Very early in her courtship with Les Miles, Kathy LaBarge delivered a piece of not especially welcome news to her future husband. She was going to Las Vegas on a previously arranged trip with a group that included a fellow she'd dated in the past. Two decades later she is still amused by Miles's reaction: "He leaned his head back and said, 'What would Bo do?'"
Theirs was a union of assistant coaches. She was a former Central Michigan point guard working for the Michigan women's basketball team. He was a onetime Wolverines offensive lineman who had recently returned to Ann Arbor to join the staff of the renowned Bo Schembechler.
Like all Schembechler disciples, Miles uploaded the core principles of his boss: integrity, discipline, toughness and the primacy of group over individual. This Saturday night, in a battle for SEC West supremacy that will double as a de facto national championship game, Miles will lead his top-ranked, 8--0 Tigers against second-ranked, 8--0 Alabama. But one of the reasons Miles is in contention for his second BCS national title in five years—and one of the reasons he has an .805 winning percentage in 6½ seasons at LSU—is this: Once he determines the answer to the question What would Bo do?, he's not afraid to go the other way. Indeed, at times Miles seems to have borrowed his philosophy of life from Tom Cruise's Risky Business character, Joel Goodson: Sometimes you gotta say, What the f---?
Schembechler, you see, never went for it on fourth down five times in one game, as Miles did against Florida in 2007. While not averse to a few trick plays per decade, Bo preached "execution before innovation." Miles is all about execution, too, but he never saw a trick play that he didn't want to add to his quiver. Like the fake field goal that he busted out last season at Florida on fourth-and-three, trailing 29--26 with 35 seconds to play. (LSU moved the chains and scored the game-winning touchdown four snaps later.) Or, also last season, the successful fake punt followed by the fourth-down reverse that covered 23 yards and set up the go-ahead TD against Alabama.
November 7, 2011
"Bo was a stickler for team play, and I'm sure that's how Les coaches his guys," says former Seattle Seahawks safety Don Dufek, who played with Miles at Michigan, "but Les is a lot more innovative. He likes a style of play that keeps you on the edge of your seat."
The same might be said for Miles's speech, an always original and sometimes comprehensible gumbo of declarations, digressions, distressed syntax and so-called Mile-a-props, such as his recent expression of gratitude to the "thong" of LSU fans who made the trip to Knoxville for the Tigers' 38--7 drubbing of Tennessee. "You've got to use your context clues," says left guard Will Blackwell, "to kind of decipher the meaning." The only thing odder than the sight of Miles plucking, then chewing a sprig of stadium grass during that 2010 victory over the Tide was his postgame explanation: "I have a little tradition that humbles me as a man, that lets me know that I'm a part of the field and part of the game."
For the longest time Miles didn't need to chew grass to humble himself as a man. He had the LSU fan base to do that for him. Entering the 2010 season, he'd gone 51--15 in five years in Baton Rouge. He wasn't quite three seasons removed from a national championship, only the third in school history, yet there was his name featured on various preseason Coaches on the Hot Seat lists. Disgruntled fans still suspected he would dump them for Michigan, the way his predecessor, that carpetbagging Nick Saban, had used their program as a stepping stone to the NFL.
Despising Saban didn't stop the fans from carping that Miles had won that national title with talent recruited by the man he succeeded. That criticism implies that Saban was the far superior recruiter. Not so. For six straight years under Miles, LSU's recruiting classes have been among the top 10 in the nation, in lockstep with Alabama's.
Still, critics questioned Miles's deployment of that talent. They zeroed in on his occasional misadventures in clock management, such as the bungled use of timeouts that kneecapped a possible LSU rally at Ole Miss in 2009. "I understand the criticism from the fans," Miles allowed after that loss. "I'm responsible. I'm the head coach."
