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The many faces of Sean Miller and his ride to college basketball elite

Miller+throws+his+hands+up+in+celebration+after+beating+California+last+night+in+McKale+Center.

Miller throws his hands up in celebration after beating California last night in McKale Center.

Xavier University’s then-second-year head coach Sean Miller breathed a hard sigh of relief.

The Musketeers had just defeated Saint Joseph’s University 62-61 to take the 2006 Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament title, a win that ensured Xavier’s return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out the previous season.

Miller, only 37 years old at the time, entered that year’s Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament fighting for his job. Just a few days earlier, Xavier director of athletics Dawn Rogers was fielding questions about whether Miller would return the following season.

“He was one of the brightest coaches in all of college basketball and the beat guy is asking about job security,” said Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News columnist. “The athletic director said that she would evaluate after the season. I can’t even imagine the pressure that he was under.”

That pressure continued to build. It was seen by players, coaches, fans and media.

“I am telling you, I have never seen more relief from a coach following a victory then I did that night,” DeCourcy said. “That was one of the most important nights of his career, unfortunately. It’s why he is the coach that he is today.”

It’s one of a few defining moments that has shaped the career of a potential hall of fame coach.

Miller has racked up a 306-106 overall record. He has taken teams to eight NCAA Tournaments, six Sweet 16s and four Elite Eights. He is a coach who has seen seven players walk across the draft stage to shake the NBA commissioner’s hand.

Miller’s uprising move to Arizona

When you walk through McKale Center’s doors near the south ticket office, you see frames of Arizona men’s basketball coaches along the left wall. Fred Enke, with a win percentage of .611 and 10 conference titles, appears first. Next is Fred Snowden, the first black head coach at a major university.

As you walk along, a large frame of the smiling Lute Olson, Arizona’s beloved champion head ball coach, appears. Then the wall turns blank.

Soon, Miller’s photo and frame will sit right next to Olson, the coach whose footsteps he followed since his start at Arizona.

“He is the Thorion standard of excellence in the Conference of Champions,” said Bill Walton, ESPN television analyst. “It’s not a coincidence that … he just happens to be here. He has continued the legacy of a hall of fame coach literally overnight. And that’s not easy to do.”

In his time at Arizona, Miller has racked up a 186-59 record. He has brought Arizona to the brink of the Final Four three times. He has managed to rebuild a program that regularly decimates Pac-12 Conference opponents who treat a matchup with his team like they are playing in the Super Bowl.

“Sean Miller is in the group of elite coaches that are going to take the place of those greats,” said Jeff Goodman, ESPN college basketball insider. “It’s just a matter of time before he breaks through and gets to a Final Four. You have to remember what he took over and had to rebuild at Arizona. It was a disaster when he took over. He rebuilt it and has been able to sustain it.”

Miller’s path to one of the top-tier head coaching gigs in the game of college basketball wasn’t the prototypical route.

“While everybody else was playing Frisbee or Wiffle ball, he was dribbling the ball around the block,” said Doug Tammaro, Miller’s childhood friend. “His work ethic was always above everybody else’s.”

Miller attended Blackhawk High School, where his father coached. The school’s biggest rival was Ellwood City, where Tammaro played.

“It’s kind of overlooked how good of a high school player he was,” Tammaro said. “He was a guy that when he crossed half court, we double teamed him. We made him give up the ball.”

In his playing days at the University of Pittsburgh from 1987-1992, he averaged 10 points per game along with nearly six assists. Miller was known for his famous assist on the backboard-shattering “Send it in, Jerome,” dunk in 1988 and was the Big East Rookie of the Year in 1987.

Miller then served as an assistant coach under then-Xavier head coach Thad Matta, then-Miami University, Ohio head coach Herb Sendek and then-Pittsburgh head coach Ralph Willard, before taking over the Xavier head coach position after Matta left.

The person who gave Miller his start in coaching was none other than the person whom he would see as his biggest rival in the Pac-12 Conference: Sendek.

“I’m really proud of what he’s been able to do and the way he’s been able to do it,” Sendek said. “When you are competing, I never looked at it as me going against coach Miller. He was coaching his team and I was coaching my team. We were both trying to put our teams in the best position to win.”

