Publish date:

MORE WITH LES

Author:

Two years after leaving behind a complicated legacy at LSU, one of college football's most colorful coaches is back—but at one of the country's bleakest programs. Can even LES MILES breathe life into moribund Kansas?

SLICED AVOCADO, mixed greens, walnuts, grapes, dried cranberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions. These ingredients are gathered in a bowl, tossed in a rice-wine vinaigrette and, on this cold February night at 23rd Street Brewery on the main drag in Lawrence, Kans., is placed in front of Kathy Miles. "I love the dressing," she tells restaurant owner Matt Llewellyn. This meatless salad is a new menu item at the popular restaurant, and it is selling briskly, Llewellyn says, in large part because of the name. Weeks ago the Kansas football coach (and Kathy's husband) walked in for the first time and, after scouring the menu, created his own dish. "Here's what I want," he told Llewellyn, and with that, the Les Miles Vegan Salad was born.

Les Miles has a new diet with a new name: flexitarian. "A flexitarian," says Miles, who has a knack for linguistic invention, "is, in my words, the ability to eat vegetarian unless there's a little piece of chicken that gets caught on your fork or spoon when you are eating soup and trying to be vegetarian, but occasionally that piece of chicken gets to your mouth and it does not benefit you politely to remove it, so you must eat it," he says. "That is the flex in flexitarian." (Translation: He's a vegan who cheats.)

Miles no longer utters the three letters inscribed on the national championship ring he waves on his right hand—L-S-U—instead referring to that university as "my last stop" or "the place I was last." Since November he has been occupying a radically different place in the football landscape: the coach of what many consider to be the worst major conference program in the country. He has more wins in 16 seasons at Oklahoma State and LSU (142) than Kansas does in its last 32 (137). The Jayhawks have finished with a losing record in 10 consecutive years, won six conference games over that span and have averaged 19,424 fans at home games last season. After two years away from coaching, Miles is back, 65 years old and 20 pounds lighter, taking on the hardest job in the FBS: making Kansas football relevant.

But he's still quirky old Les Miles. You know, the guy who noshed grass during tense sideline moments; who during press conferences did everything from answering reporters' ringing iPhones to going on extended salutes to Columbus Day; who wore his white hat so oddly propped atop his head—a light breeze could blow it off—that he earned the nickname "the Mad Hatter," a nod also to fourth-down gambles and fake field goals that failed more often than not. During his hiatus he starred in Dos Equis beer commercials and had bit parts in two low-budget films. A retired Miles had the makings of becoming the next Most Interesting Man in the World, or the replacement for Lee Corso as the comic relief on ESPN College GameDay.

Miles had other plans, namely to return to the football field, where he claimed two SEC championships and the 2007 national title while finishing with the best winning percentage (.770) of any coach in LSU's modern era. His legacy there remains complicated. Four games into the '16 season, Miles was fired, too stubborn to overhaul an unimaginative offense. Now he's back to lead a program that hasn't been to a bowl game since '08. Why? Because the marriage at Kansas is one between a program that no one else wants to coach and a coach that no one else wants to hire? Miles has another reason. "Retirement is not something I was fired up about," he says. "I'm having fun."

THE NEW Les Miles has a problem. Two of his assistants are waiting for the coach as he arrives at his office at 7:15 a.m. on National Signing Day. In what is an unmistakably grave tone, one of the men tells Miles the news: "Marcus Harris's mom called."

Harris is a three-star defensive end from Montgomery, Ala., who had told coaches a day before that he planned to shun offers from South Alabama, Southern Miss and Tulane to come to Lawrence. Now he has cold feet, and so does his family. What happens next speaks to why the Jayhawks hired Miles. He's charming and comforting and has a disarming, goofy personality. Tight ends coach Jeff Hecklinski witnessed it this winter during in-home visits as Miles, surrounded by a recruit's relatives, put everyone at ease and then, oh yeah, brandished that championship ring. "It gets passed around," Hecklinski says with a laugh. The jewelry is far from the only selling point about this man. Miles's tenure at LSU was more than twice the average for an SEC coach. "We use that," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot says. "He's got to be great to go 12 years in the SEC."

Miles hurriedly gets on the phone with Harris's mother, settles the family's nerves and gets his reward. Harris's paperwork arrives, and defensive line coach Kwahn Drake bellows a "Booooom!" across the hallways of the football complex. The excitement over landing the nation's 120th-ranked strongside end, who held one other Power 5 offer, is an indication of the new Les Miles's status.

Kansas brought in $3.9 million in football ticket revenue in 2018, while men's hoops took in $15.8 million, according to a recent story in the Kansas City Star. "Football is year-round in the SEC," says Katy Lonergan, the Jayhawks' director of football communications and an alum who spent seven years in a similar role at Ole Miss. "That's basketball here." Athletic director Jeff Long wants to balance the playing fields. He hired longtime football administrator Mike Vollmar to oversee the program, approved the addition of 12 support- staff members and increased the salary pool. A $26 million indoor facility will open in time for spring drills. "We're not doing this at the expense of our basketball program," Long says. "It's in addition to. We need both of them."

