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Born for Basketball

Born for Basketball
By Skip Tate

While the kitchen table discussions at homes across the country revolved around the weather or school or politics, at the Miller household in Beaver Falls, Pa., it was basketball. Always basketball.

John Miller, the family patriarch, coached the basketball team at Blackhawk High School, and his passion for the sport shadowed him when he walked through the door at the end of each day. He was on his way to a career that would include more than 500 wins, four state championships and status as arguably the best-known person from Beaver Falls behind a charismatic quarterback named Joe Namath.

For his two sons, Sean and Archie, his love of the game offered them an example and direction. In the blue-collar towns of western Pennsylvania, two subjects dominate life: sports and steel mills. Be good at the first one or spend your life in the second. So they watched as he taught his players about practicing hard and being disciplined. They listened as he drilled them on technique and fundamentals. And they learned.

Those lessons ingrained so many years ago are now making their way to Xavier. Sean, the eldest of the sons, became the University’s head basketball coach in June, replacing Thad Matta who left for Ohio State University. It didn’t take long for the University to hire Miller—less than 24 hours after Matta resigned. It was frequently mentioned that if Matta should ever leave, Miller would be his replacement. The three years he was associate head coach under Matta were like daily job interviews, allowing him the chance to impress the administration. And he did. They knew his character and coaching skills. And they knew basketball flowed freely in his family’s blood.

By age 5, Sean was so adept at dribbling it landed him an appearance on the Tonight Show. He later earned jobs at summer basketball camps around the country putting on ball-handling exhibits, eventually dribbling his way to a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh. He became an all-Big East point guard and still ranks among the conference’s top players in assists and free throw percentage.

A foot injury kept him from pursuing a professional career, but couldn’t keep him from following in his father’s footsteps. Before he even got a chance to apply his degree in communications, he was offered a coaching position at the University of Wisconsin. He took it. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he told his dad.

For 12 years he worked his way up the assistant coaching ladder—Miami University, Pittsburgh, North Carolina State. Basketball publications began naming him as one of the top head coaching prospects in the country after he came to Xavier in 2001 to work with Matta. He even interviewed for a few positions, but turned them all down because he could envision himself at Xavier’s helm if Matta ever left.

Much to everyone’s surprise, that’s what happened, leaving Dawn Rogers—just one month into her new job as director for athletics—with the task of finding a replacement. It was an easy search, never leaving the department’s fourth floor offices. Miller was the first and only person she called. They met within an hour of Matta’s official announcement on July 7, and Rogers made the official offer the next morning. By 2:30 p.m., Miller was standing in the Conaton Board Room being announced as the new head coach.

“Sean’s been a big part of our success over the past three years,” says Rogers, “and I know he is the right choice to build on that success for our future. Our best days are yet to come.”

Although the coach is new, don’t expect a lot of changes on the court. Miller had a great deal of influence on the players who were recruited and the action on the court, and that will carry over, he said. And don’t expect any more changes in the coaching position, either.

“This is where I want to be,” he says. “I come with the perspective of the highest level of basketball, and I came to Xavier because I knew there was something special about this place. I looked at it as a diamond in the rough—that it was the highest level I could be. “And when you’re tied with Duke coming out of the final TV timeout and just minutes away from the Final Four, I don’t know what else is out there that is bigger than that. When you have three players drafted into the NBA in the last two years, I don’t know what’s bigger than that. This is the pinnacle of basketball.”

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