ATON ROUGE, La. -- Every time Les Miles leaves the island of his office, he finds himself surrounded by other people's families. They crowd around, extending hands and scraps of paper, fathers urging boys to summon the courage to speak to the famous coach. At his weekly radio show, to which he is currently driving, a man will thrust a baby into his arms. Miles winds around the swampy lakes of Baton Rouge, the headlights of his white Cadillac SUV throwing shadows off the moss-covered live oaks. Set back from the water, each house glows warm and yellow.
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The people in those homes are finished with their days, but he's still at work, a few minutes before 7 p.m. His mind focuses on the upcoming game with Alabama, perhaps the most important of his career. In the middle of a bye week, everything remains a question. Will the team execute? Will he put the players in position to win? And, beneath the worries of his job, another: Should he spend Friday night recruiting? Or should he find a spot in the University High stands, cheering on freshman wide receiver Manny Miles, who caught his first varsity touchdown pass a week ago? Should he watch someone else's child -- or his own?
"That's my dilemma," he says. "Recruit or see my son play? I've yet to make that decision."
Work or family? All parents struggle with that question. Few parents have their work lives as scrutinized as football coaches, and few coaches are as scrutinized as Les Miles. He's already created a legend, the "Mad Hatter," the gambler who eats grass. He's "Lesticles," never scared to go for it on fourth down or run a fake. In the past two weeks, he's become, improbably, even more visible. The top-ranked LSU Tigers are playing second-ranked Alabama, one of the most anticipated regular-season games in the history of the sport. Just beneath the building madness, there is a daily competing mission: how to find time to remain involved in the lives of his four children, ages 8 to 17.
How does a coach make time for a life? How does he make time for a family? Many don't. Vince Lombardi knew he was a terrible father; a friend said he "never should have had children." Bill Walsh saw maybe five of his son's football games, from junior high all the way through college. "I could count on one hand the number of times I played catch with my dad," Craig Walsh said in a book about his father.
The game withers people, literally. Urban Meyer retired after he found himself dropping weight, unable to eat. One look at the tortured face of his replacement, Will Muschamp, and it's easy to predict a similar end. The state flower of the college football meeting room should be an empty Red Bull can half-filled with dip spit. Men burn out. Marriages crumble. Kids grow up fatherless. The game becomes a crack house for those addicted to competition, days marked by caffeine and stress, the random nature of a game turning ordinary people into miserable control freaks. "I've been around guys who feel that way," Miles says. "Anxiety kills them. The stomach -- they keep drinking Maalox. They're miserable. I couldn't do it that way."
Miles often seems joyful on the sideline, what with the grass and the elaborate fakes. He takes an afternoon to make goofy Internet videos with his children, and when the shoot ends, he gushes, "That was a great day!" He doesn't have an ulcer. Smiles come easily, almost too easily. It's got to be an act, right? There must be a skeleton somewhere, because football coaches are not supposed to be happy.
"You think I had fun today?" he says. "Let me tell you, I had a blast today. The Lord blessed me. I have a great job. I have as much fun as there is. There is not any regret in my deal. None at all."
The first thing you notice following around Les Miles is his odd sense of humor. He's quick. He's goofy. He takes as good as he gives, playing along with a reporter's gag about his wife, Kathy, taking all his money and running off with a yoga instructor. It's often hard to tell who's the adult and who's the kid. "You don't see too many head coaches at this level," says his lifelong friend John Wangler, "standing in line to go down the Slip 'n Slide."
Sitting on his couch at home last week, Miles recounted just one of the endless Les Being Les stories. When he was an assistant coach at Michigan, a friend got him an all-access pass to an NBA Finals game in Detroit. He wandered the belly of the arena and found himself in Chuck Daly's press conference. Well, Miles couldn't just sit there. He asked a question, evidently a tough one, because Daly glared at the back of the room and asked what newspaper he was from. Miles sort of gulped, as he remembered, thought for a moment, and came out with the name of the campus student paper. "The Michigan Daily," he said, before being hustled out of the room by his friend.
