NEW ORLEANS -- It's a few minutes before practice during one of the best weeks of Les Miles' life. In a tunnel leading to a Superdome field just now coming to life with frolicking Tigers, the Mad Hatter, Lesticles, Coach Comedy -- whatever you want to call him -- is speaking softly.
He has been reminded of a lingering tragedy in his life. If no one has bothered to ask him about his sister, Ann Browne, it is because they've forgotten. Miles hasn't.
"I was fortunate to have a significant relationship with her but not one that I would ...," he says, hesitating. "I just wanted more."
He puts it on himself. It's been too late for eight months now. Browne, 54, was killed in an April car accident when a pickup carrying six people slammed into her car in Addis, La. She left behind two beautiful daughters and a brother who still grieves. Addis is 10 miles from Baton Rouge but it might as well have been a million.
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"I had regret that in the last several years I have not had a great, regular, consistent [relationship]," Miles said. "That was something I had to deal with.
"That being said, finding answers for two nieces who are wonderful girls and putting them in position for college and to get their degree. Who is going to parent?"
Miles said his younger brother has taken over as a parental figure for a single-parent mother who was suddenly gone.
"In my opinion, he is the hero of the entire scenario," Miles said.
This is another side of a coach who has become a national phenomenon leading up to the Rematch of the Century -- an Ohio-born, Michigan-loving, grass-eating SEC staple. Nick Saban with a laugh track. Alabama's coach may be richer and more famous but, suddenly, not by much. And the gap is narrowing.
They've each won championships at the same school. If Miles wins Monday, he at least will be Saban's equal in terms of national championships (two each). But will he ever be perceived as better?
Probably not. Ever. Alabama is a slight favorite Monday in the BCS Championship Game largely because Las Vegas perceives Saban to be the better coach.
Miles is only 24 months removed from basically being called out by his own AD. Five days after Alabama won the 2009 national championship, Joe Alleva fired off an open letter to fans on the school's website. In not so subtle terms, Alleva said LSU's 9-4 season was "nice," but "nice is not our annual" goal. Alleva pledged to work personally with Miles to improve all aspects of the program.
That was after Miles had become the winningest LSU coach in his first five years with the program. That was after producing two BCS bowl victories, including the 2007 national championship.
Alleva's letter was self-serving then, pandering to a grumbling fan base. It looks idiotic now. We know there is patience, then there is SEC patience, but like all coaches Miles believes in loyalty. Alleva showed little. Publicly.
Miles has lost only 17 games in seven seasons and has the Tigers positioned for their third title in nine years. So far, he has done it with dignity and style. If the perception is that he won his first title in 2007 with Saban's players, Miles quickly has established LSU's national credentials on his own.
The best part? We've needed a Miles-to-English dictionary half the time while watching it.
"The funny thing is, we all got used to it," said Mike Gundy of Miles' now famous habit of non-sequiturs and sentence fragments.
Gundy joined Miles' staff at Oklahoma State in 2001, then took over the head job when Miles left in 2005. Both were named 2011 national coaches of the year by different organizations.
"He was the same way in our staff meetings," Gundy added. "One answer took, like, 58 words and then he'd finally get to the answer and we'd move on.
"There is a toughness that he instilled in us as assistant coaches and a toughness that he instills in his players. He has a unique way of going about things that draws a lot of attention at times. But ultimately he is a very smart person."
Gary Stevenson hasn't talked to his old Elyria (Ohio) High School teammates in 15 or 20 years. But certain qualities still shine through for the new head of Pac-12 Enterprises. Stevenson still hasn't forgotten how a senior all-state lineman (Miles) offered a ride home after a game to a mere sophomore (Stevenson) who didn't play much.
"Les is authoritative, but he doesn't impose his will on you," Stevenson said. "His teams play very much like Les' personality. He's not afraid to fail."
We all know that, don't we? Alleva wrote that letter a couple of months after poor clock management led to a loss at Ole Miss. Most of Miles' hunches and gambles have worked, though -- spectacularly. That's what put the Mad in The Hatter.
