‘A magician’: Former players reflect on Miles’ preparation, optimism that changed Cowboy football

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Former Oklahoma State coach Les Miles, now Kansas' coach, is returning to Stillwater for the Jayhawks' game against the Cowboys on Saturday.

Les Miles restlessly walked across the stage as a baffled audience of Oklahoma State football players waited to see what he would do next.

It was Nov. 30, 2002, and a storm of emotion and adrenaline was brewing inside the Student Union Theater. This wasn’t part of coach Miles’ usual pregame routine. Typically, he scrawled out a few keys to the game on a whiteboard and reviewed them with his players. Sometimes, he spoke in a murmur so soft that someone sitting on the row farthest from him could barely discern his message. Although his team knew him as a quirky, passionate coach, his speeches in the theater weren’t flashy or over-the-top.

This time was different. The Cowboys were preparing to wrap up their regular-season schedule with a home game against then-No. 3 Oklahoma, and during the previous year, OSU had shocked the Sooners  and college football fans across the nation   with a 16-13 victory. Miles and the Cowboys were out to show people that the upset wasn’t a coincidence.

So Miles shuffled around the whiteboard, forcefully breathing in a way that made the players wonder if he was angry at someone, said former tight end/offensive tackle Charlie Johnson. Then Miles shouted and walloped the whiteboard, sending it to the ground and stirring his players to respond with the same energy he conveyed.

The Cowboys hopped up from their chairs, roared and took off on “The Walk” to the stadium, where they stunned OU 38-28.

“It seemed like we were floating on the way to the field,” former quarterback Josh Fields said. “…I was a quarterback, and I wanted to hit somebody (in) that game.”

Miles, OSU’s coach from 2001 through 2004, had methods of motivating the Cowboys that, quite literally when he struck the whiteboard before the Bedlam game, packed a punch. Now, in his first year of coaching Kansas, he will return to Stillwater with OSU as his opponent at 11 a.m. Saturday. With a losing record for the past 10 seasons, the Jayhawks aren’t often seen as a serious threat, but several of Miles’ former Cowboys aren’t dismissing Kansas. They recognize the ingredients he brings to a team.

“We would walk away from (team) meetings thinking we would beat anybody in the country,” said Corey Hilliard, a Cowboy offensive lineman from 2003-2006.

Miles greeted recruits with charm and amiability, the kinds of qualities that made student-athletes such as Johnson and Hilliard want to become Cowboys, though they had little familiarity with him or his program when the recruiting process began.

“He just kind of had this natural ‘it’ factor of knowing what to say, knowing how to say it,” said Johnson, who played for OSU from 2002-2005. “He can make you feel like you can do anything you want to, and I think that that’s why he’s such a good football coach.”

When they played for Miles, they learned more about his gregarious but off-the-wall character. Former players chuckled at the mention of his name and enjoyed reflecting on humorous memories of the times when his voice would rise in pitch during animated speeches. On the field, the version of Miles who wore a grin and cracked sarcastic jokes subsided to welcome Miles, the intense competitor.

His practices often lasted more than three hours on Wednesdays. Players suited up in full pads, expected to not hold back from physical contact. Before the long sessions, Miles conducted offensive walkthroughs for about 20 minutes.

Fields, a freshman in 2001, said after his first practice, he told his parents he wasn’t sure if he could stick with the grueling routine. Clay Coe, a defensive lineman who was at OSU from 2000-2004, recalled the rare occasions when Miles would scratch everything and re-start the Cowboys' practice after a couple hours if their progress wasn’t good enough. Johnson said as an NFL rookie, he was surprised to learn that minicamp practices were typically shorter than Miles’ Wednesday sessions.

“Everybody knew if you could just get past Wednesday, you’d be all right,” Hilliard said.

Although the Cowboys sometimes dreaded the repetitive, taxing practices, Miles’ meticulous preparation fostered determination and confidence. At LSU, Miles became known as “The Mad Hatter,” but Fields suggested a different title.

“He was a magician for holding people accountable, holding his coaches accountable, preparing, probably more than the other coaches would prepare,” Fields said. “And then having just a positive attitude.”

Miles tailored his messages to his team’s mood, whether he reminisced on his time as a player or channeled the intense nature of the Bedlam rivalry. In the spring, he had night practices, allowing Fields to play baseball during the day before crossing the street to be the Cowboys’ quarterback. Johnson described Miles as “in tune to his team.” Beyond preparation, Miles’ unshakable optimism spread among the Cowboys.

In 2000, the season before Miles became the Cowboys’ coach, they went 3-8. To some, it might have seemed that Miles was living in a fantasyland, an imaginary world in which OSU was a top-tier team. But there was a glimmer of hope, a contagious quality, that he conveyed to the Cowboys and used to help them sneak up on opponents few expected them to defeat.

Entering the 2001 Bedlam game, OSU was 3-7. That didn’t stop Miles from treating the situation as if he were leading a powerhouse.

“He was probably the only guy that thought that we were gonna win that game, and maybe he was lying to himself, I don’t know,” Coe said. "I didn’t think we were gonna win, and I remember we, as players, you don’t really talk about that. It’s just, 'We’re not very good, they’re a lot better than we are.'”

The players surprised themselves. The next season, by the time Miles punched the whiteboard and yelled "a few choice four-letter words," as Coe said, many of them, too, believed they could win. Earlier in the 2002 season, the Cowboys edged Nebraska in a game John Helsley described as “a turning point" for OSU in an article for The Oklahoman. Something was changing in Stillwater.

In 2003, Miles led the Cowboys to a 9-4 season, including a Cotton Bowl appearance. The next year, OSU finished 7-5 after making it to the Alamo Bowl, but that was the end of Miles’ reign.

Gossip swirled throughout the team hotel in San Antonio. Was Miles leaving? The coaching job at LSU was open, and some people speculated that Miles was taking it. Coe and Johnson said before the bowl game, Miles gave a speech that included something about how he wasn’t going anywhere, but players weren’t so sure.

“Walking away from the bowl game, I didn’t know if he was gonna leave or not, but I kind of had a sense that something might happen,” Hilliard said. “Even then, it didn’t really hit me until he actually left.”

A few days after OSU's Alamo Bowl loss, it was announced that Miles was headed to LSU. Many OSU fans felt betrayed when he left, but for Johnson, the positives about playing for Miles outweigh negatives about his departure.

“I can see why just the way he did it was probably not the best way to do it, but for me personally, I just think of what he provided me and the opportunity he gave me,” Johnson said. “And I think about that stuff and I think about all the games we won, and all that kind of overrides the way he left for me, personally.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Gundy, who then had short, spiky hair instead of a mullet, became the Cowboys’ coach. Meanwhile, Miles spent more than 10 years at LSU but was fired in 2016. He re-launched his coaching career when he took the reins at Kansas to start this season.

The Jayhawks upset Texas Tech and nearly beat Texas this year, but those weren't big surprises to everyone. Miles' former players know how he can inspire a losing team, call gutsy plays to clinch unexpected victories and turn a mediocre-at-best program into something more.

“I think that Coach Miles was kind of the kick-starter of all that,” Johnson said. “And then Coach Gundy’s done a tremendous job of building on it and making it even better.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com