By Matt Norlander
A rebranded empire is emerging in Arizona, and the coach behind the impressive reconstruction has an opportunity to become a giant within the game. There are other programs in the West with deeper traditions (UCLA) and more consistent success in the past 15 years (Gonzaga), but none of them have a brighter future than Arizona. Currently off to their best start in school history, the 18-0 Wildcats -- ranked No. 1 for seven weeks -- have bustled their way back to the top of the sport behind coach Sean Miller.
Miller has accomplished this through force of personality, a philosophical regimen embedded within him as a child, relentlessness in recruiting and an investment of compassion in his players that's often not seen publicly. "I've said this before, I'll say it again and again: I don't ever want to work with another basketball coach," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. "I have a tremendous amount of comfort in the job he's doing, leading our program."
"There's an intensity about him," Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said. "He's not satisfied, and I don't think any of our players are satisfied. We never even bring up that we're undefeated and the No. 1 team in the country. He brings it every day in practice, and that's contagious with us."
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Miller, 45, now in his fifth season leading the Wildcats, is considered by many in the business the best coach yet to reach a Final Four. That label is ready to be ripped off this season, thanks to a couple of future NBA players and the most complete team he's ever had in Tucson. Arizona has made four prior trips to the Final Four (1988, 1994, 1997, 2001). The NCAA tournament by its very nature is fickle, an unforgiving statistical monster. The odds are against you every time, no matter how great your team may be, yet it's not unrealistic to suggest that Miller can double Arizona's achievements over his tenure there. He's that good, and the program's reputation is getting better and better by the month.
"Laser beams coming out of his eyes," Miller's brother Archie, coach at Dayton, says of Sean's determination to win a national championship. The two talk once or twice a week by phone. Sean's the mentor, the older brother. It's not a sibling rivalry, and it never has been, largely because 10 years separates the two. Archie was on his brother's Wildcats staff for the first two seasons, from 2009-2011. He saw what awaited them upon dropping the moving boxes on the floor: facilities that were laughably rugged, outdated and an embarrassment to the Arizona name.
For a coach to achieve success takes ability, personality, some luck. For coaches to maintain success, they need to recruit well consistently, and in order to recruit well consistently, economic support from their university is imperative. Upon taking the job, Miller was promised the school's basketball facilities would be upgraded. Two years into his tenure at Arizona, the process was still slow-moving. "I'm not sure anyone really understood what we inherited," Archie Miller said. "The name was always so good. I was coming from Ohio State, and those guys were coming from Xavier. Those programs were so far ahead of Arizona in terms of facilities. They all had the look and feel of top-15, top-10, top-five programs. Weight rooms, everything, all of it needed a complete overhaul [at Arizona]."
It's why, for two days back in 2011, on the heels of an Elite Eight appearance, Sean Miller strongly considered leaving Arizona to go to Maryland. Now, Arizona is No. 1 in the country and easily atop the Pac-12. Meanwhile, Maryland is making a move to the Big Ten for football reasons, and its hoops program remains in limbo amid all this, on pace to miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season. One wonders where each of these programs would be now, had Miller opted to take that Terps job almost three years ago.
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It helps not to be the guy that replaces The Guy, of course. The transition in Tucson didn't go from legendary Lute Olson to Miller. There was an awkward segue to interim Kevin O'Neill, whose lone, 19-15 season was later revoked by the NCAA due to recruiting violations. Russ Pennell was named interim coach after O'Neill was forced out, but the program was slipping and in need of an invigorating hire. How often does a four- or five-star program find itself with two consecutive interim hires? It just doesn't happen. Arizona was stumbling and had to find the right guy.
At the time, Miller was thriving at Xavier, taking the program to four straight NCAA tournaments, including an Elite Eight and Sweet 16 showing. You don't do that and not get athletic directors from around the country cold-calling you. Miller was approached for many jobs, and he turned a number of them down. It had to be the right fit. He initially turned down Arizona, too. He told his Xavier staff as much, the Sunday night before the 2009 Final Four. But the next day, Miller sat in the basement of his Cincinnati-area home and told each of his assistants that they had jobs at Arizona, if they wanted them.
Chris Mack was an assistant on that staff, and he was promoted to head coach at Xavier soon thereafter. Mack said the threads of Miller's coaching instincts and personality have remained constant from when he first started at Xavier. "It was evident from the first day I worked for him," Mack said. "Fiercely competitive, extremely organized."