Latest example: How Miles has adjusted to pull off one of the best coaching jobs in recent years.
Just as fall drills were starting, offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. That required offensive line coach Greg Studrawa to become OC. "Stud," a former staffer for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, hadn't called a play in five years. Starting guard, Josh Dworaczyk, suddenly out for the season with a blown-out knee, took Studrawa's place on the sideline working with the offensive line.
The coaches' meeting room became an ensemble cast. Everyone took on different, perhaps added, responsibilities. Less than a month before the season opener.
"Those men in that room, all wonderful," said Studrawa, a giant, jolly former offensive tackle for Bowling Green. "You lose your perspective on a lot of things. I get up every day, I'm healthy. I can go be a head coach. What if tomorrow, I'm like Steve?"
All that was before the Shady's bar brawl.
"He'll be my friend for the rest of my life," quarterback Jordan Jefferson said of Miles.
That statement of loyalty came Saturday when Jefferson recalled how his coach stuck with him before, during and after a three-game suspension resulting from that infamous bar fight. Jefferson was ultimately charged with misdemeanor simple battery.
When it comes to player discipline, Miles is fair, not sacrificing justice for the strength of the roster. Quarterback Ryan Perrilloux screwed up and got himself thrown off the team. That allowed then-freshman Jarrett Lee to play. Lee started eight games in 2008, throwing 16 interceptions. But when Jefferson was suspended, Lee basically saved the program. Lee came off the bench to throw 13 touchdowns (and only one interception) in the first eight games.
With one sweeping move, Miles had earned further respect throughout the locker room.
"Coach Miles is definitely a loyal coach to me," Jefferson said. "He had my back 100 percent."
Loyalty? There's a lot of it around the program. The quirky coach has basically turned down Michigan twice. The only logical next move is to the NFL. If he moves at all.
The millionaire everyman continues to let us in, opening up a door that remains closed with most major-college coaches.
"I don't know where my room is half the time," Miles said. "I don't know where my shoes are the other half. Where's my pens?"
On the subject of the Crimson Tide:
"I don't understand the words," he said. "I don't know what a 'Tide' is. I don't know how you put those two words together."
Miles sets you up for the punchline, then slits your throat, at least in terms of winning football. The Tigers have won 14 in a row. Once again, Las Vegas still hasn't bought in. Alabama remains favored despite losing the first meeting and not looking as good as LSU since then.
Like any program, LSU has changed offensive coordinators over the years. Still, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is committed to studying five-year-old LSU film just to find a tendency.
"There's things that Coach Miles does that have not changed," he said.
Like playing defense and running the ball. Like shooting the bull on the floor of the Superdome as if he were still on a street corner in Elyria.
After Friday's media day Miles descended the podium, stood off to the side and practically invited more interviews. He admitted his Oklahoma State assistants were required to wear baseball-style hats -- because Oklahoma's Bob Stoops wore a visor. He not-so-fondly remembered a cold that dampened his 2007 championship experience in the same stadium.
Out of nowhere, he compared the chaotic communications issues in coaches' booths to those among NASCAR crews.
"Classics," he said of the chatter. "They could be books."
One we'll never read. Pure Les.
"That's why you can never get it," Miles told reporters. "That's why you can never get that access."
Miles is careful to keep some part of himself private. He continually finds time to be in the lives of his four children. In the tunnel at the moment, though, regret is on his mind. Ann is gone. It's been almost 12 years since Hope Miles died of a stroke. The giant hulking 300-pound patriarch was as loyal as a father could be. Miles isn't over that one either.
"Les' dad was a Little League umpire, a big imposing man, nicest guy in the world," Stevenson said. "You can imagine 11- and 12-year-old boys never arguing any calls. When he called you out, you were out.
"Hope was always around. You've got to know about Elyria, Ohio. It a place where dads and sons were very close."
Miles speaks softy again.
"This," he says, looking around shortly before practice, "feels like my family."