Les Miles, the Great Communicator

Friends and family of quirky, quotable LSU coach say he's the same as he ever was

Originally Published: November 6, 2013
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

The only thing better than Les Miles at a podium or in front of a microphone is a chest-beating Les Miles leading a team meeting.

Most of us aren't privy to such pure, unadulterated entertainment, but former LSU All-American and current Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson insists it's priceless.

"He had that walk when he'd come in, his hands in his pockets, real smooth and laid-back," Peterson said. "He starts out real low and then gets rowdier and rowdier and starts beating his chest. I mean, it's something else."

And so was what Miles had to say.

"We'd joke with each other that you'd better have your Les Miles dictionary," Peterson said with a hearty laugh. "He'd make up these mysterious words, and we'd all lean over and say, 'What in the world did coach just say? Is that even a word?'

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AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPatrick Peterson, with Les Miles before taking the field in 2010, says he would play for Miles again.

"But he was fun to play for and made it fun every day. That's why he's able to recruit the way he does. I'd go back in a heartbeat and play for him if I had it to do all over again. He just has this special way of getting the best out of guys and making them believe that they can do anything."

The evolution of Miles as college football's "Great Communicator" goes back to his days at Michigan, first as a player and then as a coach under the legendary Bo Schembechler.

Even then, he was must-see TV, although the people who know him best say there was usually a method to his perceived madness.

"There was never a dull moment with Les," said lifelong friend John Wangler, a former quarterback at Michigan and Miles' roommate when they were graduate assistants under Schembechler.

"He's always had that goofy sense of humor about him, and he's not afraid to let his hair down and enjoy life. You can see that in the way his teams play. They play extremely hard for him."

Wangler jokes that he's licensed to recount only the "PG" stories of some of their escapades together.

One of his favorites involved a trip to the Silverdome to see a Detroit Pistons-Los Angeles Lakers game in the 1988 NBA Finals. Wangler had scored some all-access sideline passes from a friend of his with the NBA and invited Miles.

"We were moving all over the place and were right behind the Lakers' bench," Wangler said. "We might as well have been in the huddle with our heads between Magic Johnson and James Worthy while Pat Riley was talking to them during a timeout."

But that wasn't good enough for Miles, who was determined to get back in the locker room area after the game. The Pistons won to take a 3-2 lead, and Riley wasn't in the best of moods.

The jogging suit was made out of some kind of material that was like velvet. It just didn't go together. It almost looked like a smoking jacket. Put it this way. There weren't a whole lot of places you could wear it.

-- Bill Clay, who coached under Les Miles at Oklahoma State, on a gift from Miles to the assistants.

Sure enough, Wangler and Miles navigated their way into the news conference, and Miles piped up and asked Riley a question that rankled the Hall of Fame coach.

"It was something about rebounding or blocking out in the second half, and I'm thinking, 'Oh no, we're in trouble now,'" Wangler recalled. "All these national media guys started looking around at us like we weren't supposed to be there.

"The next thing I know, the security guys were on us and wanted to know who we were with. Les goes, 'We're with The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper.' They looked at us and said, 'You're out of here.'"

Miles proved his resourcefulness by being one of the first people to get in to see Schembechler after his first open heart surgery in 1976.

"Bo would always say, 'Who do you think was the first face I would see when I came to? Lester ... Miles,'" recounted Bob Thornbladh, who coached with Miles at Michigan and still gets a chuckle out of the story all these years later. "Bo loved to tell that story. He'd say, 'I've got this big, fat face looking down on me, and it's Lester Miles. Did I not play this kid enough? Is he mad at me? I hope he doesn't pull my tubes out.'

"That's just Les. He had a great love for Bo and was going to do anything it took to see him."

Miles' penchant for having fun has long been a trademark. He chomps on blades of grass, mixes his metaphors as he only he can and turns run-of-the-mill news conferences into the kind of comedy routine that would have made Richard Pryor envious.

"I can't say anything he says or does ever really surprises me," said Miles' wife of 20 years, Kathy Miles. "He speaks from the heart and always has. I know a lot of coaches will say what they think they're supposed to say to the media. With Les, it's more what he would say if he were sitting in our living room in front of all of us or with his friends."

Miles' four kids will occasionally gig him about some of his Les-isms, although Kathy said they're sort of immune to them by now.

