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Did Kansas Make the Right Hire? Les Miles Doesn’t Care What You Think

Les Miles thinks he can do anything—from acting in feature films to flying a plane. Now, the new Kansas coach is confident he can steer the program to respectability.

Les Miles thought he could act in feature films. No, really, he played a NASA engineer in one and a police officer in another. A third film was in the works, and it involved, of all things, horse racing (let your imagination run wild on that one).

Miles thought he could work in media as well. He served as an analyst for one Nebraska game last year and made headlines by using “we” during the broadcast (his son Ben used to play for the Cornhuskers). When they moved him into the studio, Miles walked off the set while cameras were rolling and with his mic hot, searching for the bathroom. “Is there a restroom? I gotta go,” he can be heard asking an ESPN staff member off camera. Producers, thankfully, shut off his mic before he found the toilets. 

Miles thought, and might still think, he can fly a plane. According to those close to him, he began aerial training. Miles thought he could have a career as a star in football-centric TV commercials, too, and honestly, he did that pretty well, as a grass-eating coach in charge of watering a football field with Dos Equis beer. 

Now, Miles thinks he can coach Kansas, and he couldn’t care less what you think about it. Just like the forays into acting and media, Miles thinks he can do anything. He’s so confident in his abilities that he kept operating an antiquated offense right up until the day LSU fired him in September of 2016, even when administrators urged him to change. He’s so hardheaded and stubborn that he called a toss dive on the first play of his final season, an up-yours move directed toward said administration.

He’s so committed to his team that many believe he reversed a decision to leave LSU for Michigan in 2007 after ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit reported the story live on air before the Tigers played in the SEC championship game. Surely you remember his impromptu news conference with reporters that day. “I got a championship game to play, and I’m excited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team,” he said. 

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But maybe this one tops the list. So many in the college football world are privately snickering at a 65-year-old man, known for his archaic offense, assuming a rebuilding effort of the country’s worst program over the last decade. Miles thinks he can do it, for the same reasons he thought his team could score a touchdown with 8 seconds left in a 2007 game against Auburn when a field goal would have won the game, why he went for fourth down five times against Florida, and why he called a half-dozen fake fields goals that included lateral passes from backup players.

Will this latest bold move work like some of the others? He checks plenty of boxes. Miles has the quirky, fun-loving personality to recruit to the Midwest (moms and dads love him as much as his players do). He’s a people person with championship rings who will rally a fan base and squeeze dollars out of donors. He’s a decision-maker who’s hired some strong assistants (look at his defensive coordinators alone at LSU: Dave Aranda, Kevin Steele, John Chavis, Bo Pelini).

There is a box left unmarked: the offense. Miles has preached since his firing that he plans to be more liberal offensively at his next stop, incorporating more modern spread principles into a scheme that bludgeoned teams on the ground in Baton Rouge. His teams often physically dominated less talented squads with a simple, basic offense, a freakishly speedy, stifling defense and a trick-heavy special teams unit. At Kansas, he’ll have no Leonard Fournette, no Derrius Guice, no Jamal Adams, no Eric Reid, no Glenn Dorsey, no Barkevious Mingo. He can no longer be the hammer. He’s the nail, an old, rusty nail, stuck in a rotting floorboard that needs fixing. He chose to do this. Kansas wasn’t his only suitor. Colorado showed interest days ago, well before the school fired Mike MacIntyre on Sunday.

At either place, Les would have had to change. His offensive coordinator hire is the most essential of his early decisions, and maybe he’s already got someone in mind. His relationship with former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze is a strong one. Freeze is currently the offensive coordinator for the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football, a startup professional league that begins play in February. Freeze makes sense. The Miles and Freeze family are close. The men like one another. Freeze, mired in scandal in Oxford, is maybe untouchable to some major programs — not to Kansas. The Jayhawks are going all in, resource-wise, to win games. They haven’t had a winning season in a decade and lost 36 of their last 38 Big 12 games. They’re paying Miles $2.775 million a year, $1 million than the previous coach, so why not plunk down a half-million or more for a proven offensive mind?

Les isn’t completely against opening up his offense. He did at Oklahoma State, turning a cellar-dweller into a yearly bowl squad by, yes, passing the football. The Cowboys were nearly a 50-50 run-pass split in Miles’ first two seasons. Two of his best seasons at LSU, in 2006-07, he passed 40-45 percent of the time. At OSU, he had Josh Fields, and at LSU, he had JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn. He’s played in the past to the skill and talent of his team. Late in his tenure in Baton Rouge, the quarterback position became a beleaguered spot, a few recruiting misses and a host of transfers taking its toll.

Problems at the position affected results, as you might imagine. LSU averaged about 170 yards passing a game over Miles’s final two seasons, lower than all but two Power 5 conference teams over that same stretch (Boston College and triple-option squad Georgia Tech). Miles was 12-10 in his last 22 games against Power 5 programs. His influence on the offense was substantial, especially when the problems began arising. He changed play-calls from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron or took complete control of play-calling, especially in crunch time of significant games. Will he be hands off if he hires Freeze or some other experienced offensive guru?

Everybody is rooting for it to happen, they’re all pulling for Les Miles because he’s Les Miles, the goofy, dad-like man who turns news conferences from serious to silly. Rooting doesn’t mean belief, and the belief among many is that the game’s passed Les by and he’s heading into a coaching graveyard in Lawrence. Guess what? He doesn’t care what you think, and he’s out to prove you wrong—the media and everyone else, not least of which are the decision-makers who fired him at LSU.

He’s a pissed off Les Miles and he’s cocksure about his new, damn strong team.