Miles ahead: Coach making basketball matter in Nebraska

BY Reid Forgrave • October 27, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. – Walk into the office of Tim Miles – the Nebraska basketball coach who in his second season here took the longtime basketball also-ran to its first NCAA tournament in 16 years – and you’ll see plenty of curious mementoes.

The giant red sombrero he got from winning a basketball tournament in El Paso. The black Stetson he got from a different tournament in San Antonio. A regional Emmy for a reality show he starred in when he was coaching at Colorado State. The many curios of a college coach who in 19 years has risen from tiny Mayville State of the NAIA North Dakota College Athletic Conference to leading a team that shocked people by finishing fourth in the Big Ten last season.

Miles disappears into an adjacent room for a moment, then reappears with a memento that has a more telling story behind it. It’s a copy of an old envelope from nearly 40 years ago, when Miles was 10 years old and growing up in Doland, S. D. The town had fewer than 300 people; Miles’ graduating class had 13. That school year, Miles was the captain of his basketball team in gym class. Printed on an envelope in a fourth-grader’s scrawl was Miles’ coaching philosophy.

It’s something he loves to show recruits.

1. Double team

2. Team work.

3. Throw the ball to Timmy and Karla.

4. Don’t foul.

5. If someone is open throw the ball to them.

6. Get a big lead and keep scoring if you can.

7. Get the rebound.

8. Get opened.

9. Don’t always shot if there is someone open.

The 48-year-old fountain of optimism kicked his feet up on his desk and smiled. He’s now the leader of one of college basketball’s most up-and-coming basketball programs. He’s wanted to be in this position as long as he can remember.

“My mom always asked me, ‘Tim, what do you want to do?’ ” he recalled. “I was in high school, and I told my mom, ‘I’m going to turn Notre Dame into a basketball school.’ ” Miles paused for effect. “But then I decided I wanted a real challenge, so I took the Nebraska job.”

******

On the surface, coaching Cornhuskers basketball sounds like the ultimate Sisyphean task: A basketball team in a football-mad state, one of two BCS schools that’s never won a game in the NCAA tournament. Consider the history of basketball indifference Miles was looking at when he first stepped on campus back in 2012. In its history, the basketball team had made one more appearance in the NCAA tournament (six) than its football team had national championships (five).

A word I’ve heard several people use to describe Nebraska basketball of several years ago was the same word Ronald Reagan used to describe America under Jimmy Carter: “Malaise.” The two coaches before Miles hadn’t even had a single winning season in conference play.

Nebraska needed someone at the helm who could see what it could be, not what it had been.

As Miles is apt to do, he looked around the corner and saw a shining, optimistic future.

A $20 million practice facility had opened the year before he arrived. A sparkling new $180 million arena in a hip, revitalized downtown area was set to open the next year, with Nebraska basketball as the primary tenant. There was a commitment from administration, coming down from then-athletic director (and Nebraska football legend) Tom Osborne, to make the newest member of the Big Ten nationally relevant in college athletics’ second-most-visible sport.

“When he was first hired, around this state and in Lincoln it was like, ‘Uh, who is Tim Miles?’ ” said Marc Boehm, the assistant athletic director at Nebraska who oversees basketball. “People were expecting a really big name. But when we sat down with him it was so evident from the very first interview. He just hit a home run. It wasn’t so much changing X’s and O’s. It was changing a culture.”

Boehm first noticed Miles from his days at North Dakota State. He remembered Miles’ scrappy team going on the road and beating a ranked Wisconsin team, then doing it again against a ranked Marquette team.

His reputation seemed to fit what Nebraska needed: a man who understood the Great Plains and a man who had built programs from scratch at his previous stops. Miles helped transition North Dakota State from Division II to Division I, and the program became the first team in nearly 40 years to advance to the NCAA tournament in its first year of eligibility. Then he took Colorado State from being a nationally irrelevant Mountain West school – 0-16 in conference play in Miles’ first season – to, in Miles’ final season, beating three ranked opponents and making its first NCAA tournament in a decade.

But Nebraska was a different challenge.

This wasn’t a budget-on-a-string place like North Dakota State, where a squirrel lived in the old basketball arena and where plaster fell from the walls of the basketball offices when football players lifted weights upstairs. This was a place that had all the money in the world but no hardware to back it up.

“It starts with the recruiting base, and the state of Nebraska just doesn’t have much Division I talent on a year-to-year basis,” said Dave Hoppen, who starred on Nebraska’s first NCAA tournament team in 1986 and is one of three Huskers whose numbers have been retired. “Anyone you bring in has to come from somewhere else because we don’t have the tradition. The perception has always been this is a football school, and that you’ll always be No. 2 if you play basketball. Those are things Coach Miles has never really cared about.”

What Miles did have to work with was new basketball facilities that are simply stunning – or absurd, really, for a school where basketball had always been an afterthought.

