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Strong suit

2:55 PM  Jun 10th, 2011
by Shannon Shelton Miller

Archie Miller has high expectations for himself, his players and Flyer basketball. Which is good, because the Flyer Faithful do, too.

Archie Miller’s flight was scheduled for 7:15 a.m.

At that hour, passengers tend to range from caffeine-fueled, suit-clad executives on a short hop to a regional business meeting to bleary-eyed leisure travelers not quite ready to face the morning. Then there was Miller, just a few days into his new job as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Dayton, on a recruiting trip.

So much had changed in Miller’s life during those few weeks that the flights he took then all seem to run together, so much that when he told this story a month later, he didn’t remember exactly where he was going.

But he remembered the woman who was alert enough to notice his UD windbreaker and ask him whether he was the new Flyers coach. Miller replied that yes, indeed he was.

She started clapping.

“Wow,” Miller said he thought to himself. “Is it like this all the time?”

For a few more months, at least, it will be. Miller’s effectiveness on the sidelines will ultimately determine how long these halcyon days continue through his tenure at Dayton, but his reception in his first few months here continually reminds him of the magnitude of the role he accepted in early April.

“It’s been overwhelming in terms of the support,” Miller said. “It’s obviously something you hear about — the University of Dayton, its basketball program, its community and great fan base, but I don’t think I even understood the amount of attention that our program gets or a coach in the community gets. I’m learning on the fly what a big deal this place is.

“The people know who you are and know what you’re supposed to be doing. All eyes are on us.”

Since the University hired Miller April 3 to replace Brian Gregory, who departed to take the head coaching position at Georgia Tech a week earlier, he has inherited the hopes and dreams of a fan base continually envisioning bigger and better outcomes for the program than what it’s experienced in recent years.

Right from the start, Miller has said all of the right things, peppering his introductory press conference with talk of competing for conference championships and winning a fair share of them. His words also provided a measure of satisfaction for a group frustrated by frequent National Invitation Tournament bids and twice-per-decade NCAA Tournament appearances — maybe this guy would be the coach who’d make the Flyers a regular presence on CBS in March.

Although Flyer fans have, by nature, been more expressive about their desires for the program, their expectations don’t differ much from those of the University administration.

“He’s got a plan,” said Athletics Director Tim Wabler. “He really understands the challenge here at Dayton and what it would take to come from where we are right now — a team that isn’t in the postseason every year — to moving it forward so we can be in the NCAA more often than not. He wanted to confront that challenge head on. That just jumped out at me. He believes it can be done.”

It’s Miller’s first job as a head coach, and at age 32, he is one of the youngest coaches in Division I men’s basketball. As a newcomer to the head coaching fraternity, he knows he’ll hear comparisons to leaders more than twice his age and will become accustomed to seeing his name accompanied by adjectives like “doe-eyed,” “youthful” and “baby-faced” as the 2011-12 season draws closer.

His previous employer insists, though, that “inexperienced” should not be one of the terms used to describe Archie Miller: “His experience can’t be quantified in how many years he’s coached and how old he is. He’s worked for so many great coaches and in so many good places. He has a unique perspective on the game and understands how to win.”

That endorsement came unprompted from one Sean Miller, the current Arizona Wildcats coach, the former Flyers foil as the head coach at Xavier and, yes, Archie’s older brother. Archie was an assistant coach with the Wildcats during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons and was part of the staff that coached the Wildcats to an Elite Eight appearance in the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

A look at Archie’s coaching résumé backs Sean’s recommendation. Archie’s coached in three “power” conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten and the Pac-10 — worked for four widely respected coaches and developed valuable recruiting connections at each institution.

But Archie Miller’s story begins long before Arizona or his previous stint at Ohio State with another former Xavier coach, Thad Matta. It pre-dates his lengthy tutelage as an assistant with his own college coach, Herb Sendek, and his days as a college basketball player.

It starts at a high school outside Pittsburgh, where one man made the Miller name synonymous with success.

‘Always sort of an ornery little guy’

There are families of doctors, families of attorneys and families of educators.

At the Miller home in Beaver Falls, Pa., basketball was the family business.

When John Miller retired in 2005 at age 62 after 35 years coaching boys basketball at Blackhawk High School, his résumé included a 657-280 career win-loss record, state championships in 1992, 1995, 1996 and 1999, and eight Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League titles in its classification. For 21 consecutive seasons, Blackhawk was a fixture in the state playoffs, and the program went 104-29 in postseason play.

