The rebranding of the Georgia State football program started like this:
At 6:07 a.m. on Jan. 14, a Monday, the first day of winter workouts, seven players arrived at the weight room door to find the Little Bald Man blocking the entrance.
“You’re late. You can’t come in. Get out of here.”
Off-season weight training was supposed to start at 6 a.m., but even 6 a.m. is late for Trent Miles, the Little Bald Man — it’s what he calls himself. To make him happy, 5:45 a.m. would have been appropriate. That way the players could stretch for the 6 a.m. lift. Seven minutes late was way out of bounds. It might as well have been 70.
“I’m sorry,” said one player.
Sorry didn’t begin to close the wound. Miles, the new head coach, was going to ring a fire-bell with this team.
The next morning at 5:30 a.m. the discipline for the tardiness was as raw as it gets. The players were ordered out to the practice field where they did unpleasant things. “Bear crawls” for 100 yards, then “up-downs” back the other way for 100 yards. For you non-bears, a bear crawl is crawling on your forearms. For you non-Marines, the up-downs are running five yards, throwing yourself to the ground, getting up, running another five yards, and throwing yourself on the ground again.
There were 800 yards of bear crawls and 800 yards of up-downs.
“They weren’t late again,” says Miles.
In a spring scrimmage, a wide receiver and defensive back started throwing punches after a play. Suddenly, players torpedoed into the scrum and the fight swelled.
After Miles and his assistant coaches broke up the fight, some players tried to have the last word.
“Shut up!” came the roar.
The only thing louder than Miles that morning was the 16 seconds the 40-ton MARTA train rattled over tracks above the football field. Over the next 25 minutes Miles stomped around the field hollering about the fight and the consequences if it had occurred in a game. Players would have been ejected and possibly forced to sit the next game, he told them.
The punishment for the fight was fit for boot camp.
Some players tried to rest on a knee during the punishment, which was running, followed by more running, and then more running. When they were not supposed to rest on a knee, and some did, Miles exploded again. The players shouldn’t have been surprised Miles had the acuity of a cop on the beat and could see feeble attempts at rest. After all, he majored in criminology at Indiana State University.
“We will stay out here all day,” he yelled. “Off your knees! If you don’t go full speed we will do these all day. This will be the last time you jump into a fight.”
On the sideline, offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski fumed. “We could be polishing our plays instead of doing this crap,” he said. But there was no trace of sympathy for players fighting for a breath.
“That was awful,” said sophomore quarterback Ben McLane after the running was over. “But this is how you redefine yourself. He gets everybody’s attention…big time.”
Miles can be a fire hydrant with the cap off. He has pipes and warns folks close by to cover their ears when he is about to blow his whistle. He takes a deep breath, blows, and a moment later your head vibrates.
The Little Bald Man means business.
And, then, just when you think you have him dissected, Miles will park that five-ton truck he was driving over his players’ egos.
A player walked up to him one morning and said he needs to be excused from Saturday morning drills to attend his grandmother’s funeral. Of course, said Miles. It was February and the coach knew the player by face, but not by name. There were 100 kids out there on the practice field or passing him in the hall of the football facility, it was still early to know names. He knew the player was a walk-on. Miles ordered flowers to be delivered to the funeral home.
During a spring scrimmage a wide receiver jumped the snap. No boom from the coach followed, just a quiet teaching lesson, perhaps about cadence and how it changes from quarterback to quarterback. A running back put his head down as he turned the corner, and Miles shouted, but did not scream, “Keep your head up.”
It goes both ways with the new coach. The culture is not just about being the boss, it’s being a boss who shows respect for players, and Miles can go from raw to real in a second. At 5-foot-6, the shortest guy on the field, managers included, is the identity of Georgia State football.
It took some tyranny for Miles’ players to learn his habits and for certain things to go unsaid, like being on time and no walking, just running, inside the white lines. Miles was not going to walk anyone through the process of becoming a Division I football program. It was going to be a march, or else.
This was a program that was 1-10 in 2012. Its schedule this season, its first in the Sun Belt Conference, is absolutely brutal. The team travels to West Virginia for game three. It goes to Alabama two games later before opening conference play.
Miles constantly bellows to his players, “This is a privilege,” and he will likely be saying it in October when the Panthers are caught in the grind of the season by bigger, faster, better teams. There is one NFL prospect in the program, 6-foot-8, 290-pound offensive lineman Ulrick John.
If someone wants to get out of line, Miles has made it clear they are replaceable.
“We were 1-10 last season,” he said. “Is there somebody that valuable out here? No.”
So when the team plays “The Tug,” two players pulling an oval-shaped saucer, the players have to take it seriously, or else. When an offensive player won The Tug one morning and the defensive player who lost began to laugh when he fell to the ground, all hell broke out.
“Is it funny to lose? Is it?” roared defensive coordinator Jesse Minter. “It ain’t funny.” There was a moment of silence and then the offense cheered and closed a victorious circle around the victor, wide receiver Nathaniel Minor.
Miles’ assistant coaches have also adopted his ferocity.
The intensity in practices is turned up with these spectacles of strength. But when the last whistle blows and the players take a knee around him, Genghis Khan becomes Father Flanagan. He talks about the program’s values, which includes a mention of three players they might not see again because of academic trouble.