These can go all day, and when you're around his office in the LSU football building, you'll be surprised by the volume of jokes. People are often in hysterics. There are many ways to win at football: with fear, with tension, with a corporate approach. Miles wins with laughter, and some days damned if it doesn't seem like he wins because of it.
The Tuesday afternoon news conference ends, a litany of queries about player suspensions and big-game hype. Miles slips out of the large auditorium and into the special-teams meeting room. There's some parenting to do.
His 8-year-old daughter, Macy Grace Miles, will be singing the national anthem at a game in Shreveport, and since he won't be there in person, he's recording a message to play on the arena JumbroTron after she finishes. Video guy Doug Aucoin, there to work the camera, talks on the phone with Kathy about the details. When he finds out his wife is on the phone, Les starts yelling questions.
"Is she practicing?" Miles asks. "Ask Kathy if she's practicing. Is she ready to roll?"
"Is she practicing?" Aucoin asks.
"Tell her to practice," Miles says, "because I want to say something nice about her."
"She said she sang it to her yesterday," Aucoin says, "but she's gonna practice some more."
"Tell her tomorrow morning at breakfast I'm counting on it," Miles says, wanting to hear the song himself.
Breakfast is an anchor. He sees the kids to school, kissing them goodbye, using all the information he's gleaned from Kathy and their master schedule. During those few minutes in the morning, he is relevant, knowing who has a test and who has a game. He isn't a shadow passing in and out of their lives.
How can someone be a coach and a father? From his first job in coaching, Miles has dealt with that question. He and Wangler were graduate assistants at Michigan, and they saw what coaching did to families. One day, Wangler remembers, a colleague told them his "wife did a great job raising their kids." Miles and Wangler looked at each other, and afterward decided that they'd figure out a different way. The most chilling warning came from longtime Colorado coach Bill McCartney, who pulled Miles aside and promised him that one day his kids would come and tell him what kind of father he'd been, tell him how he'd succeeded or failed. By that time, McCartney told him, it would be too late for regrets. The message was clear: Long after a coach forgets the scores of games, he'll remember a devastating undressing from a grown-up child.
Wangler eventually got out of coaching to make sure he didn't miss anything. Miles stayed in the business, trying to have it all. He soaked up parenting advice, made sure his kids hung out around his office, even if other coaches looked at him funny when they did. Whenever someone offered a tip -- Wangler telling him to give total attention whenever he spent time with them, or Chan Gailey talking about his great relationship with his adult sons -- Miles leaned in. "I was gonna be damn good at it," he says.
The purple basketball court behind his house is the site of epic family battles. He cheers at dance recitals, softball and baseball games, swimming, wrestling, football, soccer. The current Miles family line is that the house is undefeated: Macy's soccer team and Manny's, Ben's and Les' football teams. LSU, the boys crack, has the easiest schedule coming home. On the surface, at least, his absences are cause for jokes, not angst; the kids do a hilarious riff on his re-entry to the dinner table after the season. Him: "I'm back!" Them: (Eye rolls). He tells his children over and over how much they are loved.
If you look, though, there are signs he struggles to fit it all in. He's late, to everything, often hilariously frantic as he screeches to his next appointment. The man drives like a maniac, cutting it close, wringing every minute of his day. All the jokes about clock management make sense after a week with him; one of the central complications of Les Miles' life is managing his time. Kids are perceptive. They know his schedule and its demands, and they also know that other parents are more involved with baseball, or with choir. They notice he almost never makes a parent-teacher conference. "It's natural to at times wish he was around more, but they definitely understand his job," Kathy Miles says. "Someday, like most kids, as they become adults and have jobs, I think they'll really look back and have great admiration at how he handled such a stressful job and still tried to keep his hand in the parenting."
