LSU’s equipment managers have a problem, and it involves Les Miles’ shoes.
In 10 years as LSU’s football coach, Miles has changed the style of shoe he wears on game days just twice. He’s particular about them. They are his babies — his old-school, frumpy, out-of-date, size-12 babies.
His current game-day shoe is white with gray accents and a gray Nike swoosh. They are tennis shoes. As in, they are shoes meant for playing the sport of tennis.
“Like, a tennis court shoe,” said a smiling Spencer Farley, one of the team’s assistant equipment managers.
Nike has stopped making his game shoes, and Miles, 61, goes through two to three pairs per season. LSU ordered 24 pairs of the shoe when Miles moved on from his last style in 2012.
How many pairs are left?
“Five,” said Jeff Grigus, an assistant equipment manager who’s in charge of Miles’ game-day wardrobe.
“When I get bored, I’ll sit on the computer and search for different shoes. ‘Coach might like that,’ ” Grigus said he thinks to himself.
Said a chuckling Farley: “It’s a running joke with our Nike reps: ‘Hey, y’all find Les a new shoe?’ ”
The search for Les Miles’ new shoes — that’s one of the issues (along with so much more) that the program’s four full-time equipment managers and 12 student managers face each day.
Buffing helmets. Washing jockstraps. Repairing facemasks. Altering chinstraps. Preparing lockers.
They were doing the latter Friday afternoon ahead of No. 9 LSU’s game against Eastern Michigan, set for 6 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Stadium. The afternoon locker room preparation is an efficient and ritual-like occasion.
It starts around 1 p.m. the day before a home game and ends at about 5. Trunks of football equipment and clothes are transported from the football operations building to Tiger Stadium in a 10-foot moving truck. It takes three trips.
The trunks are unloaded and unpacked, and their contents are dispersed through LSU’s newly renovated stadium locker room.
“This is where the magic happens,” Farley said as he walks into the equipment room.
The equipment room is located across a hallway from the team’s plush locker room. All of this is beneath Tiger Stadium’s north end zone seating area. A glassless window opens from the equipment room to the locker room, making it easy for players to swing by for what Farley calls “their swag.”
This includes white towels emblazoned with the LSU Tiger head logo — the one you see dangling off the hip of quarterback Brandon Harris. It also includes things like gloves and socks, in some cases more than one pair. Some players wear two pairs of socks during games. Farley shook his head.
“Their superstitions,” he said.
A 20-year-old sign graces the wall of the equipment room. It’s easily seen from the locker room through that gaping window: “We issue everything except guts,” it reads.
On this Friday afternoon, Grigus is unpacking a giant black trunk full of the coaching staff’s game day attire. Like the players, the staff members have lockers, too. They’re small and shoved in a tiny cove off the equipment room and adjacent to a country club-style sauna.
Grigus rolls a rack of hanging clothes into the small area and begins placing the staff’s game day uniforms, so to speak, in their lockers: white polo shirt, pair of khaki pants, gray Nikes and two hats. They get the option of purple or white hats.
Grigus is playfully annoyed as he’s unpacking the gear. He has just one hat for Steve Kragthorpe, Miles’ special assistant and the chief of staff.
Kragthorpe forgot to return his purple hat to Grigus after last week’s game. Grumble.
“Most equipment people are OCD,” said equipment director Greg Stringfellow, referring to obsessive-compulsive disorder. “(Grigus) is the most OCD person we have here.”
Stringfellow is the godfather of this group of equipment guys, 16 in all. There also are about 10 volunteer students who help once a week throughout the season; they’re working to become full-time student managers.
Farley called that group “the minor leagues.” Becoming one of the 12 full-time student managers is nothing to sneeze at. Each is receiving some scholarship money, and it’s all based on experience. The two head student managers are getting a full ride.
One of them is Jack DeGeneres, a 22-year-old fifth-year senior. DeGeneres and his brother are both student managers. And their father? He was a student manager back in the 1990s.
The DeGenereses are one of two sets of brothers on the equipment staff. Patrick Hood and his brother are student managers. Their dad? You guessed it: a former manager.
“Every game day when I was a kid, my dad would take me down here,” Hood said, glancing around LSU’s locker room as he hung up jerseys, pads and pants.
Indeed, there are legacy student managers.
“This is like a fraternity,” DeGeneres said. “It’s like a brotherhood.”
It shows. On the wall of the equipment room, a photo of each equipment staff for the past 20 years or more hangs, side by side. Farley pointed to the 1994 photo.
“Here’s a 20-something Stringfellow,” he laughs.
A student equipment manager’s main job involves LSU’s helmets. Each player has two — a practice helmet and a game helmet. The two rotate each week. For instance, this week’s game helmets were the practice helmets last week leading up to the game against Syracuse.
During this past week, students stripped the helmets of everything — decals, facemasks, chinstraps. They buffed the helmets and then replaced everything, including carefully resticking the center stripes and traditional Tiger head decals.
They must be perfect. Each student manager does eight helmets every week.
“You have to do it between classes and around practices and games,” Hood said. “Some managers will be in there until midnight.”
Hood and a handful of other students were busy Friday setting up the players’ lockers. They must be perfect, too. Before the team arrives two hours before kickoff, recruits and their families often tour the locker room.
Already, on Friday, visitors were walking up and down the locker room. One particular locker was more popular than the others — that of running back Leonard Fournette. One visitor, a 10-year-old girl, unhooked Fournette’s jersey from his locker — Farley offered a concerned look — and posed for a picture.
She replaced it quickly.
Some players — receivers and defensive backs in particular — have two sets of shoes in front of their lockers. If they’re having a bad game, they’ll change shoes at halftime, Farley said.
The frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, Fournette has one set of slim size 13s in front of his locker.
“He’s the least needy guy we have,” Farley said. “He’s old school. Give him a jersey and shoulders pads, and he’ll handle the rest.”
Grigus is the Fournette of equipment men. That’s probably not a fair comparison, but he is probably the most recognizable of all of the equipment guys. He’s no more than 5 or 10 feet from Miles at all times during games, running and walking with him along the sideline. At least one student equipment manager is assigned to every coach and position group for games and practices; Grigus has been Miles’ guy for all but one season since that 2007 year.
Miles didn’t have him by his side for at least a portion of 2012 after Grigus was elevated to full-time manager. Miles asked for him back.
“Jeff had spoiled Les. He keeps Les in his comfort zone,” Stringfellow said. “They’re tied together.”
Whenever Miles is rumored for another job, other managers tease Grigus: “You going to go, too?”
There are times on the sideline when Miles turns around to ask Grigus for a cup of water, only to see Grigus holding a cup inches from him.
Miles gave Grigus the hat he wore in the 2007 BCS championship game. It’s one of many. Miles goes through two to three hats a year. Years ago, the school ordered 72 of the white caps, emblazoned with purple “LSU” on the front. No other staff member is allowed to wear that particular style of hat.
No staff member wears Miles’ shoes, either. Who would, after all?
This summer, Farley stumbled upon some new-style Nikes he thought Miles would like. They’re sleeker than the current style shoes. They have a black swoosh instead of a gray one, too.
“We tried to get him to switch,” Farley said. “Wouldn’t do it.”