TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller can’t remember his first experience in the gym with his father, John, but it was likely a good one. His best guess is that it was more than 36 years ago, when he was somewhere between 5 and 7 years old. Maybe earlier.
“He gave me the gift of the love for basketball,” Sean said, calling the father-son relationship a great one.
Basketball, undeniably, was at the heart of it. It’s always been in the Miller family. It’s in the blood. It’s in the mind.
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“Just growing up in the house we grew up in, basketball was just the topic of conversation,” Miller, 43, said of his childhood in Beaver Falls, Pa.
“We loved the game. It’s just something we did. Back then, everyone went to camp. There were a ton of games, pickup games. He always had his players in the gym working out. I was just right there with him all the time.”
Inspired and inherited.
“My dad gave me the greatest gift that any parent can give their son, and that’s time,” Miller said. “We spent an incredible amount of time together, even though he was working (coaching basketball) a lot of the time with his teams or at basketball clinics. There was never a place too big where I couldn’t follow.”
So Sean did. He was the consummate tag-along tot. When the basketball rims were too high for little Sean, he dribbled and dribbled and dribbled some more. No wonder Sean turned into this Johnny Carson Show basketball-displaying prodigy. Younger brother Archie was learning the game, too. Eventually, they became more than good at it.
The John Miller motto: Practice makes perfect. Well, practice and working your tail off.
“He talked about having an incredible work ethic,” Sean said. “He preached it and was absolute. He preached it to me when I was very young. He put it to me like this: ‘If you want to be the guy who plays on television, you have to put in an incredible amount of time and work. There’s a reason why not many guys get to do it. The cream always rises to the top. Stick with it and keep believing it. You’ll break through. Circumstances will be that if you keep the positives going every day and if you work hard and do the right thing, success will come.'”
It has, and in many forms. Earlier this month, both John and Sean Miller were inducted into the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League Hall of Fame. They represent the first father-son pair to be inducted at the same time.
John, now 69, was selected as a coach after a superb high school coaching career; Sean was selected as a player after having one of the finest careers in state history. Miller was on the team that won his father’s first WPIAL title in 1986 (he eventually had eight of them).
“It was really cool,” Sean said of the induction of the two together.
The Miller boys were destined to be coaches. For Sean, it hit home at some point late into his college playing career at Pittsburgh. If there was anything father taught son, it was perspective and limitations. You have to have the former, and there’s never an end to the latter.
“I had a very good experience playing,” Miller said, in what could be considered a big understatement. “But most of us try to stick to what we know and what we are comfortable with. Once I got into college, I wanted to be a coach and wanted to be a college coach.”
He’s turned into a pretty good one. Miller was in charge at Xavier from 2004-09, making three straight NCAA appearances and an Elite Eight run, before taking over at Arizona prior to the 2010 season. In 2011, Arizona won the Pac-10 regular season title and reached the Elite Eight. Earlier this week, Miller’s contract was extended through the 2016-17 season. Archie is now the head coach at Dayton after serving as an assistant on Sean’s staff at Arizona for two years.
Sean’s time as head coach nearly coincided with his father’s official/unofficial retirement. John has been out of coaching for seven years, although he still heads up a girls AAU team back home.
In 35 years, John went 657-280, including 583-222 while at Blackhawk High. Sean was a factor in plenty of the victories, helping to build Blackhawk into a western Pennsylvania power. With the elder Miller at the helm, the school won a WPIAL-record 111 consecutive section games.
“He was a great high school coach,” Sean said. “There are not many who are better or were better. He could have coached another 10 years, but one of the things he had was a great feel for his family. He sensed that I was going to get (deep) into coaching, and so was Arch.
“He wanted to pull back from what he was doing and re-engage with what we were doing.”
Earlier this year, John and his wife, Barbara, spent two months in Tucson watching their three grandsons grow and play basketball.
“It was nice to have them here for two months,” Sean said. “And it was good to get them out of the cold.”
The father and son are in touch at least every other week, and Sean said the old adage about a father growing wiser as a son grows older doesn’t apply in this case.
“I always believed in him, the things that he told me,” Sean said. “There were rare times I’d disagree with him or go counter with what he said. (But) I have always followed his lead.”