It happened quickly, but it was a long time coming.
LSU Tigers football fans were gripped by a torrent of emotions Sunday, but surprise was not one of them. Following a narrow defeat to the Auburn Tigers, LSU fired Les Miles, one of the quirkier coaches in college football.
ESPN once described him as “a man of such eccentric and exaggerated quirks that by the time he reaches the public imagination, all that’s left of him are those bits of weirdness.” (This is a man who somehow won a game of football on a bounce pass.)
Miles began coaching LSU in 2005, and held a record of 114-34, which included a national championship in 2007. Previously, he was the head coach for Oklahoma State for four years. As The Washington Post reported, “Miles’s .770 winning percentage is the best for anyone who coached more than seven games at LSU, ahead of Nick Saban and Bill Arnsparger, both at .750.”
But he also known for the antics – and the heart – he displayed off the field.
He was known as “the mad hatter” for the brand-new white cap – always too small – he’d wear to each game, and became such a towering figure off the field that the New York Times called him as much a “mascot of L.S.U. football as Mike the Tiger.”
The most famous of Miles’s quirks first became public during a match-up between LSU and the University of Alabama, one of the more anticipated games each year.
With 8 minutes left in the fourth quarter, LSU is up by five and appears to be on the verge of scoring again. The camera pans to Miles, who, apropos of nothing, casually leans down and plucks a blade or two of grass from the field. Nonchalantly, he tosses it into the old hatch and starts chewing.
Many folks had the same reaction: Wait, did that guy just eat grass off the field?
LSU beat its rivals on that matchup, but the post-game conversation centered around Miles’s unique culinary choice.
“I have a little tradition that humbles me as a man, that lets me know that I’m a part of the field and part of the game,” Miles said, according to the Associated Press. “You should have seen some games before this. I can tell you one thing: The grass in Tiger Stadium tastes best.”
Then LSU receiver Russell Shepard told SirusXM that he wasn’t surprised.
Russell Shepard: “I see him do it every day. That’s Coach Miles. He eats that grass. I guess he says it has a lot of protein.”
It became such a talking point among college football fans that ESPN even convinced Miles to film a commercial for the network in which he mixes a refreshing grass smoothie and chugs the bitter mixture.
And it didn’t stop there. Per ESPN:
Miles takes Tiger Stadium sod clippings with him on the road – a snack, I guess – and after the Auburn game, he left the plastic bag in his pants. The dry cleaner called, worried and a little freaked out: Uh, there’s a baggie in coach’s pants. A bag of grass.
If his snacking habits seemed eclectic, his press appearances were often doubly so. While some coaches are prone to theatrical press conferences, it was always a gamble what version of Miles would show up.
Or if he would at all.
Once last year, he chose to go to the hospital rather than a press conference because he drank too much coffee. In what he called a “nice break from the media,” Miles told reporters he had to miss a scheduled press conference when “I kind of OD’d on coffee. I feel good. People decided to take precaution and ordered me to go check up with the medical community, so I did.”
Sometimes, he would be short, grunting his way through a conference. Sometimes, he would say odd, confusing things like, “I was shanghaied in Austin, Texas.” Sometimes, he would simply ramble on about how much he enjoyed eating turkey with gravy.
And then, sometimes, he would show a well of emotion – screaming and then, strangely, dancing – not often seen from a sports coach at a post-game.
His interviews carried a similar bout of uncertainty. Sometimes, he’d make jokes. Sometimes, he’d open up about weeping uncontrollably after a Patsy Cline song reminded him of his late father, Hope “Bubba” Miles, as he did to ESPN.
And sometimes, he’d forget (or not care) that he was being recorded and run a red light.
Above all, what might be most striking about Miles – particularly off the field – is the charity he often showed.
Sometimes, it was blatantly public, like in 2013 when he rappelled down the side of One America Place, a Baton Rouge skyscraper, to raise awareness for adoption via the Over the Edge for Adoption campaign.
But sometimes, it was intensely private, like when he called a beat reporter who had suffered a miscarriage when she finally had her first child in order to congratulate her.
Or his relationship with Sid Ortis.
When Sid Ortis was 15 years old, the Mountain Brook, Ala., teenager already knew he had osteosarcoma, a devastating form of bone cancer. He knew he might die.
Though he lived in the heart of Alabama, he was a rabid LSU fan. After his second lung surgery, his neighbors put aside their collegiate pigskin differences and blanketed his home with purple and gold paraphernalia.
Miles learned of Ortis after local media wrote about the boy’s fandom. So, without fanfare, Miles called Ortis to chat. Ortis’s parents said they don’t know how he got their phone number.
“I said hello, and a woman said, ‘This is Les Miles’ secretary and he would like to speak to Sid,”‘ Ortis’s mother Lynn told AL.com. “I was shocked.”
“Life is not how long you live, but how well you live it,” Miles told the 15-year-old.
He also invited Ortis to watch a game from the coach’s box when LSU played Auburn in 2015.
Things took a sad turn for Ortis, and the then 16-year-old entered hospice care. Miles once again called.
“When you get to Heaven, save a spot for me,” he told Ortis, who died quickly thereafter.
It’s still unclear who will replace Miles, but one thing is certain: he leaves behind one tough hat to fill.