Les Miles, LSU’s 2007 national championship head coach and the 2011 national coach of the year, was the kind of winner you’d love to have in charge of your college football program.
Then again, the Les Miles who spent his last five seasons at LSU falling further and further behind the evolving Nick Saban, then spent two years out of coaching, was a risky hire for the Kansas Jayhawks in 2019.
That risk didn’t pay off: KU went 1-16 in Big 12 games during his two seasons in Lawrence, bad even by the abysmal standards of Jayhawk football.
And in the last week, we learned the hire was risky for another reason. A 2013 internal report by LSU, the existence of which was revealed by USA Today, detailed accusations of inappropriate behavior by Miles, including “texting female students, taking them to his condo alone, making them feel uncomfortable and, on at least one occasion, kissing a student and suggesting they go to a hotel after telling her he could help her career.” Miles has denied those allegations, and his lawyer says that the coach’s “open and trusting nature exposes him to false claims by people with a different agenda than his.” Nevertheless, Miles and Kansas “agreed to part ways” on Monday, with the now ex-Jayhawks coach saying it was “certainly a difficult day for me and for my family.”
Because this is college sports, we do have to wonder whether the school would’ve been so quick to pull the plug if Miles’ record in Big 12 games had been, say, 16-1 instead. Thanks to this scandal, KU was able to get rid of the washed-up coach for less money now than it would’ve had to pay him to go away two years from now.
If Miles hadn’t accepted that golden parachute, he might’ve ended up with nothing, since these contracts include “for cause” provisions that can void the whole thing in the event of an off-field scandal.
Huge buyouts are a really stupid part of college sports, a kind of self-created necessary evil. Who decides when and how to cut those checks? The athletic director, a nerd whose job is to hang out with rich fans, take money from them, use it to pay some coaches to go away, and then hang out with more rich fans until the school can afford a new coach who will one day require a buyout of his own. There are also facility projects to fund, which require even more hangouts with even richer people.
Kansas’ AD is named Jeff Long, currently the Most College Sports Athletic Director alive. Let’s take a walk.
• The first thing Long did as an athletic director, in 2008, was hire Bobby Petrino to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks. This meant Petrino ditching the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of his first NFL season, just one of many dirtbag moves by Petrino to that point. Bobby Petrino: The Arkansas Years was going fine for a while, and then blew up in Long’s face when Petrino wrecked a motorcycle while riding with his employee/mistress, then lied about it. Long fired Petrino, and somehow received praise for firing the known dirtbag he’d hired.
• Long’s emergency stopgap hire for the 2012 season was John L. Smith, who’d been mostly out of coaching since 2006, but was set to take over at his alma mater, Weber State. Long offered Smith the chance to enjoy three months as lord of a dirtbag’s mess in a demented pressure cooker, and who can say no to that? Arkansas went 4-8, including losses to ULM and Rutgers.
• One person who praised Long’s handling of the whole Petrino thing was Bret Bielema, then the frequent Rose Bowl–attending coach of the Wisconsin Badgers. Bielema sent Long a lovely letter, urging him to “stay strong.” A few months later, Long handed Bielema a fat contract to coach the Razorbacks.
• Somehow amid all this, Long became the College Football Playoff committee’s first-ever chairman. The early CFP had a really weird obsession with touting its own integrity, which they proved by putting the guy who fired Petrino (and also the guy who hired Petrino) up front.
• Arkansas then fired Long, not because he’d hired the dirtbag Petrino years earlier, but because Bielema lost too much. Long then landed at Kansas, which cares much less about football and thus would’ve been wise to just lay low for a while, letting a young coach build in peace. Instead, Long chose to fire David Beaty, who’d improved the team from 0-12 in 2015 to 3-9 in 2018. I want to emphasize that 3-9 is pretty good for Kansas football.
• Long’s KU then got involved in a big, petty, embarrassing lawsuit over Beaty’s buyout, ultimately spending even more money than they would have if they’d just paid him off at the beginning.
• During that whole fiasco, Long hired Miles off the couch. In 2012, Long had actually wanted to hire Miles at Arkansas, presumably because Miles … said something nice to Long like 20 years ago? That’s just a guess.
• Did Long at least do some due diligence before finally landing his coveted Miles at Kansas? Did he at least try to find whether there were any skeletons in Baton Rouge? Well, depositions suggest Long had his heart set on Miles even before Beaty was out the door, and that Long couldn’t remember which other coaches he’d interviewed before hiring Miles. Some other clues also seem to indicate that Long’s mind was already made up.
So, we have a guy who hired the dirtbag Petrino and the washed-up Miles (as well as Bielema, who’s not exactly universally beloved, but is kinda catching a stray here), eagerly overlooking faults to land big-name prize fishes. That Miles is accused of using power inappropriately in relationships with much younger women, something at least a little similar to what Petrino did, makes the full picture even harder to ignore.
Jeff Long’s not the whole problem in college sports, just a really good illustration of that problem.
Maybe all of this suggests one of many reasons the same coaches keep getting hired over and over: The same guys get to keep bricking hires over and over.
As of Tuesday evening, Jeff Long is still employed by the University of Kansas. Even if you focus only on wins and losses, Long deserves to be fired for prolonging the destitution of the sport that Kansas doesn’t actually care about. At this hour, KU basketball remains solvent, probably because Jeff Long didn’t get to hire anybody to ruin it.
Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.