The obsession of Les Miles

For 14 days, the LSU coach thinks of nothing but beating Bama

Updated: November 15, 2012, 6:12 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 26 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!

THERE'S A STRANGE HUM in Les Miles' living room, like a storm muffled by a window, a mix of a buzz and a howl. Sitting on his couch, he looks around, over at the fridge, up at the air conditioner. He raises his hands in the air.

"What's that noise?" he finally asks.

The answer hits me first and I blurt it out, "It's Tuscaloosa." The drone is coming from the big flat screen television, where Alabama is dismantling previously undefeated Mississippi State, a week before the Crimson Tide come to Baton Rouge. The roar of Bryant-Denny Stadium is overloading the field mics, running through snaked lengths of cable to the broadcast truck, up to a satellite, then back down into Les Miles' living room. Every so often, there's a shriek: "Roll Tide Roll!"

Otherwise, the house is silent. Nobody says much. Normally when Miles watches football, which happens only during LSU's bye week, he's hilarious, jumping up and stomping toward the television to scream at officials, throwing an imaginary flag or yelling at fellow coaches to go for it on fourth down. As Bob Stoops rants at a ref on this rare free Saturday, Miles grins and says, "Give 'em hell, Bob!" Just before the kickoff of the Alabama game, he did frenzied circles in the kitchen, opening the freezer, drawers, looking through the pantry and bellowing in his Coach Voice: "I know there's candy around here somewhere. Where is the Halloween candy!?"

But with the Crimson Tide on, he's quiet. The room feels heavy with his concentration. Miles focuses. His wife, Kathy, curls next to him under a blanket and doesn't say much either. It's startling to watch him fade from the room. He's leaving the bye week behind, leaving 11 months behind, losing himself to the task ahead. It's clear from the first few minutes of the broadcast that Alabama will win and that no obstacles remain between the Tide and the Tigers. The lurking hope and doubt leave the shadow world of Miles' imagination and become, at long last, real. The last time they played hums in his head like the crowd noise in his living room.

He doesn't say anything when he stands up, walking to the dining room table, sitting by the bank of windows overlooking the pool. He takes a big purple binder out of his briefcase. He uncaps a pen and begins to make notes.

Les MilesChris Graythen/Getty Images for ESPNDuring the two weeks before the big game, Les Miles wanted his team to execute his vision and to feel -- to understand viscerally -- how important it was to beat Alabama.


I DROVE TO Baton Rouge two weeks before the rematch of the 2012 BCS championship, wondering how many times in the past few years LSU has faced the crucible of a highly ranked opponent. It seems as though Les Miles coaches one enormous game after another, each hyped as the biggest of his life, a pressure grinder until it ends, when only the next one matters. Big games have a half-life of nothing and I've thought a lot about what kind of person can live like that, what the constant rise and fall does to them. Before heading to the football ops building, I stopped at the LSU sports information office to look up the numbers. By January, Miles will have coached against 51 ranked teams in eight seasons. Since winning the national championship in 2007, LSU has played 10 top-five opponents. The Crimson Tide will make 11. Six of those games have been against Alabama. A few minutes later, I run into Kathy Miles in the football parking lot. I read her the list of top-five opponents: "1, 1, 3, 5, 5, 3, 2, 3, 2, 3, 1." She looked stunned and, sounding a little in awe, asked, "We played all those people?"


MILES IS A MAN of such eccentric and exaggerated quirks that by the time he reaches the public imagination, all that's left of him are those bits of weirdness: the grass-eating, the odd way he claps and wears his hat, the dueling adjectives of guts and insanity that follow his play-calling like puppies fighting over a wounded bird. So it's strange, even a little jarring, to hear him being introspective and thoughtful. He is talking about wounds and scars, which are never far from his mind as he prepares for this year's Alabama game. It's the bye week. He heads through the second floor hall past the receptionist's desk, down the stairs into the two-story trophy room where his voice echoes off the high ceilings and glass walls. It's dark outside.

"Any lesson learned is a scar," he says. "Any open sore is a wound. You want to show your scars. Be proud of the lessons learned."

"What is the loss in the BCS championship game?" I ask.

"Both," he says.

