By Steve Rivera –
Sean Miller said yes. Then he said no.
The future of men’s basketball at The University of Arizona hung in the balance.
Then, his final decision came overnight. He said yes.
Miller’s choice to become the Wildcats’ coach came over three days of hard thinking and high-flying negotiations, and it is the moment in which another winning era of Arizona basketball was launched.
How could Miller – one of college basketball’s up-and-coming coaches at the time – turn down one of college basketball’s premier jobs? Ultimately, he couldn’t.
Miller, who had called Xavier University home for eight years, said upon his hire in April 2009 that being the coach of Arizona was an “opportunity of a lifetime,” adding it was a place where competing for national championships every season was possible.
“To be in charge of a new era of Arizona Basketball and to build this program towards winning a national championship again is where my heart is,” Miller said then. “I look forward to this new day in my family’s life in Tucson, Arizona.”
Seemingly, nothing has changed.
He’s on record as saying his family is happy in the desert southwest.
He’s already said no to a possible job in Maryland, instead staying at Arizona where he’s built a program much like Lute Olson did when he arrived in the early 1980s. Now, like then, UA could be among the national elite for a very long time.
“He’s obviously one of the greatest coaches in college basketball,” said junior point guard T.J. McConnell. “The sky is the limit for him. He’ll continue to bring in the best recruits and be one of the top coaches in the country. I have no worries about him.”
No worries – since arriving at Arizona, Miller has signed 19 recruits ranked in the national top 100, the second most in the nation over that span. It’s resulted in three consecutive top 10 recruiting classes, and likely four after final rankings for the 2014 class are established. He has signed five McDonald’s High School All-Americans – Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and incoming freshman Stanley Johnson.
Entering March, Miller had won about 73 percent of his games at Arizona.
“What he brings is a fire to win,” said Bill Raftery, a Fox Sports college basketball analyst. “And it’s a fire to win with style. Sean is a very competitive person and he coaches with that competitiveness very well.”
Miller, 45, has led UA to record-setting performances, with the Wildcats winning 21 consecutive games to begin this season and ranking No. 1 in the polls for a school-record eight straight weeks. Talk of a national title has long been the case at Arizona, but it was seemingly magnified in late November when Arizona went into Madison Square Garden and beat longtime rival Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
But always pragmatic and straightforward, Miller borrowed a business axiom: Past performance is no guarantee of future success.
“It doesn’t mean that next January things are going to be working out,” Miller said at the time. “With so much turnover in college basketball you really move in these one-week, one-month periods of time. When you do that, it gets you to where you want to go a little easier.”
The season-ending injury to Ashley didn’t help Arizona’s ability to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But betting against Miller is like betting against sunshine in Tucson.
“It’s going to take some maneuvering and adjusting without Brandon because it’s big and it shakes up a team,” Raftery said in late February. “But I like how they play and it’s fun to watch them. They are like Lute’s teams and very unselfish. There’s a lot to like.”
Miller’s crew is still very capable. That was the case in 2011, when Derrick Williams put the team on his back and carried the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. They fell one game shy of the Final Four, losing to eventual champion Connecticut.
Last season, Arizona, after winning 14 consecutive games to start the season, struggled in February but regained some momentum to reach the Sweet 16, losing to Ohio State on a last-second shot.
Miller, a one-time kid prodigy who bounced and balanced balls on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” is still seeking the biggest spotlight. But if he was able to dream of college basketball’s biggest prizes when he arrived at Arizona, he was also thinking, again, pragmatically.
“I didn’t know how it was going to work,” he said. “A lot of people talk about having a three-year plan or five-year plan, but I was just hoping I wasn’t going to be fired. I was hoping I’d be here in my fifth year or sixth year.
“There are so many factors that disarm you, injuries (being one) and we’re going through that now. There’s bad luck in recruiting and not being able to recruit at the level you’d hope. I’ve been thankful I’ve been able to get both feet on the ground here. What I really hope is that we have a foundation that is really strong and that we are built for the future.”
What he’s already done has been remarkable to many, particularly under the circumstances. The program had a couple of chaotic transitional years in which Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell/Mike Dunlap took over as interim coaches while the Hall of Famer Olson dealt with health issues and, ultimately, retirement.
“You don’t know how difficult it is to replace a legend,” said Bill Walton, who is familiar with UA through his work as college basketball television analyst and because his son, Luke, played for Olson.
“Chick Hearn, John Wooden, Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson. But to see this crowd (at McKale Center), this loyalty and the fans come here and do what they do is amazing. Lute built it (and) it’s about sustainability. Lute did it for nearly 30 years.
“And now it’s being done again. What Sean has done is absolutely remarkable and in such a short time,” Walton added.
He said everything starts at the top – from UA President Ann Weaver Hart to VP for Athletics Greg Byrne to Miller and his ability to lead. It’s also helped that former players Damon Stoudamire and Joseph Blair have returned. Stoudamire is an assistant coach, and Blair is an undergraduate assistant.
They are part of Miller’s motto “A Player’s Program” – his attempt to connect former UA players to current teams. It’s now a brand. It’s about saluting the past and celebrating the future.
“I like what I see,” said Bob Elliott, who is second on the school’s all-time scoring list. “And not just on the court but off of it. Sean’s record not just here but at Xavier is what needs to happen – he’s graduating players.”
Elliott also lauds Miller’s “A Player’s Program” philosophy because of what it emphasizes.
“Traditions and the program,” Elliott said. “He has said he wants the former players to have pride in our program. What he’s doing right now is paving more asphalt on that road.
“Freddie (Snowden) paved some. Lute Olson paved some. And now Sean is paving some. That’s when and how you get a program that is nationally recognized.”
Byrne hopes it continues. The last four years have been a joyride for Byrne, who became the boss about a year after former Athletic Director Jim Livengood finally signed Miller in April 2009.
“(Miller) is one of the best inheritances anybody has ever received,” Byrne said.
“Sean is the epitome of the modern basketball coach. He cares about the kids academically. The compliance people love working with him and his staff. He’s relentless in recruiting and is a tremendous floor coach. And, on top of all that, he’s a really good guy.”