This is the prime of Sean Miller’s coaching life. Right here. Right now.
He is 45, and the future is rolled out like a red carpet ride to fame, fortune and, someday, the Final Four.
The fire burns and you can see it in Miller’s eyes, in his demeanor, and in the way he approaches the smallest detail. But “approaches” is not the proper verb. Miller attacks, he doesn’t approach.
“He is pretty relentless,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Saturday.
Relentless is the catch-all word that covers Arizona’s entire basketball operation. Miller is relentless is recruiting, in coaching and in scouting. He is what Lute Olson was 30 years ago, shifting into overdrive with a reputation to make and a world to conquer.
“I hope we don’t burn him out,” UA assistant coach Book Richardson said Saturday. “He’s non-stop, not just one day, but every day.”
If you want to bark with the Big Dogs in college basketball, you don’t visit the Azores each summer or catch a few fish on a family vacation at the Yellowstone River. You recruit. You become consumed.
For the first time in 30 years, Arizona did not play a game between Christmas and New Year’s this season. The Wildcats had played an exhaustive schedule, 12 games in 20 days, but on Dec. 27, Miller walked into the gymnasium at Torrey Pines High School to watch Los Angeles Loyola play the Patrick School of New Jersey.
Let someone else sip hot chocolate by the Christmas tree.
Miller looks around and sees that Washington’s Lorenzo Romar is not in the NCAA tournament for a third successive year. Romar was on the brink of joining UCLA as the Pac-12’s co-power player 10 years ago, with back-to-back seasons of 29-6 and 26-9. Romar is now 55. His best years have probably come and gone.
Why? Because the Huskies lost their recruiting touch.
“I think Sean’s done an unbelievable job from where Arizona was when he took that job,” Gonzaga’s Few said. “Look where it’s at now.”
The Wildcats have won 31 games and counting. It is Miller’s second 30-win season in four years. Olson’s 30-win seasons were spaced out, in 1988, 1998 and 2005. This isn’t happenstance or a guy getting hot.
Miller is not just single-minded in his attempt to coach Arizona to a national championship; he is in harmony with the requirements to get there.
“It’s like warp speed,” he said Saturday at the Viejas Arena. “It seems like it’s never-ending. That’s what makes college basketball so special — that never-ending time when you’re building your team, developing your team and coaching in games.”
One year leads to another. Out goes Derrick Williams; in comes Nick Johnson. Out goes Solomon Hill. In comes Aaron Gordon.
Once that assembly line pauses, once you get sidetracked, you become UCLA’s Ben Howland, who was on top of the Western basketball world from 2006 to 2008 but was fired four years later, at 55.
Miller is 45, and in college basketball coaching, that makes him a Young Gun.
UCLA’s Steve Alford and Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak are 49. Oregon’s Dana Altman is 55, and Colorado’s Tad Boyle is 51.
The life expectancy of an upper-tier, kingdom-maker in college basketball sometimes runs on and on, witness Syracuse’s 69-year-old Jim Boeheim and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, 67.
But those are exceptions. The job’s demands often chop you up, and you slow down, as Stanford’s Mike Montgomery, 67, did after he left Stanford. Monty’s no longer interested in matching Miller day-to-day in recruiting, as he once did with Lute Olson.
That’s why the next 10 years should be the best of Miller’s career. He is a Man At Work.
“When I decided to transfer to Arizona, my dad told me (Miller) had a work ethic second to none,” UA point guard T.J. McConnell said in the UA locker room Saturday. “I’ve honestly never seen anybody work like he does. I’ve been told that’s the same way he was as a player (at Pitt).
“If you want to see the lights off in his office, you’ve got to go there about midnight.”
At 45, John Miller, Sean’s dad, was building Pittsburgh-area Blackhawk High School into a state power. By the time he was 51, the Cougars won the first of four state titles (1991, 1995, 1996, 1999). He was by all accounts driven, single-minded and demanding.
Like father, like Sean.
By the time he was 62, John Miller finally took a breath, walked away on top, a legend in Pennsylvania high school basketball.
Now it’s his son’s turn. Sean Miller is in his 10th year as a head coach, but it’s as if he’s just getting started. No matter what happens tonight against Gonzaga, this is The Beginning at Arizona.