mark on LSU football

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Matt Flynn, Les Miles

By SCOOTER HOBBS
Written for the LSWA

A noted Michigan Man from Ohio who first made his name in Oklahoma and now toils in Kansas is about to be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

No, Les Miles wasn’t from around here and he doesn’t live here anymore. But if he hadn’t wandered into Louisiana, the Bayou State just might have had to invent him.

Sure, he brought the Tigers their third national championship in 2007, played for another following a 13-0 2011 season, all the while winning games in nutty, sometimes unexplainable fashion as he finished with the best winning percentage of any other LSU coach in history.

That’s just the highlights of a far more fascinating story. It will be celebrated June 6-8 in Natchitoches at the 2019 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Induction Celebration (see LaSportsHall.com for info), culminating with the sold-out Saturday night, June 8 Induction Dinner and Ceremony on Cox Sports Television.

Oh, this born Yankee took some getting used to.

There was the language barrier, of course. South Louisiana is used to telling new arrivals to bring an interpreter for their own good. But Miles turned the tables with his own brand of Les-Speak, an odd language or dialect — whatever it was — that was native to nowhere except the head beneath that ill-fitting ball cap.

It was head-scratching stuff, roughly translated to where “desire” became a “want for victory,” where unwanted “rain” became a “good stiff dew,” where a loss was “failure to achieve victory” or a “jog” was “not a full run but the upper quadrant of speed.”

Les Miles was The Mad Hatter and the Awkward Clapper, the frequent Riverboat Gambler and noted natural grass aficionado prone to munch on his own stadium turf during tense moments.

Whether he was tripping over a cheerleader running onto the field before winning the Game of the Century in Tuscaloosa or dialing up an over-the-shoulder fake field goal as a football whoopie cushion for Steve Spurrier, Miles was always different.

He might be scaling a Baton Rouge skyscraper or, on a whim, showing up unannounced and incognito at an international baseball game in Cuba. If it took a tight end reverse to beat Alabama, fine. Dial it up … right after putting a pinch of Tiger Stadium turf between gum and cheek. If it took five fourth-down gambles to beat Florida in the national championship season, go for it.

Of course, if he was leading his team into battle, you never knew when he might zig left toward the Oregon bench in Dallas’ AT&T Stadium while his team zagged right to their own bench. He might, out of the blue, refer to his next opponent as the Ar-KAN-sas Razorbacks and strain diplomatic relations between the two states.

At heart, he was the lovable Bad Dad Joke come to life, and his appearances at SEC Media Days became must-see moments just to hear the misadventures of the latest Family Miles vacation.

But when the Tigers beat Ohio State for the 2007 BCS National Championship in the Superdome, there was Miles afterwards celebrating from a Bourbon Street balcony throwing beads to fans.

Yes, Miles fit Louisiana as naturally as an old mud boot.

“I really wasn’t aware of how much fun people have with the hat. I’ve always worn a cap … I haven’t changed, it’s that hats have changed. They come down a little flatter in front. It’s important to me that there’s a little high-rise to the front of that. My hats aren’t as old by design as some, but I like a traditional cap, if you don’t mind.” – On how to wear a coach’s cap

Say whatever you want about Miles, but nobody ever enjoyed being LSU’s head football coach more. It’s one of the two or three most high-profile jobs in the state … and maybe the most stressful and occasionally the most thankless.

That part never seemed to bother him. Accepting of his quirks, he could laugh along with his adopted state when the fans got a kick out of them. He was happiest when leading those Tigers down Victory Hill or out onto the field and ultimately, in his own unique words, “Celebrating the achievement of victory.”

“To not have the ability to smile and enjoy that time, is not the way to live,” he explained. The best example might be the little farce he played with his team just before running out on the field. He’d make a big show of struggling to hold the eager Tigers back before finally giving up and letting them roar into the stadium.

That started by accident before the 2011 season-opener in Arlington, Texas against Oregon.

“They walk you down and then it’s up, so it’s a come-out-of-the-tunnel field,” he said. “We get there, the TV guy says to me ‘You’ve got a minute-and-a-half before taking the field.’ I said that’s way too much time. There’s no chance that I’m going to hold that team for a minute-and-a-half. As I’m telling him that, I reach around and feel a helmet pushing on my hand. Then another one and another pushing against my hand. I’d never seen that. So I’m trying to hold them back and it’s not going to happen.”

