All-access recruiting with Tim Miles
Shadowing Nebraska's new coach in Vegas to capture a typical day on the circuit
LAS VEGAS -- Tipoff is in four minutes, and Tim Miles has missed the exit to Bishop Gorman High School.
"God bless-ed!" he says. "We're not going to be there for the jump ball."
The new Nebraska coach zigzags from lane to lane on Interstate 15 in Las Vegas, eventually taking the next exit and circling under the highway. Frustrated with his Garmin, Miles threatens to treat the GPS device the same way he did the "fuzz-buster" -- his term for radar detector -- that failed to prevent him from receiving a pair of speeding tickets a few years ago.
"After the second one," he says, "I threw it as far as I could into some cornfield in Minnesota."
Miles chuckles as he zooms toward the gym to recruit. So much has already happened on this Thursday in Vegas -- and it's only 8 a.m.
Less than eight hours earlier, as his plane descended toward the McCarran Airport runway, Miles pressed his cellphone against the window and snapped a photo of Sin City's infamous Strip.
"Arrived in LAS. Ready for some more serious hoops!!" the coach tweeted at 12:21 a.m.
Miles, who had spent the previous evening recruiting in Kansas City, got lost on the way to the Marriott and didn't make it to bed until 1:30 a.m. His wake-up call came five hours later and he was out the door by 7:30 -- all so he could be at Bishop Gorman by 8 to watch Nick Fuller, a 6-foot-7 forward from Wisconsin who ranks near the top of Miles' wish list from the Class of 2013.
And now he's running late.
"I'm not sure if recruits notice those things or not," Miles says as he pulls into the high school parking lot at 8:05. "I think all of these kids realize that stuff happens, that life happens. The summer is tough on the players. But it's tough on the coaches, too."
While his wife, Kari, has been packing up their belongings in Fort Collins, Colo., where Miles coached the past five seasons at Colorado State, Miles has used the four months since his hiring at Nebraska to play "catch-up" in recruiting.
The Cornhuskers finished last in the Big Ten in 2012 and have never -- repeat, never -- won an NCAA tournament game. Their last appearance came in 1998. Just as he did at previous stops at North Dakota State and CSU, Miles is confident he can change the culture in Lincoln.
It would certainly help if his first recruiting class was a strong one.
As the July recruiting period neared its end, Miles granted ESPN.com full access last week during his 22-hour visit to Las Vegas, where he hopscotched between two AAU tournaments, had lunch with his agent, hobnobbed with other coaches, sent countless texts and cracked jokes in the stands.
Shuffling to his seat exactly four minutes after tip, Miles will soon illustrate how hectic life can be as a college basketball coach on the summer recruiting circuit. He has no idea that 16 hours later he'll return to his plane with more than just a better feel for the players he's pursuing.
He'll also board Husker One -- Nebraska's private jet -- with a rather unlikely guest.
Miles steps off the elevator and into the lobby of the Marriott on Convention Center Drive. The Las Vegas Strip is just 2.6 miles away, but the Nebraska coach has no plans to roll dice at The Cosmopolitan or see Blue Man Group at The Venetian.
"I never stay on the Strip," he says. "Too many distractions."
Miles wheels his suitcase through the parking lot and tosses it in the back of his rental car, a silver Jeep Liberty. His hotel stay lasted all of six hours. Tonight he'll return to Kansas City, where he'll recruit on Friday. Then it's back to Vegas early Saturday morning.
Or at least that's the plan.
Miles backs out of his parking space and points to an acquaintance attempting, unsuccessfully, to open the door of a white Altima a few spots away.
"He's at the wrong car!" Miles chuckles as the man walks to a different vehicle. "That guy is an AAU coach. They travel as much as we do. Altimas, Impalas, Malibus sometimes you forget what you're driving. It all runs together after a while."
Miles arrives at Bishop Gorman and fails in his attempt to find a shaded parking space. Before he can enter the gym, he must pay $25 for a "day pass" -- and he'll have to shell out another $300 if he wants a packet containing roster and contact information for the 200-plus teams participating in the Fab 48 tournament.
Luckily, Miles' assistant coach already had purchased one earlier.
