A day before he was introduced as the Arizona Wildcats’ new head coach in April 2009, Sean Miller proved his heart doesn’t just live on his sleeve.
Some of it remains in Cincinnati. There, Miller repeatedly fought back tears during a news conference to discuss his departure from Xavier after eight years.
“The friends, the families I’ve met, the people, the players, have been nothing short of a dream,” Miller said then. “Don’t think for a second it’s fun to leave. I’m all of a sudden waving goodbye, and it’s not that easy.”
Pete Gillen can understand why. A native of Brooklyn, Gillen found substance in the style in and around the Jesuit school’s Cincinnati campus during his nine seasons as the Musketeers’ head coach from 1985-94.
“It’s good people, hard-working Americans,” said Gillen, now a CBS Sports Network basketball analyst. “They put money in the bank. Go to the same church every week. When they sing ‘God Bless America,’ they mean it. When they ask you, ‘How’s your family?’ they mean it.’
“I mean, I love New York, but when people ask you in New York how your family is, they’re looking over your shoulder at something else.”
Maybe that’s just one reason why the Musketeers have consistently remained a small-school college basketball power before, during and after the nine years Miller spent with them, three as Thad Matta’s top aide and five as head coach.
Somewhat like its Jesuit basketball counterpart out West, Gonzaga, the Musketeers have a strong connection with their community and a tight-knit culture within the program, leading to a level of continuity not often seen in the college game.
Less than 5,000 students attend Xavier, meaning “you know or see everyone who goes to school there,” says UA basketball operations director Ryan Reynolds, who attended and worked at Xavier before moving to Arizona with Miller in 2009.
The Musketeers manage, Gillen said, to “have a family atmosphere and still play big-time basketball.”
While the Musketeers had some previous success, it was Gillen who took them to their first Sweet 16s back in 1990, and exactly 25 years later, it is Chris Mack who will take them to another — to be played against Miller and the Arizona Wildcats on Thursday in Los Angeles.
Not surprisingly, Gillen won’t take much credit for getting it started. Gillen says it all began with his predecessor, Bob Staak, who took the Musketeers to their first NCAA tournament in 22 years, during the 1982-83 season.
Then there was a circle of donors and administrators who pushed for better facilities and for the construction of the 10,250-seat Cintas Center in 2000. That sure beat playing games in the old Cincinnati Gardens, where Gillen said the ice under the floor made it so cold “players had to wear gloves in the layup lines.”
The upgrades also helped recruiting and basketball success, which, in turn, helped the school’s success.
“From the top down, the president to the athletic director, to everyone on down, they were committed to helping basketball in order to get some recognition for the school, to help it in a competitive world,” Gillen said. “When I first started, it was not in bad shape, but they saw basketball could work.”
Didn’t matter that Xavier has less than 5,000 students and a correspondingly small alumni base. Nor that another major college basketball program, the University of Cincinnati, is across town.
There was enough basketball passion for both.
“It’s been an interesting dynamic where you’re born into one of the two — either you’re a Xavier fan or a UC fan,” says Mario Mercurio, Xavier’s director of basketball administration who held the same role under Miller. “On a Tuesday night, if they’re both playing, you might have almost 25,000 people watching basketball. It’s a huge thing here and always has been. Its kind of ingrained in the city’s fiber.”
Reynolds said Xavier benefits from a natural religious connection to schools and families in the area, too.
“Xavier’s very unique,” Reynolds said. “It’s the perfect city for it because it’s a very Catholic city and a lot of Catholic schools in the area feed into Xavier. A lot of kids from the area go there and they end up living (in Cincinnati) forever.”
The culture stays with Xavier, even as the Musketeers have changed coaches four times since Gillen left for Providence in 1994, where, incidentally, he later scared Arizona in an overtime 1997 Elite Eight game that nearly prevented the Wildcats from winning their lone national championship.
After Gillen, there was Skip Prosser, who won 69.5 percent of his games and fostered a strong following that continued after he left for Wake Forest.
“I’ve never met a person who knew him that wasn’t all about coach Prosser at Xavier,” Reynolds said.
Then there was Matta, who came over from Butler to win 101 games — including five in the NCAA tournament — in just three seasons.
When Matta left for Ohio State in 2004, the program slipped into the hands of Miller, who in turn won 71.9 percent of his games between 2004-09, reaching four NCAA tournaments in five years, including two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight.
All that success helped strengthen Xavier’s bond with its community and its brand within the college basketball world.
“It’s just winning,” Mercurio said. “If you win, they recognize your success. If you do it for two, it’s like, ‘OK.’ If you do it for five, it’s, ‘Hey, they might be the real deal.’ But if you do it for 10, the upward trajectory gets recognized.
“It started with Pete and continued to grow.”
When Miller took off for Arizona in 2009, he pushed for his top assistant, Mack, to get the job. Miller said at his farewell news conference that he “thought the world of Chris Mack,” and Mack has credited him for helping get the job.
They’re family, by now: Matta, Miller, Mack and the staffers under them at Ohio State, Arizona and Xavier who all still have strong connections.
The only problem is that the success they’re having at different schools now makes March Madness stressful in a different way.
None of them wants to play each other in the NCAA tournament.
Efforts to reach Mack and Miller this week before the NCAA-mandated interviews Wednesday were unsuccessful, but Reynolds said it’s hard for all of them.
“It’s kind of one of those things that when you’re watching the selection show, you’re kind of watching and cheering for them to go off your board,” Reynolds said.
That didn’t happen this year. Twice, in fact, for Miller. He and the Wildcats not only played Matta and Ohio State last Saturday, but now have to face Xavier on Thursday.
It helps that there are no connections between the players and coaches, Reynolds said. Because Miller has been gone six years, he did not recruit any of the current Musketeers, while Mack said last weekend that the Wildcats don’t know him “from a bucket of paint.”
But if history continues, this won’t be the last NCAA tournament meeting between them, either.
Miller has turned Arizona back into a perennial national power, and Mack is continuing the strong legacy at Xavier.
“The one thing I’m excited about with Xavier is the legacy will certainly continue under the direction of the new coach,” Miller said upon leaving Xavier. “This machine will keep on moving in a positive direction.”