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For Les Miles and Kansas football, the only way to go is up

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Les Miles, the grass-chomping, self-proclaimed hip-hop aficionado who won two SEC championships and a national championship at LSU before being fired four games into the 2016 season, has returned to the sport he loves so dearly. But now, he is faced with the monumental challenge of making Kansas relevant again.

“I don’t think ‘easy’ is something that guys who coach football or play football get into it for,” said Miles, undaunted by Kansas’ futile past on the gridiron — which includes 71 losses in its past 75 conference games. “Taking the field with a group of men who are fighting like hell to be better, that’s one of the things I was meant to do.”

At 65, Miles in a lot of ways has been revitalized by the magnitude of this project. He looks revitalized; Miles has lost nearly 40 pounds and points to his “flexitarian” diet. Translated from vintage Les-speak, that means he’s not going to spit out a piece of chicken if it just happens to get on his fork while he’s eating his soup.

But Miles understands that nothing is going to come easy. Kansas has been nothing short of a football wasteland since Mark Mangino led the Jayhawks to a 12-win season and Orange Bowl victory in 2007. It helps that Miles is reunited with his old pal Jeff Long, Kansas’ athletic director.

Long has made it clear that the Jayhawks are serious about competing in football. They moved into their new $26 million indoor practice facility this spring, located just across the street from David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium — which is set to be renovated, thanks to a $50 million lead gift from Booth.

“We were so proud of him and excited for a change and to see him get another opportunity and a new list of guys for him to go after. And in a lot of ways, this feels more like why he got into coaching, here at Kansas.”Kathy Miles on husband Les’ new job

And while there’s no grass for Miles to munch on in the 89,000-square-foot practice facility (it’s artificial turf), he’s still the same must-see-TV guy who kept things so entertaining at LSU. The guy leapt on stage with rapper Rick Ross during a concert that followed Kansas’ spring game, after all (much to the amusement of daughter Smacker, who described Miles’ dance moves as “falsely confident”).

And at one of Kansas’ practices this spring, Miles all but jumps into the middle of the team’s one-on-one “Jayhawk Drill,” his voice ripe with emotion, his signature white cap perched perfectly on the crown of his head.

“If you’re the one that loses in the drill, he’s telling you, ‘I’d beat your ass,'” said Kansas senior receiver Daylon Charlot, who’s from Patterson, Louisiana, and was recruited by Miles at LSU. “When I heard he was going to be our coach, I told the guys, ‘Get ready for things to get physical and take a whole different turn, because this is a guy who means business.'”

Following Kansas’ practice that afternoon, an older gentleman wearing a red hat with what appeared to be a Nebraska “N” on the front approached Miles and joked, “Good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats.”

Miles, his eyes glistening, shot back, “I don’t know about guys in those red hats, either.”

What Miles does know is that Long has done his part helping to lay the foundation for the Jayhawks to be more than just a basketball school. Long hired veteran football administrator Mike Vollmar last August to serve as senior associate athletic director. Vollmar has worked everywhere from Alabama to Michigan to Syracuse to IMG Academy in Florida. There has been a commitment to enhance Kansas’ football personnel, particularly in the recruiting office, with staffers coordinating the creative side on social media.

“That’s another huge piece [beside the facilities] to this whole thing,” Vollmar said. “You see it across the board and gets us to where we need to be to be competitive.”

Specifically, Kansas has added a full-time nutritionist for football, a fifth member in the strength and conditioning department, and a second football-operations staffer — not to mention analysts and consultants, such as Joshua Eargle and Brent Dearmon. Eargle was the head coach at East Texas Baptist and Dearmon the head coach at Bethel, and both have overseen high-scoring offenses during their careers. Dearmon in particular is renowned for his knowledge of the run-pass option offense.

And in Miles, the Jayhawks have a proven head coach, who has long been one of the most successful recruiting head coaches in college football — although recruiting at Kansas is different than recruiting at LSU. Kansas, for example, has yet to crack the top 50 in any of ESPN’s class rankings since it began ranking the top 50 in 2013. LSU, on the other hand, has never signed a class ranked below 14th.

