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Arizona Found Sean Miller When They Needed Him Most

Arizona Found Sean Miller When They Needed Him Most

In 2009, Arizona parted ways with head coach Lute Olsonand, using two interims for the next two seasons. To put the past behind them, Sean Miller was hired.

Editor’s Note: “A Decade Back” means just that. We’re looking ten years into the past at major events in the basketball landscape to relive the history. We should learn from the course of time and not soon forget the moments that brought us here.

In 2009, Arizona men’s basketball needed a new direction. Legendary head coach Lute Olson had struggled with health issues and erratic behavior the last few years until he finally retired in 2008. The Wildcats had two different interim head coaches for the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons – Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell – and needed to put the past behind them.

Enter Sean Miller and the next era of Arizona hoops.

Sean Miller in at Arizona

Sean Miller hired April 6, 2009 – 5 seasons as Xavier head coach, 120-47 (57-23) record, 3 Atlantic-10 regular season titles, 1 Atlantic-10 Tournament title, 4 NCAA Tournament appearances, 2 Sweet 16s, 1 Elite Eight

“[Lute] Olson took a leave of absence in the 2007-08 season but planned to return last fall. Just before the season started, he retired for health reasons.

Russ Pennell took over as interim coach with the understanding that he would not be Olson’s permanent replacement. Pennell guided the team to a 21-14 record and the program’s 25th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.” – Associated Press

“It took some time, but Xavier coach Sean Miller accepted the head coaching position at Arizona a day after it was offered to him.” – Andy Katz, ESPN

“Miller signed a 10-year contract extension with Xavier after the team went 30-7 and reached the regional finals in 2007-08. But the private Cincinnati school apparently could not match the Arizona offer. Arizona reportedly was willing to spend at least $2 million per year.” – Associated Press

“During the last three days I have gone through a difficult decision making process. I love Xavier University. Mike Bobinski, our director of athletics, has become a close friend of mine and my players are like a part of my family. These factors make it hard for me even considering leaving Xavier. However, I believe I have an opportunity of a lifetime to become the head basketball coach at The University of Arizona. A place that has competed for a national championship for more than two decades. To be in charge of a new era of Arizona Basketball and to build this program towards winning a national championship again is where my heart is. I look forward to this new day in my family’s life in Tucson, Ariz.” – Sean Miller

“If Miller was going to go anywhere I thought he would be looking for the Pittsburgh job to open up. It is surprising that he left for Tucson and didn’t wait for Pitt, which is his alma mater.” – Kyle Strittholt, Bleacher Report

“I’m very pleased the coaching-search process has been completed with the hiring of Sean. It’s been an exhaustive week, but it’s a good day to be a Wildcat. We believe we’ve brought in the best young coach in the country, a proven winner who will take this program into the future.” – Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood

“Miller wasn’t the first choice for [Arizona athletic director Jim] Livengood. Arizona tried in vain to convince Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and then-Memphis coach John Calipari (before he went to Kentucky) to take the job. Arizona even brought USC’s Tim Floyd on campus for an interview and made an offer. None, however, took the job.

As a precaution while the Wildcats waited on Miller, they made inquiries to Utah’s Jim Boylen, who had been an NBA assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. Boylen had strong ties in recruiting in the West, had rebuilt Utah and was a former assistant under Tom Izzo at Michigan State.” – Katz, ESPN

“The 40-year-old coach wasn’t Arizona’s first choice to succeed Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson. Tim Floyd rejected an offer to stay at Southern California.” – Associated Press

“Let me just clear up one thing and I did not make a comment about this and have not over the past week to 10 days and so on. Last week, the President Robert Shelton and I met with Tim Floyd of USC. We had asked here in what was not a secret to virtually the entire world if he was interested and gave him a time period to call me back if he was. He wasn’t, it wasn’t about Arizona, it was about where he was. No other, and I think this is important, no other candidate was formally visited with by me or the president, period. Many have been linked by the media … none in this group, I know, but many were linked by the media as far as Arizona and maybe had turned the job down and didn’t like the job. Let me just tell you how I feel in terms of where that stands. That is absolutely, completely false. Nobody turned this job down, so you need to know that. This is sometimes where egos get in the way of that. Sometimes people feel like they should be linked to it.” – Livengood at Miller’s introductory press conference

“One of the reasons Arizona struggled to find a replacement, ultimately for Lute Olson, is because of the rebuilding job Arizona faces. A number of coaches told ESPN.com that if they didn’t have to leave their current program, the money was comparable to what they were making, and they were winning, they didn’t want to start over, even at a program with the name recognition of Arizona. The Wildcats (21-14, 9-9 in the Pac-10), who reached the Sweet 16 and lost to Louisville in Indianapolis under interim coach Russ Pennell, is expected to lose its top two players (and possibly three) in juniors Jordan Hill, Chase Budinger and Nic Wise. The first two are locks for the first round of the NBA draft while Wise could try to play professionally instead of playing for his fourth coach in four years (Olson to interim coach Kevin O’Neill for the 2007-08 season to interim coach Pennell last season and then Miller).

