From his days at Blackhawk High School through his record-setting career at Pitt, Sean Miller commanded respect. Now in a basketball oasis in the desert, he commands one of the favorites to capture this season's NCAA men's basketball championship.
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TUSCON, Ariz. -- On any given Monday night, seats at the Union Public House are hard to come by. People stream into the restaurant at the corner of Campbell and River avenues and turn their chairs front and center to hear the most celebrated coach in town talk about his basketball team. They hang on every word, as though they are hanging on every shot taken by their beloved Arizona Wildcats at the McKale Center.
They have come to see and listen to Sean Miller, who does a weekly one-hour radio show at the Union Public House several miles from the Arizona campus. Each week the head coach of the No. 2-ranked team in college basketball gives away two tickets to a Wildcats home game, which, in Tucson, are harder to come by than a Primanti's sandwich. Second prize is an autographed basketball, signed in person by the coach himself, a bauble that, on this night, is cherished even more than the tickets by the lucky winner.
"You're the big show in town," Miller said. "Whether you're a player, a coach, you're the fuel of the sports community. All of us as college coaches, especially basketball, you want support. When you play a home game, you want it to be packed, not just when you play UCLA but when you have your season opener."
That is never a problem at Arizona. When the Wildcats played their annual Red-Blue intra-squad game in late September, the 14,500-seat McKale Center was sold out.
"We could have sold 20,000 tickets," Miller said. "That's the gift of the support we have."
Basketball is a big deal in Tucson, the biggest game in a college town of approximately 900,000 people, and nobody is bigger right now than Miller, who is in his fifth season at Arizona and has the young and extremely talented Wildcats on the precipice of making a run deep in the NCAA tournament. The kid from Beaver Falls, the son of a legendary high school coach, has put the shine back in a program that had seemingly lost its place in the upper echelon of college basketball, even though the Wildcats have made the NCAA tournament 27 times in the past 29 years.
They began the season with a 21-game winning streak, the longest in school history. They spent eight consecutive weeks as the No. 1-ranked team in college basketball, another school record. Now, even despite the season-ending foot injury to star forward Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats (24-2) are closing in on their first Pac-12 championship since 2011 and could make a run at their first national championship since 1997. Barring a late-season collapse, they could receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"Sean is the shining star of what you want your coach to be," said Arizona's vice president for athletics, Greg Byrne, who came to the school in 2010, a year after Miller. "He has a passion and understanding of the game from being around it his entire life that few others have. Sean's not a guy who wants the limelight. That doesn't drive him at all. He's driven to succeed at the highest level, but not because of the attention it brings to him."
It is one thing to take over a moribund program with little history of success and try to build a foundation. It is still another to come to a place where NCAA tournament appearances are as common as desert cacti and not only live up to those standards, but exceed them. That is what Miller has done at Arizona, a task made even more daunting by having to replace a coaching legend, Lute Olson.
"They have high expectations, but not in a Kentucky way," Miller said. "They're not the type of crowd that boos at the half."
At 45, he has won over a town that embraces his every move as though he were a native son, not a product of Blackhawk High School and Pitt.
"It's great for everyone in the program with being No. 1," Miller said, looking back at Arizona's eight-week stay atop the college basketball world. "You get a big stage, you get a lot of people talking about the players, the team. When you're recruited to Arizona, in a way that's what you're after -- to be at the highest level of college basketball. There's no reason to run from the expectations. If that's the case, you shouldn't have come here in the first place."
Miller was talking about the players. He could have been talking about himself.
To this day, Sean Miller remains the ultimate point guard to ever play at Pitt, a smart, pass-first, ball-handling wizard who started from the fifth game of his freshman season and averaged 5.8 assists and a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio for his career -- numbers that still rank second on the school's all-time list. He was the Big East's freshman of the year in 1988, had a career free-throw percentage of .885 and scored 1,282 points, 18th on Pitt's all-time list.
Not surprisingly, he has the same type of player on his new team -- and he didn't have to look hard to find him. T.J. McConnell, a high-energy, pass-first point guard who went to Chartiers Valley High School, reminds Miller of himself at a younger age. McConnell, a 6-foot-1 junior, has been more than just the triggerman for the Wildcats; he has been an instant sensation in his first season since transferring from Duquesne, leading the team with 132 assists and 43 steals.
McConnell, though, sometimes bears the brunt of Miller's on-court intensity, mostly because of the position he plays. But it is more than that. Like his coach, McConnell comes from a coaching family. More important, he hails from Western Pennsylvania, and Miller knows his point guard can handle the verbal press as deftly as he handles the ball.
"I know if I do something wrong, he'll be right back on me," McConnell said. "He expects so much from me. The point guard is supposed to be another coach on floor."
Miller was that way when he played at Pitt, often telling older players and future NBA first-round picks Charles Smith and Jerome Lane what to do when he was a freshman. That take-charge style is evident today at Arizona, where Miller runs high-intensity practices, challenges his players to perform, then often regales them after practice with stories about Western Pennsylvania or his beloved Steelers.
When he was coaching at Xavier in Cincinnati, Miller would huddle his players after a particular Friday practice and tell them he was instituting an early curfew for that night.
"Steelers fans are in town," Miller would tell his players. "I don't want any of you getting into anything."
Miller started to laugh.
"I'm telling you, they would hate it," he said. "They would be cheering so hard [for the Bengals]. During my time there, as you know, it didn't matter. The Steelers would win every game in Cincinnnati, even the Carson Palmer injury game. I had a good run there."
The breakfast crowd at the Blue Willow is already burgeoning, filling the cozy indoor rooms and even the outdoor patio on what is considered a cool morning in the desert. It is 9 a.m. and Miller, a frequent customer, is recommending his favorite item on the menu -- French toast.
