John Miller watched Friday night’s NCAA Tournament game between UCLA and Kentucky with a bit of bemusement.
“I sorta had to laugh at the media yesterday on TV,” he said. “It was Alford this and that. They had Steve Alford all plugged in to where he’s going next.”
It was being speculated that Alford – the UCLA coach who was an Indiana schoolboy hero and then the high-scoring guard who led the Indiana Hoosiers to a national title in 1987 – would be the next IU coach following the firing of Tom Crean eight days earlier.
“Meanwhile, I was sittin’ there smiling and thinking, ‘Guess what fellas? You guys don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Miller said. “We know who that next guy is gonna be.”
Now everyone does.
Saturday morning, word leaked out that IU had signed John’s son, Archie – for the past six seasons the successful coach of the Dayton Flyers – to a seven-year contract that sources say is worth $4 million annually.
Miller met with UD athletics director Neil Sullivan on Saturday morning to deliver the news, and then the pair met with the Flyers players in a hastily called meeting early in the afternoon.
SECOND THOUGHTS: AAC a good move for UD?
While many in the Dayton community were shocked by the news, John Miller said he was too at first.
Saturday afternoon he went through the sequence of events with me in a phone conversation from his son Sean’s home in Tucson, Ariz.
“I’m sitting here with Sean right now talking basketball,” he said.
TOM ARCHDEACON’S BEST ARCHIE MILLER COLUMNS
He said he had no idea the IU deal was in the works when Archie arrived in San Jose, Calif., from Dayton to watch Sean’s No. 2 Arizona team get upset by No. 11 seed Xavier, 73-71, in a Sweet 16 game at the SAP Center.
“I’d had two or three of my (UD) buddies text me out here and say ‘What do you think about Archie?’” John said. “I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. He ain’t going anywhere.’”
After taking his teams to the NCAA Tournament four years in a row – once to the Elite Eight – overcoming what could have become season-crushing setbacks twice and this year being named the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year, Miller, still just 38, was one of the hottest young coaching talents in the college game.
There had been talk he’d go to his alma mater, North Carolina State, after Mark Gottfried was fired a month ago.
“Yeah, everyone thought N.C. State, but I knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” John said. “He knows that place too well. You gotta have trust in the people above you that they’ll stand by you.”
MORE ON ARCHIE MILLER
Unbeknownst to John, before Archie got to San Jose, he flew into Atlanta, where he first met with Indiana representatives. He did so again in San Jose.
“When we lost to Xavier, we got back to the hotel and I was sort of in shock,” John said. “And all of a sudden Arch goes, ‘Guess what, Dad? I got a shot here (at the Indiana job). Whaddya think?’
“He listened to Sean and Cal – John Calipari is real close to us family-wise – and I spoke up a bit, too.
“I’ll tell you I was almost in tears, just like when my other guy left (Sean from Xavier to Arizona). Oh man I hated that. I loved Xavier. And now here it is eight years later and I’m in the same exact boat.
“I know in his heart Arch hates to get out of (Dayton), but that’s how it was with Sean leavin’ Xavier too. He turned Arizona down the first time, and I remember Calipari calling him up and saying, ‘Are you outta your mind? You gotta take that Arizona job!’”
John said he’d always told Archie: “Dayton’s a great place. Just keep working. You’re not taking any old job that comes down the line (he said he was offered six or seven). One day you’ll get a great situation and you’ll know.
“And that’s where we’re at now.”
A star burning bright
Archie Miller’s star couldn’t be burning much brighter than right now.
His teams have won 24 or more games four years in a row and twice did so against staggering odds.
Two years ago – thanks to dismissals and medical issues – the Flyers had just six scholarship players and a walk-on and still won two NCAA Tournament games.
Prior to this season, 6-foot-11 shot blocker Steve McElvene died suddenly from an enlarged heart. Then in the second game of the season, 6-foot-7 Josh Cunningham was lost for 21 games with a torn ankle ligament.
Regardless, the Flyers won the Atlantic 10 regular season title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed before losing to Wichita State.
Miller has had the golden touch the past four seasons, but the promise of next season is not quite as bright.
The Flyers would be without four senior stalwarts – they are the winningest class in UD hoops history – and there are question marks at various positions, from the point guard spot to the aggressiveness of the front court players.
Miller also knows how difficult it can be to recruit top talent to UD.
“The last couple of years our guys would work hard to get a guy and it would come down to us and a place like Michigan State, and (Tom) Izzo would end up getting them,” John Miller said. “And it wasn’t because the kid didn’t want to go to UD. It was like, ‘Hey, it’s Michigan State! It’s Izzo!’ And boom, we’d lose him because it was a bigger place.”
And while Miller had gotten contract extensions the past three years in a row and was the highest-paid coach in the A-10, he wasn’t making anywhere near what IU will reportedly pay him.
Saturday afternoon, Sullivan said UD “aggressively” tried to keep Miller: “I don’t want to speak for what his motivations were, but I’m quite confident it was not about increased compensation. Ultimately, coach Miller made a decision he felt he had to make for his future and his interests.”
MORE ON ARCHIE MILLER
Taking a tough challenge
While the IU job comes with a big paycheck, a storied tradition and a rabid fan base, it is, admitted John Miller, “a tough job.”
During his nine seasons in Bloomington, Crean did a lot of things right.
He cleaned up the mess and sanctions left by his predecessor Kelvin Sampson and in the past six seasons went 138-69 (Miller was 139-63 over the same period), made four NCAA tournaments and three Sweet 16s. A year ago, he won the Big Ten title, went 27-8 and beat Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.
But he didn’t win enough for the IU fans or administration. The Hoosiers went 18-16 this year and lost in the first round of the NIT.
After firing Crean on March 16, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said the expectation for IU basketball was “to perennially contend for and win multiple Big Ten titles, regularly go deep into the NCAA Tournament and win our next national championship … and more after that.”
He said they would hire a coach “who will help is meet those expectations.”
John Miller knows the expectations are high, but he said he believes Archie will approach the job with the same “orneriness” and the same “chip on his shoulder” that he used to lift himself and the Flyers to unparalleled success the past few years.
And it was with that in mind that John called his wife Barb on Friday night.
“You know my wife, she stays in the background all the time, but I wanted her to know what was happening,” John said with a growing chuckle. “I said ‘Well, we lost to Xavier, but there’s some good news.’ And then I told her about Arch and the new job.
“And after 50 years of basketball, you know the first thing she asked? She said, ‘What color is Indiana?’
“I said, ‘They’re red.’ Except for Xavier, every team we have – Arizona, Dayton, now Indiana – they’re all red.
And she says, ‘Oh my God! Red…again?’”