LSU’s Miles finds a way to win

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU coach Les Miles leads the team in singing the alma mater after LSU beat Texas A&M 24-19 on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, in College Station, Texas. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU coach Les Miles leads the team in singing the alma mater after LSU beat Texas A&M 24-19 on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, in College Station, Texas.

Les Miles made a lasting impression on Kevin Minter before the two ever met.

Minter was a junior linebacker at Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., five years ago when he saw the LSU coach unexpectedly appear on TV barely two hours before his team was set to play Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

The Tigers were one of many programs around the country that were in the preliminary stages of recruiting Minter.

“I’m not sure if they even thought about me at the time,” Minter said. “I remember watching that interview, and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about LSU, either.”

But after watching Miles, Minter couldn’t forget about him or LSU. Miles was being courted by his alma mater, Michigan, to be its head coach. Media speculation got so intense that Miles took the unconventional step of calling a news conference as his team was dressing to play in a game that would be a springboard to the Tigers’ BCS championship.

An angry Miles stepped in front of the cameras and microphones to say unequivocally that he was staying at LSU, ending a potential distraction for his players going into the biggest game of their lives. He concluded with a bellicose and now-famous “Have a great day” comment.

“I was like, there’s a coach that I want to play for,” Minter recalled. “He was there for his team. He was like, ‘I’m not leaving. I’m worried about the championship game. I’d appreciate it if you’d get out of my face.’

“Just watching that, I thought I’d really like to play for a coach like that. So when it came time for me to make my decision on a college, I made sure I put LSU on my list, to go visit him. I wanted to talk to him and see if he really was the person I thought he was — and he was.”

So Minter signed with LSU, completing a saga that exemplifies Miles’ distinctiveness. He can be emotional, unconventional, quirky — and usually very successful.

His impromptu news conference inadvertently led to him landing a recruit who became the MVP on this year’s team. Don’t try to figure out the process; just look at the results.

If you try to parse Miles’ many memorable quotes — there are several hundred catalogued at TheQuotableLesMiles.com — you’ll wind up with a headache.

If you try to trace some of his game management strategy to any football primer, you’ll come up empty.

And if you look up his won-lost record, you’ll find he has very few peers.

Oddly, in a results-oriented business in which wins and losses trump all else, Miles is often noted more for his unusual syntax, occasional nibble on grass and periodic play-calling gambles than for the fact that he has won 81 percent of his games with the Tigers.

“He’s a character. I haven’t met too many people like him,” wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. “Sometimes he says something that’s so out there that everyone is just dying laughing.”

Ask any player about Miles’ vocabulary, and they’ll talk about him using words they’ve never heard anywhere else.

“I couldn’t tell you the words he uses sometimes because I think he makes them up,” kicker Drew Alleman said with a laugh. “We’ll all be saying, ‘Is that word in the dictionary? Is that even a word?’ Then he’ll try to give the definition of the word. ‘Oh, y’all don’t know what this is? It means this.’

“And then he’ll go and ramble about what that word means. And we’ll be like, ‘Why didn’t you just use that word in the first place?’ ”

Don’t sweat the process; just look at the results.

“There are some times he says something, and you just have to sit back and think about what he’s really trying to tell you,” Beckham said. “When he’s talking to you, he’s always trying to motivate you. He’s trying to keep your head up and keep you on the right path.

“He really stresses making men out of everybody who comes into the program, and I think he does a good job at it. In a way, he’s very wise. He knows what he’s doing.”

In addition to the 2007 BCS title, Miles’ teams have played for another, claimed two Southeastern Conference championships and won more games than any other team in the SEC during his eight-year tenure.

“A lot of coaches around the country are just facilitators,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “I can tell you that, every day in practice, he is keyed in on every play, watching every player, trying to help everybody out and coach well. Not every coach does that. He’s definitely a guy that takes a hands-on approach and helps us out every day.”

Defensive end Sam Montgomery said what Miles has taught him on the football field is applicable elsewhere.

“Les Miles never gives up, and he is going to find some way to win,” he said. “I feel like that lesson that he taught me has given me my edge in everything I do — even in school, finishing up strong for the semester. I found ways to study for my tests, get a good grade on them and pass my finals.”

Miles, who seems to march to a different drummer, enjoys sharing music with his players at this time of year.

“He’s like obsessed with Christmas carols,” center P.J. Lonergan said. “Ever year I’ve been here, he’s made us sing Christmas carols. When we get back from Christmas break or before we leave — probably both — we sing Christmas carols. It’s guaranteed. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ is probably his favorite.”

Maybe that’s because Miles, like Frosty, is a jolly, happy soul. In a profession filled with intense, hard-driving taskmasters, Miles seems able to maintain a human touch even while competing at the highest level.

“There’s media Les Miles; there’s Miles that strikes you as coming off all serious, then he hits you with a joke. Then there’s serious Miles and there’s football Miles,” Montgomery said. “It all goes into making a diverse man, which makes him such a good character.”

Miles, like most football coaches, has dealt with a variety of discipline issues over the years. The Tigers have lost several players, including some of their most talented ones, to failed drug tests, failed academics and arrests. Some players have earned their way back on the team; some have not.

“There’s no greater gift than when a man knows when to show mercy and when to go to war,” Montgomery said. “If you set yourself for one path and you’re only good for one thing and that’s war, then when it comes to something else in life that’s bigger than football, you’re not going to be ready for it. Coach Miles can be there during good times, and he can be there during bad times. And he can turn a bad time into a good time. Him proving that he’s one of us makes us play harder.”

Lonergan has learned not to question the process because he has seen the results.

“Sometimes he’s fiery, sometimes he’s goofy, sometimes he’s really serious,” Lonergan said. “You never know what you’re going to get.

“But he finds a way to get it done. He has his little quirks about him, the way he runs stuff. I’ve been in this system for five years, and sometimes I still don’t understand why we do some things. But you go out, you do them and then you win.”