"Gotta have it," he said. "The best you'll ever eat."
The Blue Willow is a frequent dining stop for the people of Tucson, especially at breakfast. The main dining room is in a 1940 adobe house that once served as a rental for the university. The restaurant, which also includes a bakery and gift shop, has been family-owned for 30 years and attracts many of the students and athletes from the university, including the basketball coach.
Miller can't go anywhere in Tucson without being recognized. But he is courteous and polite to the townspeople and takes the time to say hello when approached.
"He's totally likeable," said Rebecca Ramey, the restaurant's owner. "He's doing a great job and it seems like the people enjoy him. Everyone supports the basketball team. It started with Lute Olson and it's moved right over to Sean Miller. I haven't heard anyone say anything negative about him at all."
Why would they?
His 96 wins in his first four seasons at Arizona are more than any coach in school history -- and any other current Pac-12 coach -- in their first four seasons in the league. Since Miller arrived in 2009, Arizona is averaging 24 wins per season, an improvement over the 20 victories per year in the four seasons before.
What's more, Miller has re-established Arizona's recruiting ties, particularly in the West Coast region. It's one of the reasons the Wildcats have a roster that includes three young talents -- Ashley, 6-foot-8 freshman Aaron Gordon, a likely NBA lottery pick this season; and freshman forward Rondae Hollis Jefferson, whom Miller lured from Chester, Pa.
No coach in school history, not even Olson, had ever won 21 consecutive games, something Miller and the Wildcats accomplished to start the season. That streak allowed them to ascend to the No. 1 ranking in college basketball for eight weeks, the longest consecutive stretch in school history. But Arizona's unbeaten record ended Feb. 1 against California in a 60-58 defeat, a game in which the Wildcats lost Ashley, who was averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, to a season-ending foot injury.
Without Ashley, the Wildcats no longer look like the sure bet to get to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, something that appeared to be a real possibility just three weeks ago.
Still, the significance of the school record was not lost on Miller.
"It means a lot," he said. "Any record that you hold here at Arizona in our basketball program is a meaningful one because of the great teams, the great players, certainly the great coaching staffs, led by coach Olson. We did things for such a long period of time with the stamp of excellence on it that anything we can do to supercede the past speaks for itself."
It is often forgotten that after a playing career in which he was considered the best 3-point shooter in Pitt history, Miller also coached for one season at his alma mater on Ralph Willard's staff in 1995-96. But that was not a fuzzy homecoming for Miller.
He didn't enjoy working for Willard and quickly exited after just one season, opting to join Herb Sendek, a Penn Hills native, as an assistant at North Carolina State. Miller had worked under Sendek for two years at Miami of Ohio, prior to coming to Pitt.
That decision cost Pitt more than just one Miller. Archie Miller, Sean's younger brother who was a standout senior guard at Blackhawk, withdrew his commitment to Pitt and decided to follow his brother to N.C. State.
Curiously, more than a decade later, Miller and Sendek are reunited in the desert, not as associates but rather chief rivals. Sendek is the head coach at Arizona State, just 85 miles away on Interstate 10.
"I always thought Sean was the complete and total package as a basketball coach," Sendek said. "When I hired him at Miami, Ohio, I knew instantly he had all the different ingredients to be a good coach."
Miller spent five years as an assistant at North Carolina State before deciding to move, tired, he said, of "getting beat up every year by [North] Carolina." He went to Xavier to join Thad Matta, who was an assistant with him at Miami of Ohio. After three years as the school's first associate head coach, he was promoted to head coach when Matta left to become head coach at Ohio State.
Miller was a smashing success at Xavier. His teams won at least 20 games and went to the NCAA tournament four years in a row. In 2007-2008, when Xavier was 30-7 and went to the Elite Eight, Miller was named Atlantic 10 coach of the year.
His career record of 120-47 at Xavier ranks third on the school's all-time victory list, behind only Pete Gillen and the late Skip Prosser.
"The biggest break I received is being affiliated with Xavier," Miller said, relaxing in his office after a nearly two-hour Monday practice. "We came in with a really talented group and yet we were able to do things at Xavier that were never done before. Even though they had had great coaches and a great program, we had so much more -- scheduling opportunities, a brand new 10,500-seat arena and a talent base that was second to none.
"To get my first opportunity, not just at any school but at that program, allowed me to be at Arizona and for me to learn and grow. All the points in life you look back on, I was most lucky and fortunate to start at Xavier and make the change when I did."
Miller's coaching rise is not surprising. His dad, John, was a high-school coaching legend for 35 years in Western Pennsylvania, winning 657 games and eight WPIAL titles at Blackhawk. John Miller retired in 2005 and spends two months each winter in Tucson, attending Arizona's practices and games and watching his three grandchildren play basketball.
"And I don't have to shovel," he said.
Sean isn't his only sibling who is a head coach at a major-college program. His brother Archie, who spent two years on Sean's staff at Arizona, is the head coach at the University of Dayton, where the Flyers are 17-8.
And he isn't the only head coach in the desert with ties to Western Pennsylvania or the tri-state area.
His football counterpart at Arizona is former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. At Arizona State, Sendek is joined by football coach Todd Graham, who spent one season at Pitt. And former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
None of them, not even Arians, has captured a town like the kid from Beaver Falls.
"Tucson shares the sports spotlight with nobody," Miller said. "The Phoenix market is different. You have the Suns, ASU, the Cardinals, the Diamondbacks. Here in Tucson, you have the University of Arizona. For the players, that's awesome."
Even for the coach.