Saturday, November 14, 2020

Through Miles-colored goggles’ — How Kansas football coach Les Miles developed his signature optimism

Kansas head coach Les Miles walks on the field after defeating Indiana State Saturday afternoon at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Aug. 31, 2019.

Kansas head coach Les Miles walks on the field after defeating Indiana State Saturday afternoon at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Aug. 31, 2019.


Throughout the 2020 season, and, really, the entirety of his 24 months in charge of the Kansas football program, KU coach Les Miles has led with optimism.

Unbridled, unabashed, unapologetic optimism.

To those who choose to look mostly at the Jayhawks' 3-16 record and lopsided losses during that time, the positive approach doesn't always fit.

“I understand where they're coming from,” Miles told the Journal-World during a Zoom call from his office.

But to the people who know Miles best and have seen him operate this way for decades, the KU coach's sunny disposition and unending belief in his players is evidence that he's the same guy he's always been.

“Les hasn't changed a lick since I met him,” longtime Miles friend and former Michigan quarterback, John Wangler, said in a phone interview this week. “It's not an act at all with Les. That's who he is. He's that guy. Really.”

Asked recently to explain where his optimistic nature came from, Miles pointed to the influence his father, Hope Miles, had on him growing up.

One story of a conversation after a spring scrimmage during his playing days at Michigan still moves Miles to tears.

After sharing it during a recent press conference, he elaborated during a Friday morning interview with the Journal-World.

“I had a miserable day,” Miles recalled of the scrimmage. “We got in the car and were going to eat and I told him I didn't like how I played. He said to me, 'Les, you need to see what I'm seeing. You were the best guard in the stadium today.'”


Kansas head coach Les Miles looks at his play card during the team's NCAA college football game against Texas on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Miles laughed. His father didn't.

“That was really the first time I figured out that he was wired that way,” Miles said. “He sees it through Miles-colored goggles. That's just the way it was. And, frankly, I wanted it to happen just like that for me.”

From that moment on, it did.

A few years later, on a cold December night in 1982, Miles and Wangler, who were both graduate assistants under legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, were sent from Ann Arbor to Detroit to scout a high school lineman.

Wangler doesn't remember the player, but he does remember the drive home, simply because he wanted no part of trying to make it.

Ice covered the roads, cars slid off the highway into ditches and emergency vehicles were out in force.

As Miles and Wangler came to a hill that no one had been able to climb, Wangler told Miles they should go back. Miles believed they could make it.

“We're going to give it a hell of a run, John,” Wangler recalled Miles saying in the moment.

It took two tries and the assistance of a road wrecker to push them over the top, but the two Wolverines got their black 1979 Buick Regal over the hill, with Miles laughing the entire way.

“He was not going to be denied,” Wangler said. “But that was Les. It wasn't like it was something that was out of the ordinary. That's how he is. If he was coaching a community college there in Kansas or he was coaching the Kansas City Chiefs, he'd be the same guy. And that's a tribute to him, his parents and the way he was brought up.”

Like father, like son

Hope Miles stood 6-foot-5, 300-plus pounds and, according to his son and daughter-in-law, Kathy Miles, commanded every room he ever walked into.

His big personality and abundant confidence in himself and others was the driving force behind everything he did.

That included raising his children.


Kansas head football coach Les Miles talks with media members during a signing day press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019 in Mrkonic Auditorium.

“He talked to Les when he was young about how he was a superhero,” Kathy recalled during an interview with the Journal-World. “He just made him feel like he could do anything and I always could see that his dad had such confidence in him.”

Wangler saw it, too.

Miles' longtime Michigan friend got to know Hope Miles well during the 1980s. He remembered him as a gregarious, brush-cut, old school Irishman.

“You talk about a fun guy to be around,” Wangler said. “Bubba (Hope) was a guy who loved life every second and always found the joy in any situation. And that came through to Les.”