There's just so much to do, balancing the two most important things in his life: team and family. He blends the two whenever he can. On Friday nights before home games, he takes the boys onto the field at Tiger Stadium. The lights are on, creating halogen daylight on the river side of campus. The stadium is empty, nearly 93,000 seats waiting for fans. Tomorrow, this place belongs to work. Tonight, it belongs to family. Miles takes out a football and plays catch with his boys.
Is all that enough? It's more than many coaches, but less than many parents who work 9-to-5. Eleven days before they will take the field in Tuscaloosa, he looks into a camera and speaks directly to his daughter.
"I want you to know that even though I wasn't there in person," he says, "I heard your song. The national anthem was sung extremely well. Great job. Absolutely great job. Please have fun."
There's sadness at the core of all this fun. Sit with him, on a Tuesday night in his office, as he eats dinner out of a Styrofoam box, a towel laid out as a place mat. His wedding Bible sits to his left. On the table, a book hints at what lurks beneath the easy surface. It's called "Tracks of a Fellow Struggler: Living and Growing through Grief."
Turns out, there is a regret in his deal. His father, Hope "Bubba" Miles, never got to walk into this office, never settled his big frame into the brown leather couch, never reached over to steal a roll from his son's plate, all 300-plus pounds of him roaring with laughter. Bubba always wanted to see his son become a head coach, and he and Martha Miles had even made plans to move to Stillwater should Les ever get the Oklahoma State job.
Bubba loved to see his son succeed. He loved shrimp cocktail and lots of horseradish. He loved hot apple pie with a smash of ice cream. He loved most everything his son did, but mostly he loved to watch him play sports. The Miles household revolved around games, the family often gathering at a neighborhood ball diamond. Bubba loved to play softball, and he loved to boom instructions from the stands on football Friday nights. Once, during a rainy JV game against Sandusky, Miles walked to the locker room at halftime. His dad had promised him a heavy coat if he played well. Miles had been called for holding twice, and as he got near the locker room, he heard The Voice: "It's gonna be a cold winter!" Every day, Bubba told his son he loved him, told him he could accomplish anything he wanted in life. He always kissed his son goodbye.
"I was a guy who was raised to please his dad," Miles says.
When Miles began coaching at Michigan, a graduate assistant making $8,200 a year (less than he makes a day at LSU), Bubba came up on Friday nights, taking his boy and some friends out for dinner. They'd sit at the Bombay Bicycle Club and order thick steaks. "Les and I were eating the ramen noodles, tuna fish and peanut butter," Wangler says. "Bubba made sure we had a great meal."
Miles got the call on a Wednesday. It was 2000. He was the tight end coach for the Dallas Cowboys. His mother told him the news: Bubba was dead. A stroke. Jerry Jones flew Les home to northeast Ohio on his jet -- "Jerry Jones in my book is a 10," he says -- and Miles found himself staring into a casket, running his fingers through his dad's flattop crew cut, feeling the embalming fluid sweating onto his fingers. The image stuck with him, haunted him, the regret burning even then: His dad had never seen him become a head coach, and now he never would. His dad had never stood on a sideline -- Miles thought it would be inappropriate for an assistant coach to ask -- and now he never would do that either.
The family cremated Hope Miles, spreading his ashes over that softball diamond where the family had spent so many wonderful hours. Then Miles went back to work; less than a year later, he interviewed for the Oklahoma State job. The offer came from university officials at a private airport in Dallas. Miles said yes, walked to his car and thought of Bubba.
"I know you're with me," he said out loud. "I wish you were with me."
"How much would your dad have liked next Saturday?" a visiting reporter asks him, standing at the door to his office.
Five seconds pass. When he finally speaks, his voice is low and quiet. The look on his face is difficult to describe, but he seems, for a moment, to be somewhere else.
"It would have been awfully important to him," Miles says.
He looks up.
"Can I tell you something? I don't know if I would have got to that. That question you just asked. I don't know that I would have gotten to that today. Think about how wonderful that was. Let me just say how wonderful that was for me. Thank you."
