To the rest of America, LSU’s Les Miles is the Mad Hatter.
The Coach Who Gambles on Fourth Down. The Guy Who Tastes Grass.
He is success and sideline chaos and a sound bite superstar, all rolled into one.
In Louisiana, he is both beloved and indulged. He is The Guy Who Beat Nick Saban. And, alas, the coach who lost to him in the same season.
On the November day after his LSU Tigers play Saban’s Alabama this season, Miles will turn 60 years old. He has been a football coach for 33 of them.
And yet, most of what America knows and thinks about Les Miles can be found in a few snippets — the white ball cap he wears, or a fake field goal he’s called, or a few ticks of the clock at the end of a close ballgame.
It is the price that men pay to be successful college football coaches these days. TCU’s Gary Patterson, whose Horned Frogs play Miles’ Tigers at AT&T Stadium on Saturday night, can surely attest to that.
Most of the media who regularly cover LSU football have come to grasp that Miles’ sometimes unique way with words is by design.
He is a smart and thoughtful guy. His players play fiercely for him.
Yet, because he followed in the footsteps of Saban, he seems destined to eternally be measured by him. Miles has had to weather the fate of the Biblical prophet in his own land — his miracles sometimes underappreciated and his message often misunderstood.
In eight years as a head coach in the nation’s toughest football conference, Miles has an 85-21 record and has twice played for the national championship, winning it all in 2007.
That will earn a coach a statue at some schools. At LSU, they want Miles to win it all again.
Funny, isn’t it, how greatness sometimes crosses paths? In 1998, an eager young engineer of football defense came to Fort Worth to help start what became a gridiron renaissance at TCU. Patterson became the Frogs’ head coach three years later.
In February of 1998, Miles was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. But when he saw that an old coaching acquaintance, Chan Gailey, the offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was named head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Miles inquired about being the tight ends coach.
“He said to me very honestly, ‘Les, I’m probably going to go in another direction,’” Miles recalled. “I kept watching the paper, though, and I saw he didn’t get that guy.
“So I said, well, maybe I’ll drive down there and just say hi to him. It was a Saturday and I told my wife, ‘I’m going to run down to Dallas. I’m sure Chan will be in the office putting stuff together.’
“So I got into the car and I was about an hour outside of Stillwater and called Chan, just to tell him I was coming. He said, ‘Well, Les, that’s real nice of you, but I’m in Pittsburgh.’
“I called my wife and said I’ll be home in an hour.”
Six days later, however, Gailey hired Miles as his tight ends coach.
“I went down, interviewed, saw the place and fell in love with it,” Miles said.
During the time Miles was with the franchise, quarterback Troy Aikman was winding down a Hall of Fame NFL career.
“Troy asked me one day, ‘So, Les, do you like college ball or pro football better?’” Miles recalled.
Miles knew the answer. He just didn’t know how to say “college football” to a quarterback who had won three Super Bowls. So he remembers mumbling something about how the “most competitive footballers in the world were in the NFL.”
Miles laughed at the memory.
“I loved the job I had there,” he said Thursday.
When Gailey was fired in 1999 after losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Miles worried about his future.
“I can remember being in my home in Hackberry Creek in Irving,” Miles said. “We had three children at the time. And I got on my knees at the couch in my living room, about four o’clock in the morning, and said, ‘Lord, if you see fit, I sure would like to stay here.’
“That very next day Mr. Jones kinda leaned into my room at Valley Ranch and said, ‘Just relax, you’re going to be good.’ He took care of me.”
Like many of the people who have worked for Jerry Jones, Miles has high praise for the Cowboys owner. In September of his third and final season with the Cowboys, Miles’ father passed away. Jones flew the coach’s family home to Ohio to attend the funeral, and then Les rejoined the team in time for the Monday night game in Washington.
“That’s a special organization,” Miles said. “My time there was very memorable.”
He returns Saturday to again coach in Jones’ palatial stadium. It’s become one of Miles’ — and the Tigers’ — second homes.
If there’s to be another miracle on the bayou, it will have to start here Saturday night.
The coach they call the Mad Hatter knows the rabbit hole that lies ahead.