Miller era begins for Arizona

Arizona athletics director Jim Livengood, left, and mens basketball head coach Sean Miller, right, address the media during a news conference on Tuesday in McKale Center. Miller will be the highest paid UA employee in the schools history.

Arizona athletics director Jim Livengood, left, and men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller, right, address the media during a news conference on Tuesday in McKale Center. Miller will be the highest paid UA employee in the school’s history.

Bryan Roy

On behalf of the Hall-of-Famer himself, newly hired UA basketball coach Sean Miller officially took the reins of Lute Olson’s program with his inaugural press conference yesterday.

Miller began addressing the media by first acknowledging and thanking Olson, who sat alongside notable UA administrators and boosters on McKale Center’s floor.

Miller became the school’s 13th full-time head coach and the UA’s highest-ever paid employee.

“”Just so you know, one of the reasons that I sit here today is because of the great legacy that (Olson) built and the feeling that the world and the nation have about Arizona Basketball stems from you,”” Miller said. “”(Olson) being here means the world. Thank you very much.””

After two seasons of interim head coaches, Miller stabilizes the program in flux after signing a five-year contract worth $1.6 million annually plus another $400,000 from Nike and IMG. His contract also includes several performance-based incentives.

Miller earned a $1 million signing bonus and will automatically receive a two-year extension after two seasons. That way, Arizona avoids the Arizona Board of Regents maximum contract restriction length of five years.

Arizona also becomes responsible for Miller’s contracted buyout from Xavier, worth no more than $400,000. The self-sustained UA athletics department – not state or federal tuition dollars – generated all funds for the Miller’s conract.

“”If somebody were to list the worst possible time to be hiring a major player in terms of our men’s basketball coach or a major type of component,”” Livengood said, “”this economy, regardless of where in the United States you are but particularly in the West, this would be the worst possible time.

“”But, we didn’t pick the time. We have to relate to the time and we have to do the very best job that we can,”” Livengood added. “”Arizona Athletics is incredibly important to this community in many ways, but from a financial standpoint, as well. It is an economic engine.””

Hiring Miller came after a week of uncertainty and erroneous leaks that linked other big-name coaches to the Arizona job.

Aside from discussions with USC’s Tim Floyd, Livengood denied other reports that involved any other coaches in his search.

Miller became one of Livengood’s initial coaches “”many, many months back,”” he said. And although Miller initially seemed uninterested in a new scenario because of his situation at Xavier, Livengood did not immediately pursue the 40-year-old coach.

Combined with the Musketeers’ NCAA Tournament run into the Sweet 16, availability to contact Miller became difficult and unlikely, according to Livengood.

“”As much as we liked about him, early on he basically told us that he was unmovable,”” Livengood said. “”He was at a great university, he worked for a great gentleman in Mike Babinski, who was an incredible A.D., a close friend and a class act.

“”What we did was we circled back last week,”” he added. “”Through the proper procedures … just to try to find out if it could be done, if we could attract this young family into Tucson, Arizona and to head up Arizona Basketball, and I’m so glad we did.””

As early as last Thursday, Miller became a contender on Livengood’s wish list, both Miller and big-time UA athletics booster Jim Click confirmed.

On Sunday, his pursuit became public after reports that Livengood and Miller met in New Mexico to discuss the UA coaching vacancy.

“”This process not only seemed like it took forever, it did,”” Livengood said.

Added ex-Wildcat and current Phoenix Suns General Manager Steve Kerr: “”The other stuff, all the nonsense about how long the process took. I think Pete Carroll was USC’s third choice. I’m sure all the SC fans are really still bothered by that. Who cares?””

After meeting with Miller in New Mexico, Livengood headed back to Tucson while Miller returned to Cincinnati on a UA booster’s private plane. That evening, multiple reports initially stated Miller had turned down the offer.

Miller said the difficulty leaving the program he built at Xavier and how many people were affected by his decision contributed to his mixed signals.

Miller, who became visually emotional at his farewell press conference in Cincinnati on Monday, noted that the personal aspect of coaching – like strong player and administrative relationships – made it difficult to leave.

But Arizona’s tradition and name brand negated Miller’s original lack-of-desire to leave Xavier.

“”You’re really asked to make a decision in a two-day period of time or three-day period of time,”” Miller said. “”I don’t know if there’s any decision that has to be made that affects that many people that has to be made that quickly. I don’t know if I said no. I don’t know if I completely said yes.””

Winning not the only attraction

A young, up-and-coming coach reaches the national radar with quality wins and Tournament success – usually at a mid-major-caliber school.

Miller led Xavier to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including an Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in the past two seasons.

But what really attracted Livengood isn’t on Miller’s résumé.

“”One of the things that we liked about Sean, not just the fact of what he had accomplished at Xavier and the things he had accomplished in his coaching along the way,”” Livengood said, “”but all of the things about how he treated young men. What kind of person he was. What kind of friend he was.

“”Sean Miller exhibits everything you would want in a person you would want to lead a program of this caliber,”” Livengood added. “”He has great integrity, tremendous class, he cares about his student-athletes. He cares about them academically, socially and athletically.””

Miller’s philosophies reflect Livengood’s idea, believing that nothing is more important than filling a roster with quality players.

Current Wildcats like Brendon Lavender and Garland Judkins watched the press conference with departing seniors Fendi Onobun and David Bagga. NBA-bound Wildcats Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill also watched from the floor.

Miller held a team meeting at 2 p.m. yesterday, in what he previewed as his most important meeting of the day.

“”Number one priority for me is the players,”” Miller said. “”Coming from a place where I’ve coached players where they have had great continuity recently, I’m looking forward to providing some of that continuity for those guys.””

Realizing expectations

Coming from a professional sports-oriented town like Cincinnati that hosts an MLB and NFL team, Miller suddenly finds himself the main sporting attraction in Tucson.

Xavier wasn’t even the biggest college in town as the city also hosted the University of Cincinnati from the Big East Conference.

Despite not fully embracing the spotlight, Xavier competed in arguably the highest college basketball competition in a 200-mile radius with schools like Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio State and Cincinnati.

“”I’ll also tell you that college basketball where I came from is revered,”” Miller said. “”The scrutiny there was pretty thick as well. I’ll also tell you that expectations at Xavier were very high.

“”We came this year from a Sweet 16 and arguably one shot away from … back-to-back Elite Eight,”” he added. “”I believe the team that they have there next year has a chance to do that and even more. The bar from where I came from is high and I believe the bar here is even higher and that’s the only reason I left was to take on that challenge.””