Wednesday arrives, and as the coaches and players prepare for the game, a little girl with a red bow in her hair bounds up the stairs of the football building. She's eating a dessert out of a Smoothie King bowl and has a skinned-up knee. Macy Grace Miles skips toward the door leading to her dad's office, leans all the way back on the handle to make it budge.
Many of the coaches' kids grew up in this office. Miles has been in Baton Rouge for seven years, and some of those kids are now grown, too busy with their own lives to come visit their dads. The office is much quieter these days.
"It was like a romper room," says receptionist and mama hen Lois Stuckey.
Miles' oldest daughter, Smacker, is at a boarding school in Florida with an elite swimming program, and sometimes he re-reads old text messages, desperate to feel connected (her real name is Kathryn; Smacker is a childhood nickname that stuck). Last night, he pulled out his phone and found a conversation from Monday.
Smacker: Good luck. Love you.
Les: Must have it pre-game. Love dad
He wrote her back twice more.
Les: Love you miss you
Les: Love you Smacker
The team is next door, in the indoor practice facility, wearing pads and shiny yellow helmets, stretching on the turf. Macy finds her way over, pirouetting, wildly theatrical, with a new red-pepper necklace and bracelet clicking when she moves.
"They call my dad 'Hot Sauce' and the 'Mad Hatter,'" she announces.
Macy finds a spot on the 20-yard line and gets down on the ground with the top-ranked football team in the country, facing the players at first, then adjusting so she's in line. She starts stretching, clapping after each rep. She peers over at the giants next to her.
"They can't touch their toes!" she says.
A few more stretches later she gets bored, wandering from group to group. People light up when she approaches. The warm-up ends and the team rumbles out toward the field, through the gaping fire door. She hides behind a group of staff members, peeking around at the enormous shapes, her brown eyes wide.
"Don't run me over!" she gasps.
Miles sees her standing there. He leans down and gives her a kiss. Then he heads out to practice.
The fathers on this field arrive early and stay late. There's little time for anything else when you coach football. There's always another film to watch, another script to review, another recruit to chase. The building and sustaining of the LSU football program never ends.
"This is certainly a wildly encompassing endeavor," Miles says. "But it happens here, and I do it here."
He pauses, recognizing his own fib. "Ehhh " he says.
"I think about it other places," he admits.
"But, uh, I carry it some, I carry it I don't carry it to sleep with me."
Another pause, then another admission.
"At 4 o'clock in the morning," he says, "I wake up with it."
The things that arise from his subconscious mind take physical form every day at practice. Football coaches love their practices, are proud of the structure and results. Miles ambles from group to group, encouraging, offering blocking tips. The air fills with shouts and clacks of pads, and he does that palm-first clap thing. The athletic trainers, standing on the sideline, marvel at how much Miles' approach differs from other coaches.
"That's what leaves everybody scratching their heads," says senior associate trainer Shelly Mullenix.
"The jerks " says head trainer Jack Marucci.
" it kills them," Mullenix says.
"It kills them," Marucci says. "I know that kills them."
They've worked for lots of other coaches. Nick Saban. Bobby Bowden. Ray Perkins. Bill Curry. They've seen a dozen or more current head coaches as assistants. Few have seemed as relaxed as Miles. Maybe it's an act, but what if it's not? Could it be part of the reason the team wins? There's no question that the atmosphere is loose. Today, Kathy Miles stuck her head into an offensive meeting and asked for Les; the room cracked up when she said she thought the coaches needed a break.
"He's different," Mullenix says. "Maybe that's what allows him to be successful."
"That's the other thing," Marucci says. "He can sustain over time. The other guys are too much pressured."
Almost on cue, a kid with a buzz cut and a familiar walk jogs out toward the field. Ben Miles, 13, is finished with school, ready to chill with the players. They compare notes about class. One player admits he failed Bible. Ben complains about choir. Starting safety Eric Reid swings by the light stanchion where they're relaxing. Turns out Ben Miles has about 80 big brothers.
