Miles away from football

There are certain rules in the Miles household.

First, take your shoes off before you come inside.

Second, if Mom has folded the laundry and put it on the dinner table, don’t even think of heading upstairs without taking your bundle. And third? “After baseball games, we have to take a shower. We get in a lot of trouble if we go to bed all dirty,” explains Manny Miles, whose hazel eyes, constellation of freckles and ready grin make you want to spend more time talking to him than he’s got. He’s the kind of kid moms hope their sons will befriend. He plays third base and can pitch a ball at 68 mph. His favorite sport? “It depends on what season it is,” the 12-year-old says with a toothy half-smile that echoes the perpetual almost-grin of his dad, LSU Head Football Coach Les Miles.

What would happen if one of the four Miles kids didn’t like sports? What if one wanted to become devoted to, say, music or meditation? Manny Miles pauses and looks slightly up and to the left.

“I don’t think my family would allow it,” he says.

The kinetic energy of the Miles family bounces off the putty walls, wood floors and glistening, white molding of their just-big-enough-to-hold-six home and skitters over the casual flotsam that follows the teen, the tween, the school-ager and the kindergartner.

“Mikey wants a hug!” says 5-year-old Macy, who’s been known to have crushes on LSU players and who adores Hannah Montana.

She thrusts a stuffed tiger at the highest-paid football coach in America. Les Miles is wearing a purple track suit and a white polo. His signature hat’s hanging up today, and his ever-so-slightly balding head sprouts a graying flat top. The activity ricochets out the back door to the backyard basketball court and swimming pool, where some of the family’s athletic buzz can be channeled when they’re not shuttling from one practice to another.

Macy squats and lunges the basketball skyward. She makes a game of balancing on the brick edge of the family’s swimming pool. She moves constantly, even when her mom holds her on her lap. A day like this, with all the family around, is rare. The Miles family spends a lot of time in the car, and it’s usually trashed, Coach Miles confesses.

Miles makes it a point to really be there—every day—for his wife and kids. He wants to be a real dad. He wants to go out with his kids’ teams to celebrate over salsa and chips. He wants to sit at the edge of his camp chair and cheer from the sidelines at Little League games. To lounge at Fleur de Lis Pizza sipping his bottled Diet Coke from shot glasses and explaining why a certain football play his son’s drawn up just wouldn’t work. Wife Kathy and their kids—Kathryn, 14, a star swimmer and basketball player who goes by the nickname “Smacker,” Manny, Benjamin, 9, the family jokester and a stellar athlete himself, and pistol Macy—are Miles’ heart.

Like the ebony base that cradles the Waterford crystal football on the National Championship trophy Miles and his team won last year, his family holds him up. The life of a college football coach isn’t easy. But Miles, 54, manages to keep a pretty level head, in part because he’s got a solid home life and in part because that’s just who he is. Planning his schedule out in the shower and making sure he spends at least 10 minutes with each kid in the morning, this Les Miles is a far cry from the gambler who kept thousands of fans’ hearts fibrillating last fall.

When Miles made an impassioned statement in December 2007 that he is the LSU head coach and will be the LSU head coach, the Baton Rouge community finally started to think of him as one of their own. For many fans, this is a contingent relationship based on what happens on the field. Winning the national championship meant Miles will be admired, if not adored, for at least another year. Regardless, though, the Miles family seems bent on being part of the community. They live here. Now. And that’s as well as anyone can do.

Former Athletic Director Skip Bertman once compared the Miles family to Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver. But that’s not entirely accurate, Miles says.

“I don’t think Leave It to Beavers ever sweat, and I don’t think there was ever a mess in their house.”

His voice has the timbre of a knife being sharpened on a flat square of chilly flint, each syllable carrying a whittled Midwestern diction. “I don’t know where we have the magic. I don’t know that we’re doing anything better or worse.”

Miles likes to give advice. Not the cliched kind, but the sort that comes from living and breathing and just plain in-your-gut knowing. When he doles it out, it’s infused with warmth, with plenty of dramatic pauses. This man would’ve made a great teacher. Mid-interview, he stops to reassure me that life with my own two kids in diapers is only going to get easier. “You’ve got the greatest time in your life right now,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of things that are more important in the development of your home and your children’s lives than whether or not it’s exactly spick and span and whether the food is square on the table.”

Miles reminds Erin Cofiell of her own father, says the 24-year-old WAFB Channel 9 sports reporter.

“I am a girl: I am working in a boy’s world,” she says. “I’ve had experiences on the road when I can kind of feel that the people around me don’t trust that I know what I am doing because I am a girl. Around Les and football, it’s not like that. He doesn’t shy away from conversation with me or try to dumb things down.”