In the Superdome last January, Miles and his Tigers came out in the biggest game of their lives and did not fire. Alabama won 21-0, and in the process took something even more precious than a national title. The Crimson Tide made LSU look structurally inferior, made Nick Saban seem able to find answers to questions that Miles didn't know to ask. That night, Miles and his family left the Superdome together, riding toward Canal Street in a police cruiser, the coach in the front with the cop, the four kids and Kathy crammed into the back. Months later, Kathy would feel proud at how the family comforted their hollowed-out dad. They all piled into the hotel room bed and tried to convince him that it would be OK.

It was still a good season, Dad.

You won 13 games, honey.

The loss was a wound, not just to an undefeated season but to the identity of coaches who see themselves as people who win big games. The first step in healing was to watch the film for the first time. As Miles took notes the day after the loss, a huge, existential failure became many small, practical ones. He broke the game down position by position. A problem identified could be fixed, a lesson learned, the wound becoming a scar.

Without these problems, the national championship game might have ended differently. "Two mistakes by running backs in protection, I'm not kidding you now," he tells me almost a year later, snapping his fingers, "we're gonna hit big-ass plays."

His voice lowers.

"Not one time in the game did we get momentum on our side," he says.

The problems and their solutions wait in a folder for the first Saturday in November. Each game brings them closer to the rematch, and when the clock hits zero at Texas A&M on Oct. 20, a shaky 24-19 LSU win, Miles' mind quickly turns to Alabama. "Well I promise you, it was certainly before I got to the locker room," he says later. "Oh, I guarantee it."

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Brady FontenotMiles is the only coach in SEC history to win 11 games five times in his first seven years.

The next day Miles stays at work past midnight, later than usual on the Sunday after a game, watching film of this year's Crimson Tide -- and more film of the BCS defeat. A few places to attack emerge, a way to run on Alabama's stout defense, through it even, and a way for struggling quarterback Zach Mettenberger to find himself. The next morning Miles gathers the staff in the conference room next to his office, which overlooks the practice field. He carries the notes about the loss in New Orleans, the brutal specifics. But his speech isn't about football, at least not its mechanics. He wants them to understand -- to feel -- how important beating Alabama is to him. That is the first thought on the first day of the bye week.

The path to the future, he explains, runs through the upcoming Saturday night. Winning the west, then the conference, then another national title, runs through Alabama. Something else does too, because if this is the program LSU believes it is, and if Miles is the coach he aspires to be, then this is the kind of game the Tigers win. A few times in a career, a moment arrives that isn't just the next step; it holds the power to redefine the past and change the future.

When we talk later, sitting in his office, I push an imaginary stack of chips to the center of his coffee table. He nods.

"All in," he says.

The season has been building toward this game. The memory of the national championship loss is everywhere around the football building: in random daily conversations, in the ethos of the team, even on the building itself. At the front of the team meeting room, a huge purple sign hangs on the wall, the 2012 Tigers mission statement.

It is immediately clear that Miles himself wrote it. The 24 exclamation marks give him away. He loves a slammer; every sentence in a text message from him ends in an exclamation mark, no matter how mundane the information exchanged: Park out front! Door is open!

The annual mission statement grows out of several meetings with team leaders. The exercise allows them to talk honestly about themselves. A line about personal habits, as an example, was directed at Tyrann Mathieu. The sign is hung in the week before the first game and is the purest window into the hopes and fears of the LSU Tigers. In big letters at the very bottom -- a final statement -- are three words. If you wonder how fundamental the link between January and November, between an embarrassing loss and a rematch, walk into the meeting room and read the most important thing to the 2012 Tigers:

SHOW YOUR SCARS!


THE PRESSURE OF a major college football program is well-known for all it destroys, leaving broken families, burned-out coaches and a textbook worth of neuroses and paranoia. But it creates something too. In response to the threat, and as a protection from it, a bubble forms. A separate and safe place, the eye of a storm. A coach survives the rise and fall by trying to create a world free of emotional tides. I read Miles the same list I read his wife: "1, 1, 3, 5, 5, 3, 2, 3, 2, 3, 1."

"Those were really exciting games," he says. "Those were fun games to play. The bad news is, Where's the championship? You just played a great team, right? You didn't win anything but the right to play another great team."

He sits upstairs in his office, the very center of the bubble, at the coffee table where he eats almost all his meals, putting the to-go boxes on the folded towel he uses as a tray. It has been a difficult year. With his arms, Miles forms the outline of waves. "These are rocky seas out here, man," he says. "We'll stay out here for a while."

They've lost a game to Florida. They've lost three starting offensive linemen and, of course, he dismissed Mathieu before the season. During the bye week, when news of Mathieu's drug arrest breaks, the story causes major headlines but hardly a blip inside the building. The days keep churning along, each one almost exactly like the one before.

