LAWRENCE — Much will be made in the coming days regarding whether Les Miles, named the next head football coach at Kansas on Sunday, "won" his introductory news conference later that evening.
Truth is, for many long-suffering Jayhawk fans, nothing the eccentric national championship-winning coach said — or, in one notable instance, how long it took him to say it — was going to sway the brimming enthusiasm around town regarding Miles’ addition to a program in the midst of a decade-long flatline.
For proof of that, look no further than a few feet outside the very facility in which Miles was introduced.
About 30 minutes before Miles and first-year athletic director Jeff Long addressed the media inside Wagnon Student-Athlete Center, a vehicle — driven presumably by a die-hard Jayhawk fan — made the rounds within the facility’s parking lot, windows down and blasting perhaps Miles’ most memorable locker room speech, a 2011 football sermon dubbed “Play for Victory.”
Anyone nearby — heck, perhaps even a few folks inside the adjacent Allen Fieldhouse — heard the display, treated to a sneak peek of Miles’ voice ahead of his first public comments at KU.
"We said that we will lay it on the line every night. Today's about playing like we play. This day is about dominating an opponent. This day is being LSU,” went Miles’ speech. “... We play dominant football tonight. Why? Because we came here to do so. It's got to be done that way from the start to the finish. To the finish! Let's go play for victory. That's what we do."
After a dozen or so loops of the speech, the car drove off.
Miles was ready to speak for himself.
“I went to a great job here,” Miles said. “I think the fan base has reached out in any number of ways to make it clear this is a special place. I would like to finish a career with championships. The guy sitting to my left (Long), that’s who he is, and that’s who I am. So we would like that opportunity to continue to play championship-style football.”
Miles’ 35-minute media availability touched on a number of subjects — his eagerness to return to the sideline; his timetable for production with the Jayhawks, who haven’t had a winning season since 2008; his recruiting approach at a location that’s, putting it nicely, not as much of a hotbed as his previous stop; and whether he’ll shake up an offensive scheme that scuffled in his final seasons in Baton Rouge, La., a major factor in his 2016 firing.
First, though, Miles used his opening statement to specifically thank Long and KU chancellor Douglas Girod.
“Those guys have made a choice that will make it possible for me to step back in front of a team room of young players and coach college football again,” Miles said. “I can tell you that I will promise to give you my sincerest efforts.”
Miles’ earliest memories of KU came as an assistant coach at Colorado in the early-1980s and later grew as head coach at Oklahoma State from 2001-04 — “We drove down into the stadium and I looked around and said, man, it’s beautiful. I said, it’s green, it’s a spectacular place. I said, why aren’t they more successful?” Miles recalled.
That memory was at the front of his mind as he considered Long’s job offer.
“This place has a specialness to it,” Mile said, “that frankly needs to be brought out.”
It’s an effort Miles will begin in earnest Monday, when he will undergo the pivotal process of finding reliable offensive and defensive coordinators. Those eventual hires will then fill out the rest of the assistant coaching staff. Everyone on the current Jayhawk staff will have an opportunity at a face-to-face meeting with Miles at some point after the team’s 11 a.m. Friday season finale against No. 15-ranked Texas at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, and Miles didn’t rule out the possibility he could retain some of those current assistant coaches.
Miles admitted he’s reflected on his offensive struggles during his final years at LSU, though he seems to believe the issue was overblown. He cited quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who threw for 3,082 yards in 2013, and running back Jeremy Hill, who ran for 1,401 yards that same season, as evidence his above-all philosophy is simply playing to the strengths of his personnel.
“When we had passers, we threw it,” Miles said. “When we had guys that could not throw the ball well, that ... couldn't process under the heat of the game, we ran the football and won 10 a year.”
Long cautioned there is “much work to be done, and this will be a process,” stressing the importance of the incoming Class of 2019 recruiting haul that will come together during the December and February signing periods.
Getting the team’s roster to 85 scholarship players, and doing so with “quality recruits and guys that can play,” will be “the biggest battle” moving forward, Miles said.
“This to me, this place is a recruiting class or two away from being a very special football team,” Miles said. “So I watched that Oklahoma game (that KU lost 55-40 on Saturday in Norman, Okla.), and that Oklahoma game in the first half, that Kansas team was wearing them out. And then after they got into the second half, the Kansas team got tired. So we have to bolster some very quality backups.”
Miles, 65, said the following of his two-year hiatus from coaching: “The further I got away from it, the more I desired it.”
Long, who two weeks ago said the biggest challenge of his coaching search would be determining whose interests in the opening were true and who was simply “playing the game,” indicated Miles left no doubt which category he fell into during the process.
“What coaches really want to be at the University of Kansas? Who wants to take on this challenge? Who wants to build this program?” Long asked. “And you know what, sitting down with Les, he's a very honest person and obviously this was an opportunity for him to get back at a Power Five conference and a chance to build a program, and he's built programs in the past. So when you're out and you want back in, you can feel the passion in the conversation, you can feel the want to, and we certainly did that as we talked about this opportunity.”
The news conference wasn’t without one awkward moment for Miles, who struggled through a 15-second mix of stammering and silence while answering how he plans to build fan support for the cellar-dwelling program — “I'm having a little heart-felt here,” Miles said with a smile as he recovered from the verbal stumble.
Whether the news conference was “won” depends on the eye of the beholder, but this much appears true: Whether it’s the dozen-or-so astute fans that showed up at Topeka Regional Airport for Miles’ arrival Sunday morning, the standing-room-only crowd that came to the new coach’s impromptu “Hawk Talk” radio show that night, or the booming audio emanating from the car that patrolled campus before Miles' official introduction, the Jayhawks and their new coach appear to have won at least this day.
“I did not expect it to take this long to get back (into coaching),” Miles said. “But as it went (along), I was very comfortable with ... how I played my cards and the things that I wanted to do. And the opportunity to go forward and get a position like Kansas is the thing that obviously we wanted to do.”