I don’t normally like to do this, because detailing the extravagances of college basketball facilities only fosters the gold-plated culture of the facility wars and makes you wonder about the dissonance of supposedly amateur sports being so lucrative. But I’m going to make an exception here. Because when I walked through Nebraska’s new practice facility and arena with Miles on a recent afternoon, my jaw dropped.

The players’ lounge was the nicest I’ve seen. There was a pool table where the felt was imprinted with a copy of the Cornhuskers’ basketball court. A 7-foot-deep couch sat in front of a bank of two 90-inch and three 65-inch televisions, each connected to an Xbox and a Wii. A nutrition center where players get customized protein shakes after workouts led to the showers, where iPods can connect to speakers in the ceiling. Televisions in the toilet stalls, each locker equipped with an iPad, towels in warmers, a weightlifting area where a player can sign in to a machine electronically and the machine will spit out the day’s workout: It was as if George Jetson himself had designed the place.

Pinnacle Bank Arena is a step up from even that.

It’s a 15,000-seat arena – the centerpiece of a $600 million downtown revitalization – built with basketball and with a home-court advantage in mind. Seats are stacked vertically, giving fans the sense you’re right on top of the court. Tickets are a hot commodity in a place where that’s never been true. Miles insisted the 1,500 student seats be right at midcourt, the first seven rows behind the benches, to create an atmosphere.

“That can really make a difference in a game,” Miles said.

These days, Nebraska fans are almost as crazy about basketball as football.

Last year it did: Nebraska lost only one home game, by one point to eventual Elite Eight team Michigan. A March win over Wisconsin in which Nebraska all but clinched its NCAA tournament berth provided one of the most electric environments in college basketball that season.

For Miles, yes, he took the Nebraska job knowing it would be a rebuilding effort. But he also knew this was the perfect place to rebuild, a program already on the rise that he could push even higher.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Boehm said.

******

It’s the Friday before Nebraska’s first home football game of the year, and Tim Miles is supposed to be meeting one of his athletic department bosses for lunch shortly.

Right now, though, he can’t find his car keys.

He lifts papers and books from around his office. He darts past the big red sombero and into a side room. He retraces his steps from the morning: “I walked in in my shorts,” he says – then his mind trails off. He grabs a spare set and then jets out the door.

This lapse in concentration is a rarity for Miles. He is an extraordinarily well-organized man, the rare coach who picks up accumulated junk from his car each time he drives it.

This attention to every little detail is a small thing, but for the CEO of a basketball program that is trying to become a national power, it will be huge. It’ll be about finding the talented recruits who fit his type of program, like Glynn Watson, a four-star point guard from Illinois who committed to Nebraska in September, or Andrew White, a hugely talented transfer from Kansas who’ll have to sit out the upcoming season.

Success will be Tim Miles being that bubbly Tim Miles, Mr. Nebrasketball himself, always tooting the horn of his program, but success will also be Tim Miles and his staff grinding the recruiting trail to find the types of talents that’ll build sustainable success. As any coach will tell you, if you want to win, you gotta get players.

“You don’t want to build a season – you want to build a program,” said Jim Molinari, one of Miles’ assistant coaches and a 19-year head coach himself, including a stint at Minnesota. “Tim was an elementary school teacher. If someone starts that way in life, there’s great genius in teaching with simplicity. An elementary school teacher learns to get complex concepts across in a simple way. He just has a great feel as a head coach.”

Terran Petteway should be among the Big Ten's best players this season.

After finishing fourth in the Big Ten last year, the upcoming season’s team has already made the transition from hunter to hunted. The three top guards are back, forming one of the longest backcourts in the Big Ten. Terran Petteway, a 6-foot-6 slashing wing who led the Big Ten in scoring last season, could be a dark horse for Big Ten player of the year after adding more muscle in the offseason. Six-foot-7 Shavon Shields averaged 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds a year ago. Six-foot-4 point guard Tai Webster spent the summer playing for the New Zealand national team, gaining valuable high-level experience. The core of the team – Petteway, Shields, and big man Walter Pitchford, a transfer from Florida – are all juniors, giving Nebraska a lot of experience in an age when that’s at a premium. And 6-foot-10 freshman Jacob Hammond will team with Georgetown graduate transfer Moses Abraham to give the Huskers two big bodies down low.

“Our saying is, ‘Us, always,’ ” Pitchford said. “Either you’re in for it or you’re not. We’re trying to put us back out there and put us on the map.”

There was a time when Nebraska was a sleeping giant. No more. “Last year we kind of snuck up on people, and that made it special,” Shields said. Now that Nebraska basketball has awakened, it’s a matter of seeing whether it can last. The Huskers have moved from being the big red circle on a Big Ten team’s schedule – a guaranteed win – to the red star that indicates an important game. Tim Miles’ team arrived a year or two ahead of schedule. Now he has to prove it’s built to last.

You could look at it in two ways: Tim Miles is in the early stages of pulling a Billy Donovan, who turned longtime football power Florida into a basketball power; or that he’s simply trying to pull a Tim Miles and do that same thing he told his mom he’d do way back in high school.

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


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