BATON ROUGE, La. -- For those wondering how Les Miles managed to keep it together on Saturday, only hours after learning that his mother Martha had passed away, LSU's coach could lean on previous life experience.
This was the second time that Miles had coached in the immediate aftermath of one of life's most traumatic experiences: the death of a parent. In both instances, his team presented the charismatic coach with an honorary game ball after a victory against one of its biggest division rivals.
"We played for him tonight. We absolutely played for him," said tight end Logan Stokes, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass in LSU's 10-7 win over previously unbeaten Ole Miss on Saturday night. "For a guy that cares about us like that -- I mean, your mother just passed away. I know if my mother passed away, I know how I would be feeling, so I can only imagine how he feels.
"But for us to go out there and get that win for him tonight, there's no greater feeling. Yeah, I scored the game-winning touchdown. That's a great feeling. But the fact that we won for Coach Les Miles is unreal."
Miles' postgame press conference is typically an event, featuring a mixture of his trademark zaniness and non-answers about pressing matters regarding his team. Miles' tone Saturday was much different, with the emotional coach still holding the game ball and speaking with a scratchy, quiet voice as he thanked those who had expressed their condolences after his 91-year-old mother's death.
"I had a rough night last night," Miles admitted, later adding, "Martha Miles, this is a great night, considering. I miss you, mom."
Miles was the tight ends coach with the Dallas Cowboys in 2000 when he first went through this kind of personal tragedy. His father, Hope Cecil (or "Bubba" as he preferred), died only a few days before the Cowboys were to meet the hated Washington Redskins on "Monday Night Football" -- a game Dallas eventually won 27-21.
Miles will always have a soft spot for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who allowed Miles to use his personal plane to fly home on the Friday before the game, attend his father's funeral and return to the team on Sunday before the game.
"I buried my father that weekend," Miles recalled. "And Jerry Jones was just tremendously graceful in traveling me back home to see my father and mother, my father who passed."
Fourteen years later, the circumstances were even more trying when Miles learned of his mother's death.
When the phone rang with the news on Friday, Miles was actually at the hospital with his son, Ben, who had broken his ankle during a football game at Baton Rouge's Catholic High School. Miles' team was on the eve of its biggest game of the season, facing the nation's No. 3 team, with the spotlight of ESPN's "College GameDay" preparing to fall on Tiger Stadium the following morning.
And Miles is no longer an assistant coach like he was in Dallas. He's the No. 1 guy at LSU, in charge of more than 100 players in their late teens and early 20s -- not NFL adults -- who would be looking to him for guidance when they took the field against the Rebels.
Many of his most valuable players, after all, are only a few months removed from living at home with their own parents.
"It made everybody think about their mothers and what would we do if it was our mother," said true freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 113 yards against Ole Miss. "I can't explain the feeling because I was hurting for him."
Miles said he struggled to come up with a way to break the news to his players and still convey the stiff-upper-lip mentality that he felt was necessary to win the game.
"I spent time today thinking about the way that I need to tell them that when they see me on the sideline, it has not to do with who's passed and what's going on," Miles said. "It has only to do that I'm looking for every opportunity and advantage for us to win, and they need to see me as an aggressive man."
Then he went out and coached his team to a quintessential LSU win. There was unbelievably physical play along the line of scrimmage. Vicious defense on both sides. Power running. And like many LSU wins from its decade under Miles, a touch of late craziness before the Tigers escaped with yet another Saturday night victory at Tiger Stadium.
If you ever wondered where the relentless spirit that has marked Miles' LSU tenure comes from, it clearly starts at the top.
"He's a true man, the definition of a responsible man," Fournette said.
Stokes agreed, adding, "I've never had more respect for an individual in my entire life."
One of the most difficult challenges of a head coach's job is that he can't choose to be a leader only when it is convenient. He's the leader all day, every day -- even when his mind is distracted and his heart heavy.
Miles has now coached pivotal games twice while dealing with the heartache of losing a parent, and walked away a winner both times. Surely there are more pleasant ways to gauge leadership, but Miles has coaching under stressful situations down pat.
"His son was in the hospital … and then he finds out his mother passed and the man showed up to the team meeting last night, didn't skip a beat," Stokes said. "He was the first one up this morning, he was the first guy that I saw when I walked into the hotel this morning to eat breakfast. He didn't skip a beat.
"For us to have a leader like that, it's unreal. To handle a situation like that in a game of this magnitude, it's unreal."