Kansas coach Les Miles speaks to the media on the first day of Big 12 NCAA college football media days Monday, July 15, 2019, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David Kent)
Les Miles sat for more than hour, a Kansas pin on his left lapel and his LSU national championship ring on his right hand, answering wave after wave of often repetitive questions as he closes in on his return to coaching — and the Big 12 — with the long-suffering Jayhawks.
The session started with whether the one-game suspension for running back Pooka Williams in a domestic case was too short, and ended with the 65-year-old reminiscing about leaving the Dallas Cowboys for Oklahoma State and his first shot as a head coach nearly two decades ago.
In between, the theme was pretty consistent. The 2011 national coach of the year believes he’ll soon be back where he belongs after 2½ years away: on the sideline.
“I think it’s an enjoyment and a realization how much I am a football coach and how much I enjoy going to the sideline with my team,” Miles said as Big 12 media days opened Monday.
With that thought, Miles tried to peek through the crowd of reporters, looking for one of the tunnels at the home of the Dallas Cowboys because he realized he was on the same field where eight years earlier he led the Tigers into a season opener against Oregon.
“That moment, just kind of something that I fall back on, how much I enjoy taking the field with a team that was ready to play,” said Miles, whose team beat Oregon and was 13-0 before losing to Alabama in the BCS championship game to end the 2011 season.
The title came four years earlier with a BCS win over Ohio State. Nearly a decade later, Miles was fired at LSU after a 2-2 start in 2016, having weathered years of criticism that his offense was too old-fashioned for the pass-happy college game.
Now he finds himself in the pass-happiest conference among the Power Five leagues, where outscoring opponents has often been the trick to winning the title, as Oklahoma has shown while winning a record four straight Big 12 championships.
“If we need to throw the ball to win the game, we want to throw the ball to win the game,” said Miles, who signed a five-year contract worth $15.1 million before performance incentives. “If we need to run the ball to win the game, we’re going to run the ball to win the game.”
The toughest questions for Miles were about the focal point of that running game: Williams. The sophomore was recently reinstated after being away from the team seven months following his arrest in a domestic battery case involving an 18-year-old woman.
The suspension for the season opener Aug. 31 against Indiana State has been criticized as insufficient after the Kansas student Williams was dating accused him of punching her in the stomach and grabbing her throat.
Miles said it was important for him to stay out of the investigation by law enforcement and the university’s code of conduct proceedings. Williams, who ran for 1,125 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman, reached a domestic violence diversion agreement with prosecutors.
“He’s been remorseful,” Miles said. “He’s learned from this experience, as has our team. We’re thankful to have him back, and, again, no violence against a woman is OK. I did not make this decision, but I stand by it and see it as a right one.”
Miles’ return to the Big 12 is similar to his first stint in the league, starting in 2001. Oklahoma State had just one winning record in 12 years before he arrived, then went to bowl games the last three of Miles’ four seasons there.
Kansas has gone 18-90 while dumping three head coaches since Mark Mangino was fired two years after leading the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl win and a 12-1 record in 2007 — the same season Miles won his national title.
Miles, who inherited a strong program from Nick Saban at LSU, went 114-34 with the Tigers, winning at least 10 games in seven of his 11 full seasons. Oh, and safety Mike Lee has noticed that ring.
“He wears it every day,” said Lee, a senior. “Looking at the ring, I want to get me a national championship ring. But before we get to a national championship, we got to get to a bowl game.”
Miles couldn’t have scripted that answer any better, and the oldest head coach in the Big 12 believes he can get that process started, using the same energy that was so much a part of the quirky sideline behavior at his previous two stops.
“If it’s not the oldest coach, then what is the alternative? I think I’ll take being the oldest coach,” he said.
And if he seems as if he’s slowed down a bit at retirement age, while taking over a football program dwarfed by its basketball counterpart ?
“I can only tell you that my focus is clean,” Miles said. “My preparation is early to late. I think this Kansas team will be difficult to reckon with should we stay on task.”
In other words, don’t sleep on Miles’ Jayhawks.
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