Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 11: Arizona’s Sean Miller. On Monday, we release No. 10.
With the foundation that Arizona’s Sean Miller has established, he’s poised to become one of the “next” coaching icons in college basketball.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said there’s no need to wait for the Krzyzewskis and Boeheims of the world to retire. He believes Miller belongs in the conversation of elite college basketball coaches "right now."
“Certainly you can look at a lot of coaches and their longevity,” said Donovan, who has Miller on his coaching staff for the USA Basketball’s Under-18 National team this summer. “But if you look at what Sean has done ..."
Miller took over at Arizona in the 2009-10 season after the transition to find Lute Olson’s successor was anything but seamless. Kevin O’Neill -- the one-time coach-in-waiting – took over on an interim basis but was fired after one season. Russ Pennell then took over during the 2008-09 season but he was not retained.
The situation Miller inherited caused Miller to focus on building “a player’s program.” His philosophy evolved from an unwritten plan to developing solid relationships with past, current and future players into the Wildcats’ definitive mantra.
Donovan said Miller has already turned around what was “a very, very difficult situation.”
“Coming from the Midwest -- and he’s a Pittsburgh guy -- and then going out West and having to establish recruiting ties and have people find out who he is and what he’s about, I think Sean is an elite coach right now,” Donovan said. “He’s done a terrific job.”
Success on the court has followed for Miller. The Wildcats claimed their second Pac-12 title under Miller this past season. They also returned to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time since the 2002-03 season.
Miller has reached the Elite Eight twice in his five seasons at Arizona. including last season as a No. 1 seed before suffering an agonizing 64-63 overtime loss to Wisconsin. Naturally, the next step for Miller is to make a Final Four and bring a national championship back to Tucson, Arizona, and the Wildcats return a team that will again be among the preseason favorites. But Donovan said Miller doesn’t need that for validation.
“I’ve mentioned this to Sean sometimes, a lot of times people identify success in terms of getting to a Final Four,” Donovan said. “And then if a guy gets to the Final Four a bunch of times and doesn’t get to the championship game they talk about that. And then if a guy gets to the national championship game but doesn’t win they talk about that.”
Donovan, who led the Gators to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, said sometimes “society tries to paint what success looks like,” and that winning a national championship “doesn’t really define you as a coach.”
“What defines you as a coach, in my opinion, is how your players talk about you and what kind of impact you make,” Donovan said. “At the end of the day every year there is only going to be one team standing. That’s it. And more often than not you’re not going to be that team.”
One of Donovan’s first interactions with Miller came back in 1986 when he was a senior guard at Providence and Miller was a high school senior making an official visit to the school.
Assigned to be Miller’s host, Donovan joked he knows why Miller ended up committing to Pittsburgh.
“According to him, when he saw how hard we worked and how hard we practiced, I think he was a little concerned with how he’d handle it,” Donovan said.
Miller’s got a firm grip on things now, which makes him a coach to keep an eye on for the future.