John Miller and his wife, Barb, had four children, Sean, Dana, Ryan and Lisa. Of the 40-plus players Miller sent to college basketball programs through his work at Blackhawk or other coaching experiences, Sean, Ryan and Lisa have made him the most proud. Dana, the second-oldest of his four children, didn’t catch the basketball bug but was a skilled high school tennis player.

As for the third child, only Barb, Dana and Lisa use the name “Ryan” when referring to him. He’s “Archie” to the men in his family, his wife Morgan and everyone else he’s encountered in his basketball career.

It’s a nod to the crotchety nature of the Archie Bunker character in the 1970s television sitcom All in the Family, as John Miller said that Ryan was “always sort of an ornery little guy.” The nickname stuck, and that’s the reason why the Flyer Faithful will cheer for Archie, or “Arch,” despite his possession of a driver’s license that reads “Ryan Joseph Miller.”

That ornery little guy enjoyed being around his father and Sean, who’s 10 years older, when they went to the gym, and John took Archie along when he traveled to coach at clinics across the region. Archie carried the bag of basketballs and other equipment for his father, and as his reward for being such a good helper, he earned a front-row seat to watch the winning process in action.

Sean, at 6-foot-3, left Blackhawk High to become one of the most popular players in University of Pittsburgh history and from there began taking the steps that would help him launch a successful coaching career. Although also a point guard, Archie was smaller at 5-foot-9, a measurement that created more adversity as he attempted to follow a similar path.

It might have been a blessing in disguise.

“He was undersized, so when he began to play, he became sort of that tough-nosed player that battled for everything,” John Miller said. “He’s always had that bit of aggressiveness. I don’t think losing ever enters his mind.”

As Blackhawk High’s point guard, Archie led the Cougars to back-to-back state titles in 1995 and 1996, his sophomore and junior years. That’s two more state titles than Sean can claim.

College coaches were noticing. Herb Sendek, a Pittsburgh native who attended rival Penn Hills High School in the 1970s and early ’80s, was well acquainted with the Miller family through the high school and Amateur Athletic Union coaching circuits. He attempted to recruit Sean in the late 1980s when he was an assistant coach at Providence College in Rhode Island.

In 1994, Sendek snagged his first head coaching position, getting the call at age 30 to lead the Miami (Ohio) program. Sendek hired Sean Miller to his RedHawks staff, and two years later he moved south, taking over at North Carolina State.

Sendek hired Sean again as an assistant and recruited Archie to play for the Wolfpack. Sean was there for most of his brother’s college career, leaving after the 2001 season to become an assistant at Xavier.

For Archie, the connection with Sendek was the beginning of a relationship that would transcend its initial incarnation as coach-player and eventually become one of professional colleagues and even friendly rivals when Sendek landed at Arizona State and Archie became an assistant on Sean’s staff at Arizona.

“Basketball was coded in Archie’s DNA,” Sendek said. “He grew up with it day in and day out. I have great respect for him. He was a self-made Atlantic Coast Conference player who overcame a lot and did it through hard work. He was one of the best shooters I’ve ever had the chance to coach.”

Going coast to coast

Morgan Cruse, a track and field and cross-country athlete, arrived at N.C. State in 1999. Before she enrolled, she and her father Steve visited the school. Steve Cruse noticed Archie shooting in the gym and said hello.

Morgan and Archie were connected long before they met, although they didn’t know it at the time. John Miller played baseball at Pfeiffer College in Salisbury, N.C., for a man who also coached Steve Cruse’s American Legion baseball squad.

Steve Cruse told his daughter, “I think I met the guy you’re gonna date next year.”

Morgan brushed off the comment, but soon after her arrival on campus as a student, one of Archie’s teammates arranged a blind date between the two. She called her father and told him she was going on a date. With “Arch.”

“See, I told you so,” he said.

Father knew best. Morgan and Archie Miller will celebrate eight years of marriage Aug. 30.

As an athlete herself, Morgan understood the demands of Archie’s schedule. She was a supportive presence as Archie completed a productive collegiate career that ended with a 2002 NCAA Tournament berth. From 1998-2002, he had 218 career 3-pointers, third-best in Wolfpack history, and a career 42.8 percent 3-point average, ranking him sixth all-time. Archie is ranked second on the school’s all-time free-throw percentage list (84.6 percent) and holds the second-best 3-point field goal percentage for one season, making 59 of 102 (57.5 percent) of his attempts during the 2000-01 season.

Near the end of his college career, Archie began to consider his options for the future. His days as a basketball player would end at N.C. State, but Archie decided not to leave the game behind entirely.

He was going to join the family business.