Miles grows claws, teeth and an ear-splitting roar when it comes to defending his players or his program to those who have butted heads with him. But after the game’s over, he’s been known to stop press conferences to bend down and hug one of his kids or take a bite from one of their ice cream cones. “There’s a completely high-energy emotional side, but there’s also a completely different sensitive person there,” says Matt Deville, senior editor of Tiger Rag.

Get Miles talking about his darkest fears, and he’ll say he gets the heebie-jeebies when he thinks about not being around for his family.

It’s a fear he had to face back in 2001, when he came home from his daily jog and felt sick to his stomach. His head hurt. When the headache got worse, Miles headed to the doctor. An MRI confirmed he had a cyst on his brain. Fluid was building up. Suddenly, the losing season he was coming off of at Oklahoma State University—his only losing season as head coach—lurched into sharp perspective.

Kathy Miles remembers the incident as the most intense time of their married lives, but Miles, ever the optimist, refused to focus on doom and gloom. That’s Les, Kathy says. Consistent. Not one to dwell on what could happen. Never one to lose sleep.

On Christmas Eve that year, Miles went under the knife to remove part of the cyst to relieve pressure. He was out of the hospital by Christmas Day and has been damn strong ever since, thank you.

At the Miles house, the guys sometimes take on the girls in basketball, and they often lose, which means the ladies get to pick the movie.

Then the tough SEC coach has to see a romance flick such as P.S. I Love You. Not the Coach’s favorite.

He may not love chick flicks, but underneath it all, Coach Miles just might be a softie. All you have to do is listen to him tell the story of how he met Kathy.

She was an assistant basketball coach, he an assistant football coach, when they met at the University of Michigan. To get her attention, Miles chatted with Kathy about the recent 1989 Pistons-Lakers NBA final. He didn’t know much about basketball and hoped she wouldn’t catch on.

Miles, who earned a rep last year as a coach willing to make risky calls on the sideline, was shy when it came to the ladies. “I think I pursued her for about a year and a half before I said a personal word to her,” Miles says. The two kept their relationship secret until they knew for sure it would last. They didn’t want to put up with any professional fallout if the romance went sour. They married in 1993.

Amid the chatter in the Capital Area on how gutsy Coach Miles is and how in the world did he have the nerve to go for it on fourth down with seconds to go, Kathy Miles goes about her day. She drives the kids from here to there, schleps their stuff, stays on them about their grades, forbids them to miss school to enjoy the perks of their dad’s fame, helps coach her daughter’s basketball team and works to raise money for charity.

“She’s a great mom,” says Jenni Peters, owner of Varsity Sports, a local running store where the Miles family was one of the top 10 spenders last year. “Real down-to-earth.”

A couple of months after she reported on a story about the Miles family, WAFB sportscaster Cofiell ran into Kathy Miles at a spinning class at Bally’s at Perkins Rowe. As Cofiell puzzled over how to set up her spinning bike and whether she’d gotten in over her head, the coach’s wife, a regular in the class, went over to Cofiell and walked her through the nuances of adjusting the height and angle of her bike. Kathy Miles won a big fan that day.

“She was there for me,” Cofiell says. “And it’s not like she was decked out in LSU football things. She wasn’t all, ‘I’m Kathy Miles.’ She was just trying to get a good workout in.”

One place you’re likely to find Miles during his time off is at one of his sons’ baseball games. Head to Cedar Ridge Park off Coursey Boulevard. Drive down the long, rocky drive that leads to the ball parks. Try to find a parking space amid the SUVs and minivans. Pass the postage stamp-sized concessions stand with the bored vendor. You’ll find Miles camped out on nylon chairs with the baseball moms. The moms talk about the game, while the dads usually wander off-topic, explains Justin Guitreau, who plays third base for the Giants, Manny’s team. That’s why the Coach prefers to sit with the women: They stick to talk about the action on the field, perched as close to the chain-link fence as possible. “Come, five!” shouts Miles. That’s Manny’s number. It’s a heated crowd that last year supported the Giants to a win at the Youth Baseball World Series.

“He gets fired up whenever we do stuff good,” Guitreau says. “But he also gets kind of mad when Manny doesn’t do what he wants.”

Miles isn’t the kind of dad who makes life tough for his kids’ coaches, says Lane Pitre, assistant coach for the Giants. “He’s never, never stepped in… He cheers for all the kids. He’s definitely a cheerer.”

