Les Miles changed around his wardrobe this week. Perhaps that’s how one can best know he’s ready for his next step in life.
For years, he’s had issues with the color red. When he was with Michigan earlier in his career, it reminded him of rival Ohio State, then at LSU, it signified Alabama, which defeated him five times in a row at the end of his tenure there.
He’s been known to point out to reporters at press conferences when they’d worn red, “Hey man, you know I don’t like that color.”
So this was a significant step. The 65-year-old Miles, when introduced as the new Kansas football coach on Sunday afternoon, emerged from a side door wearing a mostly red tie to match a color of his new school.
“Some things,” he said with a smile, “you have to learn to do with the new job.”
It was the first of what will be many adjustments for Miles as he takes on the challenge that is KU football, which has gone without a winning season since 2008.
Following a two-week search after David Beaty was told he would not return for a fifth season, KU athletic director Jeff Long made his much-rumored move official Sunday, presenting Miles as the school’s 40th head coach.
The reasons that Miles made sense for KU aren’t much of a secret. In the team’s previous two home games this year, it barely drew 15,000 fans. The program, according to Long, also is in desperate needs of fundraising, requiring eight to 15 additional football staff members just to get to a place where it can be middle of the road in the Big 12.
The Jayhawks’ situation also demands a quick fix on the recruiting trail, with the team holding only one commitment for next year’s class when the next-worst conference team has eight.
Miles, with his larger-than-life persona and national credibility, would appear to give KU immediate help in each of those deficiencies.
“I think people will take a different look at us in the football world now,” Long said.
A bigger question here, though, is the other side of the equation: What interested Miles in giving up retirement for KU?
The money should be nice, sure. Miles received a five-year contract from KU that will pay him $2,775,000 annually — an increase of about $1 million per year from Beaty’s salary but still lowest in the Big 12 — and also will receive additional retention bonuses in 2020 ($775,000) and 2022 ($450,000).
But it had to be about more than that. Earlier this week, Miles settled up a previous buyout with LSU for $1.5 million when he could have stayed unemployed and received $5 million more.
He also stated Sunday that other opportunities were available to him. Colorado and Maryland both have coaching positions open and might have had interest, while Miles also had more offers to continue his post-football acting career.
In the end, though, his mind always came back to one thought.
“The thing I’ve always been trained to do is be a football coach,” Miles said. “So it’s impossible for me to not quench that thirst.”
In the past few days, he became set that KU was the job he needed to take.
He had familiarity with the program from his days coaching Oklahoma State in the early 2000s. He loved KU’s green-filled campus, and silently wondered why the football team couldn’t experience more success.
When his close friend Long took the KU athletic director position this summer — the two worked together previously at Michigan — Miles took an even harder look. The two had a lengthy interview then chatted a few times on the phone after that. Out of respect, there were times in the last week Long told Miles he was interviewing another candidate.
“Hey, I’m right here,” Miles would respond on text.
Miles said about four days ago, he began to sense that his path and Long’s were going to take them to the same place. That concluded with an agreement that was signed Friday, then revealed publicly on Sunday.
It started a whirlwind day. Miles, after watching his son Manny play for North Carolina on Saturday, flew to Forbes Field in Topeka on Sunday morning, where he was whisked away by KU representatives in a black SUV. Later, Miles briefly introduced himself to the current football team at KU’s football complex — the team’s and Beaty’s finale is at home against Texas on Friday — when a rush of emotions hit; Miles could just feel the energy of being around college athletes again.
“That was a wonderful day for me,” Miles said. “I enjoyed it greatly.”
There will be more questions to answer from here. Will Miles change up his offense to a more modern style? And how well will he recruit, both locally and nationally?
The answers there should become more clear in the weeks to come. For now, Miles is still in the processing stages of this moment, thinking about immediate details of his family’s move to Lawrence and also the likely transfer of both of his sons to KU (Manny would be a graduate transfer, while Ben is a redshirt freshman fullback at Texas A&M).
“I’m excited as I can be,” Miles said.
It all played a part in his fashion choice Sunday.
Miles, through the years, has collected a growing number of red ties while fully realizing he could never wear them. Three days ago, he put one of those ties on, just to try it out; he quickly realized it felt OK.
This one — with thin blue stripes — ended up being the same one he put on for his introductory press conference Sunday.
A fitting start to his latest adventure.
“I’ve got a bunch of nice red ties in the back of the closet,” he said, “that I’m bringing out to the front.”