TUCSON, Ariz. — Arms waving in and out, eyebrows raising up and down, Arizona coach Sean Miller repeats the same line five times in rapid-fire fashion, his voice rising as he continues.
“He touched the ball, he touched the ball, he touched the ball, he touched the ball, HE TOUCHED THE BALL!” Miller said, pausing for a smile that was closer to evil than happy. “That’s a hard one when you work August, September, October, November, December, January, February, and here we are.”
It had been more than 20 minutes since Miller’s Wildcats had lost to UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, plenty of time for the coach to cool off.
Yet, as he wound his way through the postgame press conference, Miller was still wound up about a technical foul he received for questioning a double-dribble call on senior Mark Lyons, a whistle he still believed wasn’t warranted.
The moment was quintessential Miller.
Raised by a hard-nosed basketball coach in hardscrabble western Pennsylvania, he played with an edge and coaches the same way.
Even in the high-intensity world of college basketball coaches, Miller stands out, a can’t-stand-losing mentality driving him to become one of the best in his business.
The Twitter bio of Miller’s wife, Amy, says it all: “Wrangler of 3 boys and wife to a very intense guy.”
“He’s a competitor,” Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. “And that’s makes him who he is.”
It’s what Miller has always been.
A native of Beaver Falls, Pa., he grew up in a blue-collar area about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh where hugs were hard to come by and dirt under the nails was how things got done.
Miller’s father, John, was a legendary coach high school coach who led Blackhawk High School to four state titles and 111-game winning streak. A no-nonsense coach and father, John helped develop all three of his kids — Sean, Archie, now the head coach at Dayton and Lisa — into Division I players along with helping to groom his cousin, John Calipari, now the head coach at Kentucky.
After an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as a 14-year-old — a star turn he doesn’t particularly like to talk about — Sean Miller achieved his lifelong goal of becoming a Division I player by walking on at Pittsburgh.
But Miller didn’t just make the team.
Using his knowledge of the game, communication skills and unquenched desire to outwork everyone, he became starting point guard and de facto leader as a freshman on a team that included future NBA players Jerome Lane and Charles Smith
A gritty player who never backed down from any person or any challenge, Miller led the Panthers to the NCAA tournament three times and was 10th in career free throw percentage in Division I history when he graduated in 1992.
“Having the opportunity to play in the Big East when I did and who I was, it was tough to survive,” Miller said. “You had to be able to do it and if you’ve learned how to survive in this game, as you become a coach, you have a lot of those same qualities.”
Miller’s inner drive kept fueling success once he became a coach.
A superb recruiter who can manage the game and motivate his players, Miller has developed into one of college basketball’s best coaches at 44.
He led Xavier to the NCAA tournament four of his five years, including the regional rounds the final two, and took Arizona to the West Regional final in his second season in the desert.
After a third straight among-the-best-in-the-nation recruiting class, Miller has the 21st-ranked Wildcats back in the bracket this season — opening Thursday against Belmont in Salt Lake City — and has built a firm foundation for a program that had fallen into disarray following the retirement of coach Lute Olson.
“What we have ahead of ourselves is very bright because of the work Sean has put in,” Byrne said.
Miller’s burning intensity has fueled his success.
It can be, at times, blunt, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Miller’s honesty has certainly worked well for him on the recruiting trail.
Unlike some coaches who make promises of playing time or roles on the team, Miller only tells potential players they will get a shot to play at one for one of the best programs in the country, laying out the system at Arizona and how it works. His recruiting classes are annually among the best in the country.
On the court, Miller is always upfront about his expectations and evaluations of players, which, in the heat of the game, can lead to a few choice, top-of-the-lungs words or one of the best coach’s death stares in any sport anywhere.
For some, it’s too much; point guard Josiah Turner and forward Sidiki Johnson left last year’s team after coming in as part of Miller’s previous recruiting class.
For most, though, Miller’s honesty is a blessing, giving players a true gauge of where they stand and what’s expected, the underlying agenda to make them better, not belittle them.
“Some people let it get to them, but they have to understand that it’s all love,” Arizona senior Solomon Hill said. “He wants the best for you every time you hit the floor. He doesn’t want you to give anything less than your best effort. His an ex-player and when you’ve got a guy like that who would possibly jump in your body to have a chance to play basketball again — he just wants it and you have to want it more than him.”
It would be difficult to find anyone who wants it more than Miller.
Basketball has been a part of his life since he was a tiny tot and he’s been involved at the collegiate level as a player or coach for 26 years.
Being a college coach can be an all-consuming profession and Miller still has that out-work-everyone-else mentality, spending countless hours in the film room to make sure he and his team are prepared.
Miller is, according to his wife, a much different person at home, a doting father and the low-key antitheses to his on-court personality.
Still, it isn’t always easy to turn off the switch on a motor that revs so high.
“In my best attempt to be (relaxed), we’re all different between the lines and in the workplace than we are at home,” Miller said. “But it’s hard to turn off. This isn’t a job where you go home on Friday about 4:30 and you start to think about things on Monday when you’re driving back in. In those three days, 15 things will change on you and that’s what you sign up for, that’s the pressure of college sports in today’s world.”
Sometimes it can be tough to keep all that pressure in during the heat of a game.
Miller is as animated as any coach in the game along the sidelines and his voice is usually shot after games after all the screaming at his players and the officials.
Miller went a little too far after the UCLA game and was fined $25,000 by the Pac-12 for, as the conference said, confronting a game official on the floor and acting inappropriately toward a staff member in the hallway.
That slipup was an anomaly, though.
Most of the time, Miller adroitly walks the line between intense and overbearing, fighting for his team with every ounce of himself without throwing a punch.
“He’s actually one of the most rational, level-headed coaches I’ve ever dealt with,” Byrne said. “But he certainly brings that competitive nature to the University of Arizona every day.”
It’s been that way his entire life.