Arizona Basketball

The Miller Era is Over; What is his Legacy?

The Sean Miller era has come to an end.

It’s not a complete shock. In fact, that’s how it was headed most recently according to people I’m close to. That was the case when the Notice of Allegations came out about a month ago then reversed course when it thought boosters stepped in then changed course again when President Robbie Robbins had figured he’d seen enough or had had enough.

It was keep Miller and deal with what’s ahead and the outcome of the Accountability Resolution Process or let him go and move on.

Arizona – behind Robbins – is moving on. My guess is he already has his guy in mind and has for a while.

Ironically, his firing is 12 years to the day he was named head coach at Arizona.

And, well, here we are: Sean Miller, after 12 years as Arizona’s head basketball coach, is gone.

It was best for all parties.

Arizona can move on and so can Miller.

Sean Miller. (Photo courtesy Stan Liu, Arizona Athletics)

“After conferring with Dave Heeke since the season’s end, it has become clear that our men’s basketball program – and our University – needs to write a new chapter in our history, and that begins with a change of leadership,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins in a release from UA. “Arizona Basketball means so much to so many and, as stewards of the program, we must always act in the best interests of the university. I believe our future is bright, and I look forward to welcoming a new head coach to the Wildcat family.”

I’m not even clear what Miller’s legacy is. Lots of wins, three Elite Eights, missed NCAA Tournaments and a huge scandal Arizona will have to climb out of. Miller dug that hole but won’t be the guy to help UA get out of it.

It started with so much promise then ended with, well, all that. And, with Arizona putting itself on self-imposed penalty mode. And still waiting its fate.

And it sucks to wait.

So, here we are. Arizona without a head coach and who knows about the future of what was once one of the best programs in the west.

If you still think it is, you’re kidding yourself. It’s not. And it hasn’t been for nearly five years.

Through a dozen years of the Sean Miller era, this is what I’ll always remember:

  • The look he showed – one of a kid losing his dog and it wasn’t coming back – when Nick Johnson missed a last-second shot in Arizona’s 64-63 Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin in 2014 with one of, if not the best team, he had at Arizona.
  • The emotion he showed when Wisconsin’s Sam Decker hit unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot a year later when Wisconsin easily beat Arizona, again, in the Elite Eight. He shook his head and smiled in only the way Sean Miller smiles – smirks – as to applaud Decker all the while knowing Arizona’s run was over.

A day or so later, he told UA fans via twitter that if they didn’t like the results of Arizona’s two Elite Eight runs to go support Arizona State. It seemed petty.

No doubt he paid attention to what people were saying and what sports writers/columnists were writing.

  • His belittling a local reporter or two because he didn’t like the question, eventually telling one from Phoenix to go back because he wasted his time in coming down to Tucson to get an answer.
  • That infamous photo of him getting into Kaleb Tarzewski’s face on the sideline after his one-time big man told him to “relax” after a play.

“This isn’t tennis,” Miller said, back then in 2016. “This is basketball. There’s accountability on offense and defense and you win as a team and you lose as a team. I’ll stop right there.”

  • And how about calling a timeout with 0.9 seconds left in what was already a clear win against UCLA and Steve Alford, just a season removed from Alford calling a timeout on UA in McKale with win in hand.

Paybacks, we found out, are a … well, you know.

And, perhaps, the last was the night (Feb. 29, 2020) he was called for a technical and later thrown out for the first time in his coaching career when he told a referee, “Don’t F with me” while foaming at the mouth and furious after Nico Mannion didn’t get a call vs. UCLA.

As it turns out no one “will F with” Miller anymore while at Arizona. He’s gone after what will be considered a bright star of a future that eventually went dim.

Clearly, Sean Miller wasn’t – or hasn’t been – the same coach the last six years than he was in his first six. The magic started in his second year when he led UA, behind wunderkind Derrick Williams, to a surprising Elite Eight finish, losing to eventual champion Connecticut. A Sweet 16 and the two aforementioned Elite Elites followed.

His future looked bright … until …

Gone were the T.J. McConnell, Aaron Gordons, Rondae Hollis Jefferson and others and in were the other one-and-doners who never seemed to have that same spark. That same desire to make the school proud.

