Words by CODY WORSHAM
Photos by SEAN RICHARDSON
Editor’s note: This is the first of three profiles on the wives of LSU’s head coaches, featuring Kathy Miles, from the latest issue of Tiger Rag Extra, which you can find on newsstands across Baton Rouge now. Parts two and three on Kelli Jones and Karen Mainieri will be published Thursday.
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he recruiting trail has long been good to Les Miles. His collection of four and five star talents rivals that of any other head coach in the country.
But his biggest commitment came long before his arrival at LSU.
And, surprisingly enough, it came courtesy of a basketball coach.
A former standout guard at Central Michigan University with two NCAA Tournament appearances to her name, Kathy LaBarge was a young assistant on the University of Michigan women’s basketball team when her boss, Bud Van De Wege gave her a directive.
“We were going to start recruiting territorially, like football did,” Kathy recalls. “My boss told me to go meet Les Miles, because he recruited the Chicago area for football. I was kind of intimidated.”
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The Kathy Miles File
Spouse: Les Miles, LSU Football Coach
Children: Kathryn “Smacker,” Leslie Matthew “Manny,” Ben and Macy Grace
Hometown: Flint, Mich.
You Might Not Know: Played college basketball at Central Michigan.[/su_pullquote]
Not by Les, whom she’d never met, but by the aura of Michigan football and Bo Schembechler, whose presence hung over the building as Kathy approached anxiously. Fortunately, a friendly stranger met her in the parking lot, asking her if she’d caught the Pistons’ game the night before. He’d been there, he proudly boasted.
“I figured he knew I was a basketball coach,” Kathy laughs. “We just started talking about it, and he said, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m Les Miles.’ And I said, ‘Wow. I’m supposed to meet you.’”
It’s fitting that recruiting brought Kathy and Les together. More than two decades since tying the knot, it’s the aspect of the job Kathy feels most involved in.
“The biggest role I can help LSU with is recruiting,” she says. “I really enjoy recruiting. When I coached college basketball, it was probably an aspect that I enjoyed as much as actual coaching on the court and interacting with players.”
Kathy sidelined her dream of becoming a head basketball coach when she married Les, but she still gets her fix in LSU’s hunt for the nation’s top prospects every year. She helps with visits and recruit breakfasts, but focuses her efforts on relationship building, “the dynamics of getting to know the people that are important in the recruit’s life.”
“A lot of people ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss coaching?’ I really do miss the on-the-court stuff, but I feel like I get a lot of fulfillment of helping the LSU football staff recruit,” she says.
There’s one 2017 prospect the Miles family has a particular interest in. Former LSU recruiting director Frank Wilson gave Catholic High fullback Ben Miles a call last year and offered him a scholarship. If Ben opts to play for his dad, he’d be the first Miles to attend LSU. Eldest son Manny is a walk-on quarterback at North Carolina, and eldest daughter Smacker, the Miles’ first-born, is an Academic All-Big 12 swimmer at Texas.
It drives Les crazy for his kids to leave town, says Kathy, but their children’s wanderlust is a product of influence and inheritance.
“We both taught them to be very independent, because it was important to us,” she says. “We talked about it before he ever became the head coach at Oklahoma State. We didn’t want our kids to rely on his job. It’s the style of job that you can be here one day and gone the next. We’d seen that with other coaches’ kids. We wanted them to make their own ways and own identities. And Les has a personality that’s very curious, adventuresome. Honestly, I think our kids have a combination of wanting to see other things and being independent. They dearly love LSU, but they see it as, ‘That’s dad’s thing.’ And that’s what we wanted. It’s funny. Les feels upset sometimes that they’re not at LSU, but we put them on a path to do that.”
That independence may also explain why none of Kathy’s kids took to the hardwood, either, though she still has basketball dreams for her youngest daughter.
“I told Macy, ‘If you play basketball, you’ll be my favorite child,’” she laughs. “Manny had the ability to be a basketball player, but he’s 6-foot, and here, living in the South, you play so much baseball and football, there’s no room for basketball. I always said if Manny had grown up in Michigan, he would’ve played basketball. Smacker played AAU – I coached her through AAU – and she played varsity basketball as early as eighth grade at U-High, and then she just decided to stay with swimming because she thought she’d have a better chance to go to a bigger college if she swam.”
Ben has since picked up offers from Nebraska, Texas-San Antonio, and Boston College. The Tigers have serious competition for the nation’s No.1 fullback, according to 247Sports.com’s rankings.
“Ben loves LSU,” says Kathy. “We’ll see what happens. He’s a pretty independent thinker.”
A COUPLE OF COACHES
Game days have gotten easier in 11 years for Kathy. When the kids were younger, their swim meets, soccer matches, and youth football games usually kicked off on Saturday mornings
“A lot of times you had company coming in and games all over the place, and you’re running around trying to get your LSU gear on so you can run up to the stadium and see that game,” she says. “Sometimes, I’d seen two or three games before the LSU game.”
