Millers are Western Pa.'s first family of basketball coaching
Dan Hurley and Archie Miller last week occupied opposing benches, connected by common ground.
Hurley was coaching Rhode Island in an Atlantic 10 game at Dayton won by the home Flyers, Miller's team.
Each belongs to a notable basketball family. They have older brothers who also are college coaches and fathers who left giant footprints as high school coaching legends.
As Bob Hurley Sr. profoundly influenced his sons, Dan and Bobby (the first-year Buffalo coach), John Miller made a powerful impact on the lives and careers of Sean and Archie Miller. The Hurleys and Millers are two of six brother-coach combinations in Division I.
The Miller family moved from Ellwood City to Beaver Falls so Sean could play for his dad, the famed Blackhawk coach. Archie followed a decade later. But the brothers' immersion in the game went deeper. Archie Miller said it would have been “impossible” to be a head coach without the teaching and atmosphere his father provided, the knowledge and discipline he instilled, round the clock.
“Car rides home after practice, driving from camp to camp,” said Archie, whose team is 17-8 in his third season at Dayton. “He's really teaching you how to be a coach, and you don't even realize it. He knew what hard work was. He knew what dedication was. He knew what preparation was. He knew how to communicate. It starts to come naturally to you. It's all you do. It's all you're around, and it's all you talk about.”
“If there was a more intense basketball coach, I don't know who it was,” Blackhawk athletic director Jack Fullen said.
“There's no question he was hard on me, and I'm grateful he was,” said Sean, in his fifth season at Arizona, where the second-ranked Wildcats are 23-2 after their upset loss to Arizona State on Friday. “He prepared me for what this job entails and life in general.
“There was a lot expected. He was demanding in what it takes to be the best, how you have to be the best, how you have to overcome things.”
John Miller coached at Blackhawk for 29 years. His teams went 583-222 and won eight WPIAL titles and four PIAA championships. He earlier coached for six years at Riverside High School in Ellwood City, winning another 74 games. He was inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame in 2012 along with Sean, an outstanding Blackhawk player who became a star point guard at Pitt. Another Miller, Lisa, played at Toledo and Elon.
Short, white-haired and full of pep at 70, John Miller each winter heads with his wife, Barb, to Tucson, Ariz., where Sean works. It's all there: a favorable climate, a son who coaches a college power and three grandsons who are “hoopin' all the time,” as he put it. John attends their games and schools the boys on the court. He has mellowed some.
“My dad's the type of grandfather they want to be around,” Sean said. “They know he's an accomplished coach, but there's more to him and Mom than just basketball. He's not the hard-driving coach he would have been coaching myself and Arch. It's more trying to make sure they love the game and play it the best they can.”
Sean Miller would love to do that, too. But the job of restoring a once-notable program, as he has done with at Arizona, erodes family time like battery acid. He is 45, and it gnaws at him. Still, he said, enjoys the work, especially helping his players improve in basketball and beyond.
With point guard T.J. McConnell, from Chartiers Valley via Duquesne, running the show on the court, the Wildcats are national championship contenders. The money isn't bad, either (Miller's contract extends through 2018 and increases to $2.6 million a year with incentives). But the pace and pressure and grind and endless details can be oppressive. He said he can't see himself coaching as long as his father, who retired at 62.
“There's a lot you sacrifice,” Sean said. “You're torn in a lot of different directions, and there are a lot of things you can't control.”
John Miller said, “Sean kind of needs me now because of the three grandsons.”
Before departing for the desert, John showed up regularly at a basketball school he runs out of a gym built in the back of the Beaver County Auto Mall. Boys and girls of all ages bent on improving their basketball skills enter through an unmarked red door.
John began teaching Sean the elements of the game practically at birth. Sean became a ball-handling prodigy, a dribbling trick artist who did clinics and halftime shows. He appeared on “That's Incredible” and, at 14, on the “Tonight Show,” dazzling Johnny Carson and a national television audience. Five years earlier, he had a cameo in the Pittsburgh-filmed movie, “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” He dribbled in jewelry stores and supermarkets and across Europe.
But behind the fun was an iron will.
“There were days we were at the end of the street playing football or Wiffle ball, and Sean was dribbling around the block with his left hand,” recalled Doug Tammaro, a friend of Miller's since they were kids in Ellwood City. “And we were like, ‘Hey, give it a rest.' And now he's the highest-paid person in the state.”
Ironically, Tammaro is an assistant athletic director for media relations at Arizona's rival, Arizona State.
“We all had a hobby growing up because of his dad,” he said. “All the guys in the neighborhood played basketball.”
Sean rarely addresses his dribbling artistry now. At some point, he grew weary of the trickery. It masked the rock-solid fundamentals that fueled his career in high school and then at Pitt as an All-Big East point guard.
“Once he started really playing, the trick stuff was over,” his father said.
Archie, 35, said Sean was more mentor than rival because of the age difference. They have grown closer as adults. As an assistant at N.C. State, Sean recruited Archie, also a point guard, to play for the Wolfpack. When Sean became head coach at Arizona, he hired Archie as an assistant.
At N.C. State, Archie said, “He wasn't my brother. He coached me harder than he did anyone else. It was sort of like with my dad. There were no free passes. But when he left, I was mature.”
Their personalities are different. The shared competitiveness is a given, but Archie, who had a nice playing career with the Wolfpack, is driven by the mentality of a 5-foot-9 guy who felt somewhat overshadowed by a more talented — and famous — big brother.
“Archie was always a little ornery,” Fullen said. “He didn't march to the same drumbeat as Sean.”
Archie's given name is Ryan. He acquired “Archie” at an early age from the cantankerous, grouchy TV character, Archie Bunker.
“I always felt that someone was looking at me and saying I'm not that good, not that big, he's Sean's brother,” he said. “I felt that all the time growing up. I wasn't as friendly. I didn't go out of my way to make conversation. I always felt like I had a chip on my shoulder.”
Working with Sean at Arizona, Archie frequently spoke his mind.
“Sean learned to figure out that his brother was pretty good,” John Miller said. “He knows he's a good coach.”