Inside the Return of Les Miles

He's one of five active coaches to have won a national title—and he's starting over at one of CFB's worst programs. So what is Miles doing at Kansas? Having a blast.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterLawrence, KansasApril 16, 2019

Rick Ross is here, standing on a makeshift stage at the 50-yard line of David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium an hour after the KU spring football game, wearing sunglasses and dressed in all black, performing for 5,000 or so people who hope that this night, of all nights, is the night when Kansas football will be reborn.        

It may seem like a strange scene for the beginning of a football resurrection: a mostly empty stadium...in the middle of April. But for the Kansas football program and one of the most tormented fanbases in sports, after a decade of defeat and futility, it feels appropriate.

Les Miles, the man who eats grass and stars in movies, is here as well, floating across the stage in a white Kansas pullover, which truth be told will take some getting used to.

He isn't quite sure where he's supposed to stand or when or how to raise his arms, but Miles is feeling it. Standing to the left of Ross, he gyrates awkwardly and spectacularly as "All I Do Is Win" is bellowed to the crowd.

Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics

Welcome to Kansas football in 2019. And welcome to the unlikeliest return of one of the now five active college football coaches to have won a national championship.

The other four coaches are stashed away at title-game regulars (Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney) or resource-rich schools with some recent history of success (Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher and North Carolina's Mack Brown). They are not posted up at a program that has won a grand total of 18 football games since 2010. They are also not lining up for a colossal rebuild at the age of 65.

It's not like Miles didn't have other options. Networks would line up to lure his charismatic personality away from the sideline and into the studio. But here he is, at what most would consider rock bottom, looking carefree and at home.

After more than a decade at LSU and two long, restless seasons away from the sport, the Mad Hatter is back, unafraid of the long journey ahead.


Somewhere mid-sentence, Miles comes to a silent, uncomfortable halt. He picks up his phone, looking at the device as if laying eyes on it for the first time, and begins to methodically type a text—each letter punctuated by a facial expression more perplexed than the last.

It is the day before Kansas' spring game, and a film crew sits silently in the back of Miles' office, capturing the coach's return in a documentary. Although the room is without noise, the cameras and microphones continue to roll. No coach can turn dead air into captivating content quite like Miles.

On the other end of this text message is a high school quarterback, Miles says. At LSU, where he spent more than a decade, winning a national championship and finishing with an overall record of 114-34, recruiting was often thought to be his signature skill. But Kansas is not a place, historically, that the Patrick Petersons, Odell Beckham Jrs. or Tyrann Mathieus would consider. Miles hopes this player is one of many who will help him change that narrative.

What is clear, as he sits behind his white desk in silence, is that Miles has taken spectacular care of himself since he's been away. His face is tan. His body looks lean and healthy.

He credits sleep for his youthful appearance, which is not something you'll often hear from a head football coach. Most wear their insomnia like a badge of honor, but Miles seems at peace back in a position that regularly produces 18-hour work days.

"I've got plenty of energy, and age is not part of it," he says. "As we go forward, I want to win. And I'm gonna want to win in a grand scope. I guess what I'm saying is, I like the challenge. I like where I'm headed. I like where I'm at."

"Grand scope" is Miles' distinct way of saying he's in this for the long haul.

Only six months ago, it seemed reasonable to speculate whether Miles would ever coach again. He spent years searching for a program that would welcome him after he was fired from LSU following a 2-2 start in 2016. Despite his beloved status in Baton Rouge, Miles went through two coaching cycles without landing a job.

Miles and his team after winning the national championship in 2008.
Miles and his team after winning the national championship in 2008.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

He appeared in commercials. He starred in multiple movies, including taking on the role as a NASA chief in the film The Challenger Disaster, which explored the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

He dabbled with covering college football as a member of the media for a short while. But that, despite the lucrative opportunities, didn't scratch the itch. If anything, it was a reminder of what was absent.

"I never lost the feel for coaching, the want to coach and the enjoyment of preparing that team to play," Miles says. "That's been with me since I left. Even though I did some other things and arguably well enough to continue to do them, I never lost the want to coach. Period."


The Uber driver has seen what football hell looks like, and over the course of an 11-minute drive to Memorial Stadium, he takes a painful trip through the past decade of Kansas football.

It begins in a place of great joy, 2007, when former head coach Mark Mangino led Kansas to a 12-1 record and an Orange Bowl win. The team finished seventh in the nation in the final AP poll.

From there, the program began a decadelong dive. Mangino went 8-5 in 2008 and 5-7 in 2009, then resigned after a university probe into his treatment of players. Turner Gill took over and lasted two seasons, winning five games and losing 19. Charlie Weis made it 28 games but lost 22 of them. Clint Bowen went 1-7 as his interim replacement. And David Beaty wasn't retained after last season, his fourth. His teams occasionally flashed glimpses of hope, but he finished his tenure 6-42.

Kansas has not won more than three games in a season since 2009 and has won only six conference games over the past decade. Up until September 2018, the Jayhawks had lost 46 straight road games.

"It's been a decade of s--t," the Uber driver says. "But we're behind Les."

Miles' decision to join Kansas traces back to last fall, when he first met with newly appointed athletic director Jeff Long, a man he's known for 30 years. As part of the hiring process, Long, who spent 10 years at Arkansas before coming to Lawrence, manipulated flight plans coming to and leaving Lawrence to throw the media off his trail.