There is a massive difference in the recruiting bases between the states, too. Since 2006, 135 ESPN 300 prospects have come from Louisiana, fifth most of any state — but just 15 have come from Kansas. Seventy-five of those 135 from Louisiana committed to LSU while none of the 15 ESPN 300 prospects from Kansas committed to the Jayhawks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But don’t sweat it yet.

“Players love him and play their ass off for him, and [Miles] plays just enough old-school football that he will give you a chance to win,” one veteran SEC coach said. “I think he will get them to where they are a six-win team or better pretty consistently and where they go to a bowl game at least every three years, and when you look at where they’ve been in football at Kansas, that’s a huge step up. He can be quirky, but the guy is magical.”

Miles is also realistic, but he’s not about to set limits for this team or for any of the teams he coaches at Kansas. Long echoed those sentiments when he hired Miles. Both men understand this won’t be a quick fix or the kind of transformation that will have the Jayhawks in the Big 12 championship conversation in the next year or two.

Kansas won’t be able to fill its allotment of 85 scholarships until 2022 at the earliest, either, as a result of players leaving the program early in recent years, recruiting missteps by past regimes and the NCAA’s rule that programs can sign only 25 scholarship players for each class.

So really, just cracking the top half of the league would be a real accomplishment early on.

“We’ll need to keep our poise and move on from what’s happened here in the past,” Miles said. “But they want to play well, to win. I’ve played in a lot of football games and been fortunate to have coached in a lot of games that we finished in front. These guys demonstrate that style of team. I see guys who are flying around and laying it all out, and I’m looking forward to seeing them do that on Saturdays.”

Miles does believe Kansas has everything in place to rebuild, but he’s walking into something that might as well be a galaxy apart from what he walked into at LSU in 2005. The Tigers had won a national championship two years earlier under Nick Saban, and the roster was stocked with NFL talent. Since 2009, Kansas has never won more than one conference game in a season.

And while nobody doubts Miles’ ability to recruit and motivate, his critics claimed he didn’t always get the most out of his players, particularly on offense, and that’s what doomed him at LSU. In the twilight of his time in the bayou, LSU was unable or unwilling (or both) to adapt offensively. Miles knows as well as anybody that the big question about his hiring at Kansas was whether he can produce an offense that scores points the way you have to in order to win in the Big 12 — where, at times, defense tends to be optional.

When Miles was fired in 2016 following an 18-13 loss at Auburn, it was the third time in four games that LSU had failed to score more than 23 points. And in his final two full seasons at LSU, the passing game struggled mightily. The Tigers finished 106th nationally in passing offense in 2015 and 116th nationally in 2014.

Now, Miles has surrounded himself at Kansas with a mix of assistants who should help his cause. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Les Koenning coached Dak Prescott at Mississippi State. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot was previously at Colorado and Kentucky, and also worked at Florida State under Jimbo Fisher. Receivers coach Emmett Jones was most recently the outside receivers coach under Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech.

“You better score a bunch in this conference, and you better throw the football well and better be able to defend the football being thrown,” Miles said, though he has no plans to get away from his core beliefs about how football should be played.

“We’re going to throw the football well,” Miles said. “We’re going to move the football on the ground. I don’t think there’s any question you have to have balance. Somebody can say they can throw the football down the field, and that’s all well and good. But they had best have a balance to them, or they will find that there will be people standing around that quarterback and knocking him down routinely.”

To say that Miles was bouncing off the walls to get back into football is putting it mildly. His wife, Kathy, jokes that the best thing about his landing the job was getting him out of the house. Miles did some TV work and even dabbled in acting, but admittedly was guilty of getting in Kathy’s way, too.