It's easy to see Miller work his way at Arizona now and say, "This makes sense. This really fits." But many had doubts early in his tenure, even in spite of his achievements with the Musketeers. He doubted himself, too. "I was scared," Miller recently told the Arizona Republic. How could he not be? "Any time you're on a coaching staff that has the possibility of uprooting your family, going to a different place you've never lived or worked, there's some anxious moments," Mack said.
The coup was getting Derrick Williams, one of three players to decommit from USC after Tim Floyd resigned. The new 'Zona staff was selling blind faith to Williams, along with MoMo Jones and Solomon Hill, who is now in the NBA. Williams was supposed to endure a redshirt year, too, but he didn't, and he exploded on the national scene in his sophomore year. That 2010-11 year laid the groundwork for Arizona's sucess in 2014. The team beat Duke in the Sweet 16, then came within one shot of preventing eventual champion UConn from reaching the Final Four. Williams was the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft.
Since then, Miller's become a top-five recruiter in the sport, effectively pulling kids both locally and nationally. The man considered the king of college hoops recruiting, John Calipari? Miller's beaten him out more often than not, when it comes to five-star players. So if Calipari's the best, then what does that make Miller? What's more remarkable is that Miller and his staff weren't well connected on the West Coast at first. For him to land in Tucson and turn into a nationally feared recruiter in just four years is a rare feat.
Miller sells himself and his fledgling realm in Tucson as "A Player's Program." It's a synonym for the "Sean Miller Way," a philosophy that's catching on. Next season, he'll bring in five-star Stanley Johnson. Other recent recruiting home runs include Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon, all of whom are starting this season. Nick Johnson was Miller's first highly sought-after recruit at Arizona. Johnson's now a junior, in the conversation to be a First or Second Team All-American, and the go-to shooter in big spots for the Wildcats.
"Sean doesn't try to create false perception of who he is," Byrne said. "In today's major college basketball world, he is as complete a package as you could want. He genuinely cares about his players' academics. I think every senior he's ever had play for him has graduated." Miller uses geography to his advantage as well. "That's been very unique to watch him, to see him lay the bricks," Archie said. "I think Sean's willing to stay there. He's absolutely hell-bent at Arizona to win a national championship."
Recruiting success only goes so far, and it usually stays within the college basketball community. To gain respect and really grab people, you've got to win big consistently and keep going, with few slips along the chase. Miller's now doing that, and in getting to this point this season without a loss, it's become apparent just how good he is. "He just is a great communicator and teacher," Byrne said. "His practices are detailed, meticulous. When he does an interview, he never wastes a word."
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Miller's desire, a Tasmanian devil-like hunger, was implanted in his brain as a child, the oldest son of John Miller. His father won four state titles and more than 600 games while coaching at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pa. Miller was a point guard himself, and this year, he has his best match yet for his vision at the position. McConnell is a Pittsburgh kid and also the son of a coach. In fact, McConnell's father and John Miller faced each other many times over the years. That helped to sell McConnell when he opted to leave Duquesne.
"Being from the same place, it's kind of like you have a connection with him, both being coaches' sons, and you see the game differently," McConnell said. "There's a mindset about him that never changes. And he's a player's coach, he's here for us. There are coaches in college basketball that won't build relationships with their players, and Coach Miller is the complete opposite. That's why we love playing for him. If he's underappreciated as a player's coach, he shouldn't be."
Miller owns a 114-43 record (.726 win percentage) at Arizona. A conservative estimate for his team's win total by year's end is 33, which would give Miller an average of 26 wins per year in the desert. Forbes called him the biggest bargain in college basketball coaching, given his $2.3 million salary and the addition of nearly $6 million in annual profits for the school since he started in 2009. And he's doing it at a school with an athletic budget of $65 million, according to Byrne. That's not second-class in college athletics, but it's not nearly in the same range as Texas, Ohio State or even North Carolina.
That streak Lute Olson started in the mid-'80s, all those consecutive tournaments? It ended, 25 years in a row of Arizona in the NCAA tournament, in Miller's first year. What speaks to Miller's impact is this: He packs the building every night. He's not yet accomplished a fifth of what Olson did, yet the outlook in Tucson is as optimistic now as it ever was under Lute. This isn't to say that Arizona's back, but rather that Arizona will not go away under Miller. College basketball has a new King of the West.
Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is obsessed equally with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.