What followed was a first-round loss to Wichita State as he debuted his infamous sweaty shirt in 2016. It was followed by a disappointing loss to his former team, Xavier, in the Sweet 16, with a team that clearly could have made the Final Four. Figure Lauri Markkanen, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic, et al, were on the roster.

Then came the disaster of 2018, starting in the Bahamas and ending with UA losing to Buffalo in Boise. UA had Trier, Alkins, Ristic and eventual No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton. All that talent and nothing.

Just a couple of months before the loss to Buffalo, Miller said something prophetic. I took note.

“You always want your team to play for you as the coach, and our guys, they really struggle playing for me — they really do,” Miller said. “I can’t get them to play hard. We do it for a while. I know we’ve had a win streak and we also have a good team. We have a lot of talent…

“With our team, it’s really hard to get our guys to run as fast as they can. That’s not them. That’s me. I have a hard time reaching our guys. I can’t reach them, I really can’t.”

He walked it back a bit a month or two later, but you knew he was being very honest in his assessment.

It happened again last season when he had Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji. It was a team that didn’t seem to play hard.

Something was missing. It was obvious.

That’s always struck me. It became apparent to me that his tough-as-nails style/approach with his players never fit their personalities or pedigree. He went after five-star players and then treated them like they couldn’t play. And, well, at times didn’t allow them to play. Five stars are like quarter horses – you let them run. You give them some freedom. You let them make mistakes.

For the first few games in 2019-20, he did that. He let them run and stun and, in the process, they looked like they were having fun. Then it changed in a near-loss to North Dakota State. He talked about giving them defined roles. To me, it was as if he let them play then as the semester came (and he knew they wouldn’t or couldn’t transfer) he put the kabosh on the run so there was no longer any fun.

But that was/is Sean. He wanted structure. Half-court sets. Make the right pass. Make the right decision. And sure, what coach doesn’t want all that but that’s not who he recruited. He recruited let-me-play-coach type players. Isn’t that why they came here? They bought into the freedom of play and got something else. But wouldn’t you play to your strengths? Miller, a stubborn man, played to HIS strengths.

And eventually it strangled him. As did his stubbornness. And it seemed liked his players were just going through the motions, waiting for a season to end.

And then, suddenly it did with all the COVID-19 news.

And the talk of the NCAA investigation rose its ugly head – again with the HBO special – The Scheme. More than 3 1/2 years later, it’s still that black cloud that hovers. How can a man not let it all get to him, mentally and physically? It had to.

He looked so defeated after UA’s second loss to UCLA in mid-February this season. Like he had had enough. He was a man with no answers … again.

But back to the 2019-20 season. In parts of last season, his personality had changed, almost to a quieter, gentler Sean Miller. It continued to this season.

In fact, I told a booster between seasons that one of Sean’s issues was he didn’t embrace any – not even one – of the local media members. One who would have supported him in tough times. It would have benefitted him but he’s not that guy. He’s not warm and fuzzy so it’s understandable.

Instead, he was close to a known national college basketball guy who benefitted from all the UA news. That guy had all the news first.

Damned were the locals. What did it matter, right?

Yet, he was at least better with the locals the last few months. Most of last season, I can’t remember a time he had a blowup with the media. It was strange, but noticeable. It continued this season, often mentioning media member’s names when they asked the question.

That rarely happened before.

Many thought – yet not many longtime local media types – the worst was over … but, we knew something would eventually hit. It had to. The NCAA issues weren’t going away. Miller likely knew that. Administrators knew that (and if they didn’t, they were fooling themselves after all they had stuck their professional necks out for him) and likely others knew it.

Then, UA decided to self-impose to ease the possible blow of a big hit by the NCAA, just weeks after reports the NCAA finally gave Arizona the Notice of Allegations. And, boy, were they allegations. Nine violations with five being Level I discretions. Yikes!

So, here we are. The shoe finally dropped.  Sean Miller is out as Arizona’s coach.

It was a dozen years of winning – for some fans glorious winning that even rivaled Lute Olson’s success (I never felt that) – yet in the end what did he have to show for it? Well, a solid record of 302-108, five regular season titles, and three conference tournament titles.

At the end of the day, was all that worth it?

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