LAWRENCE — Before Les Miles accepted the head coaching gig at Kansas, the college football folk hero had to be certain of one thing: Did his family approve of the life-altering decision?
One green light later, the national championship-winning coach was back in the national spotlight at one of the unlikeliest of locations.
“I’ve gotta be honest with you: I felt like this was a great opportunity for me to bring my family to a place where there’s real quality people,” Miles recently told The Topeka Capital-Journal. “They expressed a real desire for their dad, so I felt comfortable inviting that family to come on out there with me.
“They wanted me back in, there’s no question. It’s, which place?”
Two questions — why here, why now? — linger in the minds of many star-struck Jayhawk fans in the aftermath of Miles’ five-year, $13.875 million base contract with KU.
Discussing the whirlwind week in an interview with The Capital-Journal, one of the figures whose seal of approval made it all possible explained her answer to both those inquiries.
Kathryn “Smacker” Miles, a high school football sideline reporter in Baton Rouge, La., and former swimmer at the University of Texas, admitted her OK came only after two years of mixed emotions and conflicted feelings on a potential future to the sidelines for her father.
“I was kind of the one honestly from the beginning that was just like, ‘Do we really need to stress? You’ve had an unbelievable career. You need to realize that. That’s the bottom line. You don’t have to get back into this. No one in our family is forcing you to or thinks you need to, and you don’t need to prove yourself,’ ” Smacker Miles recalled. “That was one of my biggest things — ‘Dad, you have nothing to prove. You’ve proven everything there is to possibly prove as a coach. You’ve made young men, you’ve done it with integrity, you’ve won championships.’ ”
Not everyone, Smacker Miles told her father, goes out like Derek Jeter, the former New York Yankees shortstop who capped his Yankee Stadium career with a walkoff hit in a 6-5 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 25, 2014. Most legends don’t have that luxury, she continued, and many find themselves where the now 65-year-old Miles was after his Sept. 25, 2016 firing by LSU, where he enjoyed 11-plus mostly successful seasons.
“That’s just one-in-a-million, even with the legends that are out there, that you really just finish on top of the world,” Smacker Miles said. “Yes, I think everyone who’s competitive strives for that, but for me it was like, that isn’t the reality of a lot of the greatest players and coaches in the country. And really that’s the reality for most of them, that they want to do it so bad that they do it until they can’t anymore. My thing was just, ‘You don’t have to do this.’ ”
As her father’s two-year hiatus away from coaching went along, though, Smacker Miles sensed her advice perhaps becoming less and less effective.
“You could just tell that he needed it,” she said. “The longer it went without him coaching, the more I realized that he did just straight up need it.”
Once that realization was made, the next question was clear, though the answer not so much: Where would the coach with a career winning percentage of 72.1 go next?
How that became KU, a program that’s in the midst of its 10th consecutive losing campaign and one that has gone 527-616-54 all-time, was a matter of trust, Smacker Miles indicated — particularly in first-year athletic director Jeff Long, whom Les Miles has known since the two worked together at Michigan in the 1980s.
It’s not easy to overstate the importance of that bond after the Miles family’s last stop seemingly ended with a feeling of betrayal.
“I was very surprised that he stayed at LSU as long as he did after the change of the athletic director when the most recent athletic director (Joe Alleva) got there (in 2008),” Smacker Miles said. “It was not a stellar relationship from the beginning. It was something we heard about early on. ... It was something where if you would’ve asked me Year 2 (in 2009) if he was going to end up working with him that long I would’ve said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ”
Fired — or, as the quirky head coach put it Sunday, “disposed” — by Alleva just four games into his 12th season, Les Miles knew if he was going to jump back into the game, it needed to be somewhere where the vision of head coach and athletic director aligned perfectly.
Enter Long, the former College Football Playoff committee chairman hired at KU on July 5.
“Getting to be around Mr. Long for almost an entire day on Sunday and meeting his family, it felt like the perfect match. It felt like the one,” Smacker Miles said. “Any questions that I had were completely put to rest the moment I met him. He’s funny. He can be lighthearted. He’s well-spoken. He’s inspiring. He has great vision for the school.”
Long’s transparency — “You didn’t feel like you were getting any mixed vibes from Mr. Long, or that he was being judgmental or looking for anything,” Smacker Miles said — evoked feelings of relief and comfort among a family still feeling the sting of how the run with the Tigers ended.
“I was always supportive of whatever he wanted, and then this time around, there was just a reality that, yep, he knows, he knows for sure, and he’s energized and ready for this,” Smacker Miles said. “I’m just so excited that he got what he wanted. It’s not about what I wanted. He kept asking everyone in our family, ‘Do you guys want this? Is this what you want? Is this where you want to go?’ It’s like, ‘I want to go where you’re supported and where you’re excited to work and where you think this football team can win.’
“It’s interesting — as a football family, you get on a plane and you’ve never been to the place you’re about to move, but you don’t care because your dad is seeing what he needs to see to know it’s the best thing for the family. You just trust that wholeheartedly and jump into it.”