Miller Leads Wildcats Back Into National Elite
by Michelle Smith
Sean Miller wasn't entirely sure he wanted to come to Arizona two years ago.
He was happy at Xavier. His family was happy in Cincinnati.
"It wasn't easy to think about leaving an incredible place that we loved," Miller said. "You get your start at a place, you do special things there and it's not a place you are looking to leave."
But Miller was intrigued by the offer to coach the Wildcats. How could he not be?
Arizona is one of the storied programs in college basketball, a program with high expectations thanks to the longtime success under Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, and the support - both on campus and in the community - to match.
And then there was Tucson itself, with a climate and a community that held its own appeal.
"It was a heart-wrenching decision at times, but it was so special here," Miller said. "I looked at it as an opportunity that might never come my way again. This place has history and tradition and support and there are only a few programs that you can put in that category."
And so the Pennsylvania native and Cincinnati transplant moved to the desert.
In two seasons, Miller has brought the Wildcats back into the national elite.
Arizona comes in to this week's Pac-10 Tournament as the No. 1 seed and the nation's 18th-ranked team, winning the program's first conference regular-season title in six years.
After going 16-15 last season and missing the NCAA Tournament, the 42-year-old Miller has Arizona positioned for a long run.
"It takes time," said MIller, who had four 20-win seasons in his five years as Xavier's head coach. "I was fortunate last season to get a great recruiting class, including Derrick Wiliams, a group that really impacted our rise."
Miller said he didn't come to Tucson with many expectations. And he didn't come to coach in Olson's considerable shadow. He came to turn the Wildcats into his team. Miller is known to be smart and detailed, driven and intense. And he's getting results.
Olson himself has said Miller was "the right man for the job."
"We've come a long way in a short time and those guys deserve a lot of credit," Miller said. "They weren't here when I first came here, but they've all improved so much as sophomores."
Miller, a Pitt graduate, is a guy who was schooled in East Coast basketball. He is the son of a successful high school coach in Pennsylvania. He played in three NCAA Tournaments for Pitt in 1988, 1989 and 1991. He has coached on 14 teams that went to postseason play.
Miller said the only thing that "caught him off-guard" about West Coast basketball was the lack of attention it receives.
"I guess I should have known it," Miller said. "It's overwhelming. The nation doesn't know a lot about our players and our teams. I think there are times that players in other conferences get way too much credit and our guys not enough.
"There are teams in our conference like USC and Washington State and Cal, that struggled early, but they have some big wins and they are playing some great basketball now. I don't know from the national perspective that they are getting the recognition they deserve."
Miller's team has played a special role in the Arizona community this season. Tucson is still recovering from January's mass shooting that killed six and injured 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Arizona played at McKale the day after the shooting to a crowd of more than 14,000.
"I hope in some small way, we've given the people in this community something to be proud of," Miller said. "I want us to be a Saturday afternoon get-away."
Miller said he and his family love their new life in Tucson.
"That's the thing about Tucson. There are a million people here, but it's such a small town atmosphere. Everything here centers around the University of Arizona. We impact the community so much," Miller said. "We don't have to share the spotlight with much else. We don't have an NFL team or an NBA team. A million people are passionate about the Wildcats.
"As a younger coach, that is nothing but a positive for me. It's nothing but a strength."