"Sometimes, they will say, 'Where did you get that from, Dad?'" Kathy said. "It's kind of funny. They just take it in stride. One of them might say, 'Dad got pretty fired up in his press conference,' and I'll say, 'I guess so,' and that's about the end of it."

Former Colorado coach Bill McCartney has never been fooled by the clown-prince side of Miles.

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AP Photo/Rob CarrKathy Miles says Les is no different during a press conference than he is at home on the couch.

"He likes to play that card because it gets a reaction," said McCartney, who gave Miles his first full-time coaching job in 1982, when he took the young Michigan graduate assistant with him to Colorado to be his offensive line coach.

"When I was in a home recruiting with him, and it was usually to see a kid in California, I'm telling you. He's charming. He's soft-spoken. He's witty. He's got the whole package. I had to be careful that I just stayed out of his way because he was laying the charm on.

"Don't underestimate that other stuff, that quirkiness. People get sidetracked with that. That's all part of what he's trying to portray."

Former LSU All-American tight end David LaFleur crossed paths with Miles in the NFL. Miles was LaFleur's position coach for three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys from 1998-2000. LaFleur still gets a kick out of some the things Miles used to say, but what LaFleur remembers most is how much Miles cared for his players.

"There were moments when he'd say something, and we'd scratch our heads and say, 'Where did that come from?'" LaFleur said. "But there was always some meaning or tidbit of information that you'd hang onto, and it would help you down the road.

"He's good for the game. He really is, so passionate and so full of life. The thing I always admired most about him was the compassion he showed for his players."

On most days, LaFleur said Miles would start off his meetings with a story about his then-young family.

"He brought the personal side to it, which was refreshing, especially when you think about the pressure in that league," LaFleur said. "It didn't take you very long to learn that he cared about you a lot more than just being a football player. He cared about you as an individual. There are a lot of coaches who preach that. Very few back it up."

With Les, it was always what you'd call untraditional communication. He's the master of the vague concept and the run-on sentence. But if you listen carefully, there's always meaning there.

-- Bob Thornbladh, a former teammate and Michigan assistant alongside Les Miles.

Bill Clay, who was Miles' defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, was introduced to the fatherly side of Miles 12 years ago when they first met. Miles was catching a flight at the Atlanta airport and wanted to talk to Clay about the job.

Clay, who was coaching at UAB at the time, drove over with his wife. They just happened to be babysitting their 2-year-old grandson. That was no issue for Miles.

"We hit it off, and the meeting went long," Clay recalled. "My wife finally called and said she was running out of things to do with our grandson. I told Les then that I had him, and he insisted that I bring him on up to the hotel room."

Clay's grandson brought a present with him, too.

"He just loaded up his diaper while we were still talking, and Les never batted an eye," Clay said. "I think he even helped us change it, and we just kept talking football.

"I told my wife afterward, 'I don't know if he's going to hire me, but he's the right kind of guy.' Les never took himself too seriously. You can't say that about a lot of coaches. Les worked as hard as anybody, but he also saw the humorous side of the game."

And with Miles, humor is a constant.

Even back then, before he was "The Hat" or the "Mad Hatter," he was wearing his cap in vintage Miles fashion.

"We used to joke about that," Clay said. "He pulls it down to where it almost flattens his ears out, about as far as it will go."

That first season at Oklahoma State, Clay said Miles started his own clothing line and gave all the coaches jogging suits with matching hats.

"I remember thinking, 'This is going to be different than other coaches I've been around,'" Clay said. "The jogging suit was made out of some kind of material that was like velvet. It just didn't go together. It almost looked like a smoking jacket.

"Put it this way. There weren't a whole lot of places you could wear it."

Miles' passion also has spilled over a time or two, something else that makes him one of the most entertaining figures in all of college football.

First-year LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who shared an office with Miles when they were worked together on the Michigan staff, once came to blows with Miles during a coaches' meeting.

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AP Photo/Brett CoomerEven in his first head coaching job at Oklahoma State, Les Miles wasn't afraid to let loose.

It was much to the delight of both Schembechler and Gary Moeller, who both loved to pit Cameron and Miles against each other in heated football discussions.

"They knew we were the best of friends, so that made it even more enticing for them," Cameron explained. "Both of us kept going up to the board and trying to trump the other's answer. Les would grab the marker, and then I'd grab the marker and jump up there. Finally, one of us said something, and off we went."

