There’s way more to Dayton basketball than you think

Dayton takes its basketball seriously, and so does its school's coach, Archie Miller.

Nelson Chenault/Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

DAYTON, Ohio – Ryan Phillips was pacing and nervous, crowding around a tiny television with a handful of fellow diehards as Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis rushed the ball up the floor, and as the seconds ticked away.

It was a Saturday evening this past March, and this entire city – an often-overlooked place in flyover country, an old manufacturing town that’s transitioning into something new, a university that’s often the ignored little brother of Ohio State and so many other regional basketball powers – was filled with that same sort of nervous anticipation. Phillips, the incoming president of the University of Dayton’s student spirit organization, the Red Scare, had organized a giant watch party at the student rec center.

Five minutes into the Round of 32 game against blueblood Syracuse, the projector went out. The hundreds of fans then rushed to the party at Milano’s, a campus hot spot that was already packed to the gills, but Phillips and a few others stayed behind. They huddled around this tiny television and watched the school nobody was talking about as it teetered on the cusp of something amazing.

This was a place where, just a month before, few outside the Dayton Flyers locker room believed they would be. A 12-3 start to head coach Archie Miller’s third season had turned ugly in January as a rash of injuries led to a 1-5 start to conference play. But with Miller’s pack-line defense and a team that, San Antonio Spurs-like, shared the ball as well as anyone in the nation, the Flyers had climbed back into relevance. A 9-1 stretch to end the regular season meant that a decent showing in the Atlantic 10 tournament could easily vault them into the NCAA tournament. But losing a heartbreaker to St. Joseph’s in a quarterfinal game meant the Flyers barely snuck in, one of the very last teams to make the NCAA tournament field as an 11-seed. An upset win over six-seed Ohio State in the first NCAA tournament game of Miller’s head coaching career showed this city’s absurdly loyal fan base that something special was in the air.

And here they were, seconds from the Flyers’ first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years, back when their current head coach was only 5 years old. This game had been an ugly, un-Dayton-like matchup against a Syracuse squad that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation for a chunk of the season. The teams combined to shoot 40 percent and commit 23 turnovers. The 55 points Dayton scored represented its second-lowest total of the season.

Syracuse’s Ennis brought the ball up the court. He launched a 3-pointer that would have won the game and broken this city’s heart. But the ball clanged off the back of the rim. The buzzer sounded. Dayton – a place that has one of the nation’s greatest and most surprising college basketball traditions – was heading to the Sweet 16.

“I ran outside, and it was just absolute pandemonium,” Phillips said. “People were running out of their houses. It was filled, both sides of the street. Honking horns, cop cars, chants of, ‘We are! UD!’ It was like we’d won the NCAA tournament. I almost wanted to cry. Everyone was a Dayton Flyer fan.”

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For a moment, Phillips pauses, searching for the right words to describe all that emotion finally bursting free. It’s a new school year, months after all that excitement of March. The Dayton Flyers are once again overlooked nationally – unranked despite returning most of a team that ended up going to the Elite Eight – but still the center of attention locally. Phillips is sitting in a conference room not far from Miller’s office in the basketball facility. As he relives that moment, he holds out his arm for me to see. There are goosebumps.

Talking about the excitement of that day – when the basketball program that people in Dayton live and die by became a national phenomenon, the moment where a simple game meant the world to a place with a chip on its shoulder – he can still feel it. “I’m getting chills just talking about it,” he says.

Then he describes what happened next: hugging dozens and dozens of people in the street. Getting tossed up in the air in the crowd of thousands who’d flooded the student-housing area known as the Ghetto.

And then looking up in the chanting crowd and seeing a distinguished-looking older man, wearing glasses and a sport coat. That man was being raised in the air. The man’s right hand was outstretched. This was something that could only happen here, in a place where basketball means so much.

It was Dr. Dan Curran, the president of the university, and he was crowd-surfing.

But if you are looking at today’s Dayton basketball, a program brought back into the national conversation by a wild and unexpected run through February and March, you must start nearly 300 miles to the east, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where for some three decades John Miller stood in a high school gym, day after day after day, teaching the game of basketball.

Archie Miller’s father is a throwback. He is a drill sergeant, an impossibly hard worker who demanded the same out of his sons: Sean, who went on to star at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1980s and is now the head coach at Arizona, and Archie, 10 years younger, who was a 3-point-shooting savant at North Carolina State and is now the head coach at Dayton.

“There were no vacations, no days off,” Archie Miller said one recent afternoon, as he was getting ready for one of his typically intense practices. “His thing was we worked harder than anybody in the world. Growing up, there was great sacrifice in what we did. We didn’t have summer vacations. We didn’t go to the pool with our friends. We were playing, camps, working out, clinics, from summer to fall to the season. He taught you how to work. He taught you how to compete. He taught you a lot of things growing up that you do right now as a head coach, things you were doing when you were 8 years old, 12 years old. It was tough. It was demanding. But there’s a reason there’s been a lot of success.”