Heads turn as Miles, wearing glasses, hustles toward an open folding chair along the gym wall. At 6 feet and 170 pounds -- "wiry strong," he jokes -- the 45-year-old Miles isn't the most intimidating of figures. And he hardly carries the same kind of celebrity as veterans such as Tom Crean, Ben Howland, Tim Floyd and Mike Montgomery, all of whom are in the gym.
Still, in basketball circles this offseason, not many coaches have generated as much buzz as Miles.
Long regarded as a football school, Nebraska's recent commitment to improving its basketball program has garnered national attention. The Huskers have spent more than $200 million on a new training center and 16,000-seat arena, the latter of which is set to open next year.
With a seven-year contract that pays $1.4 million annually, Miles is earning significantly more than the $900,000 the school paid each season to former coach Doc Sadler, who was fired in March.
"We've got everything we need to be successful," Miles says. "There's no reason we shouldn't be able to win. We've got to be among the top five or 10 in the country when it comes to facilities."
Recruits are taking notice. Miles estimated that nearly 50 prospects have made unofficial visits to Nebraska since his hiring. Transfers from schools such as Florida and Texas Tech now call Lincoln home, and when it comes to excitement Cornhuskers fans are buzzing about the program's future like never before.
"I've actually had people follow me into the restroom to wish me luck," Miles says. "The support is going to be there. These people are dying for a winner."
The question now is whether Miles can deliver one.
He certainly has proven capable in the past. More than anything, Miles' career has been defined by his ability to turn around dormant basketball programs.
At Southwest Minnesota State, Miles guided a team that had one winning season in 13 years to a conference title. He led North Dakota State to road victories at then-No. 12 Wisconsin and then-No. 8 Marquette during its transition to Division I. A season after he left, NDSU became the first school since 1971 to earn an NCAA tournament berth in its first year of eligibility.
Miles' first Colorado State team went 7-25. Five years later, the Rams finished 20-12 and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
"We have a track record that says our recipe works," Miles says. "We just need guys who are willing to take that leap of faith, guys who want to be there on the ground floor, who want to build their own tradition.
"They'd be able to say, 'I was the first guy to commit to Coach Miles in that '13 class. I started that at Nebraska.' It's something they'd carry with them for a lifetime."
Miles, who can sign as many as five players this fall, is hardly taking a passive approach when it comes to recruiting. Rather than settling for "second-tier" prospects, Miles is competing for players with schools such as Wisconsin, Memphis, Georgetown and Villanova.
One of them is Fuller, who will arrive in Lincoln for an official visit Aug. 31 and attend the Cornhuskers' season-opening football game the following afternoon.
"Coach Miles has recruited me as hard as any coach," says Fuller, who has offers from Minnesota, Marquette and others. "I can tell he's a good guy and that he's the right person to turn around that program. I'm excited to go to Lincoln to see everything for myself."
With Miles watching from the sideline, Fuller's team loses a close game to the KC 76ers, but the coach seems anything but discouraged. As he walks toward his car, Miles lifts his phone from his pocket and begins to send a text, presumably to Fuller.
But before Miles can hit "send," a message appears on his screen.
"Please call me," it reads.
NCAA rules allow coaches to confirm whether they're recruiting a specific player, but they're prohibited from discussing the prospect any further with the media.
Still, the longer he's on the phone, it becomes clear that Miles is speaking with someone competing in the same Kansas City tournament Miles attended a night earlier.
According to reports, Miles was there scouting Akoy Agau, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound power forward who is rated as the 46th-best prospect in the Class of 2013 by ESPN.com.
Even more important is that Agau hails from nearby Omaha, Neb. As is the case at any school, the pressure to keep local talent close to home is immense, especially considering Sadler never signed a Nebraska product during his six-year tenure.
In a recent column, Steve Sipple of the Lincoln Journal-Star suggested that if Miles convinced Agau to play for the Huskers, "success-starved Big Red fans would throw a parade in the Haymarket district, with the fun perhaps starting and ending where the new arena is currently under construction."
Agau is heavily considering Georgetown and has offers from schools such as Tennessee, West Virginia and Connecticut. But he has told recruiting analysts that Nebraska is definitely in the mix.
Pulling out of the parking lot, Miles' voice rises as he speaks into the phone. He gives the prospect updates about other players he's recruiting and promises to be at his game in KC at 9 the following morning.
Miles wishes the recruit luck, puts his phone in the center console and smiles.