The bubble minimizes Miles' greatest weakness: clock management. Even his family makes fun of him; he recently decided that he would never have a meal after 7 p.m., which means there's often a race to eat at 6:51. So many daily tasks are farmed out that he's almost pure thought, a free-floating football brain focused on Alabama. A staff member moves Miles' car to the stadium for home games and to the airport for road games. His secretary picks out suits, attaches the LSU lapel pen. Someone plugs in his cellphone so that it is miraculously always charged.

Taking away mundane decisions frees Miles to use his greatest strengths: joy and a contagious belief. Nick Saban, the coach against whom he is most often measured, chases victory by removing variables, including emotion. Miles needs to transfer his joy and intensity to the players, amplifying emotion instead of removing it. This is a much harder way to win games, trying to ride the unpredictable bulls of desire and belief.

One of his secretaries shows me two photographs as a way to explain why Miles is successful. They were taken before and after the A&M game. Afterward, he is leaping into a player's arms in the locker room, laughing, childlike. Before kickoff, in the moment before the Tigers take the field, his eyes are arched and clear, almost angry. He is holding his team in the tunnel, making it wait. In this moment, when the players press together and surge, he knows the tricky task of transferring himself has worked.

Other than the intensity and joy shown in those two photos, the only emotion I've ever seen from Miles is wistfulness, which isn't really surprising for someone who lives in an enclosed, repetitive ecosystem. He knows I travel internationally and while walking off the practice field one day during the bye week, he peppers me with questions about Sri Lanka. What's the weather like? What did you eat? How about the politics? Was it scary? "I would love to see the things you've seen," he says.

A few days later, we sit in his Escalade waiting for his son Ben's youth football game to begin. He eats a burrito bowl. In the shadow of the Mississippi River, Sri Lanka comes up again, along with the sprawling world outside his bubble. "Am I gonna have a regret that I haven't traveled?" he says. "That I haven't seen the faces of other peoples?"

I show him photos of the subcontinent sky on my phone and he can't get over the crazy colors. Someday. "When I pass," he says, "you will either know that I made it there or I didn't, and you'll know I really wish I had."

From his seat, he can see the river levee and Tiger Stadium, and there's an approaching game that's already giving him surges of adrenaline, a feeling he hopes he can transfer once more to his players, making them press against his locked arms. Hopefully this time they'll fire. The wistfulness is gone. Kathy told me that Miles often conceives projects in the offseason, business deals or real estate investments, but no matter how serious he is about them in May, they are forgotten come August. On a Thursday night, nine days before Alabama, I'm watching him do the same thing. He's a 58-year-old coaching lifer in the last job he'll ever have, and he's got a team to prepare. He finishes the burrito and takes a swig of green tea. To his right, the stadium waits.


IN THE TWO WEEKS before the Alabama rematch, Miles does about 27 things at once, including, on this evening after the next to last bye-week practice, texting and driving. He looks up as he passes Tiger Stadium, just in time not to slam into a parked car, swerving, cackling, driving on through the night.

"When I hit the car," he jokes, "let me know."

(Miles likes to laugh at himself, like at the story they tell about the grass. Miles takes Tiger Stadium sod clippings with him on the road -- a snack, I guess -- and after the Auburn game, he left the plastic bag in his pants. The dry cleaner called, worried and a little freaked out: Uh, there's a baggie in coach's pants. A bag of grass. )

Turns out, as he barrels through campus, he's not texting, just looking for a phone number, which he finds and dials. One of the beat reporters, whose wife, after a devastating miscarriage, just had their first child. "Way to go! Way to go! Way to go!" Miles shouts, who then asks about weight and length. "That is awesome. Congratulations. Very happy for you. Please tell your wife the same. Couldn't be happier. I can't wait to meet her."

The reporter says he'll bring the little girl to practice, mentioning that he should leave the grandfather at home; the man is an Alabama fan. Miles laughs again, crossing Lakeshore Drive.

"That is correct," he tells the new father, "Leave the grandfather at home, that's for damn sure."


THE BUBBLE SEEMS permanent, durable, because of the number of people involved in sustaining it and the money spent and gained through its creation. But really, it's fragile and anything can crack it. At his weekly radio show during the bye week, Miles struggles to make it through. It's wearing him out more than usual. Near the end, a nutty fan gives voice to an idea that exists in everyone's mind in Baton Rouge, an idea Miles has to protect himself from if he is to succeed and thrive. The fan pierces the bubble.