"How's school?" Reid asks. "Learn anything new?"
Ben talks drop-top Camaros with a guy. He sits on a cooler next to the Honey Badger. Two of the players throw a ball over Ben's head, playing keep-away, until Ben gets position, in press coverage on the empty field, cutting in at the last minute to make the pick.
After practice, problems get solved one after another, no detail too small for the head coach's desk, down to the names he'll approve for a songwriter to use in a song for their internal Alabama motivational video. Every so often, he glances toward his office door. Finally, he hears his son. Miles calls him in. Kathy is on the way to fetch Ben, but for the next few minutes, everything will stop while Miles catches up.
"I tweaked our blocking scheme for both our touchdowns," Ben says, sinking into the big couch.
"Really?" Miles says, his eyes wide.
"I'm serious," Ben says.
Now Miles is leaning in, too. "Give it to me," he says.
Ben, a center, describes the adjustment -- him moving the guard to pick up the shooting linebacker, switching the tackle to the defensive end.
"Did you do it in the huddle?" Miles says.
"I did it in the huddle," Ben says, "but I observed it at the line."
Miles nods. "That's a pretty strong move there, Ben. It really is. I never did any of that stuff. I just want you to know. Never. That's a great job. Wow."
Their talk turns to hopes, and future plans, and wild ideas about life. Who knows what Ben will be? In some ways, that's not the point. What's important is believing he can accomplish anything if he works hard. Right now, he is talking about being an NFL defensive coordinator. Miles wants him to dream bigger, like Bubba taught him to dream.
"I'm just letting you know, I'd love for you to be a coordinator in the NFL," he says. "But I think you'd be a great head coach. I just see you that way. Ben, honestly, you're that guy. You really are. You really, really are. Let me tell you what, I would take great pride in it. I would take great pride in anything, to be honest, that you do."
Miles is running late for his weekly radio show, checking the gas gauge in his truck, hoping he doesn't run out. But the inside of the vehicle is quiet and dark, giving his mind space to wander, finally settling on that book about grief in his office: "Tracks of a Fellow Struggler." He misses his dad every day. He misses him right now. Maybe he went back to work too soon. Maybe the scene at the funeral home is too burned into his mind. He didn't even know there were unresolved issues until his first year as a head coach. Oklahoma State had finished a scrimmage, and somewhere between the first whistle and the murmur of the Lord's Prayer at the end, he'd thought about Bubba.
The team had looked good. The players had looked sharp. It was a day much like today. The sky was blue. He got in his car, headed home to his family. Nothing seemed wrong. Windows down, radio up. Patsy Cline came through the speakers, a down pitch of strings, her soaring voice, the tinkling of a piano. Bubba loved Patsy Cline.
"Why can't I forget you and start my life anew," she sang, "instead of having sweet dreams about you."
Miles came undone. He remembered a big man hollering in the sepia light of a high school game, him hammering around third on the softball field, a past of poker nights when his dad would come to Ann Arbor, of shrimp cocktails, and a thousand kisses on top of Bubba's balding head. There was nobody there to see him, tears rolling down his face, weeping for his father.
That was 10 years ago, and he still struggles with the loss. After LSU won the 2007 national championship under Miles, he and Wangler walked on the beach in Destin, Fla., talking about how much Bubba would have loved holding a crystal football. It just doesn't seem fair, really, for a father to raise a son and not live to enjoy his success.
Miles crosses under I-10, the rib joint that hosts his show ahead on the left. The parking lot is full, the place inside rocking, all of it for him. They've loved him in Baton Rouge, and they've hated him, and now they love him again. Three cheerleaders wait just inside the door, with purple and gold pompoms and impossible abs. A state trooper stands in an empty space, where a sign announces that this is where Les Miles parks for the Les Miles Show. Everyone is waiting, but he pulls up short, his truck humming in gear.