It wasn't exactly a knock-down, drag-out fight, but Miles did head-butt Cameron.

"I remember saying, 'You just head-butted me,' and Les goes, 'I know I did,'" Cameron said. "Later on that day, we were crying we were laughing so hard."

Thornbladh played with Miles at Michigan and later coached with him when Miles returned to Michigan in 1980 as a graduate assistant under Schlembechler.

In fact, Thornbladh was in the office the day Miles came back to ask Schembechler for a chance to be a graduate assistant. Miles had been out of football for a few years after graduating from Michigan in 1976 and working as a broker in the long-haul trucking business.

"With Les, it was always what you'd call untraditional communication," joked Thornbladh, who has remained close with Miles. "He's the master of the vague concept and the run-on sentence. But if you listen carefully, there's always meaning there. The words might be a little off, but there's a point to what he says."

As a recruiter and a motivator, few have been better than Miles, who latched on a long time ago to what he learned under McCartney.

"Coaches think they do it. That is the biggest farce of all," McCartney said. "Players do it. It's about recruiting. It's about stacking the deck. It's about competition at positions. Les understands that.

"He's also an old offensive lineman. He's unselfish. He's about team. He's about us. He doesn't take credit for what the players do. He knows it's about them. He's always going to defer, and that's why they trust him and respond to him the way they do."

Similarly, Clay said Miles was a master at taking bullets for his coaches and players and was never too vain to laugh at himself, either.

"The pressure of the game just doesn't affect Les the way it does most coaches," said Clay, who coached for more than 40 years and served as a defensive coordinator for seven Division I programs. "You'd hear Les say, 'Can you believe they pay us to do this?'"

Wangler added: "He has as much passion and drive to win as anybody I've ever been around, but he just does it in a different way."

To this day, Wangler still needles Miles about a talk Miles gave to the recruits and their parents prior to the 1981 Ohio State game in Ann Arbor. The full-time assistants were all preparing for the game, so the Michigan graduate assistants were responsible for entertaining the recruits on campus.

"He got off on a tangent about the Romans and Christians, trying to make some analogy, and lost his train of thought and got way out there in space," Wangler said. "The more he talked, the more sidetracked he got and he just couldn't pull it back in. You should have seen these blank stares on the faces of the kids and their parents.

"Thirty years later, we're still scratching our heads trying to figure out what he was trying to say. But that's vintage Les, and we've never let him live it down."

The only thing that Wangler teases Miles more about is the hair product Miles tried when they were both graduate assistants at Michigan.

"It was like motor oil and wouldn't come out for two days," Wangler said. "He was trying to make it thicker or something. I don't know what he was doing, but it looked like motor oil dripping out of his head."

And he couldn't wait to call Miles after seeing his performance in LSU's version of the Harlem Shake back in the spring.

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AP Photo/Dave MartinFamily and friends say the pressure of coaching doesn't consume Miles.

"You've still got the same moves," Wangler told Miles, who according to Wangler was never to be confused with John Travolta back during the disco craze. "It's the same stuff he was doing at Bicycle Jim's back in Ann Arbor in 1980. He needs to upgrade his program. Seriously, though, how many coaches are that comfortable in their own skin? Les has never fallen into the trappings of a big-time college coach. He's the same guy and has never changed."

Cameron has heard all the funny stories about Miles and even lived some of them. But at the end of the day, Cameron said there's a very simple reason that Miles has risen to the top of his profession.

"People get caught up in the commercials and all the funny stuff, but we know and the players know that he's a stone-cold football coach," Cameron said.

That said, Cameron isn't so sure that Miles is the second-best coach in his own home. Kathy was an assistant women's basketball coach at Michigan when they met and played basketball at Central Michigan.

"She was a Pat Summitt-type of coach, and thank goodness the kids got her athletic ability," Cameron joked.

Kathy said her husband's coaching résumé speaks for itself, but she does acknowledge that Miles wouldn't stand much of a chance against her if they squared off in hoops.

"The only way I wouldn't beat him is if he bloodied my nose by pushing me around or shoving me around," Kathy said. "There's no finesse at all with Les.

"So, yes, if we had a referee, it's 100 percent that I would beat him."

It's also 100 percent that Miles is going to keep on keeping it real ... and winning a ton of games along the way.

Chris Low | email

College Football

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