The Mad Hatter's next trick: Les Miles wants to win another championship, and he's willing to change to do it
It's Halloween night at Les Miles's house, and the trick ended up being on the kids in his neighborhood. As they streamed to the Miles family home for Kit Kats and Reese's, Miles greeted them with a warm smile. "I don't think there were a lot of people," he said, "who expected coach Miles to man the door."
Since being fired by LSU in late September, Miles has experienced a season of unexpected moments. He's filled his days by preparing himself for a return to the sideline next season, studying hours of film and attending more of his four kids' sporting events. With time for reflection and self-evaluation, Miles has honed in on an explicit goal for next season. He wants to be a head coach again at a place where he can win conference and national championships. "I want you to know something," said Miles, who turns 63 next week. "I have 10 or 12 years left in me. There's plenty of energy in this body. I'm not a guy who lends himself to excesses, and I have great health. Let's go find us a place where the school wants to invest and win. And I say, 'Let's go!'"
Miles spends his days in a condo that doubles as a makeshift office three blocks from his old office on campus. He's been studying film, including the dynamic offenses of Baylor, Tulsa and Western Michigan. He's focused on evaluating young coaches and coordinators to help put together his next staff. And Miles will be heading to a handful of NFL facilities the next few weeks to continue gathering strategy and ideas.
The energy from Miles surged through the phone in a lengthy interview Monday night. He said he's open to evolving on offense, would focus even more on quarterback development in his next stop and stressed that he's been thrilled that LSU has won three consecutive games since his dismissal. "I've watched every snap on TV," Miles said. "Rooting like hell."
The only times Miles got quieter came when reflecting on his accomplishments. Given a blind résumé, there's no candidate on this year's coaching carousel who can come close to what Miles has done in his career. He's put up Hall of Fame numbers: winning 77% of his games at LSU, leading the Tigers to the 2007 national title and producing 71 NFL draft picks. At the start of 2016, the only active coaches who had led teams to multiple national title games were Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Bob Stoops and Miles. At the kickoff of the 2016 NFL season, no school had more players in the NFL than LSU's 44. LSU's opponent in Baton Rouge on Saturday night, Alabama, was second with 42.
While complaining about Miles's coaching eventually became vogue for LSU fans, there's few in modern college football who can compete with his accomplishments. In an era in which fan bases crave the next Messiah coach like Meyer or Saban, the reality is finding another coach who won like Miles is no certainty for LSU.
It's uncomfortable for Miles to talk about his success for the same reason he made it a habit of never using the word "I" during his press conferences at LSU. He always deflected individual attention. Miles struggles to divorce himself from calling LSU "we" and talking about his accomplishments "here." But as he lives in this new world between past accomplishments and preparing for future ones, he's feeling his way through the self-promotion process. "The breath itself has been awkward," Miles said. "I have enjoyed the time. I think I'm a better football coach today than I was the Sunday after Auburn. I have a want to win, win a conference championship and have the opportunity to play for a national championship still in me."
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To Miles's credit, he hasn't made the mistake of many fired coaches, who often over-estimate their value and wait for a perfect situation to approach them. Those coaches, like Houston Nutt and Phillip Fulmer, have learned phone calls don't always come from ideal situations. Miles has met with several search firms, who often aide in hiring college football coaches, and said he's embraced that as part of the process that could help deliver his next job. "I've enjoyed it," he said. "I don't know how I've been received. I've enjoyed the questions and process."
Many of the questions he's been asked have revolved around offensive philosophy. After a strong season with Zach Mettenberger at quarterback in 2013, LSU regressed on offense. It finished last in the SEC in passing offense in 2014 and No. 11 of 14 teams in 2015. When the Tigers sputtered on offense to start 2016, it doomed Miles. Those losses to No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 11 Auburn, who have both vastly exceeded expectations, appear much more palatable in retrospect than they were in real time. But Miles stressed Monday night that he's open to adapting on offense.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "The evolution is always based on where your best talent is. I'm a guy that very comfortably sees the guys he has and can adapt. We can be gun run and throw 50% or more of the time. I can be very comfortable with a Cam Newton-style of player at quarterback. Or we can have a guy more comfortable back in the pocket. The reason we've had longevity is that we've had the ability to evolve and we will always evolve."
A huge part of Miles's ability to evolve will be based on his coordinator hires at his next stop. That's why he's been studying different teams to find the next version of coaches he's hired in the past—Jimbo Fisher, Mike Gundy, Dave Aranda and John Chavis—as coordinators.
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Ultimately, Miles fell victim to something that undercuts many coaches who stay at a school more than a decade—familiarity. Unless a coach wins multiple national titles, it's difficult to stay anywhere over 10 years in modern college football. There are exceptions like Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. But after seven or eight seasons, a coach's flaws become more glaring than his success. Instead of Miles's Hall of Fame numbers, his tenure became defined by things like LSU's lack of a passing game, quarterback development struggles and his occasional clock management mishaps.
Miles has enjoyed his time off, especially spending more time with his four kids. He and his wife, Kathy, have visited their daughter Smacker, who is a swimmer at Texas. They've gone to North Carolina to see their son Manny, who is a reserve quarterback for the Tar Heels. Les Miles perked up when mentioning he'd been to every game of Ben Miles, who is a senior at Baton Rouge Catholic committed to Nebraska. Their youngest, Macy Grace, is a fast-pitch softball player who dressed as a softball bat company for Halloween.
Miles has made it clear he'll be aggressive in going after jobs the next few weeks. His name has emerged in two open Power 5 jobs—Baylor and Purdue. Miles went 28–21 at Oklahoma State from 2001 to 2004, including 2–2 versus Stoops's Sooners, giving him some familiarity with the Big 12. He played and coached at Michigan, giving him a comfort zone in the Big Ten, too. Regardless of where, Miles is determined to be in a situation where he's dressed up in another school's colors, holed up in his office on Halloween instead of handing out Kit Kats.
"I'm looking for a group of guys that want to scrap for victory," Miles said, "and an athletic director and president who see this is a guy with experience on a college campus. Let's go see if we can win a championship."