That influence shaped Miles' outlook on life. It's why he always points out when the sky is blue and the sun is shining. And it's why he believes that staying positive in the face of adversity, “is the only way to be.”

Not even his rough start at Kansas has undercut that approach.

“I don't think so,” Miles said. “I want to do the things that make us better and I want to work like hell at painting the picture of how we're going to be successful rather than bemoaning the position we're in.”

Coaching mentors

It was not just his father who instilled positivity and optimism into Miles during his younger years.

His coaching mentors provided that, as well.

“Schembechler always believed in us,” Miles remembered. “And he would kick our tails. He had the pulse of the team in his hands and did a great job. When he turned to you and said, 'I'm proud of you,' it was your father, it was your coach, it was your friends. He was representing all of them.”

After his GA duties at Michigan, Miles went to work for Colorado coach Bill McCartney, coaching CU's offensive line from 1982-86.

Like Schembechler, McCartney was demanding. But Miles said McCartney led in a way that made his players feel like he believed they had it in them to do whatever was asked.


Colorado University head coach Bill McCartney repositions tight end Jon Embree (80) during practice in Irvine, Calif., Dec. 26, 1985.

Kathy's favorite story of Miles' days in Boulder, Colo., involved a McCartney assistant ripping into one of his players after a bad rep in practice.

“If an assistant said to him, 'I've told that kid 113 times how to block that right,' Coach McCartney would say, 'Well, it might be the 114th time that he gets it right,'” Kathy recalled. “Bill McCartney had that same style of positivity, and Les always thought that was why he was able to turn that Colorado program around.”

Even at home, Miles would use the lessons he learned from McCartney's playbook.

“I've said those things around the house with the kids growing up,” Kathy said. “Like, 'I told her seven times to bring her dirty clothes down to the laundry.' And Les would say, 'Well, it might be the eighth time when she does it right.'”

'He's always the light'

While Miles was leading football players at Oklahoma State, LSU and, eventually, Kansas with his signature optimism, his own children were getting the same treatment at home.

“He just knew that Smacker was going to be an Olympic swimmer and Manny was going to play professional baseball,” Kathy recalled of their two oldest children. “Now, with Macy (a junior softball player at Free State High), every time she goes up to the plate, he wants her thinking home run, home run.”

Not everyone in the Miles family took to the optimist's mantra as easily as either patriarch.

Miles shared a story of his daughter, Smacker, throwing a fit on the pitcher's mound during a youth softball game when her team was struggling to field the ball behind her.

Rather than building her up by blaming others, Miles broke her down on the drive home by challenging her to change her approach.

“I said, 'Listen, you can't pull your hat down on your head and glare at your teammates and expect that they are going to do what you want them to do,” Miles recalled.

Hoping to hammer home his point, Miles pulled into a parking lot and hopped in front of the headlights.

“I took her hat and shoved it down on my head and put my hands on my hips and showed her what an ass looked like,” Miles said with a laugh. “And she was phenomenal from that point on.”

That approach of encouraging people to do something instead of riding them for not is one he uses with his players at Kansas today.


KU Athletics

Masked Kansas football coach Les Miles pats defensive lineman Sam Burt on the head during a preseason practice in August of 2020.

And whether it's while he's recruiting them to Lawrence or after they arrive, they're paying attention to their coach's positivity.

“Of course,” said sophomore safety Kenny Logan Jr. “We feed off Coach Miles. He's always the light, even in the darkest moments. And that's a big factor in our development because having a guy that believes in us and motivates us, even when we're down, is something we need.”

Whether it's a helmet tap in practice, a 'keep your head up' after a tough loss or the simple gesture of telling someone that burnt toast is his favorite when he sits down to a less than desirable breakfast, Miles refuses to deviate from his eternally optimistic ways.

“Les is a guy you want in the foxhole with you because, no matter what happens, he's not going to quit and he will be there until his last breath, trying to make the outcome as positive as it can get,” Wangler said.

