Kansas hired Les Miles just in time, now we'll find out if he can create wins along with buzz
Miles already has us more interested in Jayhawks football, and that's good enough ... for now
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- If what has more or less become the Les Miles Experience at Kansas crashes and burns tomorrow, well, it would have been a hell of a ride.
We're talking the tweets. We're talking the spontaneous flash mob invites. We're talking movies and commercials. We're talking getting on stage and busting a move with an A-list rapper.
We're talking a 65-year-old coach, a father of four, acting like he has a serious case of senioritis -- anxious to get on to the next stage of his life.
Kansas has provided that opportunity, just in time.
The Mad Hatter has gone a bit madder here in the Midwest. He hasn't coached a game. Even when he does here, there will be less scrutiny about fourth-down calls than getting Kansas football -- and the antics of its coach -- on SportsCenter.
"We needed this," athletic director Jeff Long said. "You haven't had a reason to pay attention to KU football. You [live] right next door. It all builds toward the product on the field. I'm not one to tell Coach Miles what he is and isn't going to do."
And so, at times, it seems Miles doesn't have an off switch. During breaks in Saturday's spring game, the scoreboard showed outtakes from Miles' movies. (He has made three.) There was a replay of the Miles' Dr. Pepper commercial. You know, the one where he gets zapped by lightning.
"What goes through my mind is, 'I hope my wife and kids don't see this,'" Miles said.
He's got to be kidding. These days there's not a script or social media idea that Miles won't turn down. On April 3, the coach asked students to join him at a popular campus gathering spot for some cornhole, flip cup and ladder golf.
A student appreciation open practice last week was just that -- open. The first 500 students who showed up, got a pit pass to see rapper Rick Ross following the spring game.
Students lined up and caught punts from one of those JUGS gun machines. Les stayed and signed autographs.
Maybe it just seemed like everyone was smiling.
"Flip cup with students. Who does that?" quarterback Thomas MacVittie said. "Especially at his level and status."
By Saturday night, you could have sworn they put on a rap concert and a spring game broke out.
Seattle Seahawks safety Bradley McDougald was one of those caught up in the moment Saturday.
"Les is the man," McDougald yelled. The former Kansas defensive back, nursing an injured knee, was brazenly puttering around the field on one of those senior-citizen scooters as the game began. "I don't know why he let me do this, but he's the man."
"This," Ross said, sharing the stage with Miles at the end of his set, "is the true definition of a boss."
This time, the boss doesn't have grass to eat. Memorial Stadium has artificial turf.
"You only get to go around one time," Miles said. "There are no do-overs. You might want to have some fun."
So much so, if college football were suddenly a 4-year old's birthday party, Kansas under Miles would be the bounce house.
"Not every university can offer Rick Ross at their spring game," said safety Bryce Tornedon.
"He can talk to players just like we can talk to our homeboys," added wide receiver Kwamie Lassiter Jr.
MacVittie gets a kick out of Miles scratching his face to make sure his players see his national championship ring during team meetings.
"Just the energy he has, it never really seems to drain from him," MacVittie said.
Little of this would have flown at LSU. In the cutthroat culture of the SEC, it was more about beating Alabama and getting to double-digit wins (in that order) than jollying with the students.
"These players, when I walked Les into the room, they were in disbelief," Long said. "They had heard some of the rumblings, but they didn't believe it. It was like, '[Gasp!]'"
For a long time at LSU, Les couldn't do enough. Miles' former boss, Joe Alleva, once wrote an apology to the LSU fans in 2009 for Miles having the temerity to go 8-5 in 2008.
They would build a statue of Les here -- or at least commission another satirical video -- if he went 8-5.
"He'll come home and ask me how the social media is doing -- and the videos," said Smacker Miles, Les' daughter, who has done some TV sports reporting.
That's a side of Les we haven't seen. Even in the time since he left LSU in 2016, the importance of social media has increased. At Kansas, there's an all-in multimedia personality wearing the headset.