"There's no more pressure than hiring a head basketball and head football coach," Long says. "I had to relieve some pressure or my brain will explode, so I had some fun with FlightAware and tail numbers. It relieved a little pressure."

What Long found when he met with Miles was a coach who looked and sounded much younger than his age would indicate. He heard everything he needed to hear, specifically a desire to evolve offensively, negating a stigma that chased Miles through the end of his tenure at LSU.

Long brought other administrators with him to the meeting with Miles last fall, too—to showcase what life would be like if Miles took the job.

"I've known Les for 30 years, and he's been unusual in a positive way," Long says. "He's extraordinary in many ways. But I needed someone objective there to be able to judge it as well."

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

While his tenure at LSU unquestionably built the Mad Hatter persona, that wasn't the piece of Miles' resume that excited Long the most. Before he joined the Tigers, Miles helped a dormant Oklahoma State football program find success. The Cowboys had won more than five games only once in 12 years before Miles arrived. They won at least seven in each of his final three seasons. They didn't win Big 12 titles or have national title hopes; they just had realistic, meaningful development year over year. That's what Long wants for Kansas.

"Get to a bowl game," he says. "We get to a bowl game, and it changes everything."


When he was fired, Miles never wanted to dip gently into retirement. He stayed in Baton Rouge and went to work at a condo near Tiger Stadium every day—a place where cherished memories and open wounds seemed to collide.

He watched film of high school players, hoping to naturally step right back into recruiting when the time came. He studied tape and watched the full slate of games on Saturdays, taking notes on plays and schemes that he could eventually run.

"I want to hire a great staff and chase a national championship at a place that wants this pursuit," Miles told Bleacher Report at the time. "I want an AD and president to say, 'I'm with you. Let's go do this.' I want them with me."

A year went by with conversations but no movement. And then another job-seeking cycle where Miles once again dabbled with certain vacancies but left without a job.

What began as a search to take over a program with yearly national championship aspirations ended with the one perhaps furthest from those aspirations. That's at least one way to look at how Miles landed back in football. But this outcome, as rare as it feels for a coach with his pedigree, also has an emotional tie that the cutthroat, business-oriented hiring process rarely produces.

"I want to coach football," Miles says now. "I think I could've taken a couple of other opportunities, but I wanted it to be a Power Five job. I wanted it to be with an athletic director that I really felt like we could compete together with."

Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics

It didn't have to be perfect. He signed a five-year contract with an annual salary of $2.775 million, according to Jesse Newell of the Kansas City Star, but also gave up $5 million in accepting a buyout from LSU to take the job. He could have kept that money and made millions on top of it as a fixture on Saturday mornings, saying peculiar and engaging things while being himself on camera. Instead, the chance to coach again won out, because he genuinely loves what he does.

"There's certainly a challenge here," Miles says. "I mean, I get that. But this is not something over the top. You have a lot to work with. It's a great school. This is a beautiful community."

He isn't a caretaker. Nor is he a reviver who, if the program turns, plans to give way to someone else to enjoy the spoils. He hasn't put a timetable on how much longer he wants to coach, and he sees no reason to right now. Not with the work just beginning.


The field before the spring game is a collection of the past, present and future of Kansas football. As Miles' team readies itself, recruits and alumni gather on the sideline. Both are well-represented to take in this new era, even if everyone isn't quite sure what it will look like.

"LES IS MORE" T-shirts are being sold at the team store. And the words "The Jayhawks Are Coming," Kansas' anthem for 2019, can be seen throughout the stadium.

"Welcome to Late Night Under the Lights," the PA announcer says. There may only be 5,000 or so in attendance, but that's more than those affiliated with Kansas can ever remember having for a spring game. "And welcome to the Les Miles era."

The game itself provides mixed results, as most spring football games do. Whether it's a glimpse into the future or merely a way to expedite the evaluation of his quarterbacks, deep balls soar throughout the evening. The majority of them find the turf.

Given the stigma Miles is trying to escape, though, the exercise carries weight.

During halftime, clips of Miles play throughout the stadium. An acted scene from The Challenger Disaster, which draws applause. An impression of Hannibal Lecter, which draws laughter. An elongated skit with Kansas basketball head coach, Bill Self, which draws the biggest reaction of the evening. The full Mad Hatter portfolio is on display.

Blue easily handles White by the score of 45-7. That offers little insight into what will happen next when the results start to count, but it does offer something the program has not experienced in the past 10 years: hope.

That sentiment is mutual, by the way. For as much as Miles brings to Kansas, it has allowed him a chance to do something he genuinely loves.

"I've never really seen a school or a program that was destined to finish second in their games," Miles says. "This place truly is beautiful and should have victory."

Moments after the game finishes, the makeshift stage is rapidly assembled. Temporary fences are arranged. Many students make their way from the stands to the turf to get a closer look at Ross, the evening's second act. 

Photo courtesy of Kansas Athletics

No one seems to leave; if anything, they move closer. When Ross appears, a jolt of energy shoots throughout the stadium. When Miles joins him on stage, the vibrations of the response—a combination of Ross' performance and the crowd's collective joy—send shock waves through the ground.

There will be time to bring this football program back to life. Long, difficult hours—perhaps years—to reshape a decade of misfortune. In many ways, this is what Miles has been searching for.

But for at least a few minutes, as Miles joyously pumps his arms out of sync and drifts in and out of movements with no beginning or end, it can wait.

                

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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