Les Miles speaking, about anything, is something like an event.
People gather around. There’s a buildup. Les works the crowd, pacing himself until he finds the right time to deliver his quirky lines. You always come away entertained. You never leave feeling those minutes spent weren’t worth it. He really ought to charge.
We saw it again last Saturday after LSU beat Florida and Miles was asked about hammers and nails in a metaphorical sense. He addressed the question literally, framing his response in a kind of seriousness and passion known only to him, and this produced an undeniable level of affection and hilarity. That’s usually how Les leaves us, smitten and laughing.
And maybe, given how big of a character he is, it’s almost impossible to take him seriously. But what if we did? What if we listened to Les for the message rather than the delivery?
I spent far too much of my Tuesday doing exactly this, digging through some of the best of Les in front of a microphone. What I found buried beneath impressive amounts of wit and moxie were important life lessons (you think I’m kidding).
Here are eight Les life lessons — video clips included — I felt compelled to share, beginning with hammers and nails.
1. Life is a battle, and we’re all fighting the same one
After beating the Gators last week, Miles was asked about being a “hammer” this season instead of the “nail” in 2012 when the Tigers lost to Florida.
Les said: “Here’s what happens: Two very quality teams take the field and compete like a son of a b—- for victory. And you know what? It’s not a hammer-and-a-nail relationship. It’s an opportunity for an opponent to be equal and to raise their level of play in such a fashion that they win. That’s how this thing works. You respect the opponent and he’s not the hammer and he’s not the frickin’ nail. OK? He’s the opponent. You understand? I’m just letting you know. I resent that.”
The lesson: Miles is stressing the importance of possessing humility. He knows it would be too easy for his team – a collection of talent that often overwhelms opponents – to look past seemingly inferior opponents. But his point is just that: Everyone, regardless of circumstance, is competing for the same things and should therefore be approached with the same attention and respect. There’s honor in the duel between two competitors, and that should be recognized and protected.
2. If you don’t have courage, then you don’t have much
On Monday, before a press conference, Miles took a moment to mention Columbus Day.
Les said: “I want to remind everybody that it’s Columbus Day. All those of you who know Italians and like Italians or people who might venture onto a ship and travel to explore and find new lands – this is your day.”
The lesson: I don’t really know why Miles felt compelled to mention Italians here – yes, Columbus was Italian, but so? – but the message is simple and one for all. Miles celebrates and appreciates those who are willing to venture out on their own, boundless hope and optimism in place of promise and guarantee. It takes courage to do something radically different, Miles is telling us, but a bit of courage is what you need to accomplish anything worth your time.
(I wonder if this is what he tells his Tigers when they’re boarding busses in Tuscaloosa. It’s time to get on the ship, men, and set forth into this angry sea of unknown. There’s only one way to find what’s yet to be found …)
3. When you don’t quit, you might surprise yourself (or something)
After rallying to beat Ole Miss last season, Miles turned in an all-time press conference. There are too many great things in this clip.
This is the press conference in which Miles says about his players, “give them a kiss on the mouth … if you’re a girl!” He also does a great bowler impression – leaning to keep his theoretical bowling ball out of the gutter – when talking about Odell Beckham’s touchdown.
But this clip actually isn’t about any of that. It’s about his message when describing how every player had a part in the victory (warning: muffled swear word at 1:15).
Les said: “Whether he’s a scout team player, or a guy that plays sparingly, or a guy that was highly recruited and played his butt off and is getting his degree and whose contribution was very, very significant and WILL be for the next TWO games!
“I want you to know something. It would be said about my career at Michigan: It was a flop. I underplayed my own expectations. My head coach probably would have told me, ‘You overplayed your physical limitations.’ My point to you is … is … there is no such thing as a flop! Just so you know. I’m proud of those men, how frickin’ easy it would have been to say it’s [Ole Miss’] night. How f—ing easy. Excuse my language. Spectacular group of men.”