That's why he gave Miles a five-year deal. The roster is so mangled that the new staff's in-house evaluation paints a grim scene: Kansas won't be able to fill its NCAA allotment of 85 scholarships until 2022 at the earliest, thanks to attrition, past regimes' recruiting tactics and the NCAA's two-year-old 25-scholarship limit for each signing class. Hecklinski, who came from Indiana State, spent two weeks over Christmas break doing a comprehensive analysis, organized in a thick three-ring binder that sits atop his desk. "I kept looking at it, like, this can't be right," he says. "Toughest roster situation I've seen."

Over the next three seasons, the Jayhawks will operate in at least a 10-player hole. Those who transfer, get injured or are dismissed cannot be replaced. The impact on the 2019 class was significant. Miles and staff were limited to signing 15 players; 10 spots were filled by blueshirted prospects who joined the team last year under the previous regime. Blueshirting, the act of awarding scholarships in August to unrecruited players, is done to exceed the NCAA's scholarship limit by borrowing spots from the following year's class—a move that often reeks of desperation. Miles downplays the roster disadvantage while also revealing a jarring truth: He only learned the extent of it after he was hired. "There's a clear path in getting back," Miles says. "It's just going to take time."

THE NEW Les Miles has an Apple watch attached to a white-and-black-checkered band wrapped around his left wrist. When did you start talking to your watch? "When it started talking back," he responds. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but two years out of the game is a long time. The transfer portal and the early signing period, for example, didn't exist when Miles last coached. Many criticized Long's decision to buck industry trends by not hiring a 30-something offensive guru. He considered that, he says, but admitted not everyone he contacted was interested in the gig. "This is not," Long says, "the easiest job."

The relationship of Long and the Mileses dates to their days at Michigan—Les on the football staff, Long in athletic administration and Kathy an assistant women's basketball coach. Four decades later Long, 59, and Les are on similar paths after each was fired at his last stop in the SEC West. "We both have something we want to prove: build a program on the back end of our careers," says Long, Arkansas's AD from 2008 to '17. "The goal is to get this program to a good place for him to eventually turn it over to someone else with it built."

Once Miles decided to get back into coaching, Kathy feared he would never land a job. He does not play golf. He does not hunt. He does not fish. His brief foray into the television world as an analyst didn't go smoothly. While calling a Nebraska game last year, he made headlines by using we during the broadcast. (His son Ben used to play for the Cornhuskers.) When they moved him into the studio, Les walked off the set on a live broadcast with his microphone on, searching for the bathroom. (Producers, thankfully, cut the mike before he reached the toilet.)

Uprooting from Baton Rouge was hard, Kathy says, but it was also a relief. "It's like the biggest party in Louisiana is going on, one you used to host, and you're not invited," Kathy says. "By no means did people make us feel that way. We just felt that way."

Miles is already putting his touch on his new program. He's using his trademark slogan: We do hard things. Workouts are more intense, players say, and training is more grueling. Miles walked into his first team meeting, saw dozens of Jayhawks wearing baseball caps inside and shouted, "Take those hats off!" The players had expected to get the goofy guy from the beer commercials. "We were like, 'Oh, s---, he means business,'" says receiver Daylon Charlot.

There is an excitement for Kansas football that hasn't existed since the Jayhawks went 12--1 in 2007 under Mark Mangino—a very short-lived stretch of winning. Long says tickets sales are at 85% renewal, ahead of past years' pace. On his first day in town, Miles drew hundreds to a Lawrence restaurant, the line so long it carried out of the building. Miles feels it. "These people," he says, "are so hungry for football." He means good football. And that won't be easy.

THE NEW Les Miles is needed. Around 8 a.m. on Signing Day, Eliot briskly walks into his office with an outstretched phone. It's Wes Ontiveros, the father of Gavin Potter, a three-star outside LB from Broken Arrow, Okla. Potter has been committed to Kansas State for more than three months, but he's secretly pledged to the Jayhawks. This phone call is a last-minute reassurance from the head coach. "I'm a man of my word," Miles tells Potter's dad, before the two launch into a conversation about wrestling, which Miles did in high school. Potter is a two-time state champion. "You raised a fine son," Miles says. "We're just getting started, babe, and we're going to do it with his help."

Potter is the last player to sign. His papers pop onto Eliot's cellphone two hours after Miles's call, and the staff, with Ontiveros on speakerphone, offers thundering approval to cap off a stunningly successful inaugural class. It ranks 65th in 247Sports' composite team rankings, up from 120th after the early signing period. This is a program with just one commitment and no coach 10 weeks ago; a staff, for the most part, living out of a downtown Lawrence hotel. At an 11 a.m. staff meeting, Miles addresses his assistants. "You busted your tail," he says. "Fought like hell." Eliot responds, "You did this too," and the assistants give a round of applause.

After Miles's press conference on Signing Day, the coach is back in his office interviewing for a graphic design position on his staff, and minutes later, he leads an unplanned meeting to discuss the 2020 signing class. Steven Biter, the special assistant to the head coach, bustles from the staff meeting to his office and back. Biter, 30, has spent the last year with Miles, helping him strategize for a potential return to coaching. While the outgoing staff still occupied the football complex, Biter and Miles huddled in a conference room in Kansas's athletic administration building, assembling a staff.

Before this year, Biter only knew the actor and TV analyst Les Miles. Now, finally, he knows Les Miles, the coach. "He's much more comfortable in this role," Biter says. "It's like riding a bike for that guy. It's like a duck to water. This is why this guy was put on planet Earth."