"The reason I'm here," he says, "is because my dad always knew somehow, some way, I was gonna do something special."
Time keeps rushing away. Have they really been in Baton Rouge for seven years? The calendar on his desk is open to Dec. 30, 2010, the day of LSU's final scrimmage before the Cotton Bowl. Calendars are useless. There is only today Wednesday Thursday Friday. "It's a blur," he says. "This family matured. Grew up."
His kids have come of age in Baton Rouge. It will always be their hometown. Smacker was 10 when Miles took the job, and Macy Grace was 1. They've learned to deal with being the children of a celebrity. Miles and Kathy taught them that people would like them when the Tigers won, dislike them when the Tigers lost, and that they should never tie their own worth to the play of the team.
After one painful loss, a classmate confronted Smacker: "My dad says he can coach better than your dad." Smacker, who is pretty and athletic, growled back, "Tell your dad I can shake you like a rag doll." When one of the boys' teachers made a joke about students passing a hat because Miles was about to get fired, he wanted to raise holy hell. Kathy intervened. They have to learn to deal with it, she told him. You cannot protect them forever.
Now Smacker's out of the house. In five seasons, only the baby will be left. They're all getting bigger every day. Ben has braces. Not long ago, Miles opened the door to find three pretty young girls there to see his youngest son. He chuckled as he went to find Ben. And Manny, he's a young man who is discovering the plusses of being related to the most famous guy in town. Manny's touchdowns make the local television news. "He's 'Coach Miles' son,'" Miles says, laughing, "which he's miserably hated until just now. He started to realize that there are girls that watch this."
Miles' drives to and from work, or back from the radio show, always take him past Tiger Stadium. That's where his kids have grown up. When they come back to this place, long after he's gone, what will they remember? Will they get chills when they see the lights glowing in the distance? Will they remember Saturdays when they shared their dad with a state? Or maybe the Friday nights when they had him to themselves? Will the field mean to them what his dad's softball diamond means to him?
Nobody knows for sure. About anything, really. This is college football, a cynical business, so there always exists the slight chance that this is part of his recruiting pitch. Nobody can see inside a family, or know whether Smacker, Manny, Ben and Macy Grace have learned the same lessons he learned from Bubba. Nobody knows whether he'll coach LSU for the rest of his career, or whether he'll be fired, if he'll win more titles or be felled by some typically generic recruiting scandal. Nobody can know tomorrow. Miles feels that in his bones. That's why he kneels and prays before every game, eating a blade of grass when he's done, humbling himself, asking God to let his team play its best, and on some desperate Saturdays, even praying to win. There is a universal truth that nothing is for free, and there's no way to know what cost Les Miles will one day pay for his greatness.
Nobody can know what's in his heart, but this is a fact: Eight days before the biggest game of his coaching career, at least until the next biggest game, he got into his car and drove across town to see his son play ball. He leaned up against a fence. He ate peanuts and popcorn, smiled when someone said to him, "Hi, Macy's dad!" He put his arm around his wife. He watched his youngest daughter take a reporter's notebook and carefully write a message about her dad: "He is so cool."
Kids play catch in the shadows behind the end zone. The homecoming court wears white corsages, which reminds him of the $60 his dad spent on his homecoming outfit all those years ago. He was a football star in a wide collar and flashy jacket, and he kissed a girl that night. How could life get any better? He couldn't yet imagine tonight, watching his son break from the line, running to the post, the ball floating in the wind, over the shoulder, landing softly in his hands: touchdown! His son crosses the goal line, and before Les smiles and lets out a cheer with his wife, he says first, to himself, "Manny Miles."
The crowd stands and applauds. Other parents offer congratulations. He is happy. There will be plenty of time to recruit and watch film, solitary meals eaten out of Styrofoam with a plastic fork, endless hours spent on his team. He will undoubtedly put his work above everything else in the days and years ahead, but tonight, on Friday, Oct.28, he chose family.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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