Commentary

UA looks to Miller for return to stability

Originally Published: May 1, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

For three years, the University of Arizona basketball program has been wobbling toward the brink of capsizing. From the tap-dance exit of Lute Olson to the bizarre bequeathing and then ousting of coach-in-waiting Kevin O'Neill to the temporary custody of Russ Pennell, Arizona has been listing on its side, a great luxury liner waiting for someone to set it right.

[+] EnlargeSean Miller
Chris Morrison/US PresswireArizona AD Jim Livengood, left, has been impressed by the "calmness" that new head coach Sean Miller has exhibited since becoming the Wildcats new head coach.
On April 6, Sean Miller was given the seemingly impossible job of manning the lifeboats.

After his first three weeks on the job, you'd expect to find Miller like some sort of overcaffeinated madman, exhausted and deranged from trying to plug every leaky hole at once.

Instead, casually talking on the other end of the phone is a man who sounds almost relaxed and clearly in control.

It is the perfect demeanor for a program desperately in need of a steadying hand.

"He has a great sense of balance in terms of what he has to do," UA athletic director Jim Livengood said. "He's very calm about things. He doesn't say, 'Oh my gosh, I have to do 20 dozen things and I only have time for two dozen.' That calmness, the fact that he doesn't get overexcited, is incredibly impressive. It's like the storm has passed and this captain, Sean Miller, is going to navigate us through the rough waters."

It won't be all smooth sailing. Arizona still doesn't know what will come of an NCAA investigation into potential recruiting violations involving an on-campus tournament and still doesn't know whether Nic Wise will return to campus for his senior year or bolt for the NBA.

But for the first time in a long time, Arizona is actually moving forward.

Miller's contract is for five years, a veritable lifetime for the Wildcats, who have endured a revolving door of leaders since 2007.

"These kids have been through a lot," Miller said. "I know they were chomping at the bit to find out who their coach was going to be, and I'm happy to be able to provide some sort of stability for them."

More than that, though, Miller's job is providing stability for the whole program. He has done the requisite alumni appearances and glad-handing, assuring and appealing to the masses that Arizona would rise literally from the desert of its recent run of chaos.

Program consistency, however, can't be found on the rubber chicken circuit, so while Miller would love to spend more time pleasing his fans and even working with his returning players, the bulk of his early hours have been spent on the road as he searches for the next crop of players to wear Arizona uniforms.

But what's unusual about Miller's take on the recruiting-under-the-gun scenario that all new coaches currently find themselves in is that the man with the most rebuilding to do, west of Memphis' Josh Pastner, isn't gobbling up names like a seventh-grade boy at his first dance.

"I made a decision before I took this job to stick to the blueprint," Miller said. "There's so much temptation with a new job to prove your worth and your value by making a splash and signing five or six guys in three weeks. I didn't want to do that. This is an incredible program, and not everybody should be able to play here. I don't want to take care of next year. I want to take care of the next four and five years."

It's like the storm has passed and this captain, Sean Miller, is going to navigate us through the rough waters.

--Jim Livengood

Admittedly, selectivity is tougher when the number of prospects has dwindled. Miller is extremely late in the game, and although he's found a new world open to him with a program like Arizona, which has more national prominence than Xavier, he's also found more doors already closed. There are only a handful of players available from the Class of 2009, and a quick glance at the list from 2010 shows that 27 of the top 50 have already made verbal commitments.

Still, it is telling that Miller has found a way to be patient in a situation in which time is of the essence.

He has signed just two players so far, albeit very good ones -- ESPNU 100 prospects Solomon Hill and Kyryl Natyazhko. Los Angeles native Hill originally gave a verbal commitment to Arizona but changed course to USC amid the coaching uncertainty, and Natyazhko was headed to Xavier with Miller until the coach went west.

He's in the mix with New York forward Kevin Parrom, rated the 86th-best player in the class of 2009, and has reinstated Garland Judkins, who had been suspended from the team by Pennell.

Two other would-be recruits, Jarrid Famous and Lamont Jones, opted for South Florida and USC, respectively.

"Solomon always wanted to go to Arizona but with the coaching situation it was hard," said Hill's father, Solomon Crawford. "We didn't know who it was going to be, what the playing style would be. I didn't want my son in a situation where they hired someone and he didn't fit. Once they hired coach Miller, it was an easy decision. He's a stand-up guy, honest, no B.S. A lot of coaches act like that way, but with him, you get a real good vibe. He's real."

That was the message Livengood received from virtually everyone he contacted about Miller -- that he was genuine. Livengood contacted friends in the Atlantic 10 who knew Miller as a coach and friends in the Big East who knew him as an assistant and player at Pittsburgh. Everyone offered virtually the same opinion -- that this was a man with a steady barometer, one whose feathers were rarely ruffled and who was, for a fairly young man of just 40, the picture of stability.

It was music to Livengood's ears.

Lute Olson, Sean Miller
Chris Coduto/Icon SMIArizona hopes that in Miller, right, the Wildcats have found a long-term replacement to Lute Olson.
For 25 years, Olson was a constant in Tucson, a white-haired tower of consistency for the Wildcats. Then in November 2007, he took a leave of absence for personal reasons and O'Neill took the reins for one tumultuous season. After Arizona lost in the NCAA tournament, a defiant O'Neill stood in the hallway and explained why he never spoke to his assistant coaches while in the locker room. Meanwhile, players including Chase Budinger openly questioned whether they would return if O'Neill remained on staff.

That never became an issue. In April 2008 Olson announced his return, simultaneously adding the zinger that O'Neill, once appointed the heir apparent, would no longer be on staff.

Six months later, the program was reeling once again when Olson abruptly announced his retirement just days after the official start of practice. On Oct. 24, Pennell, who a year earlier had been the Arizona State radio analyst, was named interim head coach.

Despite the chaos, the Wildcats managed to extend their national-best NCAA tournament streak to 25 consecutive years, bowing out to Louisville in the Sweet 16.

Then, while other schools fired and hired coaches in a matter of days, the program that had been waiting the longest to solidify things didn't make a decision until the day of the national championship game.

Recruits bailed, and fans wondered whether the desert's hoops oasis was drying up.

Livengood said it was quite the opposite. He had targeted Miller early, but because Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski served on the NCAA tournament selection committee, he said he wanted to wait until Bobinski had the time to speak with him directly.

Miller initially rejected the job and then, after returning to Cincinnati and sleeping on it, changed his mind and said yes.

"That was my fault, not his," Livengood said. "We probably asked him to make a decision too quickly. Because of different things going on, things kind of accelerated and in a matter of hours I was saying, 'We need to know.' All of the dynamics with the Internet, the rumors, it was like, 'What are we doing? Where is this coach?' So if there was a culprit in all of that, it was me. I don't think he said no so much as he said he needed more time."

Miller didn't make the decision lightly, recognizing that his choice would affect countless people -- his Xavier players, families, administrators, assistant coaches and fans.

In other words he was patient and deliberate, thoughtful and calm, the ideal combination of traits to steer right the Arizona ship.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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