That was the Wrong Way Les debacle, when the team had to turn right to their bench while watching their coach lead the way to the opposite side of the field. He never quite lived that down — not that it ever bothered him — but it became an LSU tradition with him, albeit with him making the proper turn toward his own bench.

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“You can’t be soft-handed, it has to be an aggressive clap, You keep your fingers out so that you don’t get them caught in between. If you get them caught in between the fingers, it can be an ineffective clap and you can get hurt. Injuries can occur if you don’t keep your fingers spread.” – On the odd way he claps

Miles knew next to nothing about Louisiana when his old mentor and advisor, legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, who hadn’t really commented on some other job opportunities, told him, “You might want to look into that one, Les.”

“I knew that food was important and I knew the football was important,” he said of his perception of Louisiana going in. “That was about all. I knew that they could eat and enjoy a party and I knew that they could enjoy football.”

But he had to wonder what he had gotten himself into when Hurricane Katrina postponed his original debut and he eventually opened the season two weeks later at Arizona State for what was also supposed to be a home game.

“Kept seeing these news reports where they had this circular thing covering the entire Gulf. I’m saying certainly this storm does not cover the entire gulf. The TVs are saying ‘We’re here in Baton Rouge covering the storm.’ I’m thinking the storm is way over there, you need to go over there. But it became obvious that the first responders were going to transition wounded people to our campus.”

Amid the chaos, eventually the Tigers ended up in Tempe for their “home” opener. Tiger fans, many watching on generator power, got a pretty good preview of the Miles Era.

It took two blocked kicks returned for scores and a fake punt from their own end zone, but finally the Tigers scored the game-winner with just over a minute to play on a fourth-down, 39-yard pass.

Back home, a fan told Miles that he started crying that night when he turned on the TV to see the yellow helmets bobbing as the Tigers cued up in the end zone to run out — it was the first time in weeks, he said, that something about Louisiana looked familiar and reassuring.

“I recognized very quickly,” Miles said, “how this team was very important to this state. If they could perform well in the odds of a storm … I felt like it was an important season, not just a football team, that the people really needed this team.”

Perhaps fittingly, LSU won the SEC West and finished the season with a rout of the Miami Hurricanes in the Peach Bowl.

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“Just witnessed something I’ve never seen in my entire life. They just called that team (Tennessee) the winner. Then they said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, come back here.’ Then they called us the winner. As an experience, dammit, I’m going to enjoy that one as much as I hate to admit it.” – After beating Tennessee with an extra play only after the Vols had too many men on the field while LSU was botching the substitution for the previous play 

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The five fourth-down gambles to beat Florida might have been the signature game of the 2007 national championship. But the signature moment came off the field, two hours before the SEC championship game in Atlanta.

The rare pregame press conference barely lasted a minute as a furious Miles denied rumors that he had agreed to go back to his alma mater to take the Michigan job.

“I’ve got a championship game to play and I’m excited about the opportunity for my damn strong football team,” he shouted. “It’s really all I’d like to say. Have a great day!”

The subsequent wins over Tennessee in the SEC game and Ohio State for the national championship almost seemed anti-climactic.

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“I now know what it’s like to ride an elephant. It scares you to death and you just pray you can hang onto the ears. There’s not much to grab onto.” – On being carried off the field after a bizarre Texas A&M game

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There’s no getting around the fact that it did not end well for Miles as he was fired four games into the 2016 season.

But a better example of his relationship with the state might have come in the final regular season game the previous year against Texas A&M, which was played under the assumption that he was being fired afterwards. Those awkward plans got put on hold midgame when the powers that be got cold feet after Tiger Stadium turned into an all-night lovefest for the Mad Hatter.

“I didn’t expect it,” Miles said. “It was senior day; I was walking out to thank them for their service. And when I got out there, where I was was where the fans were screaming at. And so I stopped and it got louder. And then I took my hat off and it got loudest. I damn near shed a tear. It was tremendously special.”

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“Tiger Stadium turf tastes the best.”

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Miles recently accepted a far bigger challenge when he got back into coaching to take over a Kansas program that has virtually no history of winning. He knows he still has the “want” to coach.

He knows something else.

“I guess what I’m saying is that LSU has a special place in my heart and will always have a special plac  for all of the guys that fought and did the things that they could do for victory … how much I enjoyed taking a team onto the field there when that crowd just roared when their Tigers came out. I promise you that will never be forgotten.”

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