Age has made the schedule easier. High school games moved to Fridays, and there were fewer balls to juggle on the weekend. But the life of a coach’s wife – particularly one in as high-profile a job as LSU – is one of sacrifice. Les is one of the best family men in a business where that label is rare, but of the many hats he wears, the most prominent, Kathy knows, is the large white one he dons on Saturdays in the fall.
“A coaching job at the level Les is at – Les is a great Dad – but his first priority, aside from loving his family, which he does a great job at, is that football team,” she says. “My role is, I concern myself with our four kids first. It’s an understanding.”
That’s where Kathy’s coaching career comes in handy. Coaches’ spouses often accept and understand their jobs. Few, if any, have walked in their husbands’ shoes, and Kathy understands Les’ role as a father applies to the kids in both his living room and his locker room.
“[Having been a coach] makes our relationship easier because I understand the demands and dynamics of the team, how important it is in every aspect, from recruiting to scouting to working with the players and staff,” she says. “I think Les would tell you it’s been tremendously helpful. I understand the time constraints.”
GUARDED BUT GRATEFUL
The first year, the question made perfect sense to Kathy. By year seven or eight, however, she no longer understood why everyone always asked:
“How’s Baton Rouge?”
It’s the query Kathy says she’s been offered the most in their 11 years in Baton Rouge.
“The first year you expected that question,” she laughs, “but the seventh and eighth year? I would think, ‘Wow, life is going by fast for you, too.’”
That period of time is the longest the Miles family has stayed in one spot. Kathy was born in Flint, Mich., and Les’ blood is famously blue when it’s not purple and gold. But Baton Rouge is home.
And Kathy hopes it stays that way.
“In the coaching profession, you’re still a little guarded, because you want to see that it goes out the right way, because that might be where you want to continue to live,” she says. “If you’re afforded that opportunity in the coaching profession, that’s a great thing.”
That’s a perspective sharpened by a November in 2015 that many thought would be the last for Les at LSU, as rumors of his firing, following three straight losses, caught like wildfire, locally and nationally. Reports of his demise turned out to be greatly exaggerated, but his near brush with termination – however near it actually was – is not lost on Kathy. [su_pullquote align=”right” class=”wide”]
“In the coaching profession, you’re still a little guarded, because you want to see that it goes out the right way.”
“The bottom line is, I understand the nature of the program here,” she says. “We’re expected to win, and I understand that. There’s nobody that wants to win more than Les and I. Sometimes it can be hurtful, but you try to understand that to whom much is given, much is expected.”
And this is what she expected. A coach’s life is never smooth sailing, but having another alongside for the journey makes it easier to navigate.
“When you get into it, you know your life can be a little up and down,” says Kathy. “You’re going to have to have some adventure in it. You just say, it’s whatever God has planned for you. If you’ve been here 11 or 12 years and it doesn’t work out and it doesn’t have the right feel to continue to live here, then God has another plan. If it does, it’s great to know we love it here. If this is where He wants us to stay, that’s a good thing.”
A FEW MINUTES WITH…KATHY MILES
Tiger Rag: Les made a comment last year that he doesn’t read the paper, that you do that for him and filter out what he should and shouldn’t hear. Is that how it works?
Kathy Miles: It’s not like I’m assigned to read and tell him. He’s really good with – and he really believes – what goes on in that building is all that concerns him. It’s true. He says that, and I’m sure everyone thinks, ‘That’s not true. He has to be like everyone else and read social media or wonder what’s going on in the newspaper, radio, television.’ He really isn’t. When he gets into the season, he is locked down. All he cares about is what the thoughts of his staff and those players are. I do read the newspaper. Pretty faithfully. And sometimes I’ll tell him some things.
KM: I love seeing when he can touch people’s lives, whether it’s a player he helped develop and he can see them get their degree and know they’re going to go on to be good husbands and fathers and good people. I also like that outside of the program, when he gets called on to help someone that may have terminal cancer. To see the position he holds allows him to make somebody smile, it really warms my heart.
TR: How did he propose?
KM: We were at his house. My mom and dad were there for Christmas. And he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. We had a little sun room. I opened up a Christmas present. And it was a gold Christmas bulb – which I still have. And I opened up the bulb, and it was the ring. We went into the sun room area, and he got down on one knee, and we talked, and it was good. My dad said, ‘It’s going to be okay. You’ll get through this.’
TR: What’s one thing no one else knows about Les?
KM: After being here 11 years, I think everyone thinks they know everything about Les. Most people would say he’s a family man and he loves his family, and that’s true. I think in terms of job, people don’t realize how thorough he is. He’s very precise, very thorough, doesn’t leave a stone unturned. I think if you worked every day with him, they’d realize that.