LAWRENCE, Kan. — Don’t wear purple around Les Miles.
Miles may have embraced that color while leading LSU to a national championship and two Southeastern Conference titles over 12 seasons, but sporting that hue around him now is a cardinal sin. He’ll call you out for it, even if it’s in a joking manner.
“Do me a favor and don’t wear purple in here ever again,” Miles, now the head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, said with a smile to a local reporter at a press conference after the team’s spring game on April 13.
Purple isn’t friendly anymore. It now represents the enemy to the west: Kansas State, a team Kansas hasn’t defeated since its starters were in elementary school.
What hasn’t changed is this: When Miles stands at the podium, reporters don’t know what they’re going to get from him. A straight answer? Maybe. A sarcastic jab? Probably. A self-deprecating anecdote? Of course.
He’s still the “Mad Hatter” — yes, he’s actually embracing that nickname now — who isn’t afraid to show a little personality on and off campus. He ate “Kansas wheatgrass” in front of a capacity crowd at Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks’ storied basketball arena. Moments later, he gifted pairs of Yeezys to two students in attendance.
“You only get around one time,” Miles said. “There’s no do-overs. You might want to have some fun.”
What’s different this time around? Miles is working for an athletic director who’s enjoying life as much as he is.
The pair share both history — Jeff Long and Miles first met at the University of Michigan in 1987 — and quirky personalities.
Long enjoys eating ketchup straight off the spoon. He jumped in the swim team’s pool after congratulating them for earning a program-best GPA. He also ran through the gauntlet at a football practice while in a suit.
“As I age, I'm constantly looking for ways to stay relevant and connect with young people, because that's what gets me going,” Long said.
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He shares that aspiration with Miles, too. Perhaps that’s enough to start resuscitating a program that has all but flatlined.
Fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit in mid-April is more reminiscent of fall’s weather than of spring. It feels chillier than that though, as the sun is hidden by the cloud cover and the flags on the north side of Memorial Stadium are whipping around the poles in the blustery wind.
“This is the start of the Les Miles era at Kansas,” the public address voice says to the approximate 5,000 fans in the stands at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Despite the weather, it’s the largest crowd at a Kansas spring game in the past decade. Another sign of life? More than 70 recruits and their families flocked to witness Miles’ return to coaching.
Miles cracks a smile when he hears his name. This is where he wants to be. He needed this — walking onto the field, the pageantry, the cheering fans. This is what he’d been without for the better part of two years.
Saturdays were especially hard for him during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He’d turn on TVs all around his Baton Rouge home, running from room to room to watch different games and see how coaches made their decisions.
“I missed it tremendously,” Miles said. “There was never any question — if I had the choice, I would coach football.”
Outside of that small smile, Miles doesn’t show much animation until former Jayhawk Bradley McDougald speeds by on what he believes is Charlie Weis’ old mobility scooter.
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“Les is the man,” the Seahawks safety shouts in excitement as he flies down the sideline. “I don’t know why he let me do this.” Miles laughs and shakes his head.
McDougald isn’t the only former Jayhawk in attendance. Todd Reesing, whom many fans consider the best quarterback to wear a Kansas uniform, made an appearance. So did Chris Harris, one of Kansas’ more recognizable football alumni.
Harris, a four-time NFL Pro Bowl cornerback, returns from Denver to Lawrence for most spring games, but this one was different. Harris said he’d only spoken with Miles on the phone as of April, but he knew he needed to show up.
“He’s got full support from us,” Harris said on behalf of the alumni. “We just want to show him love.”
The 5,000 fans in attendance, including at least one sporting a purple LSU pullover, are treated to video after video depicting Miles. There’s a highlight reel of all his acting roles, big and small screens alike. Then, there’s a short parody of “Step Brothers” with basketball coach Bill Self – another coach on campus with a national title to his name.
As the video starts, Miles says to himself: “‘I’m hearing my voice. What am I doing?’”
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He looks up at the big screen to see his latest performance.
“I go, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” he said afterward. “‘What a terrible waste of a Jumbotron.’”
He’s kidding, of course.
The scene has the audience in stitches.
A few hours later, the crowd erupts when Rick Ross comes on stage. As the show begins, the windows in the press box vibrate as the opening notes to “All I Do Is Win,” an unofficial anthem among basketball fans, shake the stadium.
Miles, having temporarily ditched the hat, gets on stage and dances to the track “I’m On One.”
“This is the new definition of a boss,” Ross says, pointing to Miles. Fans up close scream.
“We’re going to beat K-State’s ass,” the Miami rapper says later, eliciting one of the loudest reactions of the night.
But rebuilding Kansas’ football program — and getting to the point where Kansas can end its decade-long losing streak in the rivalry— is going to take more than funny skits and rap performances. And Miles has walked into one of the biggest fixer-uppers in college football.
