Sean Miller clarifies Xavier-Cincy comments

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
11:59
AM ET
So, Sean Miller's comments on the Xavier-Cincinnati fight kind of turned into a thing. Judging by my Twitter "interactions" (thanks for the increasingly confusing interface, Twitter!) and the post's comments section, the reaction came in two flavors:

1. Wow! I can't believe he would say that!

2. Brennan, you big jerk! You took Miller out of context! You owe him an apology!

Yes, apparently some people think I owe Coach Miller an apology. Most of these people seem to be Arizona fans, but maybe that's not entirely the case. (That particular critic believes my definition of "toughness" was a "4th grade textbook definition," which is weird, because I don't remember learning the word "toughness" in fourth grade, especially not as it relates to basketball. If our grade schools have begun including this in the curriculum, I hope the definition is closer to Jay Bilas's than Xavier's was on Saturday. But hey, I'm not a fourth-grade teacher. What do I know?)

Either way, Miller has since issued a clarification on his statements; since we were so critical, it's only fair to include that clarification in this space. Here are Miller's original comments after Arizona's win Saturday, which were first published in the Arizona Daily Star:
"If Cincinnati tries to do what they did (Saturday) they're going to get a fight," Miller said after UA beat Clemson on Saturday. "So I'm proud of those guys." [...] "They have a chance to win it all," Miller said. "It's just such a great story. I'm really proud of those guys and I watch them any time that I can. No one's going to bully those guys."

Miller said he was not surprised Saturday's Xavier-Cincinnati intra-city rivalry game featured a brawl that resulted in eight player suspensions. "Happens every game. I'm proud of those guys, I really am," Miller said of Xavier, his former team. "I would fully expect there to be a fight."

Here is the clarification Miller released in a statement Monday:
"These remarks were in response to a question as to whether I have been following Xavier's on-the-court successes this season," Miller said in the statement. "My comments were directed toward my admiration of their on-the-court toughness and their respective approach to giving great effort as a team.

"In no way was I condoning a fight. At the time of my press conference, I was only responding to my belief in several players that I once coached and a head coach, Chris Mack, that I have great respect for."

There is some concern about whether Miller was taken out of context here. Helpfully, Arizona Daily Star reporter Bruce Pascoe recounted the full context of the postgame discussion, including the nature of the questions Miller was asked, in a story Monday night. This is a long blockquote, but I'm not sure how to shorten it without losing all this oh-so-valuable context, so please bear with me:
First, Greg Hansen asked Miller if he has had time to stop and appreciate what Xavier is doing. Miller's response: "Yeah, it's incredible. I think they can win the national championship. Chris Mack is a great friend, somebody who worked with me close at Xavier. They have the balance of upperclassmen that played on a Sweet 16 team in my last year -- Terrell Holloway, Kenny Frease, Mark Lyons sat out (that season). So they're old. And then he's done a great job of infusing that experience with renewed talent. They're deep, they're tough, they don't back down. If Cincinnati tries to do what they did today, they're going to get a fight. That's what happened. So I'm proud of those guys."

Later in the postgame news conference, I asked Miller if he had a chance to see the fight (he said he did) and if he was not surprised considering the heated nature of that rivalry. Miller's response: "Happens every game. I'm proud of those guys, I really am. I would fully expect there to be a fight.

"You know every coach has his favorite programs and Dayton's certainly one of mine, so it's kind of awkward because Xavier and Dayton (where his brother, Archie, is head coach) are arch enemies. But I hope Xavier wins all their games except when they play Dayton -- I'm just not going to comment, I'll go away for that one. But they have a chance to win it all. It's just such a great story. I'm proud of all those guys and I watch them any time that I can. No one's going to bully those guys. I know that."

I'm not really sure how that context changes the nature of the comments at all. Initially, Miller was responding to a question about Xavier's successes this season, but he brought up the fight on his own. ("If Cincinnati tries to do what they did today, they're going to get a fight. That's what happened. So I'm proud of those guys.") Then, when he was specifically asked about the fight, he said he would "fully expect it" and, again, that he's "proud of those guys." What about that statement, exactly, needs clarification? What about the nature of his comments changed thanks to context?

Here's the thing: This is really not that big of a deal. Compared to the actual fight itself, it pales in comparison. So a former coach is proud of his guys for not being "bullied" by a crosstown rival. OK. Miller probably shouldn't have said that, and he no doubt agreed, hence the hasty "clarification." Really, though, there are far worse things in the world. I am not doing the outraged sportswriter bit. I promise.

But Miller's comments were more than a little bit tone-deaf. Why? The nature of the Cincinnati-Xavier rivalry. After Saturday's episode, it's a question as to whether these two teams can safely continue one of the most intense, competitive, heated -- and largely underrated -- rivalries in college basketball. Miller's comments didn't just misappropriate what toughness on the basketball court really is. (Don't take my word for it; take Jay Bilas's.) They spoke to a systemic problem. If a former coach still sees what happened Saturday through the prism of rivalry -- essentially blaming Cincinnati for the fight when Xavier players Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons were talking to the Cincinnati bench and instigating dust-ups throughout their blowout second half; the point is everyone was to blame -- then how can current coaches, players and administrators move forward?

That's my issue. I think it's a fair one. Some may disagree, especially if "some" happen to be Arizona fans sensitive to criticism of their coach. I get it. But three things are worth remembering here. One: Miller is a very good coach whose work I deeply respect, one who has Arizona on the fast-track to elite status. Two: Miller's comments weren't taken out of context by the Arizona Daily Star. Three: They were misguided.

Some criticism was warranted. Some criticism was received. So it goes. I think we can all move on now, yes?

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