Sendek and Miller had much in common before their coaching days. Both grew up in Pittsburgh and their fathers were both star basketball coaches.

“Sean Miller is the complete and total package,” Sendek said. “He is [a] great CEO of a basketball program, he’s a tremendous recruiter and an outstanding coach. If you want to break down the coaching further, he does a fantastic job of developing players as well as preparing his team and putting them in the best possible position to win.”

DeCourcy has known Miller for nearly 40 years. He saw Miller for the first time as an adolescent. At the age of 11 or 12 years old, Miller performed his ball handling and shooting exhibition at halftime at a high school all-star game and then made 12 to 15 long jump shots in a row.

“It was staggering to watch,” DeCourcy said. “He was just a little kid.”

That same little kid would showcase his basketball dribbling talents on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” at the age of 14.

Emotions on the sideline

For Miller, the 2015-2016 season has been a roller coaster ride and he has been known to always speak his mind to players, coaches and referees.

“I remember watching him in a game as a head coach for the first time, and I did not see that coming,” DeCourcy said. “When he got angry, I did not know he had that in him. I knew he was going to be a terrific coach. He was too smart and too determined and worked too hard. When I saw that, I was even more convinced that he would be extraordinary.”

Arizona fans will always remember the infamous words “he touched the ball,” the court storming tirade and the Kaleb Tarczewski fiasco. There’s little question that intensity is reflected in his coaching style.


This coaching style means Miller demands “competitive toughness” from his players both on and off the court.

“Sean’s core values, if you look at his time at Xavier and at Arizona, the first thing that comes up is that you are going to play tough,” DeCourcy said. “That’s not changing and that’s not negotiable. That is the core of who he is as a coach: competitive toughness. That’s reflected in sometimes him pushing hard like he did in Kaleb in the Oregon game. He’s not backing off just because it’s convenient for you.”

Much of Miller’s conservatism and privacy toward the media stems from his father’s practices.

“I think he is protective of what he will and won’t say,” DeCourcy said. “That idea comes from his father. Being careful about what you say and when. He has a point to make, he makes it [as] clearly as possible so there isn’t any room for interpretation.”

A Player’s Program

The phrase “a player’s program” means something different to each player that walks on to the floor of McKale Center.

In 2011, Miller’s mantra became that of Arizona men’s basketball to reflect the past, present and future.

Former walk-on forward Eric Conklin, who transferred after his freshman season, described Miller’s persona on the sidelines as the “best competitor in the gym.”

“He holds his players to such a high standard. You have to bring your A-game to every practice or else you get exposed and you get taken care of by coach Miller,” Conklin said. “You come in and you work your butt off until you can’t work harder. … He demands a lot of respect from you, but where he differs from other coaches is that he gives you that respect.”

Former Wildcat and Detroit Pistons small forward Stanley Johnson credits Miller and his time at Arizona for his success in the NBA today.

“Even though I was already a talented player, he challenged me to get better every day, despite my short time in Tucson,” Johnson said. “Team-wise, I had to learn how to play the right away, emphasizing the defense concept.”

That team attitude and toughness is what Miller is all about. Longtime Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen noticed it after Arizona’s two straight losses on the road against Utah and Colorado late in Pac-12 play this season.

“He was more upset than any of the fans were,” Hansen said. “He was more upset than any of the players. I think that, to me, is what’s most strong about the future. The standard is so high.”During Thursday’s matchup against No. 25 Cal, Miller turned to his stand-out senior Gabe York to hit the game-winning 3-pointer. Miller then turned to the crowd and threw his hands in the air to signify the victory.

“It’s just a great mind like coach Miller that can drop a play like that in 25 seconds,” York said.

The season has had its ups and downs, but Miller still challenges each player to consistently get better.

“He doesn’t have any empty boxes. You get to check them all,” Sendek said. “Other coaches may excel in one or a few of those areas. Rarely do you meet somebody that really excels in every aspect of our profession.”


Gia Trevisan, Ezra Amacher, Justin Spears and Kyle Hansen contributed to this article. Follow Matt Wall on Twitter.


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