BATON ROUGE, La. — Les Miles is wearing boat shoes and clutching his hands around an imaginary baseball bat on a sultry Saturday afternoon in July with thunder rumbling in the distance. His body, tanner and trimmer than the last time we saw him, eases into the batter's box.
The batter's box is actually a slab of sport court in the backyard of his 5,500-square-foot home—a six-bedroom castle that is a short 16-minute drive from Tiger Stadium.
Miles says he can still make it in 10.
For 12 years, he did the drive daily while head coach at LSU. Over those 12 years, he won. Won a national championship. Won more than any coach in the history of the program, 114 times to just 34 losses. Won in a way that made him a beloved figure in college sports, even beyond Baton Rouge. From colorful press conferences to masterful fake field goals to peculiar fourth-down decisions, he earned his nickname, the "Mad Hatter." Sometimes his peculiarities worked brilliantly; other times they failed spectacularly. Always they made him a spectacle to watch, right up until the end.
On the morning of September 25 of last year, he left this castle, drove 10 minutes and was studying film with his assistants as he would any other day when he was fired after a 2-2 start. In an instant, he became must-watch for another reason—one of the most intriguing coaching free agents.
But today, Miles appears to already have his new gig. He is a simulated batter for Macy Miles, his 14-year-old daughter and a promising fast-pitch softball pitcher.
Standing 43 feet away on a makeshift pitcher's mound, Macy fires pitch after pitch past her father's midsection. Miles calls balls and strikes, many of which Macy and Kathy Miles, his wife of 24 years, take issue with.
Kathy, by the way, is catching. Seated on a black bucket behind her husband, her mitt pops with each one of Macy's fastballs.
"Those last three balls—keep throwing those," Miles yells to his daughter.
Life is different now, at least for the time being.
Rather than prepare for the grind of another football season, Miles is catching up on lost time.
Earlier in the week, when in past years he would have been holding court at SEC media days—the place where his charisma and eccentricities used to shine so bright—Miles drove seven-and-a-half hours each way to watch Macy play in a softball tournament in Austin, Texas.
Oh, he looks mighty comfortable in the moment—smiling at Macy as she runs toward him, wiping the sweat off her forehead on his white T-shirt as he tries to run away. He could spend the rest of his days here, in the backyard of his beautiful home, surrounded by people who love him regardless of his team's current record, living off the fortune he's made over the years.
Or, if so desired, he could throw on a suit and be paid millions more to talk about the sport he once coached rather than live it. No yearly win quotas. No more hot seats. No long treks on the recruiting trail. All he would have to do is be himself, and the offers are out there.
"The next Jon Gruden," I say.
His response is mixed, a combination of pridefulness and disinterest. His smile says one thing—very real and appreciative of being held in such regard—but his eyes and voice say something else, as he distances himself from a life he is unwilling to completely embrace just yet.
"I'm too young not to chase another championship," he says.
At the age of 63, two years younger than Nick Saban, the Mad Hatter is not done.
But first, Les wants to show the proper method to soothe a newborn—specifically my newborn.
Uninterested in diving into the open wounds surrounding his departure from his previous job or diving directly into what the future might hold, Miles is instead offering up parenting tips in his kitchen.
The process is simple, although he cannot simply explain it. That wouldn't be very Les Miles of him. No, he needs to act it out as well.
Step 1) Grab the child's ankles near your midsection (which he simulates, although it appears as though he's holding an imaginary sword).
Step 2) Position him over your right shoulder, "higher than normal," Les says. He now puts his right hand on a tiny imaginary back while keeping his left hand where the ankles would be.
Step 3) Use the ankles to move the child up and down your shoulder. This is the most important part. To find that belch, you have to work for it. He showcases the motion, which resembles a violinist deep in solo. A master at work.
Step 4) "Stick with it," he says. It's a phrase he's muttered endless times and something that seems appropriate given the circumstances.
The next night, thusly soothed, my seventh-month-old night owl falls asleep soundlessly in my arms.
It comes so naturally for Miles. All of it. He is goofy and charming and completely engaged. His act is not an act all; it's why a town and a sport has seemingly bonded with him in a way different from any other coach in the profession.
This was not just a coach to so many. This was a man who ate grass on live television from the sideline.
Who rappelled down the side of 24-story building for charity.
Who delivered peculiar, lovable press conferences, oftentimes coming up with his own language and showing a side most in the profession rarely show (warning: video contain NSFW language).
It's why his firing felt more like a funeral—even if the timing was right—than a formality.
For the first hour you spend with him, he doesn't want to talk about that, though. He talks about anyone but himself.
