As he was making the 5 ½-hour drive along Interstate 70 Wednesday morning from his home in Western Pennsylvania to Indianapolis for the Dayton Flyers’ NCAA Tournament opener against Wichita State on Friday night, John Miller entertained himself with some gossip of the game.
John’s son Archie is the UD coach and, at 38, one of the most trumpeted young coaches in college basketball.
Four days ago Kentucky coach John Calipari, also from Western Pa., sang the praises of the UD coach in an interview posted on the UK website.
“Archie Miller, if I were an AD hiring a basketball coach, that’s who I’d hire,” Calipari said. “I’ve known him since he was in diapers. He has an edge to him. He’s not afraid.”
RELATED: John Calipari praises Archie Miller
With that kind of endorsement, no wonder Archie is fodder for the sports-talk yakkers.
“I’ve been listening to some of those radio shows on the ride over,” John chuckled into his phone. “They’re talking about Missouri (which fired Kim Anderson a couple of weeks ago) and how it’s a really good job.
“They were debating that (Indiana’s) Tom Crean might jump over or the guy from Florida Gulf Coast and I was anxious to see if they listed Arch.”
Wednesday evening it was announced Missouri hired Cal’s Cuonzo Martin. But that just means the Archie Miller speculation will move on to the Indiana job should Crean be jettisoned. The same debate swirled last month when N.C. State — Archie’s alma mater — announced Mark Gottfried would be gone at season’s end.
“I think Arch has pretty much put the hammer down on his name,” John said. “Most people sort of get the idea after the last two years that he likes it where he’s at. And there’s nothing wrong with being on the top of your league and being able to win the whole thing.”
He said jumping to a school that offers a bigger name or paycheck isn’t smart if you can’t be a contender there and “in three or four years you’re hunting for a job again.”
Although John didn’t say it, I think Archie will leave UD only when he’s offered one of the best jobs in the game. One like his 48-year-old brother Sean has at Arizona, which is 30-4 and the No. 2 seed in the West Regional.
John may have been driving along a monotonous strip of highway through the flat heartlands Wednesday, but his boys are riding high in the college basketball world.
Three years ago Archie and Sean became the first brothers to coach different teams into the Sweet 16 of the same NCAA Tournament.
Earlier this month, both were named the coach of the year in their respective conferences, Archie in the Atlantic 10 and Sean in the Pac-12, and that too was a college basketball first.
Talk about Miller Time: Each has led his team to four straight NCAA Tournaments. Archie brought the Flyers to the Elite Eight in 2014 and Sean — in his 13 years as coach at Arizona and before that Xavier — has 10 NCAA Tournament appearances and four trips to the Elite Eight.
Odds were long
A big reason for their success goes back to their dad, who was a high school hall-of-fame coach back in Pennsylvania. In 35 years, most of them at Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, he won 657 games and four state titles.
During that span two of his greatest stars were his own sons. He developed them using the blue-collar, nose-to-the-grindstone mantra that had echoed through the steel mills and sports teams of the region for generations.
John said when it came to basketball, they had get an edge with their work ethic because they sure didn’t have it with their height. He’s 5-foot-8. Archie is 5-9 and Sean didn’t hit 6 feet until his senior year of high school.
“If you look at the odds, they were stacked against us because we weren’t big,” John said. “But we never gave it a second thought. We just tried to get better each day. And by the time the boys got to high school you just hoped they were recruited.”
As a teenager, Sean once shot 100 free throws a day for close to 1,400 consecutive days. The couple of holidays he missed he made up for with 200 shots the next day.
John built a gym in the basement. It came with a rim and backboard and some 40 pages of drills, addressing everything from passing the ball to jumping rope.
Sean became a child prodigy who performed basketball tricks around the country and once signed an autograph for John Wooden. He wowed Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show” and even got a cameo in the 1979 movie “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.”
Eventually he traded the sideshow status for center stage and played for Pitt.
Archie was smaller, younger, less celebrated, and that stoked him. He developed a chip on his shoulder and used it first to become the starting point guard at N.C. State and then as a budding coach.
John said he’s seen Archie develop as a coach in his six seasons at UD:
“I think he’s gotten pretty good on the sidelines. He doesn’t seem to lose it now. His disposition, the way he grew up, he was always a fiery-style guy. He had that Danny Hurley mentality. But now he controls himself pretty well.”
John said his two boys have a deeper bond between them than ever: “They talk a lot. When one’s down, the other can lift him and vice versa.”
John said he still offers advice to them now and then, but as he thought about that he started to laugh:
“At least they give me that courtesy of listening, but it might be like, ‘Oh yeah, got that dad,’ and it goes in one ear and right out the other.”
Every basketball season John and his wife Barb have to make some decisions. Which team are they going to watch when?
Dayton is closer for them, but Arizona has warm weather in the winter and three grandchildren, including two boys playing high school basketball.
John said they caught a long Wildcats homestand this year and got to see the grandkids play, too.
“But we’ve stuck with Dayton a lot through this year,” he said.
And so they’ll be in Indianapolis for Friday’s game and watch the TV broadcast tonight as Sean’s team opens with North Dakota in Salt Lake City.
Again John didn’t say it, but the plan may be to see Dayton early in the tournament and then Arizona, which has an easier path, later.
The 24-7 Flyers, a No. 7 seed, have a tough draw with No. 10 Wichita State, which is 30-4 and under seeded. The winner of that game likely gets Kentucky, which opens against Northern Kentucky.
What’s especially concerning is the Flyers’ end-of-season stumble, losing to George Washington in the regular season finale and Davidson in their A-10 tournament opener.
“To take two on the chin like that, somehow they’ve got to get back up off the deck,” John said. “If not, it’s going to be over quickly. If they don’t bring their A game, they’re going to be in trouble.”
He said “with Dayton the margin of error in not very big. … With Arizona, their margin is a bit bigger. They usually can slip through until they get to more difficult games deeper in the tournament.
“But the last few years Dayton’s back has been to the wall and they’ve been able to withstand it. I hope we see that again.”
That’s why he was making the drive to Indy on Wednesday and why he was listening to radio folks talk about his son.