"I love it when guys ask questions like that," says Miles, declining to identify the caller. "I like it when they say, 'Coach, who else are you recruiting? What's the team going to look like? What's your estimate on when we can get this done?'
"Those are the best questions in the world, because it means the kid is about the right things. It means they're about winning. They're not asking how many shots they're going to get or how many minutes they're going to play. They're asking, 'Who is going to be with me?' That's great."
A year ago Miles wouldn't have been able to have such a conversation with a recruit -- at least not during the summer. But in June the NCAA enacted a new rule that allows coaches to make unlimited phone calls and texts to players who have completed their sophomore year of high school.
The NCAA's decision has been popular with coaches such as Miles who rely heavily on relationship-building during the recruiting process. At the same time, Miles says he's careful not to overdo it when it comes to contacting prospects.
"I want these kids to hear our message," he says, "but I don't want anything more than that. I'm not trying to garner a friendship or bug these guys. We're just trying to let them know what we're about.
"I think accessibility is really important in the recruiting process. If there's truly a problem with kids transferring, it's because of our lack of access to the prospects and not being able to get to know them before they sign. Having the ability to text I mean, you have to live in their world sometimes."
Miles enters I-15 and heads north toward Rancho High School, again missing his exit. When the same thing happened during this tournament last summer, Miles says he found the nearest Best Buy, marched into the store and said, "Give me the most expensive Garmin you have."
Now it may be time for an upgrade.
The temperature has soared to 104 degrees as Miles parks under a tree at Rancho, hoping to keep his steering wheel cool.
Miles walks into the gym and exchanges pleasantries with Crean of Indiana, Gregg Marshall of Wichita State and Greg McDermott of Creighton before taking a seat next to Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger. The two were competitors when Kruger was at UNLV and Miles at Colorado State. But as Miles describes the fundraiser he attended in Kruger's immaculate Las Vegas home this summer -- country star Toby Keith was there, too -- it's obvious they're also close friends.
Miles isn't carrying a pen and paper, but it's clear he's keeping mental notes in his head as he spends the next few hours watching teams from Texas, California, New Jersey and Minnesota.
Throughout the afternoon, Miles shares his thoughts on what he looks for when recruiting a player. To him, it's not always about who has the quickest first step or the smoothest stroke.
"I try to determine if a kid is going to be a good teammate," he says. "When a guy falls down, does he go over and help him up? How does he react when one of his teammates makes a good play? How does he interact with officials?
"When something goes wrong, does he dwell on it or concentrate on the next play? One time I was arguing a call and the ref said, 'Coach, you're never going to be a history major and make it in this business.' In other words, you can't live in the past. You've got to concentrate on to the next-best action."
Miles said it's a turnoff when players look into the stands to see who is recruiting them, or when they bark back and forth with a heckler. He also pays attention to who is on the floor at key moments during games. Miles becomes skeptical when AAU coaches brag about a player one day before leaving him on the bench during crunch time the next.
Then there's the most important factor.
"Seriously," says Miles, pointing. "See that kid right there? Look at all the hair on his legs. That means he's probably finished growing. Hairy legs at that age is a bad sign."
Seated nearby, one of Miles' coaching colleagues doubles over in laughter. Not because Miles is wrong. He's just, well funny. Really funny at times.
Miles sometimes sent tweets from the bench during Colorado State games. When a loose ball rolls toward him on the sideline at a recruiting event, he has been known to pick it up and pass it to the prospect he's there to evaluate, no matter where the player is on the court.
In Las Vegas, Miles spends part of one game shadowboxing near the baseline with Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, who recently broke his hand during a workout with a heavy bag. Later in the day, when Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun of Connecticut stands in front of the bleachers and blocks his vision of the court, Miles turns to a friend.
"Dare me to yell, 'Down in front,'" he whispers.
With 18 seconds remaining in a close game, a guard receives an inbounds pass and holds up his index finger, signaling for "one last shot."
"Three more possessions -- guaranteed," Miles says.
Miles is quick to respond when a colleague approaches to congratulate him on his new job.
"I hear they already love you in Lincoln," the man says.
"Yeah," Miles laughs. "That's because we're still undefeated."
All day long, Miles carries himself with confidence and ease. Nebraska's program may seem out of place among college basketball's heavy hitters, but make no mistake: The Cornhuskers' new coach fits right in.