The former LSU skipper has inherited a program that has fallen off a cliff from its Orange Bowl-winning peak after the end of the Mark Mangino era in 2009 — well before the Jayhawks became college football’s lovable losers, and certainly before #KansasBeatTexas became a meme.
Kansas has a scholarship problem, the severity of which Miles brushes off, saying he’s confident that the Jayhawks can win with the players already on the roster. He declined to give a hard number of the players on scholarship, but the educated guess is 74, give or take.
Without naming names, Miles said there’s more talent on this Kansas roster than he had in first seasons at his other stops. But that’s a change of tone from November.
In his first press conference as Kansas’ head coach on Nov. 18, he said getting to 85 scholarship players “is the biggest battle.” An optimistic forecast puts Kansas at 85 scholarships before the 2022 season. That’s the fourth year of Miles’ five-year contract.
How did a Power 5 program with money to spare get this far behind? Well, it’s hard to point to one specific thing. It’s the result of a domino effect that’s nearly spiraled out of control.
The school’s second-winningest coach, Mangino, resigned after the 2009 season in the aftermath of an investigation into allegations that he mistreated players.
Since that flashpoint, four coaches have combined to compile an 18-90 record at Kansas. A closer look at those numbers paints an even worse picture: Since the start of the 2010 season, the Jayhawks have won five conference games, one road game and have not won more than three games in a single season.
Kansas fired Mangino’s replacement, Turner Gill, after he went 1-16 against Big 12 opponents in two seasons. Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger then made his first of two football hires, introducing the next coach with a phrase that now lives in Kansas football infamy: “I set out to find the best, and I found Charlie Weis.”
In two and a half seasons, Weis — who brought Notre Dame from powerhouse to the outhouse — stirred more controversy than positive press. He dismissed 29 players from the program during his first season in 2012, signing more than two dozen junior college players to replace them. None panned out. Weis called his team a “pile of crap” in 2013. He also reportedly fell asleep in team meetings and tried to intimidate student reporters from asking questions at his press conferences.
Kansas turned to Lawrence native son Clint Bowen in the interim, where he led his alma mater to a 1-7 record, nearly upsetting No. 5 TCU and No. 16 Oklahoma State along the way. David Beaty, a former Texas A&M receivers coach with no collegiate head-coaching experience, followed.
Beaty lasted longer than both of his full-time predecessors and had even less success. His final ledger as Kansas’ coach was 6-42. His .125 winning percentage was the worst for a head coach in Kansas football history, narrowly edged out by Gill (.208) and Weis (.214). Beaty also inherited a tough scholarship situation, telling reporters in 2018 that there were 39 scholarship players on the roster for his first fall. But Beaty too signed an overwhelming number of junior college prospects in his last two seasons, passing the personnel buck to Miles.
The writing was on the wall for Beaty ahead of his fourth and final season after new University of Kansas president Douglas Girod fired Zenger in May 2018. In Girod’s letter to university staff, he said of the athletic department: "progress in key areas has been elusive.”
Miles is aware the program is in desperate need of much more than a facelift.
That’s why his sales pitch to Long was about changing the culture overall.
“My pitch to him was, we'll do it right,” Miles said.
Kansas isn’t shrinking from the program’s national perception of being a laughingstock. One of the official slogans used by the athletic department is “Restore the Pride.”
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Long wants people to be excited for football Saturdays, and the only way for that to happen is for them to believe they can go home happy.
“What people want is hope, right?” Long said. “Where we were so poor is that there was no hope. When there's no hope, people stop coming.”
The numbers reflect a football fan base that’s given up even as it braves snow and ice for basketball games later in the semester. Kansas has had the lowest attendance for all Power 5 schools since 2016, dropping to a historic low of 19,424 per game in 2018 — nearly a 10,000-person difference from 2015. Allen Fieldhouse only seats about 3,000 fewer.
However, there is a blueprint for “restoring the pride.” It’s one Miles himself laid out 300 miles south of Lawrence in 2001.
Before Miles took over the Oklahoma State football program, the Cowboys had three consecutive losing seasons. The Cowboys still had a losing record during his first year in Stillwater, but they earned massive momentum when his squad upset No. 4 Oklahoma in Norman — giving Oklahoma State its first Bedlam win since 1998.
The Cowboys went 8-5, 9-4 and 7-5 over the next three seasons. Miles guided Oklahoma State to back-to-back wins over Oklahoma in 2001 and 2002, which had only been done four times before.
Long said Miles’ experience at Oklahoma State was as important to him as what his ball coach accomplished at LSU.
“He looks under every rock, behind every stone,” Long said. “He’s been a successful program builder. As I looked at what we needed at Kansas, we needed somebody to build a program because we didn’t have the components in place for a major college FBS Power 5 program.”
Kansas’ football program hasn’t always been in dire straits. Its more successful seasons have been blips on the radar, like in 2007 and 1968, but it’s been done before.