"Our former employee, Nicky-Poo Saban, is all upset," the fan starts. Miles smiles thinly, then closes his eyes, trying not to change expressions at the mention of the Tigers' former coach, because the perceived rivalry between them, even if it doesn't exist, is an open gas nozzle of a story, always hungry for a spark. The fan lets loose an angry, nonsensical jeremiad about Saban, whose departure is still definitely a wound and not a scar. As the fan rants, Miles doodles, more intensely than at any other point during the show; when he stands up, he leaves behind a legal pad page bisected with a band of tight, furious circles.

He finally exhales in the solitude of his car.

The ghost of Saban haunts the LSU football program, even eight years after he left. It doesn't matter that they have nearly identical career win percentages. Miles is seen as lucky while Saban is seen as a genius. Even in Miles' own building, the ghost is never far away. One day a booster stops by the facility. He begins gushing about the first Saban practice he ever attended: All the Tigers did was work on getting the play from the press box to the field! Saban, his face red, screamed that he wanted them to break the huddle at 16 or 17 seconds, not at 11 or 12. Then the guy catches himself and adds, Well, you know, he'd rather have his son play for Les. That happened 40 steps from Miles' office.

In the car after the radio show, I ask why people bring up Saban so much.

"Well," Miles says, "the idea that he was here certainly is ... you know ... it's fundamental. I probably thought more about it earlier in my time here, but I think much less of it going forward. I've got to be honest with you, there was a time when it was probably more noteworthy to me. It's been so long. Eight years, I'm just sitting there, going ... "

He trails off, still tired from the radio show and with a long night in front of him. The only sound is the road beneath his tires. Miles laughs as he drives back through campus, rekindling his joy. After a few minutes of being tired, he sounds like himself again.

"It's certainly not about him from our end," he says. "Just so you know."


BEFORE ONE OF THE final practices, Miles sits at his coffee table with the folded white towel. We're talking abstractly at first, about why coaches limit media access to players. My theory is that it has little to do with what the athletes might say and everything to do with how a series of questions can create a new reality that destroys confidence. He nods. That's it exactly.

"Managing confidence is interesting," he says, then on his own talks his way to the game in New Orleans. "I don't think I've ever been overconfident where it was detrimental to us. It's interesting, the national championship game, I was never overconfident. That game we played at Tuscaloosa was a dogfight."

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
John HuetAfter thinking about this game for 11 months, Miles devised an audacious plan: Run on, and through, Bama's D.

His mind takes him to this year's Alabama game, the one they're preparing for now. All of these things are connected.

"This game plan should be a pretty good game plan," he says.

Fear and doubt must be pushed away if someone is chasing any kind of greatness. Some things, I hypothesized, cannot be said aloud, not because of how they will look on the pages of a magazine but because when a thought is spoken, it acquires a power that it previously did not have.

"That is correct," he says.

I ask about the damage done by all those big games, reading the list again: "1, 1, 3, 5, 5, 3, 2, 3, 2, 3, 1."

"There's an emotional hit," he says. "There really is. Those swings, there's some at-risk there."

He's speaking in fragments now: "Who you are, who you are as a person, there's some risk there. It messes with you."

So if a team loses any big game, I say, there's a cascading series of hits, down to the bedrock of identity. I begin a sentence, "What if there's something that not only I don't have, I don't even know ... "

" ... that I don't have it," he says, finishing the thought.

It is during this conversation about fear and doubt that I notice the shrine. There's a wooden miniature of the SEC championship trophy directly in front of the towel. Its purpose is suddenly obvious. This chair is where he usually sits and whenever he is in it, he is always looking at a physical representation of his own managed confidence. No matter how much the chatter calls Alabama the greatest team ever, a year ago LSU became conference champions by going to Tuscaloosa and winning. A year ago, almost to the day, his team won and that's what he chooses to remember in the week before the Crimson Tide land in Baton Rouge.


TWENTY-SIX MINUTES before kickoff, as always, the stereo at Tiger Stadium plays "Callin' Baton Rouge" and Miles gives a fist-pump. You can almost feel him vibrating, a circle of belief finally making it back to where it started two weeks ago: from him at his coffee table, to the assistant coaches in a conference room, to a few players, then all the players, to the thousands singing along to Garth Brooks, then -- standing near midfield watching his team's final moments of preparation -- back to him.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles and Nick Saban
Jamie Squire/Getty Images for ESPN The MagazineMiles' fourth-down gambles will hound him, as well as define him.

