The man known as “the Hat” and “the Mad Hatter” during his rollicking and hugely successful run at LSU for his distinctive white cap, his penchant for offbeat strategic moves and his just-as-offbeat comments on those moves, wouldn’t specify what office he might have run for.
He did say: “Everybody wants to be president, right?”
President Hat. It’s a dizzying thought.
When his wife, Kathy, was asked about her husband’s possible career in politics she said: “I think Les and I decided that if we were going to spend time getting dressed up like that, doing it to impress recruits’ mothers would be the best way to spend the time and make that effort.”
So Miles is more than happy to be back on the sideline at Kansas, back in practice, even back on the recruiting trail.
“I thought if I could convince people to support the idea of putting together a bill and then being willing to compromise to get something good accomplished, I could make some kind of a positive impact,” he said. “But in the end, I decided I’d have more impact on people’s lives ultimately as a coach. Politics has some real positives and some real negatives. For me, football is all positives and had more potential that way than politics.”
The positives already include a surprising victory. Friday, the Jayhawks traveled to Boston College and won their first road game against a Power Five school since 2008, ending a 48-game losing streak. They went in as a 21-point underdog and came out with a 48-24 win after trailing 17-7 at the end of the first quarter.
“I thought this team could succeed,” Miles said. “We’ve got talent. We really got it going in that game. It’s the first thing we can check off on our list.”
It has been almost exactly three years since LSU hit the panic button and fired Miles four games into his 12th season at the school in the wake of a controversial loss at Auburn, a game in which the Tigers scored the apparent winning touchdown on the last play only to have it negated after a replay review showed the snap came a split second after the clock hit zero.
In some ways, the ending fit. Miles hardly ever did anything routinely at LSU. He went for fake field goals so often, more often than not successfully, that the play seemed as much a part of his offense as the fullback dive. He liked to eat grass, an old habit left over from his days as a sometimes-bored outfielder.
He was entirely different from the typical big-time college football coach. Most strive to be full-bore drones; Miles entertained on and off the field.
He did, however, have one thing in common with his most successful colleagues: He won. He was 114-34 at LSU. He won a national championship in the 2007 season and took his team to a second title game four years later. He won at least 10 games seven times in 11 full seasons and his worst record was 8-5.
He was 9-3 in 2015, the year before he got fired, and that had LSU fans screaming for his head. As one SEC writer put it back then: “Les Miles succeeded Nick Saban [in 2005] at LSU and now fans there expected him to succeed like Nick Saban.”
Miles says now that the firing wasn’t that big a deal to him. “It didn’t change the way I felt about myself,” he said. “I always thought I’d coach again. I enjoyed doing the things I did when I wasn’t coaching, but I always knew when the chance came to go some place I’d be proud to coach, that I’d go back.”
That chance came in November when Kansas hired Miles to replace David Beaty, who had just finished the most successful of his four seasons in Lawrence at 3-9. Beaty was the fourth coach, including one interim hire, at Kansas since 2010; they had a combined nine-season record of 18-90.
Miles knew about all the losing. It didn’t deter him even a little. “When I was coaching at Oklahoma State [from 2001 to 2004] I can remember standing on the 50-yard line when we played Kansas and wondering, ‘Why haven’t they had more success here?’ ” he said. “I saw a beautiful school, lots of green grass and hills surrounding the place. So, why not win there?”
The Jayhawks hadn’t thrown fear into anybody the first two weeks of the season, barely escaping against Indiana State, an FCS team, before losing to Coastal Carolina. Now, Miles expects Memorial Stadium to be packed for Saturday’s game against West Virginia. That certainly hasn’t been a frequent occurrence in recent years on a campus where basketball tends to be a 12-month obsession.
Kansas’s greatest success in football came from 1891 to 1930 — which is to say, just a little while ago. Since then they made three Orange Bowl appearances, after the 1947, 1968 and 2007 regular seasons. The latter capped a 12-1 year and was one of the four postseason games the school made under Mark Mangino. In 2009, after the team lost its last seven games, Mangino was accused of emotionally abusing his players and resigned. His 50-48 record is the only winning record among 11 full-time Kansas coaches since 1966.
“I really didn’t look at anyone else’s record,” Miles said when asked if Mangini’s success had influenced his decision. “I don’t look at what other people have done one way or the other. I just concentrate on what I think I can do. I think I can coach.”
Miles will be 66 in November and he has a five-year contract at Kansas, so it appears he’ll be happy to coach his way into the sunset. But he’s not in any rush.
“When I first met with the players here, I told them I was here to win,” he said. “I found a group that was very committed to doing just that. They’ve done everything I’ve asked of them so far.”
The Big 12 schedule, which begins Saturday, is a gauntlet. After West Virginia, which is coming off a rout of North Carolina State, the Jayhawks will go to TCU, host Oklahoma, visit Texas and host Texas Tech before archrival Kansas State comes to visit. Road games against Oklahoma State and Iowa State and a home game against Baylor round out the schedule.
Is Miles worried? “I guess we’ll find out who is who,” he said with a laugh.
The Hat doesn’t worry. He just keeps doing his thing — whatever it happens to be.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.