“At least weekly, if not daily, I used to always tell him, ‘I’m the head coach around here,'” quipped Kathy, who met Miles when she was an assistant basketball coach at Michigan. “But, no, we were so proud of him and excited for a change and to see him get another opportunity and a new list of guys for him to go after. And in a lot of ways, this feels more like why he got into coaching, here at Kansas.

“I don’t want to depict this wrong, because I felt like Les always handled the pressure and expectations extremely well at LSU, but this is different. He’s trying to improve the program, trying to build the program, not trying to maintain it.”

Miles successfully rebuilt Oklahoma State when he arrived in Stillwater, and while “maintaining” LSU, he won 10 or more games in seven of his full 11 seasons. But Miles could never shake off the Tigers’ 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS title game in January 2012 after making few, if any, adjustments in game play. Some close to the LSU program suggest the power brokers never forgave Miles for that bitter loss.

“The reality is I didn’t handle motivation well for that game,” Miles said. “In other words, Alabama sat there and watched us play for what they felt like was their [SEC] championship after we beat them in their stadium. And then they get voted into the game. They get a second life, and they had something to avenge. We could not overcome that, and that’s on me.”

From that point on, Miles seemed stuck on the hot seat, surviving an attempted coup in 2015 before his ouster.

Even now, Miles doesn’t regret turning down what he calls an “opportunity” to be Michigan’s coach in 2011 because he couldn’t “walk away from a group of men who had fought and risked injury to get us in a position to win another championship.”

Miles doesn’t think he ever would have left LSU, either, had he not been pushed out.

“I’m more of a loyal guy than a guy that bounces around, and I’m going to ask those guys downstairs to do hard things and to do those things at risk of injury so that we, the entire organization, can benefit?” Miles explained. “So, no, I don’t think I would have left.”

Very few in the coaching profession get to go out on their terms, and some of those coaches don’t get another chance. There was a time when even those closest to Miles worried that he wouldn’t get another Power 5 shot.

“We always believed and hoped he would, but you just never know for sure in this business,” Smacker said.

So when Miles was offered the chance to reunite with Long (who had previously tried to hire Miles to Arkansas in 2012), it was the easiest decision Miles ever made — though he also admits his phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with head-coaching offers.

And since his arrival, he has fit right in with the people of Kansas and its long-suffering fan base. He has invited students to practice, been a hit on social media and even watched with wonder one winter night as a student took to sledding down Campanile Hill.

“I’m leaving the office and hear a swoosh and then a boom,” Miles recounted. “Somebody hits the fence around the stadium with a sled. So I go to put my stuff in my car and went to look, and this guy had a handmade-engineered sled, and I don’t know what to call it, but it looked like a wing.

“He just turned around to walk back up that hill, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Study break?'”

“There’s just a different energy around here, and you can feel it everywhere,” Charlot said. “There is a oneness with Coach Miles we haven’t felt in a while.”

The Miles family feels the energy, too. They’ve found time to “compete for victory” among themselves. Back in March, when everybody was in town, they all gathered in the Kansas football locker room for a game of keepaway that ended up with a few of the participants getting brush burns and bruises.

“It was supposed to be non-contact, and it wasn’t,” Smacker said, shaking her head. “Dad decides the winner and who’s going to be on his team. Only he can call penalties. So, naturally, he had some success.”

So the Miles family is feeling the excitement. But so are fans: season-ticket sales are up, as are their hopes. Restaurants are preparing, too.

At Jefferson’s, a popular eatery just off campus on Massachusetts Street, restaurant general manager Rachael Dowding is already bracing for a more festive fall.

“With Les Miles here, there’s real hope now that we will be able to rush Mass Street after football games, just like basketball,” she said of the tradition of fans flooding Massachusetts Street to celebrate memorable Jayhawks victories in hoops.

Kansas football has nowhere else to go but up. Miles’ coaching career has been defined by successes, from championships to scores of NFL draft picks. Players swear by him. How success will be defined in his latest (and most formidable) coaching venture at Kansas remains to be seen.

But rest assured, the Mad Hatter will do it his own way.

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