Welcome back to Rewind Monday, where we take a closer look at one of the weekend's top storylines in college football. This week, it's Les Miles and Kansas, which just earned its first Power 5 road win in more than a a decade.
The last time this happened, Les Miles was 48-years old and in his first job as a college head coach. The memory is nearly two decades old, but the feeling is tough to forget.
His Oklahoma State squad entered a game at big brother Oklahoma as a 28-point underdog. The Cowboys were 3–7 and had lost five of their last six. The Sooners were 10–1 and ranked No. 4 in the nation. Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma 16–13. Not since that day, Nov. 24, 2001, had Miles felt like this. But here he was, now the 65-year-old head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks taking his team on the road as 18-point underdogs and romping to a historic victory: Kansas 48, Boston College 24.
Week 3 of college football provided its share of entertainment and intrigue, but no result turned heads quite like this one, a stunner that swept the nation on a Friday night, no less, while being broadcast on the new ACC Network. It didn’t matter that millions of fans couldn’t watch the game. It only mattered that it was Les Miles, the Les Miles, the former championship-winning LSU coach, the wanna-be movie star, the beer commercial actor, the quirky guy who butchers the English language like no other, that Les Miles, in his third game as coach of major college football’s doormat.
What made it even more unbelievable is that his team six days before had lost at home to Coastal Carolina by the score of 12–7. Making it even more unfathomable is that Kansas hadn’t won a road game against a Power 5 program in 11 years, a stretch of 48 straight losses that dates back to the days of the very first iPhones. Walking off the field after the win over the Eagles, a KU staff member handed to Miles a message on his phone noting the streak. The coach turned to athletic director Jeff Long, walking alongside him. “I said, ‘Jeff, did you know this?’” Miles says. “He says, ‘Yes, but I didn’t tell you everything when I hired you.’”
Miles cackles retelling the story a day later during a Saturday afternoon interview with Sports Illustrated, during which he is reminded of his whereabouts just one year ago (starring in Dos Equis commercials) and two years ago (sending audition tapes to New York City for movie roles). Next week will mark the three-year anniversary of his firing at LSU and the start of his 26-month furlough from football. A day after the rousing win over Boston College, his wife, Kathy, reveals to SI that his time away from the game did not only include those on-screen activities. Les Miles seriously contemplated entering the law-making realm as a politician (we’ll get to that later).
But now, after such a gratifying win, he realizes why he returned to the game. “I’ve had a great time. Life has presented me with some great opportunities away from football,” says Miles. “I’m thrilled to have met some of those people and thrilled about being a part of some of those projects, but the size and scope of college football and the enjoyment of being with a group of guys fighting for victory, that’s kind of what I was made to do.
“Was it worth it? Absolutely. Are you kidding me? Here’s what you want to do. You want to practice a team, take a team to the field and chase victory. I’ve been fortunate to have some very significant wins. That one certainly approached a very significant win for me.”
He’d later say that it was, in fact, a significant win, one that parallels the 2001 victory over Oklahoma. No Miles-coached team has ever been a bigger underdog than that one. The next season, the Cowboys were a 25-point dog in a game against Texas (they lost). Seventeen years passed before odds makers made a Miles team such a longshot again. It came Friday night at Boston College. In explaining the win, Miles delivers a Miles-ism, a nonsensical quote that is clearly missing multiple nouns. “We didn’t want to be a team that could not,” Miles says. “We wanted to be a team that could.” Above anything else, he attributes his team’s performance to quarterback Carter Stanley. “He came to life, understood his responsibilities and did some special things,” Miles says.
What the coach does not reveal, until specifically asked, is his team’s reinventive offensive approach. The Jayhawks abandoned the traditional offense used in its first two games and incorporated spread concepts equipped with the latest trend in college football: the run-pass option. Wait just a minute. Is Les Miles, the run-heavy, old-school, fullback-led football coach, really running the RPO? “It’s not the entire thing you do. It’s a part of your offense, but…” he pauses, “yeah.”
After the game, Stanley said Kansas offensive consultant Brent Dearmon brought the scheme with him when he joined the staff in January from a past that includes stops at the NAIA and Division II levels and an analyst role for Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Coaches have implemented the system in “bits and pieces,” Miles says. “Feel like we’re probably really just scratching the surface of what it is and how to operate it.” The scheme might be the most significant factor in the win, but there’s much more to it. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s unit pitched a second-half shutout, and KU backs Khalil Herbert and Pooka Williams combined to run for 308 yards. The Jayhawks reeled off 20 unanswered points against a team that has qualified for a bowl in five of the last six years.
This was no small feat for the Power 5’s historical punching bag. And there was no small celebration. “The Jayhawks,” says Kathy Miles, “are pointed back in the right direction.” A week ago, it didn’t seem that way. They needed a last-second touchdown to survive Indiana State in the season opener before totaling 280 yards in the loss to the Chanticleers. The morning after, Kathy Miles saw her husband keep to his regiment. He woke up around sunrise, got a workout in at the makeshift gym in the basement of their home and then met with his staff. “Went to get some things corrected and it sure seemed liked they did,” she says. Then came the further implementation of the RPO offense, followed by that trip to Boston. Miles changed his normal schedule of taking his team to a movie the night before a game. Instead, they feasted on the best seafood the Northeast can offer: lobster salad, lobster rolls, clam chowder.
This is no newsflash, but Les Miles is one of the more unique people in college football. This is the same guy who annually kissed a live pig while at LSU and scaled a downtown Baton Rouge skyscraper. This is the same coach who called a half-dozen fake field goals (they almost always worked) and made baffling late-game decisions (they almost resulted in wins). You want unique: What other coach is fired from the profession and turns to the big screen (he’s appeared in four featured films)? He also did something else: thought about being a politician. “He turned his eye to that. We researched it, learned a little bit more,” Kathy Miles says. “I think he thought, and I agreed completely, that our going out socially and him putting a tie and a suit on and me dressing up was much better served talking to recruits’ moms.”
And thus ended any chance of us getting Louisiana Senator Les Miles. Kathy knows her husband’s path was always a return to football. She saw on Friday night why. “It was just nice to see Les back in his element. The real drama is between the lines. I think that’s what he likes being part of.”
So what’s next for the Jayhawks? Kansas hosts West Virginia on Saturday before a hellish threesome: at No. 25 TCU, vs. No. 5 Oklahoma, at No. 12 Texas. Miles’s team, a 5-point underdog against a rebuilding Mountaineers’ team, will be as much as a five-touchdown underdog to the likes of the Sooners. But we all know how that ended up last time. Miles sidesteps any questions about OU. “Now that I’m back in this league, I better not make too many enemies. Better not go to talking now,” Miles laughs. Meanwhile, in the immediate future, his plans are clear. “The Kansas Jayhawks improve. They fight like hell and look for the next opportunity at victory,” he says before adding one final line.
“The Kansas Jayhawks are comin'.”