Perhaps that's why Michigan State assistant Dane Fife doesn't hesitate to approach Miles shortly after 1 p.m. at Rancho High. He's heard that Miles is using a private plane to travel back to Kansas City that evening, and Fife is seeking a ride.
Not for himself, but for his boss.
"Is there any chance you could take Coach with you?" Fife says. "Do you have room?"
The predicament does seem rather strange. Tom Izzo, a future Hall of Famer and 2000 national champion, is booked on an early-morning commercial flight to Kansas City while Miles, a first-year coach at a school with zero basketball tradition, has the luxury of a private aircraft and can leave whenever he pleases.
Miles and Izzo have only met a handful of times and will soon stare at each other from opposite sidelines in the Big Ten. Still, Miles doesn't hesitate.
"Sure," he says. "I'll take him."
Fife phones Izzo with the good news as Miles heads for the door.
"I'm hungry," he says. "Let's go eat."
Miles snakes through the Wynn Hotel & Casino, past a handful of blackjack and craps tables and waitresses carrying cocktails. When he finally enters the Country Club restaurant, a hostess is there to greet him.
"Are you here to see Mr. Just?" she says. "He's been waiting quite a while."
Seated near the back of the room, next to a window overlooking the Wynn golf course, is Miles' agent, Bret Just. Hired a little more than a year ago by the Creative Artists Agency, Just's main job is to work with college basketball coaches.
We have a track record that says our recipe works. We just need guys who are willing to take that leap of faith, guys who want to be there on the ground floor, who want to build their own tradition.” -- NU coach Tim Miles
South Carolina's Frank Martin is a client, along with Rutgers' Mike Rice, Lamar's Pat Knight and high-profile assistant Jerrance Howard of SMU. Drinking iced tea and nibbling on dinner rolls, Just hardly seems bothered that Miles is 45 minutes tardy.
"That's the life," Just says later. "These guys are busy especially in July."
Although there is no true purpose to the meeting -- "I just needed to make sure I got a free meal out of this trip," Miles says -- the coach and agent talk at length about Miles' contract, social media strategies and other trends in the business.
After a few minutes, Miles receives a picture message of his 8-year-old son, Gabriel, going down a water slide in South Dakota. The photo was sent by Miles' in-laws, who are watching his children while his wife packs.
Like most road-weary coaches in July, Miles misses his kids dearly. He also has a daughter named Ava, who is 12.
"It gets me down, no doubt about it," Miles says. "The other day my son said, 'Sometimes I don't like to talk to you when you're gone because it makes me miss you. Sometimes I'm just watching TV.'"
Folks have called about the entertainment center -- which includes a 100-inch TV -- they're installing in his new home. Work is also being done to the massive grill on his deck.
For a few moments, though, Miles is able to escape all distractions and enjoy his lunch.
Grease drips from the patty and pools on the plate as Miles polishes off a Black Angus sirloin cheeseburger. He then moves on to his side dish, a mound of parmesan-truffle potato chips that he washes down with a Coke. Not Diet Coke, mind you, but the real thing. The hard stuff.
An avid runner, Miles is far from out of shape. But he says his travel schedule has prevented him from exercising during a three-week span that's taken him from Philadelphia to Indianapolis to Milwaukee (three times) to South Carolina to Kansas City (twice) to Las Vegas.
"I got here at 1:30 in the morning and was up by 6:30," he says. "When am I supposed to work out? You can't help but feel crappy. And you never sleep well. It's always a different bed, a different pillow. There's no consistency in what you're doing."
Miles, however, is hardly complaining.
Tournaments such as the ones in Las Vegas and the Peach Jam in South Carolina actually make things easier on coaches. Instead of traveling from high school to high school during the regular season, the nation's top prospects all gather in one city and go head to head.
"These things give you a chance to evaluate a ton of talent, all at once," Miles says. "It's the best versus the best. You can't beat that."
Miles stops at 7-Eleven for a box of Milk Duds and another Coke before returning to Bishop Gorman, obviously to watch Fuller play for the second time. This time his squad, the Wisconsin Swing, emerges victorious. Miles leaves shortly after the final horn and heads back to Rancho to take in two more rounds of games before leaving town.