From the kitchen, Miles pinballs to his family room. Portraits of his children decorate the walls.
In one photo, the Miles' four children are mimicking Usain Bolt's trademark pose. "Look at these haircuts," he says, pointing to his boys and their series of bowl cuts. In another photo, they are gathered around Les the date he was hired at LSU. "January 2, 2005," is etched on the bottom of the image.
Macy was just a toddler back then. Her other sister, Smacker, who swam at Texas and is now working toward a career in sports journalism, is standing side by side with her brothers, Manny and Ben. Manny plays quarterback for North Carolina, and Ben, who plays fullback, will be a freshman at Nebraska.
"This has been a great place for our family," Miles says as he picks up the frame. "I enjoyed it so much."
So rarely do those in the profession get to watch their kids grow up in one city and under one roof, but here in Baton Rouge, Miles did. And although it ended the way it almost always ends for those who stay around long enough, he cannot help but still be grateful.
There's nothing much to turn the conversation to LSU out here in the family area. The only football artifact in sight is a ball Ben received from his state championship game at Catholic High School. Beyond this single item, you wouldn't know you were standing in the home of a celebrated coach—unless you got an invitation to his private office.
Miles has never spent as much time in his home as he is right now. For years, he lost himself inside his university office, often arriving shortly after sunrise and coming back when the kids were asleep.
Rather than serve a traditional dining room dinner, Kathy and the children used to bring Miles dinner, eat with him and then leave him to his work.
Kathy understood her husband's lifestyle. She played basketball at Central Michigan and was an assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Michigan when she fell in love with one of the team's assistant football coaches, who she was assigned to help. They've been married for 24 years and together for 29.
Like her husband, she too has had to adjust to this new life. For the first time in their marriage, she's not married to a football coach.
"It's changed the dynamics, and it's a big adjustment," Kathy says. "He knows my routine and the kids' routines now. If there is a leak in the roof or a cabinet that doesn't fit perfectly, Les is there to give his assessment. Before it was strange when he did take a week off; this is just a different time in life for us right now."
Says Miles, "It has been great watching my kids and being with my wife. That's the real advantage, and I could enjoy this for quite some time.
"In the same vein, I'm getting restless."
Down the hallway, past a collection of framed newspaper clippings—with headlines reading "Epic Victory," "One for the Ages" and "Best in the West"—is Miles' home office.
It is here that his career, past and future, is unavoidable.
He used to bring some of the elite high school players in the country to this office. He would show them pictures of Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson and Glenn Dorsey and the countless others who thrived under his watch in Baton Rouge. He would woo them with scenes from LSU's national championship and all the accolades that came along the way—promises of NFL futures.
This past February, on the morning of national signing day, Miles rolled out of bed and began instinctively going through his phone, preparing to send text messages to close any commitments still in the balance.
Perhaps most of all, this is what Miles misses.
"He doesn't do it just because he has to," Kathy says of her husband's passion for recruiting. "He loves the interaction with the kids and their families. He genuinely enjoys it."
The office where Miles used to sell these visions remains perfectly intact. There are Michigan, LSU, Oklahoma State and Dallas Cowboys helmets in plain sight when you walk in—the places he spent the vast majority of his coaching career.
On the wall stands a life-sized Fathead of Miles that he once mistook for a burglar when it was propped up in the family room. He nearly tackled it when he arrived home late one night.
Next to that is a poster celebrating LSU's national championship victory over Ohio State.
"I want to accomplish that again," Miles says, pointing to the image of himself hoisting a crystal football. "It's an intoxicating feeling."
The only area that's slightly disordered is Miles' actual workspace. Scattered across his desk are magazines from last fall, many with former LSU running back Leonard Fournette plastered on the cover. Unlike everything else, which feels tactically placed, these appear almost left behind. It's as though the magazines have been sitting around since last September and no one has entered since.
There's a reason for this. Miles is not using the workspace on a daily basis. But he is working.
When they moved to Baton Rouge, Miles and Kathy purchased a condo in town so friends and family would have a place to stay during the season. It has become Miles' day-to-day headquarters, filled with all of the belongings that he moved from the university.
Even though he's unemployed, Miles treats Monday through Friday much like the rest of the working world. On a normal workday, he's out of the house before the sun rises and working out by 6:30 a.m. After a mix of weight training and cardio, he eats fruit and oats before sitting down in front of a computer in the condo.
From his fourth-floor perch, Tiger Stadium is still plainly visible.
Work these days isn't so much work as much as it is a means to an end. Miles locks himself away in the family condo, doing whatever possible to stay connected. He is no longer coming home long past dinner like he once was. But everything he's done since he was fired at LSU has been done for one reason: to ensure that he will coach again.