He seemed to make a breakthrough with the fans by beating 'Bama last year, handing the Tide its second loss of the season and knocking Saban out of the hunt for his second straight national title. That, of course, was the game in which Miles chewed grass on national TV. Eccentricities such as these, combined with the coach's penchant for gambling on the field, his ever-present ball cap (giving rise to his nicknames: the Hat and the Mad Hatter) and his boldly original linguistic excursions, have tended to distract attention from this emerging truth: Les Miles is a fearless, smart winner. He's on his way to his fifth season of at least 11 victories—this in the toughest division of the toughest conference in the country. He is, in his unorthodox way, one of the top two or three college coaches in the country.
He'll be sharing the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday with another member of that select group. Both Miles and Saban are old school in certain ways: They are not bashful about chewing out players who displease them, and both put in long, long hours on the field and in the office. After that, similarities are harder to come by.
Jacob Hester, a fullback and special teams commando for the San Diego Chargers, was a co-captain on LSU's 2007 national championship team. He played one year for Saban and three for Miles. "Coach Miles got the most out of his players," recalls Hester. "He just did it in a different way than Coach Saban."
And what way was that? "He trusted us," Hester says. "I think Les Miles trusts his players more than any coach I've ever seen or been around." How does this trust manifest itself? "When he calls your number on a trick play or goes for it on a fourth down," Hester says, "the message he's sending is, I believe in you."
LSU fans may love Miles now: Let's see who's still on the bandwagon if 'Bama beats his Tigers by more than, say, two touchdowns. And if the Hat has an uneasy relationship with certain members of Tiger Nation, the bonds that matter—the ones with his players—are stout.
"They're great kids, great young people, and they fight like hell," Miles was saying after LSU's tune-up for the Tide, a 45--10 beatdown of Auburn on Oct. 22, when his train of thought, as so often happens, jumped the tracks. "Do you realize how much fun was had tonight?" he asked rhetorically. "You gotta understand something now: These guys are at risk, and they enjoy it fully. So, I, uh ... I like 'em. It's fun to coach 'em."
Working late in his office two nights later, he filled in that thought: "We ask these players to do some very difficult things, for the team, the coaching staff, the school—at risk of injury. And when they do those things, I feel as if I'm in their debt. It's an honor to coach those guys. I want to do service to them."
Even when that means suspending them. The coaching job done by Miles and his staff this season is all the more impressive when one considers the cavalcade of misfortune, self-inflicted and otherwise, that the team has suffered since the summer. "He's done a great job handling curveballs," says Steve Kragthorpe, a former head coach at Tulsa and Louisville whom Miles hired in the off-season to coordinate his offense.
In August, Kragthorpe announced he had Parkinson's disease. While retaining his duties as quarterbacks coach, he handed off the bulk of his coordinating duties to offensive line coach Greg Studrawa. Then, eight days before LSU's opener against third-ranked Oregon, the team's starting quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, was charged with second-degree battery after allegedly kicking a man in the face during a brawl outside a Baton Rouge bar. While the charges against Jefferson were later reduced to simple battery (his arraignment hearing is pending), he sat out the first four games while serving a suspension. He was replaced by Jarret Lee, a fifth-year senior whose modus operandi has been to back up more talented but less disciplined quarterbacks—Ryan Perrilloux, then Jefferson—and then take the controls when they are suspended.
Unsteady in LSU's otherwise commanding 40--27 win over Oregon, Lee has since found a rhythm—just as Kragthorpe has become comfortable using Lee and Jefferson on alternating series. "It's a luxury," Kragthorpe says of LSU's two-quarterback system. "I've got two guys I know can play and win."
Jefferson had been back on the field for three weeks when Miles suspended three more players—including starting running back Spencer Ware and the sensational, ball hawking cornerback Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu—for violating team policy. "Some guys don't have the great decision-making process just yet," says Miles, "but eventually they'll be very quality husbands, fathers, businessmen. They just need to outdistance their youth."