“It just seemed like a natural progression to get into coaching,” Archie said. “It’s one of the things I like to do … one of the strengths I’ve always had was being able to communicate and teach the game. When you’re around a coach every day of your life, you learn to talk like him, think like him, you see the game like him.”

His position as a point guard also helped him make the transition.

“Being a perimeter player/point guard, you see the game like a coach,” he said. “You’re a coach on the floor. When I got into coaching, it was seamless in terms of what I knew was going on.”

He was a coaching intern under Sendek at N.C. State for the 2002-03 season and became director of basketball operations at Western Kentucky under Darrin Horn in 2003-04. Sendek brought Archie back to N.C. State the following season, hiring him as a full-time assistant coach. Morgan and Archie welcomed a daughter, Leah Grace, in 2004.

When Sendek left N.C. State at the end of the 2005-06 season, he moved west to become head coach at Arizona State. He again added Archie to his staff, and the young couple spent the 2006-07 season in Tempe, Ariz.

Archie returned to the Midwest the next season to work for Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who had been a Sendek assistant at Miami. Matta became Xavier’s head coach in 2001, hired Sean Miller as an assistant and shared an office with him. When Matta left for Columbus in 2004, Sean earned a promotion and snagged his first head coaching position.

Archie thought that coaching in Ohio would help expand his recruiting base and expose him to the style of play in a different conference under yet another coach considered to be a young, rising star. With Matta’s connection to Sendek and his brother Sean, Ohio State was an easy choice for Archie.
He made an impact with the Buckeyes immediately, Matta said.

“You just knew he had ‘it,’” Matta said. “I love the fact that when he came to Ohio State, he hit the ground running. It was like he had been here for three years. His ability to read people and communicate with them is one of his strengths. He didn’t need much direction from me.”

Archie and Morgan also saw Columbus as part of a longer-term plan. With a young family and closer proximity to family in Pittsburgh and North Carolina, the idea of settling in the Midwest for a few years was quite appealing.

“As we got married and started getting into the early years, I think we all understood that early on we were going to try to make some moves,” Morgan said. “I think that every place we’ve ever been, though, we felt like we’d be there for a while and ended up not being there for a while.”

Two seasons later, the coaching carousel began spinning again in the state of Arizona, this time at the University of Arizona. When it stopped in 2009, that school announced the hiring of Sean Miller as its new head coach.

It was a potentially risky move for Sean, considering that the Wildcats program had completed a tumultuous two-season stretch with two interim coaches, and fans in Tucson wanted a long-term leader who would return the program to its glory days under legendary coach Lute Olson, who led the team to four Final Fours and an NCAA Championship in 1997.

When it was time for Sean to assemble his staff, he picked up the phone and placed a call to Columbus.

‘He’s not a bad guy’

From 2004-09, Sean Miller was Enemy No. 1 in Dayton, continuing Xavier’s decades-long winning record over the Flyers in Cincinnati and sending the Flyer Faithful home in frustration from UD Arena twice during his five years as the Musketeers head coach.

Archie jokingly alluded to the family connection during his introductory press conference at Dayton, saying his brother and former boss “wasn’t a bad guy.”

And now, Sean Miller is a Dayton fan.

“I have the utmost respect for Dayton and its program,” Sean said. “I’m going to cheer as hard as I can for them.”

Even when the Flyers play Xavier.

Those tough nights at UD Arena in the mid-2000s left such an impression on Sean that he asked his brother for a favor when he got on
Dayton’s campus: Go see the pep band director who plays the saxophone for the national anthem, associate music professor Willie Morris III.

“(Sean) felt like it was the most awesome thing he’d ever seen,” Archie said.

If Sean had his way, Archie would have been working with him much earlier. He tried to get Archie on his staff at Xavier, but the school had a nepotism policy that prohibited such hires.

With no such issue at Arizona, Sean extended an offer to his brother in April 2009, and once again, Archie and Morgan were back in the desert.
“Personally and professionally, I felt like if I didn’t do it, I would regret it,” Archie said. “So I made the move, and it turned out for the best for everyone. It was a unique opportunity.”

Said Sean: “Arch didn’t have to come to Arizona. He was in a great place with Thad Matta and doing a great job recruiting. He came because he wanted to help me. I appreciate the fact he came out here in the first place.”

Sean and Archie were always close despite their 10-year age gap, but their relationship often resembled a mentor-student collaboration, especially when Sean worked as an assistant at N.C. State.

On the positive side, the age gap prevented the usual manifestations of sibling rivalry from sprouting and eventually led to the strong working relationship the two developed at Arizona.

