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LSU's Miles has deep roots as gambler

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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BATON ROUGE, La.

There’s seemingly no logic to Les Miles’ unconventional thinking.

But actually there is a method to the eccentric Louisiana State coach’s philosophy on gambling. He honed it at the age of 13 playing seven-card stud poker at the Italian-American Club in his hometown of Elyria, Ohio.

Back then, he’d go to bed early before his hulking, gregarious Irish father, Hope “Bubba” Miles, would wake him at 4 a.m. “Come on, Duke,” he’d say, “let’s go play a little poker.”

At the club, the elder Miles would give his son $10 to $20 and send him to a lower-stakes game. Their arrangement was always the same: If Les lost all his money, he was finished playing and would wait for his father.

If he won, he got to keep all the money he made beyond what his father had given him.

And every time they went to play, the elder Miles repeated the philosophy he had taught his son:

“You do not gamble with anything you cannot afford to lose.”

“There was no bluff in my game,” Miles recalls. “If I didn’t get a rolled pair underneath, I wasn’t playing.”

Miles has never forgotten that lesson. It’s that don’t-risk-more-than-you-can-lose mentality that he’s used to orchestrate some of the gutsiest play calls in recent college football history, particularly one of his favorite trick plays, a fake field goal in which the holder flips the ball overhead to the kicker.

Two weeks ago at Florida, instead of kicking a potential game-tying 50-yard field goal, Miles used the trick play to get a first down. The holder’s flip hit the ground, but kicker Josh Jasper picked it up off the bounce and still got the first down, which led to a game-winning touchdown to shock the Gators.

And even with all the criticism of Miles’ inattention to clock management, “The Mad Hatter” as he’s known as for wearing a baseball cap on the sideline as well as his sometimes strange decisions and comments, has been pretty brilliant in his six seasons at LSU. The Tigers are 58-15 under him and won the BCS title in 2007.

That means he has the same number of BCS titles as more revered coaches Mack Brown, Bob Stoops and Jim Tressel.

This season, despite inconsistent play by quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, Miles somehow has the sixth-ranked Tigers (7-0) in the thick of another national championship race entering Saturday’s Southeastern Conference showdown at No. 5 Auburn (7-0).

Many point to luck in explaining his success this season. The Tigers held on for a 30-24 victory in their season-opener against a North Carolina team playing without 13 players who had been suspended as part of an NCAA investigation when a Tar Heels player couldn’t haul in potential 6-yard touchdown catches on the game’s final two plays.

LSU beat Tennessee 16-14 only after the Volunteers had 13 players on the field on what should have been the final play of an embarrassing loss for the Tigers in which they mismanaged the clock in the closing seconds. But the penalty allowed them to run another play and score the game-winning touchdown.

Then there were LSU’s late-game theatrics at Florida in its 33-29 victory.

Not that Miles cares about those who question him. He’s heard it all, including preseason speculation that his job might be in danger.

“There’s some enjoyment of the process that we’ve gone through here,” Miles said Monday evening as he sat on metal bleachers here outside LSU's indoor practice facility and watched the orange sun set while slapping away mosquitoes from his legs.

“It doesn’t need reflection or to be exposed. I’m very comfortable with how we’ve done things here.”

‘Coaches aren’t supposed to be like that’

Miles has always been a different type. Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who coached with him at Michigan, was at LSU’s victory against Ohio State in the 2007 BCS title game. Just before the kickoff he asked Miles, “Hey, what’s the game plan?”

“We’re going to go out there, turn the players loose and have fun,” Miles responded.

“Coaches aren’t supposed to be like that in a national championship game,” Cameron says.

They’re also not supposed to breakdance, but that’s exactly what Miles did to start a team meeting during preseason camp in August. When he walked in, the players were listening to the Soulja Boy song “Pretty Boy Swag,” and instead of telling them to turn it off, he asked them to keep the music on so he could dance.

LSU tailback Stevan Ridley describes Miles’ moves as the worst he’s ever seen, but says the episode was hilarious.

“Man, I wonder what’s going on up in his head sometimes too,” Ridley says. “I can’t say I don’t, but he gets it done.”

Miles has a long history of busting a move. After making big plays as a two-way lineman at Elyria High School, he’d often celebrate by doing a cartwheel, according to Terry Doan, one of his coaches.

He’d lean out of the back window of the team bus and make robot noises to a woman in the crosswalk before telling her, “Take me to your leader.”

He’d also lead his teammates in making themselves human tripods by sticking one hand on the ceiling of the bus and his opposite leg up there as well while balancing himself on the backs of seats.

“He was kind of like Steve Martin’s ‘I’m just a wild and crazy guy,’” says Steven “Sonny” Sunageal, a high school teammate. “That’s a good description of him as far as how he acted.”

Often wearing striped bell-bottom pants and platform shoes, Miles was also well known for his efforts with the opposite sex.

“He thought he was Mr. Suave,” Sunageal says.

Ohio State vs. Michigan: Taking sides

But when it came to actually playing football, Miles was intense. A right guard, when his team would gamble by running on fourth down, he’d insist the play go to his side.

“Hey, bring it on, baby, and come my way,” Sunageal recalls Miles saying in the huddle. “We’re going to make it.”

Miles was so undersized for an offensive guard that he doesn’t know if he’d even recruit himself now. But he made up for it with quick feet and toughness. He was recruited by Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame, but was most interested in fierce rivals Michigan and Ohio State.

