BATON ROUGE, La. – Not long after his firing at LSU nearly 13 months ago, Les Miles wandered into a Whole Foods near his home here to pick up some fresh produce. It’d been nearly a decade since he last visited a grocery store, and Miles learned some things have changed. In the checkout line, he attempted to swipe his credit card and encountered an unfamiliar defense. “They say to use a chip,” Miles says, flashing his familiar grin. “And I’m like, ‘A chip?'”
Miles tells the story sitting in the kitchen of his spacious Baton Rouge home, where he’s still not quite comfortable spending days like this one. Miles spent more than a decade returning from work at 10 p.m. and always locking the door behind him. His inability to break that habit means he frequently locks his wife, Kathy, out of the house during daylight hours. When a reporter pulled up to Miles’ gated community, Miles admitted that he’s still unsure how to buzz open the gate. He then capped his directions by saying, “I’ll be the guy in the white shirt.”
Les Miles, a quality football coach by nearly any metric, turns 64 next week. The guy in the white shirt looks slim and brims with an energy that belies his age. He’s 30 pounds lighter, a spry vegetarian in black Lululemon workout shorts. He’s also a connoisseur of juice bars, a self-proclaimed “elliptical king” and weekly podcaster with his oldest daughter, Smacker, and former Michigan quarterback John Wangler. And none of it quite feels right: “I’m still not what you’d consider real good around the home,” he said.
Les Miles is still one of the most intriguing coaches in football. He won a national title, two SEC titles and has an extra office in his home cluttered with a host of national Coach of the Year awards and other trophies. All that success has Miles conflicted, stuck in an awkward place between a decorated past and uncertain future. He is eager to find a program that will open up their gates and let him return to the sideline. He’s eager to return, almost anxious. To use a few bits of Miles’ pet jargon, he’s a quality football coach seeking a damn strong football team.
The conflict comes from how to convey the message. Call it the “chest” conundrum. Miles once famously – and accurately – questioned a quarterback recruit’s “chest,” a Miles synonym for heart. He needs to convince a potential suitor he has the chest without looking like he’s beating his chest. “Here’s the truth: I never, I’m so uncomfortable,” he says, searching for the right words. “It’s not something I ever did. I am the guy who wants to say great job by the coordinator. I’ve always wanted to say my players played their butts off.”
Miles won 77 percent of his games over 12 seasons at LSU, a remarkable run that will one day put Miles in the College Football Hall of Fame. In his four seasons at Oklahoma State, Miles led the Cowboys to three bowl games and won the Big 12 Coach of the Year award in 2002. “Someone should realize, it didn’t happen by accident,” he said. “This guy, he knows the game.”
Miles stops there. He asks to talk off the record. The conflict is obvious. Miles lost his job last September after close losses to Wisconsin and Auburn. He interviewed for a handful of jobs last year, and admits he could have done better in the interviews.
Miles won 64 SEC games, produced more than 70 NFL draft picks and fielded a team that won double-digit games seven times during the glory years of the conference. A handful of SEC jobs will open this year in Miles’ wheelhouse. Florida is open, and it would be surprising if Arkansas and Tennessee don’t fire their coaches. Texas A&M will likely open as well, although it’s uncertain if the administrators will push out Kevin Sumlin or whether he’ll leave for another opportunity. Auburn could fire Gus Malzahn if the Tigers implode down the stretch. Miles ended his LSU career with a higher winning percentage than Nick Saban had there. But will the opportunities come? It’s still uncertain.
Miles is looking for a program that can compete for a conference championship and an administration he’s aligned with. He wants a chance to show he’s evolved, learned from his final years at LSU and return a better version of his former coach. “I want a president, an athletic director who says, ‘OK, Coach, let’s go win a conference or national championship,” Miles said. “What do you need? How can I help you? And know that I will take on the identity of the school I attend. That’s how I’ve always done it.”
Miles spoke to a handful of schools last year and admits, in retrospect, he could have interviewed with more enthusiasm. There are thorny questions about his offense, which never evolved at LSU and became antiquated. There’s the lack of quarterback development, a tricky question because Miles’ last quarterback flop at LSU – Brandon Harris – plays with his son, Manny Miles, at North Carolina.
Miles has visited different programs through his media jobs, studied different offenses on film and feels prepared to learn from his mistakes. Asked for his vision of his offense at his next stop, Miles said: “We would want a Deshaun Watson-style guy. As we recruited, if we end up with [Zach] Mettenberger [dropback style], we’d be thrilled. If we’re fortunate enough to have great personnel, we put them on the field first, no matter who.”
One of Miles’ biggest struggles at LSU, even with all his success, came with chasing Saban. He replaced the exacting Saban as coach, and a large part of his downfall at LSU ultimately came down to an inability to consistently fight off Saban’s ghost in Baton Rouge and, eventually, across the sideline at Alabama. That included a shutout loss in the 2012 BCS title game, which kicked off a five-game losing streak to Saban. With LSU heading to Alabama as a 20-point underdog this weekend, few will argue that LSU is in better hands under new coach Ed Orgeron. (LSU lost to Troy, 24-21, earlier this year before winning three straight SEC games).
Miles went on a 500-word dissertation about his respect for Saban, which ranged from his “unprecedented” recruiting success, physical defenses, sound special teams and evolving offense with Jalen Hurts under center. He also complimented the way Alabama supports the program, noting the replacement of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin with offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian prior to last year’s championship game. “They can fire a guy, never blink and continue right along,” Miles said. “They had personnel in a backup position. This isn’t cheating, this is legal. Have an analyst who understands the offense so well that when Kiffin moves on they can step in and call it and never miss a beat. Those hires, that’s how you beat Alabama.”
As the interview winds down, Miles wanders around out of the dining room area to the kitchen. There are 22 framed black-and-white photos of the Miles family on the wall, with youngest daughter Macy, an eighth grader who is a budding softball star, the only one still under the Miles family roof. (Smacker swam at Texas, Manny is a walk-on at UNC and Ben Miles is redshirting his freshman year at Nebraska, where he’s a scholarship fullback).
Miles takes breaks for radio interviews, a new staple of his life moonlighting on television for Fox and the Big Ten Network. But to Miles, working in the media is a lot like trips to the grocery store and logging time on the elliptical in his home – something to do until he can do what he really wants again. “It’s hard for me to not have a staff with an agenda set up to make decisions – on this offensive lineman today, how we align three wide in the bunch formation,” Miles said. “Those decisions I was set up to make in one chair at the end of the table. I want to set that up again. That’s what I want to do.”
With a 13-month glimpse of regular life, Miles has seen enough. He’s ready to check out.