The constant hum of music on the radio was the only sound that filled the air on an unusually silent car ride to Baton Rouge.
I was 12 years old and fuming because I had to waste a perfectly fine summer day running errands with my family. Boredom took its toll on me as we hopped from store to store in the Mall of Louisiana, and sweat permeated from my forehead as we trekked across the parking lot to each destination.
I was in desperate need for an oasis from both the blistering rays of the Sun and the mind-numbing outlet departments I was forced to wander.
Sensing the angst welling up inside of me, my parents decided to reward me for my cooperative, albeit standoffish behavior. We added the Dick’s Sporting Goods store to our list of stops, but we were oblivious to the serendipity that was about to befall us once inside.
I still remember the moment like it was yesterday. As I was admiring the store’s colorful assortment of baseball bats, I looked across the aisle and found myself staring at Les Miles.
Realizing that the offseason stubble growing from his face did little to mask his identity to me, Miles approached me and shook my hand.
I was starstruck but managed to mumble out a clumsy greeting, and we both moved on with the day. Needless to say, my family’s car ride home was far less quiet than its predecessor. It was like magic. The moment I shook Miles' hand was the moment I had forgotten about the heartache LSU’s previous 8-5 record had given me the year before along with all of the coaching decisions I had criticized along the way.
Unfortunately, 2008 was no black swan event, and I would heap many more condemnations Miles' way in the future. The Tigers would finish with fewer than 10 wins three more times in Miles’s tenure, and there would be a bevy of unforgettable clock management miscues and tough losses that would have myself and many other LSU fans begging for a change in the coaching guard.
In his decade of coaching the Tigers, Miles’ triumphs were quickly dismissed, and his follies followed him like a monkey on his back.
When he was an active coach, no fan would let Miles forget the time the Tigers tried spiking the ball with one second left against Ole Miss in 2008 or the last-second fiasco against Tennessee in 2010.
And who could forget the heartbreaking 2011 National Championship? A shiver runs down my spine at any mention of this game now seven years later.
However, now that he’s no longer pacing the sideline in his trademark windbreaker and white baseball cap, it appears Miles is receiving the type of treatment typically reserved for retired politicians.
All of Miles’ missteps have taken a backseat to his accomplishments. It’s like we’re all 12-year-olds shaking his hand in a Dick’s Sporting Goods store.
Conversations about Miles now revolve around the fact that he averaged 10 wins a season while at LSU at a time when the SEC was, arguably, the toughest conference in America.
His record of 114-34 makes him the second-winningest coach in LSU history, and his teams captured seven bowl victories, two SEC championships and played for two national titles, taking home the crown in 2007 and finishing national runner-up in 2011.
While I could continue speaking about Miles’ accolades as a coach, perhaps his most memorable moments came in the form of entertainment.
From his “have a nice day” press conference to his “hammer and the nail” tirade, Miles was in his element when the cameras were rolling and always kept his audience in stitches.
But every “Les-ism” uttered in front of cameras was authentic. Miles was the same quirky coach even when he thought no one was watching, as evidenced when he was caught reaching down to chew on some Tiger Stadium grass.
Being a genuine person goes a long way with people, especially in Louisiana, and Miles was nothing if not genuine.
Winning helps too, and Miles won a lot. In fact, he won so often that he was recently selected to be enshrined as a member of the 2019 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Miles wasn’t a perfect coach because such a coach doesn’t exist. He will be remembered as a coach that led an LSU football program to accomplish great feats while suffering some heart-wrenching blows along the way, but that’s how life works.
Life is bittersweet, but now, looking back with clarity, I think we can all agree that life with Les was far sweeter than it was bitter.