In 2011 the Tigers have embraced, in Kragthorpe's words, "the philosophy of the Next Man Up." With the Honey Badger out, senior Ron Brooks stepped into the breach. Brooks, who'd started one game in his career, had four tackles, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a pick-six against Auburn. Ware's absence resulted in a coming-out party for true freshman Kenny Hilliard, a 240-pound battering ram of a back who rushed for 65 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries.
"The team is never about the single player," says Miles. "It's not about the injury" that keeps a star out of a certain game, "and it's not about the coach. It's about the strength, and the abilities of the sum."
Here he is back to echoing Schembechler, who "coached team as well as anybody I've been around," says Miles. "I bought in, as a player, as a person, as a family man."
Kathy LaBarge's boss put a note on her desk. She'd recently been assigned to recruit the Chicago area for the Wolverines' hoops team. The head coach wanted her to talk to Miles over in the football offices. He recruited that area and could give her some pointers.
Intimidated by the notion of venturing into the football building, LaBarge was reluctant to look him up, but one day she ran into Miles in the parking lot between their offices. He'd just returned from a Pistons playoff game. He strove, while talking hoops with her, to not betray his lack of basketball knowledge. When LaBarge ran into her boss following that friendly chat with Miles, she recalls, "I still had this grin on my face." She asked, "Why didn't you tell me he was that good looking?"
They married in 1993, their relationship having survived LaBarge's trip to Vegas. Two years later Miles took the offensive coordinator's job at Oklahoma State. After two years there and then three coaching tight ends for the Dallas Cowboys, he returned to Stillwater in '01, this time as head coach.
Taking over a program that had managed only one winning season in 13 years, Miles turned OSU into a consistent winner. In his first two seasons he led the team to upset wins over Oklahoma. He took the Cowboys to three straight bowl games. "I loved my time there," he says. "It's a wonderful place. [Billionaire booster] Boone Pickens was incredibly helpful. We needed planes, he got us planes. But there was a price to pay for that guy." Every August, Miles would have to cancel a handful of afternoon practices because of lightning storms. Coveting an indoor facility, he called the deep-pocketed Pickens, who immediately shot down the idea, informing the coach that he was focused on the renovation of the stadium, to which he would end up donating $165 million. That incident and others gave Miles the strong impression that Pickens "wanted to run" the football program. And it was clear to him, Miles says, that "I was the biggest stumbling block [he] had. At some point I was going to be in the way." When LSU offered Miles the head job before the 2005 season, he put Stillwater in his rearview mirror.
Miles went 11--2 in each of his first two years in Baton Rouge. In 2007, LSU's only losses, to Kentucky and Arkansas, came in triple overtime, and they didn't keep the Tigers out of the SEC title game. But on the morning of that contest, ESPN reported—erroneously—that Miles would be named the new coach at Michigan. Hours before the game he assured his team that he wasn't going anywhere and went on TV to deliver a forceful, angry, digression-free message: "I am the head coach at LSU. I will be the head coach at LSU. I have no interest in talking to anybody else. I've got a championship game to play, and I am excited about the opportunity of my damn strong football team to play in it."
The Tigers beat Tennessee 21--14, backing into the BCS title game thanks to losses by No. 1 Mizzou and No. 2 West Virginia. In what amounted to a home game in the Superdome, LSU outclassed Ohio State for its third national title.
Four seasons later the BCS title game will once again be contested in New Orleans. Yet again Miles has fielded a resilient and ridiculously talented team. "I love it," he replied when informed that his squad opened as a five-point underdog to Alabama. And why not? If the 2007 Tigers were damn strong, this group of road warriors can only be described as damn stronger.
HIS ECCENTRICITIES HAVE TENDED TO DISTRACT ATTENTION FROM THIS EMERGING TRUTH: LES MILES IS A FEARLESS, SMART WINNER.
"THE TEAM IS NEVER ABOUT THE SINGLE PLAYER," MILES SAYS. "IT'S ABOUT THE STRENGTH, AND THE ABILITIES OF THE SUM."