Miles dismisses the players to the locker room, but the grind is not over yet, at least for one. While the other players trudge off, this one player is on the far sideline doing the bear crawl.
“He slept in,” said John, the big tackle. “Can’t do that with Coach Miles. Glad it’s not me.”
Miles, 50 arrived from Indiana State as the new Georgia State coach on Dec. 3, 2012. He replaced Bill Curry, who had given the start-up program some traction with his good name and solid values and four decades of football knowledge.
Curry left some noble tracks. Those are mostly his players out on the field toiling away under Miles. Most programs under a new, authoritarian head coach, will have plenty of defections before spring ball rolls around, but the Panthers have had just five players leave, which is a calm number, not a sign of revolt number.
Miles says his biggest goals are to evaluate the talent Curry left behind, install his schemes (multiple offense, 4-3 defense with 3-4 principles) and recruit to fill needs. In the spring, Georgia State listed seven starters returning on defense and nine starters returning on offense and both kickers were back.
“Most of these kids are really excited,” Miles says. “We ask so much of them that at some point some of them are going to say this is too much for me. But so far they want to be trained and pushed.”
To make his way, Miles is going to have to scout. He is going to have to take a chance on the high school defensive end with short arms that Georgia or Georgia Tech is going to pass on because the player does not meet the height-weight-speed prototype of Division I.
The state of Georgia is teeming with those players with hidden upside that people say are not Division I material. They come from high schools that train hard and have high expectations, which is why Miles took the Georgia State job. There is a deep talent pool within the golden five-hour recruiting radius. The state is among the top 10 per capita at producing players for the NFL. Miles’ job is to keep them from Troy in Alabama, or Georgia Southern.
“They all can’t go to Georgia or Georgia Tech,” he said.
Miles knows they’re out there and he has to be as good at scouting as he is at coaching. If he wasn’t coaching, he would be a scout for an NFL team, he says. His brother-in-law, Rex Hogan, scouts for the Chicago Bears and Miles routinely talks evaluation with scouts.
He was an assistant at Notre Dame and remembers a recruiting analyst telling him that a kid the Irish offered was not Division I material. Miles said the recruiting maven was flat wrong and the scholarship was offered. The kid was Jeff Samardzija, who turned out to be an All-American wide receiver.
Miles has been an assistant coach at Washington, Stanford, Notre Dame, New Mexico, Fresno State, Northern Illinois, Hawaii and Indiana State, his alma mater. He was the Indiana State head coach from 2008-12 and rebuilt the brand in Terre Haute, his hometown. Indiana State won one game in the three seasons previous to Miles’ arrival. He left in 2012 after three winnings seasons (6-5, 6-5, 7-4). The Sycamores stopped a 33-game losing streak when Miles got to Terre Haute and upset the Football Championship Subdivision No. 1 North Dakota State on the road in his last season there.
Miles has a catalog of players in his mind’s eye. He will see a high school player in the next few years that will remind him of a player he coached and developed and he will know how to project that player for Georgia State. Miles is the coach that has to look beyond… beyond next week, beyond next month, beyond next year. He will saunter up to a high school janitor for insight on a prospect. Miles will talk to anybody.
“You’ve got to be able to look at a dude and size him up. Look at his hands, look at his bone structure, look at how he’s built,” Miles said. “The ready-made dudes are going to the SEC, ACC, Big Ten. They might think they are a tight end, but in two years he could be your right tackle. I have had quarterbacks play linebacker.”
When he recruits the under-valued player, Miles has to then get him to play with fanatical effort. There are things that are important in football that have nothing to do with skill. Miles understands that as well as any coach in the country.
“We need to teach them how to compete,” he said. “They have to love the game. They have to like to lift weights and to practice.”
Miles certainly knows how to compete and he certainly loves the game. His father, Chuck, worked for 26 years as a personnel director at Columbia Records, spent time as a sheriff and was a Division I basketball referee. Miles played wide receiver at Indiana State (1982-86) and was part of a Football Championship Series (I-AA) team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the season.
In spring ball, the competition was Panthers vs. Panthers, the players had smack-talk energy and the snipers were out on both sides of the ball. The offensive guys on the sidelines chirped at the defensive backs. “He’s scared, Pee Wee,” one receiver on the sidelines yells toward his two receivers split left. “Give it to him, Pee Wee. He’s backing up!”
When a running back is plowed under, the defense shouts “B-I-A” B-I-A” after it makes a good play.
“B-I-A? They won’t tell me what it means,” said McLane, the quarterback.
(It means ”Best in America.”)
When they are on the same side, the offense and defense find a foe — and ally — in Miles. He is their coach, but also a source of both their aggravation and inspiration.
Miles and his assistants cracked the whip one February morning in a driving, freezing rain as players in shorts and T-shirts sloshed through a grueling 90-minute workout then rushed inside to warmth.
“He knows how to get your juices flowing in conditions like this,” said Kail Singleton, a senior safety from Temple, Ga. “He’s tough, and he is going to make us tougher.”
It was a lesson learned that first day at the weight room door.
Ray Glier is a former sports editor and now reports for The New York Times, USA TODAY, The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald and CNN, among others.