Even in the Las Vegas traffic, Miles' demeanor remains energetic and upbeat.
"There's no doubt that my greatest victories and worst defeats are on the recruiting trail," he says. "When I have a bad night coaching, I get great motivation from, 'I know how to solve this problem. We can fix this.'
"You don't get that when you're recruiting. It's about relationships. You're depending on someone 17 or 18 years old to make a decision that you hope goes your way. It's about preferences. Do you want to drive a Ford or a Chevrolet? A BMW, Mercedes Benz or a Cadillac? Choosing a college is the same way for these young people.
"Everyone is going to provide an excellent education at this level. Almost everyone is going to have fantastic facilities. We just have to do a better job than everyone else of getting to know these guys and getting our message across."
As darkness falls on Las Vegas, Miles reveals he's had a change of plans. He'll still leave town this evening, but rather than return in 24 hours he plans to "post up" on a recruit -- presumably Agau -- in Kansas City.
"Posting up" is the term Miles uses for honing in on a prospect and being there for every minute of every game during a tournament. Still, Miles is happy with his decision to come to Vegas, if only for a day.
"It was a good day, a full day," he says. "We saw some guys that we're really excited about recruiting. Hopefully we can bring them into the fold.
"I could come back here Saturday, but now you have to decide, 'OK, what's most important?' And we think staying in KC is probably the best thing to do."
Just then, Miles' phones rings. On the other line is Izzo, who is already at the airport.
"Yeah, I'll be there soon," Miles says. "The pilot's name is Rich. Tell them you're looking for Husker One."
As he drives down Las Vegas Boulevard shortly past 10 p.m., Miles spots a McDonald's and pulls into the drive-thru lane. He orders a quarter-pounder-with-cheese meal and wolfs down the French fries immediately.
"Don't want them to get cold," Miles says.
He saves the hamburger for the plane.
Miles knows he probably won't eat again until lunchtime on Saturday. His flight will land at 3:30 a.m. Kansas City time. Then he'll drive to his hotel and sleep a few hours before attending Agau's game at 9.
After a full weekend of basketball, Miles will go to Fort Collins on Monday to help his wife finish packing while tying up other loose ends. There are cable boxes to return, utilities to cut off and, without question, a few final meals at Panhandlers Pizza and Cafe Mexicali, his two favorite restaurants.
"We'll drive to Lincoln midweek," Miles says. "We'll unpack, get all of our stuff arranged, put some things in boxes and drawers and then go pick up our kids in South Dakota.
"All of a sudden, we'll wake up and it'll be Monday, and I'll feel like I'm behind in recruiting."
As for now, Miles has a flight to catch and a legendary coach to entertain. As he arrives at the airport, Miles seems a bit nervous about his flight with Izzo.
"I wonder if he'll go to sleep," Miles says. "Or maybe he'll want to talk. What do I talk to him about? It'd be good to get to know him better.
"Technically, he's a colleague, but I don't see it that way. He's a kingpin in the game, so it's hard for me to call him a colleague. But he's a fellow coach in the Big Ten, and he understands the league as well as anyone ever has. I'll listen to whatever he has to say."
Miles pulls his Garmin off the dashboard, retrieves his suitcase from the backseat and walks into a building adjacent to McCarran Airport reserved for private planes. He spots Izzo stretched out in a recliner near the lobby. He's watching "SportsCenter." The Michigan State coach hops to his feet, approaches Miles and shakes his hand.
"I appreciate this," Izzo says. "I really do."
One year earlier, Izzo invited Illinois coach Bruce Weber to ride on the MSU plane from one recruiting event to another. He says it shouldn't be surprising that a level of camaraderie exists among college coaches.
"At the end of the day," Izzo says, "we're all in this together."
Miles knows he may never be able to match Izzo's resume, but he's certainly going to try. He wouldn't have taken this job if he wasn't confident Nebraska could one day contend for NCAA tournament berths and top 25 rankings.
Now, after his first summer on the recruiting trail with the Cornhuskers, Miles feels better about the situation than ever.
"Every job I've had has been a startup," he says. "They all had their unique set of circumstances, they were all hard -- and they were all a blast. This situation is no different."
At 10:28, Miles tucks his McDonald's sack under his arm, walks onto the runway and waves.
"Hey," he says, "sure beats working for a living."