"Saban doesn't know the questions to ask when a video editor comes into his office," Smacker said. "He doesn't know the lingo or the terminology. But he has to get someone who does. I think just to create excitement you have to be better on social than everyone else. It's one of those things you can control. … I think it's important to older coaches to realize [that] they don't necessarily."
But when was the last time neither a coach nor his players spoke to the media after a spring game? The contests are considered the biggest offseason event to connect with fans.
The answer -- here and everywhere -- is always recruiting. At Kansas, Miles' time was taken up with entertaining a reported 70 recruits. For those scoring at home, that's more than the number of scholarship athletes on the roster.
The players rushed off the field so they could shower and quickly back out to see Ross.
That would have been another indicator that it's less about football right now than creating a buzz to watch KU football. Except that Miles dropped a bit of a bomb Monday at his post-spring press conference.
He said these woebegone Jayhawks are "more talented" than his first-year teams at Oklahoma State and LSU.
Miles beat Oklahoma twice while at OSU. He won the 2007 national championship at LSU. Kansas has won exactly 18 games since 2010.
Until he can back up those words, there's Miles the willing ham to consider: Between timeouts Saturday, Les was featured on the video board in adaptations of "Independence Day," "Silence of the Lambs" and "Step Brothers."
At this point, KU athletic marketing gets a top-10 ranking for its efforts. Miles' football team has miles to go. David Beaty was fired last year having won six of his 48 games. That included KU last season winning its first road game since 2009, breaking a 46-game losing streak.
"It spun out of our marketing department," Long said of the over-the-top promotion of his coach, "because leadership says, 'Hey, we have to do something different. We can't continue to do the things we've done in football and expect different results.'"
Since being introduced in July, Long has made a point of Kansas football "breaking the cycle." But Twitter won't beat Oklahoma.
Miles has hired an intensely loyal staff. Consider it takes a special level of dedication to come to one of the worst FBS programs.
Special teams coach Mike Ekeler has been part of seven Power Five programs. The career included being an intern for Miles' 2007 national champions at LSU.
Ekeler once went as far to get a tattoo of recruit Will Compton he was pursuing at Nebraska.
"I told him, 'If you don't come to Nebraska you're making the biggest mistake of your life,' Ekeler said. "His dad is sitting in the La–Z–Boy. I pull up my shirt and it's a skull and crossbones. It said 'Compton' in old English script underneath it.' "
Ekeler got his man. Today, Compton is a six-year NFL veteran. Oh, and don't ask Ekeler to see the tattoo. It was temporary.
"As far as a recruiter? Holy cow," Ekeler said of Miles. "When he walks in, you're not getting a hall of fame coach, you're getting Les Miles. We can go anywhere in the country. We have instant street cred."
Running backs coach Tony Hull was retained from Beaty's staff. Miles is no fool. He knows Louisiana is No. 1 per capita nationally NFL players produced. Hull is a native of New Orleans, credited with landing nine Louisiana players on the KU roster.
Perhaps Miles' greatest career accomplishment is keeping that in-state Louisiana recruiting momentum going when Saban left LSU in 2005.
"It's not a front," Hull said of Miles. "He is genuinely who you see in the news, in public. Honestly, he came in and said, 'I want you.' He commended me on the job I'd done. I was humbled."
You would never know Kansas has hired its first retirement-age coach in its 118-year history. It is obvious that experience counts.
"You're having heart surgery tomorrow," offensive coordinator Les Koennig said. "You've got a guy who has done it 500 times. And then you've got this young whippersnapper. Which one do you want?"
Koenning answered his question with a question.
"How could a man like [Les], with his record, take something like Kansas? You know he can change it. It's just a matter of time."
But how does Kansas get from playtime to game time? Maybe that's not even the point now. There are two documentary film crews following Miles around. There are tweets and short promotional films to crank out.
Winning football games will come eventually. Or not. Even with a program to run again, it's worth mentioning this veteran of feature films and commercials still doesn't have his Screen Actors Guild union card.
"I wish I did, yeah," Miles said.
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