Added Kathy, when asked if the losses at Kansas have chipped away at her husband's positive persona: “There's no doubt that it is not easy to finish second. But I've always felt like Les is really comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is and, more than anything, he's willing to work to try to get things fixed. I think there's just an ultimate feeling with him that eventually it'll work out as long as we stay the course and don't worry about what everybody else is doing.”


Dale Rogers 10 months, 1 week ago

Definitely the right man to bring this program to fruition. The foundation is being built, the future is bright. We just have to hang in there through the tough times.

Dane Pratt 10 months, 1 week ago

I would say you're probably right but I'm not drinking any kool-aid while I'm waiting for it to happen.

Chris Condren 10 months, 1 week ago

We can only hope Les Miles is the person to rebuild the ruins. Eleven years of historically bad football have darkened my glasses.

Brett McCabe 10 months, 1 week ago

I think that the Miles approach is refreshing and admirable. He’s our coach for five years. If he can build up these players and build up a decimated roster, then he will have done the real work that no coach has done in a decade.

Ray Winger 10 months, 1 week ago

The brain works 30% better, when in an optimistic mode. Remember the positive reinforcement with shooting basketballs by coaches, or a baseball hitting coaches encouraging admonitions. Ziglar would say: 'I know you can do better, because I have seen how well you have performed in practice, etc. Thereby criticizing the performance and complimenting the performer

Steven Haag 10 months, 1 week ago

I like Miles as a person. I also would rather hang around a “glass half full” kind of guy versus the “glass half empty”. His attitude will help these kids long past football days. It will help with life in general, which is ultimately much more important than 4 years of football. Funny.......we said the same about Beaty. He loved those kids and was a good person........but it didn’t equate to wins.

Matt Tait 10 months, 1 week ago

Beaty definitely tried to lead with optimism and positivity, but I think you saw some moments where he cracked and the frustrations mounted and cut into that persona. Like Kathy said about Les being "comfortable in his own skin," I'm not sure Beaty was ever fully comfortable during his time here. He felt the pressure, heard the criticisms and struggled to handle the losses and disappointment. Hard to blame him.

I think that's what's different here, though. Like it or not, Les is who he is and he's not going to change because he genuinely doesn't believe he needs to. That should help him stay the course and power through whatever comes his way. Whether that leads to wins or better days in the future remains to be seen, and there's certainly no guarantee that he's going to get this thing turned around. But he's going to stay true to himself and let the chips fall where they may.

Charlie Gaughn 10 months, 1 week ago

Great article. We need a more positive outlook on what Miles is doing. As fans we can't say on one hand we want to recruit freshmen and do it the right way and then cry about the losses.

Len Shaffer 10 months, 1 week ago

I think we all were ready for it to be tough this year. What's most concerning to me is that there don't appear to be any real signs of progress, at least on the offensive end. On defense, I've seen a few encouraging signs, but the offense (and especially the line) has been truly terrible the entire season. It would be nice to see signs that they were at least getting it a LITTLE bit.

Dane Pratt 10 months, 1 week ago

Patience has been our mantra for eleven years and that mantra has proven to be a false hope thus far. Using the analogy of the player who couldn’t block right 113 times, Les has coached 19 games. Will it be the 20th when his team finally gets it right? Unlikely. Will it be the 30th? Maybe, but we have no choice but to hitch our wagon to Les Miles because we have dug ourselves a hole so deep we have no other options.

Steven Haag 10 months, 1 week ago

@Matt. Fair enough. I for one am glad that Les is that way. I’m sure we all believe that these players have to believe in who they are and that they belong on the football field. I’m not sure, as you have said, that it will relate to victories. It has to be hard to believe when we are not just getting beat, but getting pummeled week in and week out. Time will tell.

Ed Noyes 10 months, 1 week ago

At almost 74 yrs old and 51 plus yrs since graduating in 1969, I am still confident that my Hawks will be a consistent winner before I enter the pearly gates of Larryville in the Sky!

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