The kids who play ball with Miles’ sons forget he’s this big-time coach. Ross Pitre, a right-fielder for the Giants, says sometimes parents from the opposing team’ll show up at games with bags of footballs for Miles to sign. He obliges. As the coach’s success has grown, so have the gawkers. Miles has taken to sometimes wearing sunglasses and, of course, a hat, sitting under trees so the focus can be on the team.

Miles isn’t about to retreat, though. His gregarious nature is a trait that sets him apart from his predecessor, Nick Saban, who preferred to stay in.

“He (Saban) specifically avoided going out in public. He got his favorite restaurant called-in or brought, just to avoid going out in public,” says David Funes, who often traveled with Miles in his last job as vice president of the LSU Alumni Association.

Miles’ accessibility and warmth made Funes love him right away. Funes likes to tell the story of how, a couple of years ago, he and his wife needed to pick up their infant, who was visiting her grandma in Shreveport. Since Funes was going to be flying there with Miles for a speaking engagement, he asked if the Coach would mind if his wife tagged along so she could pick up the baby, and then the three of them could fly back to Baton Rouge. Miles responded, “Heck yeah!” And then held the baby.

“Nick Saban would’ve said, ‘No way,’” Funes says. “I would have never asked it.”

Elyria, Ohio, rests on the Black River, where the same glaciers that once carved the Great Lakes chiseled the rocky earth and left waterfalls and climbing rocks in this small city. It’s the place where Les Miles picked up his straightforward delivery and competitive drive. His dad, Hope Miles, had roots in Ireland and loved steak the size of the plate. As he moved out of one blue-collar job and into another, Hope maintained the attitude and work ethic taught to him in the U.S. Navy. Eventually, he rose to vice president in a steel company.

Sports were a vital part of daily life in Elyria. The local high school spawned such greats as Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz and Walt Rock, who went to the Super Bowl with the Redskins. Hope Miles stoked his son’s athletic talents. “Duke!” he’d bark from the sidelines, using his son’s nickname. Miles wrestled and played football and baseball.

Hope Miles was a looming, 270-pounder. During World War II, he was shot by a sniper on a Pacific island, but survived by crawling under a bush and waiting until rescuers arrived. He taught Miles to take a cool, tactical approach to any challenge.

Now that he’s a father, Les Miles says, he understands coaching better. He thinks of all of his players as being somebody’s son. At the end of the day, he hopes he treats those players the way their dads would like them to be treated.

Miles’ warmth and ability to be the gentle counselor makes folks shut up and listen when he decides it’s time to make a point. When the nice guy goes ballistic, it’s a shock. That just might be one key to Miles’ success as a coach.

The time he called Tiger Rag and ripped General Manager Jim Engster for writing a column that, while complimentary, featured the copy of an e-mail from a disgruntled fan has woven itself into the sports newspaper’s lore.

When the phone rang and Engster heard it was the coach, he was pleased at first.

“Well, hello, Coach!” Engster, a gentle guy with a velvety radio voice, recalls saying.

“So you think this is funny, huh?” Miles hissed. The coach went on to chew Engster out for a solid 12 minutes, saying that there are certain opinions that just shouldn’t bleepin’ count.

“He’s very intense,” Engster says.

As apprentice to former University of Michigan Head Football Coach Bo Schembechler, Miles was schooled in the tradition of pacing the sidelines and throwing headsets in disgust. “Old school” is one description that comes to mind. He’s definitely not a pushover.

Facing one of the darker moments for the LSU football program last year, Miles handled discipline problems with quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, many said, the way a strong father would. He had to constantly balance what he knew would be best for his team and what he thought would be right for a troubled young man. Eventually, Miles said, enough is enough. Perrilloux was dismissed from the team because he broke team rules. When he didn’t follow the rules, the coach had no choice but to get tough.

As Miles plans the 2008 season, he’ll be trying out a brand-new quarterback, moving forward, not looking back. He prefers to view things the way he sees the world at 4 a.m. when he gets up and it’s still dark and the day holds many possibilities. The sun hits the Mississippi River bridge, then spills over the softly grassed banks of Old Man River until it reaches Death Valley, where Miles will be tested and tested again, all to the hoarse cries of purple-blooded fans who, come Monday, might be driving beside him in the carpool lane or waiting behind him in line at the store.

Miles says he envisions seeing LSU football to dynasty status. He’d like to see his kids graduate from U-High, one by one.

“He’s definitely happy here,” says Pitre.

“He’s the highest-paid coach in America; he’s got the adoration of the fans and the alumni,” Engster says. “There’s a lot to love in Baton Rouge.”