“Ten years older is a lot older, especially in sports,” Archie said. “When I was coming up as a youngster, he was playing at Pitt as a basketball player. When he gets out of college and I’m coming up through junior high and high school, he was a college coach. To me, he’s always been my brother, but at the same time, he’s always been a mentor and a guy you want to take after.”

The Wildcats finished with a 16-15 record in the Millers’ first year. The team failed to make the NCAA Tournament that season, breaking a 25-year streak of NCAA appearances, the longest in Division I at that time. It was the proverbial rebuilding season, but one that laid the foundation for one of the biggest turnarounds for a college basketball program in 2010-11.

Arizona won the Pac-10 regular season title and sophomore Derrick Williams, now a projected top-5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, won the Pac-10 Player of the Year award. Shortly before the postseason, it was Williams who made a particularly prescient comment to the Associated Press about Archie’s coaching prowess.

“I think sometimes Archie tries to take over, but Coach (Sean) Miller has his own opinions,” Williams said. “Sometimes they headbutt each other, but they’re two great coaches and they always end up doing what’s best for the team.”

In the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Arizona earned a No. 5 seed. The Wildcats beat Memphis and Texas in the first two rounds to advance to the Sweet 16 and play reigning national champion Duke.

The next weekend was one of the more memorable experiences for the extended Miller clan. Arizona throttled top-seeded Duke in spectacular fashion, a win that Morgan Miller said she savored even more than usual as an N.C. State grad.

Arizona fans reveled in the 93-77 victory. Morgan told Leah Grace that they were going to Disneyland since Arizona was playing in the West Regional in Anaheim, Calif. Sean was the new hero in Tucson, and once again, Archie played a significant role in a program’s success.

The Wildcats came two points from making the Final Four, losing, 65-63, to eventual champion Connecticut in the Elite Eight. But it was a magical season nonetheless, as Arizona finished the year with a 30-8 record and the Millers looked forward to greater things to come.

“To be out there at the same time, inheriting something that was really bleak and, in a short 24 months, turning it into something that wasn’t so bleak anymore, it was really an awesome turnaround,” Archie said. “Sometimes the process is more gratifying than actually winning the games.”

Although Archie didn’t coach the Wildcats in the Final Four in Houston the next week, he still made the trip to Texas for what would be a life-changing experience.

Moving again

Morgan sensed that her family’s life would be changing after that weekend in Anaheim. Call it a coach’s wife’s intuition.

She had settled into life in Tucson, made new friends and found a school that she and Leah Grace equally adored. Arizona was again one of the “it” teams in college basketball, and Sean’s success ensured that his staff of assistants didn’t have to worry about job security in the near future.

But Morgan knew from experience that top assistants at those “it” programs were often the first ones a school looking for a young and hungry head coach sought out, and Archie fit the bill as well as any.

“As any college basketball wife would tell you, that’s when you feel in your gut that something’s going to happen,” she said.

It happened when they had gotten comfortable with Columbus and Sean called his brother to offer him a job in Arizona. It happened during their first stint in the Grand Canyon State, after Archie decided to leave Sendek and Arizona State behind to go to Ohio State.

In Dayton, Wabler said Archie was on the short list of coaches he’d compiled at the start of the season in case the Flyers found themselves in need of a new head coach by the end of the year — especially if Gregory parlayed the Flyers 2010 NIT championship into an NCAA Tournament berth.

Although that didn’t happen and the Flyers season ended with a first-round NIT exit, Georgia Tech came calling anyway for Gregory, and Wabler prepared to hire a new coach.

Days after Arizona’s victory over Duke and the near-miss against Connecticut, Archie was eating dinner with Wabler in Houston, talking about his plan for the Flyers. In order to keep the process as private as possible, the two met Wednesday, March 30, at a hotel far from the official coaches’ lodging in Houston. They met again Saturday, April 2, in Cincinnati to finalize the process.

Archie called his wife that night and told her to get to Dayton. Morgan and Leah Grace drove more than two hours to Phoenix to catch a flight, and on Sunday afternoon, they watched with pride at UD Arena as Wabler announced that Archie Miller was the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Dayton.

Ready to fly

Miller said he never envisioned the exact age at which he’d become a head coach, although the idea became more of a reality after his stints at Ohio State and Arizona.

“I think you start thinking about it a little more and feel you’re probably ready,” Miller said. “I was never the guy who worked at a place and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to be a head coach at 32.’ That was never my goal. My goal was to have an opportunity to get a head coaching position and, when I got it, I’d be ready. I didn’t know when it would come or where it would be, but I know this. I’m at a great place, and I couldn’t be more excited to be the head coach here and represent this place.”

