I’ve never seen a college basketball coach lose as much as Sean Miller lost last week and still be so happy.
“Today’s nothing but a good day for our program,” Miller said as Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson announced they were leaving school.
“You can complain about (early departures), but that doesn’t work,” said Miller. “We have to embrace it to be successful. We have some really good players coming back next year.”
A few minutes later, Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley walked into the room.
Put that group with two guys named Joe and you’re in the Top 25. Put those three players at Oregon State or Washington State and you couldn’t print enough tickets for the 2014-15 season.
“Arizona’s going to be successful at the highest level with or without me,” said Gordon.
What we don’t know is how much of a toll the annual roster shuffle and its attendant worries take on a coach like Miller.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, the king of roster shuffling, candidly and in a serious tone told an ESPN radio interviewer last week, “I’ve aged more the last five years than President Obama.”
And it’s true. The Calipari I watched at the Final Four this year no longer came off as the swashbuckling young gun unfazed by college basketball’s moving parts.
He is 55. He could pass for 60. What happens next at Arizona is fully unpredictable. Miller has become one of the Big Five of the Pac-10/12 era. Here’s how those in that group fared in their first five conference seasons:
Lute Olson, 64-26.
Sean Miller, 63-27.
Ben Howland, 63-27.
Jim Harrick, 62-28.
Mike Montgomery, 52-38.
Olson was 52 after his first five Arizona seasons. He got better and coached until he was 72. Howland was 49 at the end of his first five UCLA seasons. He was fired five years later. Harrick was 53 after his first five UCLA years. Five years later, after being fired at UCLA, he was coaching at Rhode Island.
Montgomery was 44 after five seasons at Stanford. He didn’t hit his prime for another decade, leading the Cardinal to a 73-17 conference record from the 1996-97 season through 2000-01.
Miller is 45. What’s next?
Given Miller’s desire to live as much a private life as possible, my guess is that he wouldn’t leave Arizona for a bigger basketball fishbowl, the 24/7 madness at Kentucky, Kansas or Louisville, but that a football-first place like Ohio State would turn his head.
In the prime of his coaching life, Olson turned down Kentucky offers in 1985 and 1989, in part, because he prized Tucson’s relative seclusion.
Montgomery coached until he was 67, Harrick to 65 and Howland, at 56, is hoping to reinvent himself.
Miller is still in the invention process.