Growing up, he had been a fan of Ohio State and legendary coach Woody Hayes, but his allegiance started to shift to Michigan in 1969 when Bo Schembechler led the Wolverines over the top-ranked Buckeyes in one of the greatest upsets in college football history.

While being recruited by Michigan, Miles flirted with Ohio State and took several unofficial visits there. Hayes often told him, “Don’t you like Ohio? This is about Ohio State.”

The Buckeyes’ interest made Schembechler want Miles even more. Bubba Miles advised his son, “Listen, I’m just telling you, if you know he’s a great man, you’ve got to be around him.”

That made the decision easy. “I’m coming,” the junior Miles told Schembechler at the end of his official visit to Michigan.

“I’m sure that at that point in time he was probably thinking, ‘Are you sure? Do you want to rethink this?’” Miles says. “But I didn’t. I’d seen what I needed to see: a great education, tradition without reproach and a leader in Bo Schembechler.”

In Miles’ hometown, which is Ohio State loyal, some residents wouldn’t talk to him. Later they’d open up, but only to rub it in that the Buckeyes had a run of victories against the Wolverines while he played for them.

Miles got his revenge later when he was a full-time assistant coach for Michigan and the Wolverines reeled off several wins against Ohio State.

“It was beautiful,” he says, smiling.

Post-graduation: Keep on truckin’

When Miles graduated in 1976, he had a degree in economics and no thoughts of coaching. “I’m going to go make a million dollars,” he told his father.

He went to work for a trucking company, learning to drive 18-wheelers. Without football to feed his competitive nature, he focused on how many six-mile runs he could make in a day, hauling steel coils across town in Lorain, Ohio.

Before long he was promoted to dispatcher, making $50,000 a year and driving a company car. Another promotion, to general manager, was in the works in 1979, but Miles missed football.

So he called Schembechler and begged him for a job.

“Call me in a week,” Miles recalls Schembechler telling him.

Miles did. “Damn it, Les,” Schembechler said, “call me in a month.”

On Miles’ third call, Schembechler relented. “Come up and see me, I guess,” he said.

During that meeting, Schembechler questioned Miles about his desire to coach.

“Are you serious?," Schembechler asked.

“Yeah,” Miles replied.

“Well, OK,” Schembechler said. “I’m going to kick your ass. Ain’t nothing changed.”

 

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Miles quit his job and became a graduate assistant at a salary of $8,200. He recalls being on the bus on the way to Michigan's appearance in the 1979 Gator Bowl and thinking, “Can you believe they’re paying me to do this?”

“It was just so much fun,” Miles says.

Three years later, Miles persuaded Michigan assistant coach Bill McCartney, who had just been named coach at Colorado, to take him along as offensive line coach. The job saved Miles probably a decade of coaching at smaller schools to get such a position.

“I didn’t know up from down,” Miles says. “But I fought like hell to get things to go right.”

Back to Ann Arbor

After five seasons at Colorado, Miles returned to Michigan in 1987 as offensive line coach under Schembechler. The two were like father and son, says Cameron, who also was a Michigan assistant at the time.

Cameron remembers Miles often challenging Schembechler to take more risks, seemingly infuriating him and often earning Miles a reprimand of, "You’re the dumbest coach.”

“Right after that, he’d turn around and do what Les said,” Cameron says.

Miles remained at Michigan through the transition from Schembechler to Gary Moeller, but when Moeller resigned in 1995, Miles left to become offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.

Even though it was a promotion, he had a hard time leaving.

“I cried like a baby,” Miles says. “That’s how much I enjoyed that place.”

Twelve years later, during LSU’s national championship season, rumors circulated that Miles would return to Michigan as head coach. Just hours before LSU played in the SEC championship game, Miles held a legendary impromptu press conference to deny a report by ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit that he was set to leave for the Wolverines.

At the time, Miles says, he had not talked to Michigan officials about the job. But when LSU officials intensified negotiations to extend his contract after winning the SEC championship game, he told them he felt obligated to talk to Michigan.

“I spent hours trying to do that and never really got a return call until much later,” Miles says.

By then, Miles was preparing his team to play in the BCS title game against Ohio State and had agreed to a contract extension with LSU.

“I don’t know that it’s in the cards,” Miles says of a return to Michigan. “Not every Michigan alumnus gets the opportunity to go back and coach at his alma mater.”

The gambler resurfaces

Miles’ gambling tendencies weren’t evident either early in his first stint at Oklahoma State, or later during a two-year run coaching tight ends under then-Dallas Cowboys coach Chan Gailey during which his father died.

“I never got an inkling that he would be a so-called riverboat gambler-type guy,” says Gailey, now coach of the Buffalo Bills. “I’m one of the more shocked people in the world.”

But Miles started taking risks when he became head coach at Oklahoma State in 2001. It was there he first ran the fake field goal flip to the kicker.

Miles didn’t run the play again until 2007, his third season at LSU. It went for a 15-yard touchdown run in a victory against South Carolina.

When he ran the play again this year against Florida, he was disappointed it went for only a first down, not the touchdown he expected. He swears he doesn’t have a well of similar plays and says he probably won’t be able to run that particular one for another three to five years.

He also knows that no matter how much he tries to explain himself, people are still going to consider him "crazy."

“That’s just what I am,” he says. “I can’t help it.”

With that, Miles winks before laughing like a jolly Santa Claus.

“The things we’re doing here are with a mindful eye,” he says. “That’s the best I can tell you.”

But don't let Miles fool you. He knows what he’s doing, and he knows exactly what he has to lose. Just like he always has.

Tagged: Florida, LSU

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