BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles was told he would be watched.
“If you’re going there by yourself, you’re going to get spied on,” a confidant told LSU’s coach prior to a recent trip to Cuba. “Don’t let anybody kid you.”
Isn’t that pretty much an assumption in a communist country? But that wasn’t the main takeaway of Miles’ spring break trip to the island. Tensions have been relaxed. Cuba is becoming a curiosity more than a hostile neighbor.
For Miles, it was a give-back during a people-to-people tour of Cuba. At the core of his trip was Miles handing out 60 soccer balls to the country’s youth. He has been interested in Cuba since making a connection with a college friend at Michigan. Miles does not want to name the friend due to political sensitivities.
The friend and his family made it out of the country in 1959 just days before Cuba fell to Fidel Castro.
“[I have a] great friend of mine. If it goes three months since I haven’t talked to him, I feel like I have to talk to him. It’s just that kind of guy," Miles said of the friend.
“Really, it’s a great story.”
It's one of which Miles only touched the boundaries. Suffice to say, Miles may have been the first FBS coach -- perhaps ever -- to visit Cuba. The country is only recently opening up after a normalization of relations with the United States, led by President Barack Obama.
Try to frame this picture in your mind: Les Miles, alone, in a communist country drinking in the culture and people of a nation that has been shut off from the world for more than a century.
The only reason anyone knew he was there was this tweet from former LSU player Mikie Mahtook of the Tampa Bay Rays:
Beyond excited for today! Can't believe @LSUCoachMiles is going to be here to take it all in. #RaysInCuba #LSU— Mikie Mahtook (@MikieMahtook8) March 22, 2016
The best part for Les Miles: The quirky, successful, $4 million-a-year coach was anonymous in this country.
“I was going under the pretense that I did not know where I was going,” he told reporters. “I figured I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
Miles just happened to find himself in Cuba at the same time as President Obama. He was at the game between the Rays and Cuba's national team. During our conversation, he showed me an English-speaking Cuban newspaper that covered the game. The score -- a win by Tampa -- was not mentioned.
As for being watched, he saw no evidence of it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “I was only told.”
Here in his own words, Miles describes his recent Cuban adventure.
On the trip in general: “I ran into a gregarious group of men and women that were absolutely fun to be around. I enjoyed so much the sharing of culture and the relationship. ... I did not speak Spanish. I was going to take my family, too. … I asked the guy who was [my host] did he work for the Army? No …"
On how the trip was arranged: “I had a visa, had reason to go … A friend of mine just came back from there. They put me in touch with a travel agent who could expedite. There was a philanthropy being run by a barber. He continues to get space in downtown Havana to teach kids that want to be barbers. He’s also really associated himself with several coaches.
“Basically, they’re giving back. It was a people-to-people tour and that was one of my stops. I had a wonderful time, gave 60 soccer balls away -- to the kids. They stopped playing with that scuffed-up ball and got a new one. We had a driver and a host who could speak English and was with me the entire time."
On being anonymous: “I loved it. They took me to a lot of very fine places. One night I had a headache. I was going to go home and go to bed. There was security at the house, nice house.
"[I asked the security person], ‘You want to go get a bite to eat? Can we walk someplace?’ Sure. Went up the block and made a right turn … all the locals were there. It cost $9. It was very good -- excellent food. The people were a blast.”