That intense focus you saw Dayton play with in the NCAA tournament, that team-first, well-oiled machine? You can trace that lineage directly back to the man who won more than 600 games and four Pennsylvania state championships and who molded his sons with a blue-collar, no-nonsense work ethic – a mentality that plays well these days in a city like Dayton.

Before he was Dayton’s coach, Archie Miller (left) was his brother Sean’s assistant at Arizona. The two teach the same brand of "work-til-you-get-it-right" basketball.

They weren’t all happy times for the Miller brothers back then – no way, not a chance. Friday nights in high school, Archie’s friends headed to football games and parties, but Archie was on the road with his dad — one more AAU tournament, one more opportunity to get better. John Miller demanded military-like discipline out of his players, especially his sons. He tried to make practices competitive; he tried to make them fun.

But talk back to John Miller at a practice? Roll your eyes at him? Show a lack of respect? Good luck, kid.

“Getting thrown out of practice but having to ride home with him afterward – that was the worst,” Archie Miller said. “The minute you crack, you mutter under your breath, he’s coming at you. As a 10th grader, you get kicked out of practice, but you have no way home. You sit there for two hours down in the locker room until he’s done, then you gotta get in that car and ride home. That’s a bad feeling. Sometimes it’s total silence, sometimes it’s telling you how it is.”

This is not to say John Miller was a tyrant. He was no Bobby Knight. But you definitely knew who was boss. Nor is it to say that his sons, both of whom led their teams to within a bounce or two of the Final Four last season, run their programs exactly the same way their father ran his teams. But the father’s attention to every single detail, that year-round obsession with working harder and getting better? You see that at Dayton, and at Arizona too. You see it in Archie Miller’s practices, where everything seems chaotic and competitive yet everything is organized to the minute. You see it in his results, where players like Devin Oliver, last season’s senior leader, transformed his game in four years. Just look at his 3-point shooting accuracy: 16 percent his freshman year, 21 percent as a sophomore, 28 percent as a junior, 40 percent last year.

“Those guys, they’re a lot like the way I am,” John Miller told me when I called him recently to talk about his sons. “They’re going 100 miles per hour every day. I wanted the rest of the team to sort of feel a little bit sorry for my two kids when they were playing. When you go in the locker room, none of them think the coach’s kid is getting all the breaks. And if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the exact same way. As a coach you see so many prima donnas, so much cutting breaks. But that doesn’t prepare you for anything.”

Sean Miller and Archie Miller, even though their teams now play a similar brand of basketball – pack-line defense, obsessive offseason focus on shooting, valuing ball movement and team chemistry – were extremely different as players. Sean was quiet but lethal, a pass-first point guard who didn’t betray emotions but who could tear your heart out. Archie was a gunner, the smaller, spunkier player who wore his emotions on his sleeve.

John Miller always knew Sean would go into coaching: The quieter, more analytical mind seemed like a perfect fit. Archie? He wasn’t so sure. The kid was such a competitor, but he wasn’t sure he had the focus to stick to the monotony of developing players. Turn coaching into a competition, though, and Archie became a natural.

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“A guy like Arch comes in there, it’s no nonsense,” John Miller said. “He fits right in with those people in Dayton because he just feels same way as they do: ‘I’m at Dayton, and we’re going to win this thing.’ ”

******

You know about the Cameron Crazies and all their body paint, about their campouts outside Cameron Indoor Arena, about their cult-like worship of Coach K. You know about Big Blue Nation, the nation’s most intense and paranoid fan base, about Kentucky fans obsessing over one early-season loss or about one big-time recruit signing elsewhere. You know about Indiana fans and their candy-stripe pants, and Louisville and the fan base that consistently ranks as the nation’s best in marketing studies, and about Syracuse, where an entire region seems to pack into the Carrier Dome to escape the frigid dreariness of upstate New York in February.

But what do you know about the University of Dayton?

Did you know that when Dayton went to its NIT title game back in 1951 the train station in town was jam-packed with fans, a mass exodus from Dayton to Madison Square Garden to watch their boys play?

Did you know that when the university’s old field house opened back in the 1950s, the school had to bring in extra bleachers from the football stadium to accommodate overflow crowds, and then the place sold out for the next two decades?

Did you know that Dayton is a city of inventors – the Wright Brothers, of course, but also the man who invented leaded gasoline and the electrical starting motor and Freon, as well as the man who invented the pull-tab for aluminum cans – and that the city’s history of innovation and creative thinking has been cited as one reason why the Flyers took a chance on first-time head coach Archie Miller?

Did you know that, despite one four-win season and one six-win season in the 1990s and a two-year stretch in which the Flyers won one conference game, season ticket sales – tickets that have in some cases been passed through three generations of families – barely dipped?

