Miles, Cameron share a lasting bond

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU head coach Les Miles watches as new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron speaks during Cameron’s introductory news conference Friday, Feb. 15, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU head coach Les Miles watches as new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron speaks during Cameron’s introductory news conference Friday, Feb. 15, 2013.

Two decades before LSU coach Les Miles tabbed Cam Cameron with the duty of overseeing the Tigers’ offense, Cameron bailed out his friend in the early stages of Miles’ courtship of his future wife.

As the lone bachelor on Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s staff in the late 1980s, Miles arranged a first date with Kathy LaBarge, a former Central Michigan point guard and new assistant on the women’s basketball staff. The activity was mundane, a mid-morning run. And given the nature of their profession, punctuality might have been assumed.

Yet the next day, Miles found himself waiting in a gymnasium filled with women and LaBarge nowhere to be found. So, Miles waited. He checked his watch. Fifteen minutes — that’s the most time he could grant himself. At the stroke of 9:15 a.m., Miles bailed. Five minutes later, LaBarge strode in.

“She walks in at 9:15 (a.m.) and figures I stood her up,” Miles said. “I left early, figuring she stood me up.”

Cameron, the Wolverines’ quarterbacks coach, bumped into Kathy and lofted out a quip to uncoil the snagged wires.

“I wouldn’t have waited for him either,” Cameron told Kathy. “He doesn’t run very fast.”

On Friday, Miles and Cameron fielded scores of questions about enhancing an LSU offense prone to sputtering at times last season, ranging from queries about adjustments in terminology to quarterback development to whether Cameron will have autonomy in play-calling.

The replies were laced with generalities, but Miles and Cameron, fired a month ago after five seasons as the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator, underscored their history and six seasons sharing a cramped office on Schembechler’s staff. Whatever the structure or mechanics of the arrangement turn out to be, there’s a reservoir of shared experience and bonding that produces an abiding trust.

“It was one of the great, great times as a young coach to grow and learn,” Cameron said. “When you can come to work and leave and feel good about yourself and the people you’re working with and getting better at what you do, it doesn’t matter. No amount of money can give you that.”

By now, Cameron’s offensive tendencies, rooted in employing a variant of the Air Coryell, are well-known in stints at Michigan, Washington, Indiana, San Diego and Baltimore. So is his track record tutoring top-flight quarterbacks in Jim Harbaugh, Elvis Grbac, Heath Shuler, Antwaan Randle-El, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers and Joe Flaaco.

Yet his résumé also contains a 1-15 season at the helm of the Miami Dolphins, which ended in his firing after the 2007 campaign. And his five seasons in Baltimore ended in December when Cameron was fired and coach John Harbaugh promoted quarterback coach Jim Caldwell to lead a unit considered wildly inconsistent.

Cameron, 52, found a quick suitor in Miles, who said he texted his friend immediately.

“I knew when Cam became available there might be an outside chance he might be available to us,” Miles said. “It fell together exactly right.”

Wasn’t there some hesitation in risking a long-standing bond in the crucible of elite college football? Not for Cameron.

“We understand things in football and things in general can play out,” Cameron said. “It is an opportunity of a lifetime to work with people you care about, and there’s no downside to it in my mind. The relationship still, always, trumps everything.”

Whether it placates handwringing by LSU fans is uncertain after the Tigers’ offense finished 87th in total offense nationally and No. 57 in scoring. Obviously, Cameron’s work with senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who ranked ninth in the SEC at 200.7 passing yards per game and 11th with a 128.3 passer rating, also will get scrutiny.

On that front, Cameron didn’t profess a desire to overhaul the playbook but passed on delving into specifics.

“We want to improve on what we’re doing,” he said. “I need to know everything that Zach knows. I need to know what our guys know. I’ve seen a lot of games, and it’s a great system. I just want to build on it.”

The trust placed in his hands by Miles was forged working for Schembechler, sharing an office so small that no phone conversation was truly private and no detail of the other person’s life easily concealed.

“What a great experience two young coaches had following Bo Schembechler, listening to everything he said,” Miles said. “It’s an amazing thing how well you know somebody but don’t talk about it. You grew in a like position.”

The nature of those chats remains known only to both men, but LSU fans will have to invest faith that it produces a fruitful outcome.

Parsing their statements about a working relationship, there’s a history of a give-and-take between Cameron and Miles. Those days in close quarters explain why Cameron — publicly, at least — didn’t seem to hold fast to the notion that he requires sole discretion in play-calling.

“The head coach has a vision and a vision for how each game needs to be won,” Cameron said. “We’ll obviously adjust and adapt that plan as the game goes along, but I’d be crazy (to question) working with Les — as the game plan is put together, as the game is called — (because) he has a natural feel for the game.”

And Cameron knows where it all began, too.

“I was in a tiny office with that guy, one of the toughest guys around,” Cameron said. “I know what he brings to the table.”