When Kansas went on its run to defeating Virginia Tech for the Orange Bowl in 2007 and finishing the season No. 7 in the Associated Press rankings, the Jayhawks brought in an average of 46,000 fans to watch Reesing and Co. in Memorial Stadium, which seats 50,000.
“It's not impossible,” Long said. “We can be there again. But truly, it's about investing in the program.
“What I've been preaching to our group internally is we have to be different. We can't continue to do things the same way and expect different results.”
One of Kansas’ most pressing needs was to fill out its coaching staff from top to bottom. Long estimates that Kansas had anywhere from 12 to 16 fewer people working behind the scenes than other Big 12 schools in 2018.
Other “minor” issues: Kansas didn’t have a football-specific indoor practice facility until this spring. The outdoor practice fields don’t have lights. Memorial Stadium has only had seven renovations or expansions since it opened in 1921.
A major overhaul of the stadium is in the works. A mockup was released in 2017, but the project has since been pulled back. Long said he’s hoping to put all the pieces together in the next two years.
Miles has said the primary recruiting focus is on the university’s footprint, but he’s also working the existing Louisiana pipeline to the program.
"I think at times they go untapped,” Miles said of Louisiana players. “I want to be a source for those players to attend a great school and play at the Power 5 level."
Attracting top talent to Kansas has been difficult, though.
The lopsided losses paired with the program’s lack of support has put Kansas at a disadvantage. Kansas has never pulled in a 5-star recruit. Only five 4-stars have pledged to be Jayhawks since 2010, according to 247Sports’ all-time rankings, and two of them never played a down.
But the Louisiana-to-Kansas connection is far from new.
Former Warren Easton head coach Tony Hull has been on Kansas’ staff since 2016, and he’s brought 30 Pelican State players to Lawrence. There weren’t any Louisiana natives on the roster from 2000 to 2015.
Miles said he didn’t know Hull personally before coming to Kansas, but said “it was easy" to keep him on staff because of his reputation and connections to New Orleans and Louisiana.
Retaining Hull also helped steady the tide with the nine Louisiana natives on Kansas’ roster, especially since they all credit Hull with getting them to the Sunflower State in the first place.
“Coach Hull is a big brother,” said Corione Harris, a rising sophomore cornerback out of Landry-Walker who originally committed to LSU in 2016. “I feel like I have someone I can go to if something gets rough; something happens. I can just go to him, ask him for advice. I have a guardian over me.”
Out of high school, Patterson native Daylon Charlot was recruited by a handful of programs as a 4-star wide receiver, including Miles’ LSU. Charlot chose to suit up for Alabama in 2015, but he transferred to Kansas the following season. So when Charlot heard that Miles was going to be Kansas’ next head coach, he could hardly contain his excitement.
“‘This can be another chance. I can play for Coach Miles,’” Charlot recollected with a smile. “When he got here he was like, 'I caught back up with you. You thought you were just gonna leave me like that?’”
The influx of Louisiana flair to Kansas’ roster jump started a brotherhood the team has dubbed the “Louisianimals.” To them, it means being tough, fighting through adversity and playing as a family.
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“Not to be too bold, but Louisiana guys, we came here to improve and to make this team better,” said Mike Lee, a rising senior cornerback out of Landry Walker.
One of those nine also includes the reigning Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, Pooka Williams, though a legal cloud hangs over the breakout star.
Williams has been suspended from all team activities since Dec. 7, after he was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery. He has since been granted diversion, but Miles hasn’t given a timetable regarding a potential return for the Hahnville alumnus.
“He's a young man involved in an incident and we will support him as we would support the other individual and we have,” Long said of Williams in April. “But there is a process and Pooka will be responsible for his actions."
The excitement’s there for the Kansas football fans still paying attention, but the big question is: Will it work this time?
Long vows that he’s committed to Miles and to the football program as a whole.
“I hope our fans can realize that Kansas has now made an investment in our football program,” Long said, citing the new indoor facility and the money going into quality coaching.
Neither Miles nor Long are predicting a specific number of wins for next season.
The first step is to bring back hope.
And that starts with a positive attitude, as Miles says, “I’ve never taken the field where I didn’t believe I could win.”
They know that a bowl game likely won’t happen next season, but it’s still a goal.
Kansas hasn’t been to a bowl game since its visit to Tempe, Arizona, for the Insight Bowl in 2008, the longest active streak among Power 5 schools. “A bowl game? That's a program-changer for us,” Long said.
The spring game’s attendance showed there’s fan enthusiasm. And season-ticket sales already have surpassed 2018’s figures. But what happens next remains to be seen.
“They’re genuinely excited, but they’re cautious because we’ve had a lack of success for a long time now,” Long said.
There’s energy, Long said – tangible enthusiasm. And with Miles steering the ship, there’s even some cautious steps toward that thing they’re chasing: Hope.