Did you know that this place once had one of the best job markets in the nation –more General Motors divisions than any place outside Detroit, the headquarters for Mead Paper Company, and 20,000 jobs at National Cash Register – before America’s manufacturing job market dried up and punched the Rust Belt in the gut?

And did you know that that blue-collar mentality still thrives in Dayton, just like it does in Pittsburgh, the place Archie Miller is from? And that Dayton natives like Dave Gasper, who used to own a successful software company here, believe Archie Miller’s status in this community has to do more with how his teams play basketball – not flashy, not self-promoting, always diving for loose balls – than with how many games they win?

“The areas of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana, we’ve all been beat up by the loss of manufacturing jobs, but there’s still a lot of pride in these communities,” Gasper told me. “We’re not going to run out of town and bail out. We’re gonna fight for what we’ve got. And Archie came from Pennsylvania with that same personality: We’re going to battle and do it with pride.”

Did you know that, the morning after Dayton upset Syracuse this March and went to its first Sweet 16 in 30 years, Father Dan Meyer, the priest at a local Catholic church, told his congregation that he wished he had red-and-blue Dayton Flyers vestments to wear at the pulpit?

Did you know that, when Memphis was flooded with thousands and thousands of Dayton supporters this March, a security guard turned to a man in Flyers gear and said, “My God, is anybody left in Dayton?”

Did you know that, earlier this year, the University of Dayton basketball program was given a star on the city’s Walk of Fame, alongside the Wright Brothers?

Dayton fans travel well — they nearly overran Memphis during the NCAA tournament.

And did you know that, this summer, when Archie Miller was taping a video for the Walk of Fame ceremony, he said this: “Outsiders are blown away, not just by the passion of the fans but about the consistency over a long period of time. This community really lives and dies and breathes with our basketball team. This is a community of tradition, grandfathers to fathers to sons and daughters.”

Did you know any of this? And did you know that in this town, all this stuff that sounds so cliché is very, very real?

******

It’s a steamy, late-summer day in Dayton, less than six months after these campus streets were flooded with March delirium. It’s not long before one of those intense shooting workouts. Archie Miller, the man tasked as caretaker of this basketball tradition, is pivoting around in his office – butt down, hands ready – explaining how to make a better shooter.

He shows the one-two step that leads into taking a 3. His plants his left foot, the dominant pivot, then the right foot, and he squares to the imaginary hoop, rising into a shot. Do it once, repeat. Do it again, repeat. Every time, the same way, so every shot feels the same.

Why is a team that did plenty of celebrating last March still so underrated? Well, hard work is the only way to fix that.

This is an integral part of the workmanlike way Miller approaches player development. He swears his Dayton team shoots more in workouts than any program in the country. He guessed that, in his four years playing at Dayton, Oliver, the senior leader on last year’s team, took somewhere around 500,000 shots. Every practice shot is recorded. Every player gets printouts of his shooting percentages from practices. It’s the monotony of repetition, learned from his blue-collar father, the specifics of this shooting program ironed out when Archie was an assistant to his brother at Arizona.

Example A: Jordan Sibert, the Flyers’ leading scorer and most consistent 3-point shooter last season. In two years at Ohio State, Sibert made only 21 3-pointers, at a 25 percent rate. After sitting out a year following his transfer to Dayton, Sibert made 83 3’s his junior year and made them at a nearly 43 percent clip.

“We took him for a whole year, and we broke him down,” Miller explains. “The rhythm of his footwork is so robotic now. You can take picture after picture and he always looks the same. When we got him, he’d catch it with his right foot first, or with his left foot first. He’d catch it with two feet in the air. He’d catch it going backwards. He had no discipline in his base. Most people who know great shooters, they got the greatest base, the greatest legs and balance that you can get. Their feet are always the same. And that’s something we teach regularly.”

A few hours later, I went over to the UD Arena, home of one of the best home-court advantages in college hoops, to watch one of these shooting workouts.

It was as advertised. In 45-second bursts, players took passes from managers and put up as many 3-point shots as they could. The player who made the most shots in each four-person competition didn’t have to run the 22-second suicide sprint after each drill. It was a frenetic pace, the most intense shooting drill I’ve seen, not just tossing the ball at the hoop but taking heavy-breathing game-like shots. I could see how this team only got stronger last winter as it raced to the Elite Eight.

After sprints, players would bend at the waist and tug on their shorts. One started walking toward the water cooler.

“You can’t touch that water until you’re done with free throws!” Miller yelled. “It’s like you’re in a desert!”

The player closed his eyes. Then he smiled, walked to the free-throw line, and – workmanlike, no complaints, rolling of eyes, a player made in the image of his coach and of this city – drained two shots in a row. He headed over to the water and took a long, cool, well-deserved drink, then walked back onto the court, because more work had to be done.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.