The lesson: Miles is either talking about how each individual is valuable and plays a vital role in a social structure, or the great things that can happen in life when your refuse to quit or … hell, I don’t really know, but what a quote!
4. Never forget your roots
After beating Alabama in 2010, Miles was asked about his peculiar thing he occasionally does on the sideline, how he picks up and eats a few blades of grass (starts around 1:30).
Les said: “You know what I do? I have a little tradition that humbles me as a man and lets me know I’m a part of the field and a part of the game. Yeah, it’s gonna be all over the Internet, and you know what? You should have seen some games before this.”
The lesson: What Miles is really saying here is it’s important to remember your roots and the town and family from which you arrived. This keeps you grounded as an individual and allows you to move forward, fending off both the temptations that come with success and the doubt that is delivered by defeat. Strong stuff.
5. Possess self-confidence, but don’t confuse it with something else
Miles was on the NFL Network set at the 2012 NFL draft, and when the Dallas Cowboys selected Morris Claiborne No. 6 overall, he was asked to speak a little bit about what Claiborne will bring to his new team.
Les said: “We use the word ‘swagger’ in our program. It’s the modern-day word for confidence, but it comes with preparation and hard work and collisions.”
The lesson: I have no idea what the “collisions” part of that quote means – perhaps he’s saying part of a defensive player’s swagger is earned in the violent hits he delivers – but Miles is referring to the foundation of self-confidence when he talks about swagger. Without the hard work and preparation, confidence is merely misrepresented false bravado, which will eventually bring you some hard humility and little else. Commit to a process of hard work and preparation, and you now possess the makings of something.
6. There will be voices – pay them no attention
At halftime five years ago, Miles had an interesting exchange with CBS’ Tracy Wolfson when the reporter began her first question referencing LSU’s road record against top-10 teams. LSU was losing 10-7 at the time of the interview.
Les said: “I’m not worried about 0-2 against top-10 teams on the road. I’m worried about finishing this game and finishing it well. Our football team is damn good. We figure to show that in the second half … by playing our ass off.”
The lesson: There will always be critics, Miles is saying, but more than critics, there will always be distractions. These are the things you cannot control and thus the things you cannot spend time on. If you can manage to focus only on your own efforts and nothing else, the final accomplishment figures to be grand. Now, let’s go finish a game and finish it well!
7. Be a person of your word and be the only word
After Lloyd Carr stepped down as Michigan’s head coach in 2007, it was speculated that Miles would leave Baton Rouge for Ann Arbor, where he played and spent time as an assistant coach.
A report surfaced on Dec. 1 – the day of the SEC championship game in which LSU was playing – that Miles was gone after the game, and he had to address his team and the media that afternoon to spoil that rumor.
Les said: “There was misinformation on ESPN, and I think it’s imperative I straighten it out. I am the head coach at LSU. I will be the head coach at LSU. I have no interest in talking to anybody else. I have a championship game to play, and I am excited about the opportunity for my damn strong football team to play in it. That’s really all I’d like to say. It was unfortunate that I had to address my team with this information this morning … There will be no questions for me. I represent ME in this issue. Please ask me after [tonight’s game]. I’m busy. Thank you very much. Have a great day.”
The lesson: You have to watch that video, if only for the smirk that accompanies “great day.” Anyway, the message here is rather clear. It’s important to speak for yourself, to be the protector of your own record and to then uphold that record. Many didn’t believe Miles when he denied having any interest in talking to any school but LSU, and maybe they shouldn’t have.
But here Les is, still at LSU, and it’s difficult to see him going elsewhere now. When the Michigan rumors swirled, he ended them more efficiently than any polished statement could. Have your own voice, Miles is saying.
8. You are in control and you are responsible, no excuses
Go to the four-minute mark in this interview with Dan Le Batard and his father and listen to Miles tell the story about teaching his daughter how to drive, and why he would throw water on her as she’s DRIVING OVER THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER.