Michigan football remains the great unrequited love of Les Miles’ life.
Miles was a starting offensive guard at Michigan in the 1970s. Was an assistant coach there in the 1980s and 90s. And make no mistake, he wanted the head coaching job. Even as he was leading the LSU Tigers into the 2007 SEC Championship Game against Tennessee.
It is hard to forget that day. First there was the report by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit that morning that Miles had accepted an offer to leave LSU and replace the retiring Lloyd Carr at Michigan. Then the brief, impromptu news conference at the Georgia Dome, the one with Miles addressing the “misinformation on ESPN,” saying he was busy coaching his “damn strong football team” and memorably walking off the podium by telling folks to “have a great day.”
LSU had a great night, beating Tennessee 21-14 for the SEC title while national title contenders Missouri and West Virginia fell, opening the door for the Tigers to face Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game in the Superdome. A game LSU would win 38-24.
It was the high point of Miles’ coaching career, and no doubt he took great delight in the victory — especially at the expense of the Buckeyes, Michigan’s most bitter rival.
But the question remained: would he have gone to Michigan if the job was offered him?
Miles, now back in coaching at Kansas, was on the Detroit News podcast “View from the Press Box” Wednesday discussing that whole episode. While he didn’t specifically address whether he would have left LSU or not for Michigan, his words tell you what a pull the Wolverines still had on him.
“I love Michigan,” Miles said. “We just didn’t have the opportunity. It does break my heart. I love the place. There were things I was fortunate to accomplish that I only give credit to Michigan for the experiences I had that allowed me to do some of things I did. I thank the time I was there and how much I enjoyed being around the Michigan players and Coach (Bo) Schembechler.
“It didn’t work out and I’m sad that it didn’t.”
There has long been speculation that some Michigan supporters and administrators, including Carr, didn’t want Miles. That Herbstreit’s report was closer to being true than it appeared at the time.
The way Miles sounded in the interview, his path back to Ann Arbor was stymied by roadblocks.
“I don’t know that I was ever really close (to getting the job),” he said. “I was fortunate to be at a decent place (as LSU’s head coach).
“It did not have to do with the amount of money, it had to do with the decisions that would be made on behalf of Michigan if in fact I would be the head football coach. I just needed some backing and some strength. It was probably too far away. It’s certainly a place I loved. Sometimes it’s just not in the cards.”
Miles characterization of LSU as “a decent job” will no doubt rankle some Tiger fans, especially those who never embraced him in the first place when he took over from Nick Saban in 2005. Personally, I think it would be a mistake to read too much into Miles’ choice of words, which frankly has not always been his greatest talent.
There’s no doubt in my mind Miles loved LSU and still does, even though the school fired him four games into the 2016 season. Maybe that’s where the qualification “decent” comes in.
But he loved Michigan more. Still does.
I remember Miles’ news conference that December night in Atlanta after LSU beat Tennessee for the SEC title. For a man who had just captured an enormous trophy, Miles certainly sounded wistful.
“I’m for them,” Miles said of Michigan, “and if there’s any way I can help them, I’d love to help them. But I’m not going there. It saddens me at times. I can’t be at two places. I’ve got a great place.”
In the back of the room was his wife Kathy Miles, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I’m proud of Les,” she said. “He put the team in front of his professional dream.”
In that moment, Miles was the embodiment of his beloved Schembechler’s most famous speech: “The team … the team … the team!” One could argue that he was merely making the best of the situation, but there’s no doubt Miles gave his best to LSU for the remaining years he coached the Tigers.
He’s spent much of the past three years doing his own podcast and acting in movies. But like the graduate assistant job he pursued on Schembechler’s staff way back when he was working for a trucking company, Miles always had his sights on returning to the sideline.
“I did do a little acting, some commercials, and I had fun,” Miles said.
“(But getting) back to coaching was something I always wanted to do. There was never an interview or a group I spoke to where I did not share very honestly that I’m a football coach. And I’m going to do everything within my power to put myself back in that chair again. I always felt that was where I was most productive.”
How productive could Miles have been back at Michigan? I’m sure he still wonders about that.