The game begins and through a long night, LSU hangs with the best team in the country. The plan works. The Tigers run the ball, opening up wide lanes between the tackles. Mettenberger throws with accuracy and confidence -- with belief -- and as the third quarter nears its close, LSU scores cut the Tide's lead to 14-10. Miles calls an onside kick. One gamble has failed already tonight: a fake field goal. This will be the second. Outside the bubble, these two calls, and a later failed attempt at fourth and one, will be described as foolish, but inside they seem like a way to show his belief in his players, to transfer it, a midgame infusion. The onside kick looks perfect, until it takes a bad hop just shy of 10 yards, touching the kicker. Alabama ball. But even in failure, the call works like gasoline thrown on the fire -- for the players and for the fans -- because everyone understands its meaning: All in.

LSU's defense forces a fumble, then the offense scores to take a 17-14 lead. For 20 or so minutes, everything dreamed up during the long two weeks of preparation translates into action. Alabama looks exposed, dominated. Time ticks away: seconds, then minutes, and Tiger Stadium feels alive, breathing, swaying, roaring. With seven minutes to go, the Tigers get the ball on their own 18, then ram it through the best defense in the country before stalling at Alabama's 28. A minute and a half, fourth down and six yards to go. Miles doesn't gamble this time by trying to win with one risky play. He sends in the field goal unit.

When the kick slips wide left, something happens. The carefully constructed circle breaks. Everyone can feel it: the crowd, the suddenly conservative defense on the field, the coaches calling the plays, the players on the sideline, even Miles. Alabama drives effortlessly downfield, the grandstands bleeding energy with each completion. Belief is hard to understand and harder to tame, and when it's gone, it's often gone for good. A.J. McCarron engineers a lethal two-minute drill, winning the game 21-17. At midfield, Saban tells Miles: "You guys outplayed us. You have a good team."

Outside the bubble, fans and pundits blame Miles. An offensive lineman on last year's team, T-Bob Hebert, lashes out on Twitter: "Coachin blew this game ... A game in which LSU absolutely dominated; it's sad to see the players' hopes ruined by terrible decision making."

Inside the bubble, the Tigers enter the chute, some crying beneath their helmets, holding on to each other. Miles stands in the wide lobby between the tunnel and the locker room. He gathers the team. The only noise comes from a few intermittent sobs. His voice is soft. Nobody gave them a chance, he says, but they proved something about themselves. He tells them he's proud of them and that he's sorry for the calls that didn't work. His voice rises.

"We are all miserable," he booms. "I thought you played your asses off."

Players bow their heads as he starts the prayer.

"Dear Lord," he says, "we fought valiantly ... "


An hour later, Miles is one of the last two people standing on the field, finishing his weekly television show. His family stands inside the tunnel, Kathy leaning her head against the wall. A producer takes off the microphone, Miles clenching and unclenching his jaw. For a moment, standing in the end zone, he seems almost confused. He believed, and now faced with the limits of belief, this conflict is working itself out in real time.

"We play these games and we finish first," he says. "That's what we do."

He needs to move from the emptiness of the loss to the fullness it will take to wake up tomorrow and start again. If he cries or rages, he does it in private. A long night in Tiger Stadium is already fading away, two weeks of work gone, 11 months of hopes unfulfilled.

By the time he steps out of the locker room into the shadowy canopy of oaks along North Stadium Road, all of it will have been reduced to a little mark in the L column, another sentence of boilerplate about the imagined Les Miles, who wears his hat funny and is either gutsy or insane.

The actual Miles is in that in-between place -- letting go of a feeling, slowly giving himself over to the next game, turning one big failure into many tiny ones, finding safety in the bubble.

"Wound or a scar?" I ask.

A familiar look returns to his face, the nearly-angry eyes from the photograph at Texas A&M; I'm not sure whether he's talking to me or to himself, whether this is something he believes or something he needs to believe.

"Well," he says, "I gotta be honest with you, I think we definitely showed we healed the scars today. There was no lack of effort, energy and nerve. This was a fistfight. If this is the best team in the country we just played, then we're pretty close."

The next morning, as the town empties, his car is parked in its usual spot at the football building. Upstairs, he roams the halls. They have six days until Mississippi State. He believes they will win.

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Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.