When the six-year imposition of a rivalry on their friendship finally ended in 2015, Herb Sendek and Sean Miller went back to normal.
That is, they hung out. Talked basketball and who knows what else, their lives having been intertwined via basketball for over three decades.
Miller even invited the former Arizona State coach to watch some Arizona Wildcats practices.
Yes, that’s right: The guy who beat Arizona at McKale Center in 2009-10, kept the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament in 2011-12 with a win in Tempe, and also beat Miller’s best two teams (in 2013-14 and 2014-15) suddenly was walking around the Wildcats’ inner sanctum.
He wasn’t a Sun Devil anymore.
Just a friend, and a well-regarded coach.
“Coach Sendek is a pretty good guy,” UA assistant coach Book Richardson said.
It was obvious that if there were any surface wounds to their decades-long relationship inflicted by that in-state rivalry, they had quickly healed. So Miller, who worked on Sendek’s staffs at Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina State, was happy to extend a hand after ASU fired Sendek in March 2015.
“I respect Herb Sendek as much as any coach in the game,” Miller said. “I consider him a friend. He did a lot for myself and my family years ago. I worked on his staff, certainly got to know him well and even more so at ASU.”
Sendek beat the Wildcats four times in 12 games with Miller as UA's head coach, winning 53.7 percent of his games overall at ASU. He was known for frequent philosophical changes to fit whatever players he had available, making it even tougher to face him, and was well-regarded for his management off the court.
But the Sun Devils made only two NCAA tournaments over Sendek’s nine seasons, and he was let go after an 18-16 record in 2014-15.
“I most certainly didn’t like the outcome, but it wasn’t my decision,” Sendek said. “Once it was rendered, it was incumbent on me” to make the best of it.
So he did.
Saying he has “enormous respect” for the success Miller has had at Arizona, Sendek said he was fortunate to be able to not only spend time with his former rival but also check out the Wildcats’ practices.
Sendek wasn’t surprised to see what he saw, of course. But the chance to stay plugged in during a disorienting year away from the game proved both therapeutic and educational.
“I tried to make the very best of the situation and I most certainly tried to improve as a leader and teacher and coach,” Sendek said.
Miller said Santa Clara will benefit from it. The Broncos hired Sendek to replace the fired Kerry Keating last spring, just a year after ASU replaced Sendek with Bobby Hurley.
“Santa Clara is very lucky to have him as their coach,” Miller said. “We spent some time together in his year off and he looked at a lot of different things. He returns to the game probably a better coach than he has been in the last 20 years – and he was a heck of a coach before he got to Santa Clara.”
There’s only one problem with this story, and it happens on Thanksgiving Day. Just six games into his new job, Sendek has to face Miller again while the Wildcats and Broncos play a Las Vegas Invitational game at Orleans Arena.
“I thought the chance would be pretty good that we wouldn’t be playing Arizona for a while,” Sendek said, “and, lo and behold, when I saw the schedule, they were on it.”
Miller wasn’t happy to be on it, either.
“I’m looking forward to getting through (Thursday’s) game,” Miller said.
“When you don’t play against each other, you can talk more, help each other more. That hasn’t really been part of our relationship because we’ve been rivals.”
Rivals, then friends.
They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again.
“I never felt like our friendship suffered even when we were competing against each other,” Sendek said.
“Through different capacities we’ve faced each other, but we’ve always been friends, and that’s how it should be.”