BATON ROUGE, La. -- Every once in a while, Les Miles scrolls through the numbers stored in his cell phone and settles on digits that once connected him to a source of advice and camaraderie.
Bo Schembechler died nearly eight years ago, but Miles can’t bring himself to remove his coaching mentor’s number from his contacts list.
“It's impossible to take it out, isn't it?” Miles asked, staring at the number on the screen. “You know what, sometimes, I haven't dialed it in a while, but sometimes I dial it, too.”
Miles will kick off his 10th season as the LSU Tigers' coach on Saturday against Wisconsin, so the 60-year-old Ohioan had plenty of time to create his own unique identity within the world of college football. And boy has he ever done that, parlaying his wacky personality and consistent winning into a status as one of the sport’s rock stars.
But Miles wouldn’t deny that lessons learned while coaching under father figures like Schembechler and Bill McCartney helped mold him into the head coach he became. Not that he can necessarily pinpoint individual ways that those mentors shaped his own philosophies.
“I think what happens is you have natural instincts in coaching and team philosophies and things that are in your mind right and wrong about a coaching year, scheduling, how you write the schedule for your team -- just the many things that go into developing a team,” Miles said. “And I think that these two guys have so marked my memory that I don't know that I can even separate it.
“But I can tell you this, the things that when you ask [how they influenced me], Bo had the feel of his team. He had just an unbelievable, uncanny recognition for what his team needed. I don't think anybody had that ability that Bo had. I was fortunate to play for him and coach alongside him and I just saw how he touched his team in really special ways -- just roughly and sometimes with humor and sometimes matter-of-factly. He just had it. He could really just speak to his team.”
It’s easy to see how Schembechler’s methods of communication might have rubbed off on his former pupil. In fact, he still speaks to Miles, even from the Great Beyond.
Well, sort of.
Miles chuckled while reporting that he has an enormous Schembechler bobblehead in his office at his family’s Baton Rouge home. Miles said he sometimes talks to the approximately 4-foot-tall doll as though it’s actually the man who coached him at Michigan, offered him his first college coaching job as a Wolverines graduate assistant in 1980 and later hired him as a full-fledged member of his staff.
Asked how those conversations might go, Miles replied, “Just some smiling thoughts. Or I can remember asking him some questions about personnel and his very candid responses.”
Michigan was already on top when Miles became a part of Schembechler’s program. He learned entirely different lessons about how to become successful when he followed McCartney to Colorado.
McCartney hired 28-year-old Miles to coach the offensive line as a member of his first Colorado staff in 1982. Through some rocky early seasons in Boulder, Miles helped McCartney lay the groundwork for what would become one of the nation’s winningest programs in the late 1980s. The Buffaloes had become competitive by the time Miles left McCartney’s staff to return to Michigan in 1987, and it would win a national championship a few years later.
Miles doesn’t speak of any coach as reverently as he does of Schembechler, but it’s clear that McCartney -- a man of great Christian faith -- also made a mark on his young assistant.
“Bill McCartney had vision that was unnatural,” Miles said. “He knew where he wanted to go with his program. He knew how he needed to lead his team. He could recruit as well as any.”
But where does Miles’ trademark gutsiness come from? The trick plays in crucial situations? The decisions to go for it on fourth-and-short over and over? The call to throw for the end zone with seconds remaining when a field goal could win the game?
That’s mostly Les, although even that distinctive bravado might owe a bit to his mentor.
“You've got to understand something,” Miles said. “That Schembechler guy, he was pretty stinking confident.”
Miles is certainly no clone, however. It’s difficult to picture Schembechler or McCartney participating in TV commercials where they eat grass or engaging in some of the other antics that have transformed Miles into the sport’s clown prince. But their lessons are always there, forming a portion of the eccentric coaching personality for which Miles is famous.
Every coach -- actually every successful person in any industry -- can look back at the early stages of his career and point to the people who helped him get on the right track, whose daily presence helped him understand how to do the job correctly.
Miles’ first two bosses are both in the College Football Hall of Fame and Miles is well on the way there himself, proving that he must have been paying attention while learning at the feet of two football masters.
“Being around both those guys,” Miles said, “I can't tell you how fortunate I am.”