Commentary

Musketeers determined to stop coaching carousel with Miller

Originally Published: March 26, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- Everyone knows the story by now, how Drew Lavender and Xavier all but spit at the term mid-major, denying a weekly award because the school thought its basketball success and tradition was being slighted by the tag.

The Musketeers pooh-poohed the very notion of basketball haves and have-nots, complaining that comparing hoops programs using football conference affiliations was nothing shy of silly. Xavier argued that its national ranking (as high as 11th this season) and tradition (it made the NCAA tournament seven out of the past eight years) proved it was a player on the national stage, not just a dip-your-toe-in-the-water visitor.

[+] EnlargeSean Miller
Icon SMISean Miller is convinced -- for now -- that Xavier is his long-term home.

All relevant, salient points but perhaps there is a simpler way to shake the mid-major tag once and for all:

Keep a coach.

Xavier has become a coach's proving ground and then the plucking grounds for big schools to find their next leaders. Skip Prosser parlayed five consecutive 20-win seasons into a job at Wake Forest, and Thad Matta turned a three-year sojourn in Cincinnati into a spot at Ohio State.

Now it's Miller time. Sean Miller is right at that critical intersection, four years into his time at Xavier, the program firmly on the map and turning heads.

If Xavier ever wants to be viewed as something more than just a stepping stone to the next big thing, it needs to get Miller through the intersection and safely to the other side.

"I think that is the next step, that we continue our success and people say, 'Maybe it isn't a given that a coach will want to go elsewhere,'" athletic director Mike Bobinski said. "We have to continue to build our success so that people realize this is a pretty good place and that a coach has everything he needs at Xavier, that he's well-compensated and going someplace else isn't necessary."

So the looming question, as the No. 3 seed Musketeers (29-6) prepare for a Sweet 16 date with No. 7 West Virginia (26-10) in the West Regional semifinals Thursday night, is whether Miller is that guy? Will he break the mold and say no as the whispers already grow that he's on the short list at LSU and a hot name for the open spot at Indiana.

"People mentioning his name don't have a bleeping idea," Bobinski said. "He's on this list at LSU. Oh really? Is there a list? Can I see it? They say his name with teams that I know wouldn't even cross his lips."

Miller says he's not going anywhere, that the nine-year contract extension he signed a season ago is more than lip service and that he has every intention of not only honoring his contract but establishing a cement-lined foothold in Xavier.

"The grass isn't always greener," he said. "I think commitment and continuity is very important. I know what people say it but I ignore it. That's very easy to do because I am committed to my players and to Xavier."

You can unearth that same transcript on virtually every coach right before he heads to a different address.

Making Miller stick to his words is nothing shy of vital for Xavier. They are on the precipice of something special, of becoming the exception to the nonfootball playing schools. Football money was supposed to kill the private schools that didn't take from the gridiron pot. Instead Georgetown went to the Final Four last year and Villanova plays Friday in its third Sweet 16.

Both, of course, have the backing of the mighty Big East. Xavier is the exception to the exception, a program making its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance without football money and BCS affiliation.

Bobinski laughed giddily about his team's future -- "I'm talking about 2009; we're going to be loaded in 2009" -- but knows well how a future outlook can change with one line in transactions.

"We're very fortunate that we've been able to continue on our trajectory in the face of coaching changes," he said. "I hope we don't have to see if we can continue it after this."

He's not alone. The Xavier locker room is filled with bravado, with players making no pretense about their goals. They believe they are close to being Gonzaga and can become Memphis.

It may sound far-fetched for a Jesuit school out of the Atlantic 10, but in his four years, Miller has made believers out of the less than faithful. Like Memphis in Conference USA, the Musketeers have become the pace dog in the Atlantic 10, taking over the role worn by Temple in the 1980s and UMass in the 1990s.

Xavier won the past two regular-season titles and stormed to take the conference tourney crown in 2006.

"We have the X on the front of our jerseys and the back," senior Stanley Burrell said. "It used to be, everyone had to catch up to George Washington. Now everybody has to catch up to us. That's what Coach Miller told us he wanted and told us we could do. And now look at us."

But dig underneath the chip about being a mid-major and the well-toned arrogance, and you'll find kids who know they are only fulfilling the dreams of one man. And if he's gone, things could change.

[+] EnlargeThad Matta
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThad Matta stayed three seasons at Xavier before moving up to Columbus and giving way to Sean Miller.

Is Memphis still Memphis if John Calipari leaves? Is Gonzaga the same without Mark Few? No one is preoccupied with Miller's status. He doesn't even talk about it with his players, but the players aren't ostriches or hermits. They hear the rumors and innuendo and are savvy enough to recognize the business of basketball.

"We love the guy to death. We want him to stay here," said freshman Dante Jackson, who chose Xavier because of Miller. "His name comes up, it's only a credit to the job he's done here. It's very deserving, but we'd be devastated if he left."

Bobinski says Miller is different than his predecessors because Xavier is different.

Bobinski arrived at Xavier in 1998, taking the athletic director's gig in part because he wanted to work alongside Prosser. Three years later, Prosser was gone and Bobinski plucked Matta from Butler.

Matta didn't even last one recruiting cycle.

Bobinski said he wasn't surprised that either left, that at the time Xavier wasn't in a position to attract them for long-term tenures. Prosser's tenure was split between NCAA appearances and NIT berths, program stability ebbing and flowing as it tried and failed to secure its spot in the Atlantic 10.

Matta made three NCAA appearances in as many years, including the Elite Eight run many viewed as catching lightning in a bottle.

Miller inherited the tradition of both. He didn't have to resurrect or rebuild but merely maintain, and Bobinski believes that the predecessors who bolted early left a foundation that makes staying more attractive for Miller.

"I think he's more committed to what can happen at Xavier," Bobinski said. "He has a higher level of belief, that there's no reason Xavier can't be playing on the final weekend of the year. I'm not sure the other guys had that. I'm not sure the school had that yet."

The contract extension symbolized the change, a long-term deal that Bobinski said won't be the last. The school, he said, will continue to be "responsive" to Miller's success and "show our appreciation."

The guy in the middle of this tempest, the 39-year-old wearing the tag as the latest "hot, young coach" (taking the mantle passed from Bruce Weber to Jay Wright to Jeff Capel to Anthony Grant), shrugs it all off.

"I look forward to being that guy who can stay at a place like Xavier and take pride in not having a good season or a good run but can continue to develop the program into the future, year in and year out," Miller said. "That right now is more my focus than anything."

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

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