If anything, the recent success of head coaches born during the Jimmy Carter administration might make an early 30-something a hot commodity. The 2011 Final Four featured two such examples — Butler’s Brad Stevens (1976) and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart (1977). The latter coach’s path went through Dayton, as Smart served as the Flyers’ director of basketball operations from 2001-03.

Neither bolted for Bowl Championship Series conference programs during the offseason, sending the message that conference affiliation matters little for a young coach looking to build a program and stick around to see it grow.

Miller plans to run an up-tempo offense, dryly noting that no coach worth his salt would ever boast that his team would be slow and plodding on the court.

“We’re going to play fast, play with a lot of movement on offense,” Miller said. “I want our guys to learn how to play. I want them to be taught how to play, I want them to develop and, as they get older, I want them to be able to branch and grow into their roles.”

Defensively, the Flyers will be a “man-to-man” program, as Miller has no intention of abandoning the blue-collar mentality embraced by the coaches with Western Pennsylvania roots that mentored him as a player and coach.

“We’re gonna be tough-minded,” Miller said. “To win championships at the highest level, which is what we’re trying to do, we have to be a team that’s based on defense.”

Off the court, Miller also spoke of maintaining the program’s high academic standards and strong graduation rate. UD has graduated every men’s basketball senior but one since 1979 and ranks in the NCAA’s Top 10 in Academic Progress.

“We are about the highest standards of excellence when we’re operating and representing the University of Dayton,” Miller said during his press conference. “Our degree is as prominent and powerful as any in the country. Our young men who come in here and achieve their degree will have a weapon for life. They’re not going to leave unprepared and unable to attack the real world when the ball stops bouncing.”

Miller’s work began immediately, and he spent his first month hiring a staff of assistants, visiting recruits that had committed under Gregory — and in some cases, had reopened those commitments to consider other schools — and working to bring new recruits into the fold.

The requisite rounds of media interviews have been ongoing, and in August, Miller will lead the current players on a pre-scheduled tour of Europe, giving him a chance to bond with his new charges in a unique atmosphere.

Morgan is handling the house hunting and school scouting for Leah Grace, who will enter first grade this fall. As adept as she is at the process, Morgan hopes this will be the time when she and her family get to stay in a community for much longer than a year or two.

Flyer fans and supporters certainly echo that sentiment.

Reaction in the rough-and-tumble online chat world has been generally positive, even though a few concerns have surfaced about Miller’s relative youth and lack of head coaching experience. John Miller, Archie’s father, said he’s surveyed the sports blogosphere and message-board land, and has seen a few references to his son’s possible “Napoleon complex.”

He smiles at the description. Knowing his son, the ornery little guy who was always cranky, always fighting and always showing his mettle, John Miller is confident those Flyers fans won’t be disappointed in the product his son puts on the court this winter.

“I think Arch is that type of guy,” John Miller said. “You don’t have a wet-noodle type of guy over there. He’s not gonna back off. He’s going to go for the jugular.”

Shannon Shelton Miller joined the staff of the University’s communications office in December. She was previously a sportswriter at the Detroit Free Press, where she covered Big Ten football and basketball, and at the Orlando Sentinel. She looks forward to her first UD men’s basketball game this season.

Archie Miller is only the sixth head coach in the last 64 years of Dayton men’s basketball. Here are the other five:

• Tom Blackburn, 1947-64, 352-141, 10 NITs (1962 NIT Champion), 1 NCAA

• Don Donoher, 1964-89, 437-275, 8 NCAAs, 7 NITs (1968 NIT Champion)

• Jim O’Brien, 1989-94, 61-87, 1 NCAA

• Oliver Purnell, 1994-2003,155-116, 2 NCAAs, 3 NITs

• Brian Gregory, 2003-11, 125-68, 2 NCAAs, 3 NITs (2010 NIT Champion)

From 1903, Dayton’s first basketball season, to 1947, the Flyers had 13 head coaches, including Harry Baujan from 1923-28. The team had no coach from 1903-09.

One Response to Strong suit

  1. Bill Brennan '60 says:

    Dear Ms. Miller, your article about Coach Miller brought back memories of UD basketball during the 50’s and 60’s. You captured the UD spirit of nurturing leadership. Best Wishes as you grow your career at UD. Some day I hope to read an article about the Dean of Arts and Sciences and his leadership philosophy. Also, the Photography Department offers promising material for you.

    Bill Brennan ’60

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