The coaching carousel at Arizona has meant the Wildcats have missed out on two recruiting classes. Incoming recruit Brandon Jennings went to Europe, freshman Jeff Withey transferred to Kansas and top signee for next season, Abdul Gaddy, got out of commitment to go to rival Washington.” – Katz, ESPN

“Instead of coaching a team with aspirations of playing deep into March and even April, Miller will instead be coaching an Arizona team next year that may struggle to fill out its roster.

Juniors Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill are both considered to be mid-to-high first round picks and will undoubtedly enter the 2009 NBA Draft.

Fellow junior and point guard Nic Wise is rumored to be considering declaring for the draft as well, but is not as highly ranked as Budinger and Hill. Sean Miller’s only chance of not being the Indiana of 2010 is if Wise returns for his senior season.

Period.

Arizona Basketball will be completely lost without its senior leader at point guard, and while the team may not contend for NCAA Tournament (sic) even with Wise, they may not win a game in the Pac-10 without him.” – Blake Bartholomew, Bleacher Report

“Sean Miller was on our earliest radar screen many, many months back. One of the things that we liked about Sean, not just the fact of what he had accomplished at Xavier and the things he had accomplished in his coaching along the way, but all of the things about how he treated young men, what kind of person he was, what kind of friend he was. So those things, as much as we liked about him, early on he basically told us he was unmovable. He was at a great university, he worked for a great gentleman in Mike Bobinski, who was an incredible A.D., a close friend and a class act. What we did was we circled back last week. Through the proper procedures and I think we did it the way that it should be done, just to try to find out if it could be done, if we could attract this young family into Tucson, Arizona and to head up Arizona Basketball, and I’m so glad we did.” – Livengood at Miller’s introductory press conference

“After rejecting Arizona’s offer Sunday night, Xavier’s Sean Miller reportedly changed his mind this morning and has agreed to become the Wildcats’ coach: If it turns out to be true … who knows: maybe he waffles for the rest of the week … this is huge news for Arizona and big news for the Pac-10 …

My guess on the Miller hire – I haven’t had a chance to make calls since the news broke; this is based on what I know of Miller’s reputation in the industry – is that the league’s coaches are responding with mild concern:

Miller’s not Izzo or Pitino or Calipari or Wright or Few; nobody’s worried he’ll dominate the league. But he’s a very good young coach and, under his direction, the Cats will have to be dealt with down the road.” – Jon Wilner, Mercury News

“According to many throughout the world of college basketball, Sean Miller will be a success at Arizona. He will be able to recruit and win in the desert and even the most conservative of forecasts have the Wildcats back at elite status within five years.

More likely, however, is that Miller will have the Wildcats back competing for the Pac-10 championship within two or three years, and competing for Elite Eights and Final Fours after that.

Arizona Basketball is one of the top 10 programs in the history of college basketball, and it won’t take long for a coach and recruiter of Miller’s stature to turn the program around.” – Bartholow, Bleacher Report

Aftermath

Xavier hired Chris Mack to replace Miller. He led the Musketeers until 2018 when he left for the Louisville job. In that time, he continued and built on the momentum Miller made, putting Xavier consistently in the tournament and going on runs to the Sweet 16 in 2010, 2012 and 2015 and to the Elite Eight in 2017. That success was a big part of why the Big East added Xavier in 2013, a major move for the entire athletic department.

In his now 10 full seasons at Arizona, Miller has gone to five Sweet 16s and three Elite Eights, often having the Wildcats in the national conversation but narrowly missing out on the program’s first Final Four since 2001. He is 264-89 (129-51) in Tucson (.748) with five Pac-10/12 regular season titles and three conference tournament championships.

For all the on-court success, controversy has surrounded him and his program lately as Arizona has been implicated in the FBI’s investigation into the underbelly of college basketball. What happens with that remains to be seen and will have a major impact on how he and his time in Tucson are viewed.

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