It's why he's helping out at coaching clinics around the country and accepting speaking engagements when he can. It's why he's still studying collegiate offenses and defenses, trying to evolve as a teacher.
It's why he still watches film of high school athletes from his office on his flat screen, "preparing," Miles calls it. He says it in such a way that the question starts to revert from if or when to where he will again recruit.
"I like the position I am in now," Miles says. "I believe there are a number of opportunities, should they come open, I would be as excited as I could possibly be about."
Because he was replaced so early during last season, many assumed that Miles might find his way back onto a sideline as early as this year. Others thought he might be done coaching entirely, with some connecting the dots to ESPN's College GameDay, a Saturday morning entertainment staple that Miles would thrive on.
The reality was that Miles wasn't sure what he would do next. He was lost. While his firing caught few by surprise, Miles himself was shaken.
"There's that joke that you haven't been a head coach until you've been fired," Kathy says. "I think like a lot of things in life, you think that you will be prepared for something like that. I don't think he was prepared for how hard it would hit him."
Miles thought about what he could have done differently to change the outcome and what he would do differently when dealt that situation again. The conclusion he reached wasn't monumental. Why radically change something that worked for so long?
Yes, there are changes to be made. Miles has spent the past few months thinking about how he would adjust practice schedules and better prepare a team leading into the year. He has poured himself into offensive and defensive film, looking at ways to incorporate new aspects into his program.
The process has only made him hungrier. Being gone from the game for longer than he ever wanted to be has only made him feel closer to it.
"I felt like this time away helped me resolve some issues with where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do," Miles says. "It's pretty obvious now what I want to do. I want to hire a great staff and chase a national championship at a place that wants this pursuit. I want to recruit again. I want an AD and president to say, 'I'm with you, let's go do this.' I want them with me."
Down the road from his home at a nice little place called Newk's Eatery, Miles orders two bowls of soup—tomato and potato—and a salad for lunch. He sits around the table outside, with Kathy on one side and Macy on the other, and talks about what's next.
The following day, Miles will participate at a coaches' clinic in Mississippi. A few days later, Hugh Freeze will resign as Ole Miss head coach—the first of many jobs that will open. The Rebels will be one of many programs to have rumored interest in The Mad Hatter over the months to come.
In the meantime, Les has his autumn mapped out. He has visits to North Carolina and Nebraska planned to watch his two sons play football. He will sit in the stands as a father and fan, hoping each sees meaningful reps.
Both his boys have fallen in love with the game. They want to eventually coach, whenever that time comes, just like their father. Having seen firsthand how unforgiving this job can be, this passion has not wavered.
Miles, meanwhile, won't suddenly disappear. He will find his way into your weekly college football experience one way or another. While he has not committed to a single network to cover college football for the fall, he will dabble while he waits. First up is an appearance as a guest analyst for one of the top games of the early part of the season, Michigan-Florida on Sept. 2.
"I think I'll do some different things, and I look forward to being close to the game," Miles says of joining the media. "But I don't want to just be close to the game. I want to be over the fence and coaching.
"Could I coach 10 more years? I think I probably could."
Where will The Mad Hatter be 10 years from now? What about one year from now? Miles will turn 64 in early November, right about the time schools will make changes and begin looking for new voices. While his age will undoubtedly be a topic of conversation within athletic departments, he is eager to show them that this is nothing more than a number.
As Miles finishes his lunch, a young boy and his father approach the table. The father asks Miles if he will take a photo with his son, who is no older than 12 years old and hidden behind his dad. Miles puts his arm around the young boy, who looks both thrilled and overwhelmed. After the first photo, Miles asks for a redo.
"I could just feel some salad in my teeth," he says, looking at Kathy. She gives him the go-ahead. The father is happy to oblige.
Father and son say thanks before saying goodbye. On his way in and out of the restaurant, Miles is peppered with requests for photos and autographs and handshakes. That hasn't changed since he was fired from LSU—"there is still so much love here," Kathy says.
How much longer Miles will live in Baton Rouge is still unknown. It could be days or months or even years, depending on what happens over the months to come. In the moment, surrounded by people who love him regardless of title or circumstance, it still feels like home.
In a profession that has seemingly killed the word, such a thing is rare. His children grew up here. This place delivered him the best years of his coaching and professional life. No matter what happens next, that part will never change. For that, he will be forever grateful.
But this cannot possibly it. It won't be, either. There is still so much left to do.
At some point, the familiarity of his home, of his condo office, of Newk's and of Baton Rouge will be left in the past when it's time for Les Miles to make one last run.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.