The rapid rise of UNCG's Wes Miller
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Trevis Simpson admits he had his doubts.
Huddled in front of the visiting bench with his UNC Greensboro teammates last January -- trailing The Citadel by a point with less than a second left on the clock -- the Spartans' leading scorer raised his eyebrows when he saw what 28-year-old interim head coach Wes Miller had scribbled on his clipboard.
"He draws up this play that none of us had ever seen before," Simpson said, shaking his head as he remembered. "And we're kind of like, 'Ahhhhhhh they're going to be all over that.'"
Instead, with 0.5 seconds left on the clock, guard Drew Parker inbounded a perfect alley-oop pass to Simpson, who jammed home the Spartans' second straight victory. It jump-started what would become a seven-game winning streak, an 11-5 late-season surge, a Southern Conference North division title, and the removal of 'interim' from Miller's title.
This coming from a team that started the season 2-14, with wins over a Division II team and hapless Towson.
"I don't know that that's what got me the job," Miller said recently, sitting in his still-half-decorated office in the HHP Building on UNCG's campus. "But looking back, it was huge. We had lost six in a row since I took over as interim head coach -- and we had lost our last 11, total, looking further back -- and when we finally won at Charleston to break that streak, it felt as good to me as winning the national championship in 2005.
"But the win at The Citadel, winning that way, I think that was the moment when everyone jumped in with both feet, completely. When everyone started to believe in each other."
It has only been the last four weeks or so that Miller -- who signed a five-year contract in March and has been focused on hiring staff and recruiting ever since -- has had time to contemplate, and (try to) put into perspective, the importance of that play. Not to mention his roller-coaster rise over the past nine months.
Last December, the former North Carolina guard was in his second year as an assistant coach for UNCG when athletic director Kim Record called him into her office and asked if he would take over for fired head coach Mike Dement for the rest of the season. The school would conduct a national search for a full-time replacement, and Miller would be a candidate, "but we needed someone who could hold the team together," Record said.
Since he was knee-high, Miller dreamed of being a Division I head basketball coach.
Just not quite like that. And not quite that fast.
"I spend a night, probably 24 hours, just getting thoughts together," said Miller, who accepted the opportunity immediately. "'What are we going to do? How are we going to do it?' Not just X's and O's wise, but how are we going to deal with our players?
"Then I drove to Chapel Hill and spent a couple of hours with Coach [Roy] Williams."
Williams, you see, was not only Miller's coach in 2003-07, but his coaching mentor. In '03, Miller opted to transfer from James Madison -- not just because he wanted to play at a bigger school, "but because I wanted to learn from the best, learn how to coach from the best."
But the win at The Citadel, winning that way, I think that was the moment when everyone jumped in with both feet, completely. When everyone started to believe in each other.” -- UNCG coach Wes Miller
Under Williams, Miller became a fan favorite -- a solid outside shooter and defensive workhorse who played his first UNC varsity season on the '05 national title team, then started 17 games as a junior and senior. After a season of playing professionally in England, Williams helped Miller set up a West Coast tour where he studied how various other teams practiced. After that, the former player became a staple at Williams' summer coaching clinics while beginning his career at Elon and High Point.
Naturally, then, Williams was Miller's third call (after his wife and parents) when he accepted the interim job in Greensboro. The following day, Williams left a film session to advise the latest branch of his coaching tree in person.
"I was able to talk to him about ideas; get his input," said Miller, who spoke to Williams at least once a week by telephone the rest of the season. "I remember immediately thinking that we needed to get better on defense, we needed to share the ball more. So I told Coach Williams about how I planned on setting a certain tone -- and he convinced me that that would be the wrong thing to do. He said you're not in a place to set a tone, you're in a place to try to get your team to buy in and believe. That was all of his experience talking, and it really resonated and made sense."
So much so, Miller returned to UNCG with a new theme to the season: "All in."
"He preached that from when he got the job, to the end of the season -- all in," Simpson said. "He wanted all of us to be on board. If we're going to lose, we're going to lose together. If we're going to win, we're going to win together. And with that, all of us started sacrificing, and we started noticing all of the small things we had to do, and that's a product of him and his Carolina background."
Indeed, it wasn't just the fact that his Spartans started winning, but the way they started winning, that makes Miller proud. During their seven-game streak, they began to rally around their adversity, winning twice in overtime while accepting that they all needed to embrace roles beyond scoring to succeed. Whether or not he ultimately stripped the "interim" from his title, Miller said he wanted his players to enjoy the game, to play like a team.
And it showed.
Like his days in Chapel Hill, Miller quickly became fan favorite in Greensboro, too. "Miller for President" signs began dotting the home crowds, and on his 29th birthday, students sang "Happy Birthday" from the stands.
"No matter the wins and losses, I thought he would be a [permanent] candidate for the job," Record said. "But to accomplish what we did far exceeded my expectations. When you meet Wes, and see his passion for the game, you know he was meant to coach. He's wise beyond his years."
Looking back, Miller said, he can't imagine what it must have been like for his players, having the then-youngest head coach in the nation thrust upon them so suddenly. (Wagner hired 28-year-old Bashir Mason this offseason.) But for a few gray hairs, Miller looks much the same as the days when he was draining 3-pointers for UNC, and still occasionally challenges his players to shooting contests (although, he said laughing, he no longer runs full court).
"I stand up there in front of them, and I'm more like them than a coach, probably, or what they think of as a coach," Miller said. "They're such a resilient group, and that's what makes them really special. It wasn't so much that they believed in me, but they believed in each other and what they could accomplish."
And Miller believes this group can continue accomplish even bigger things. The Spartans return four starters focused on exceeding what they achieved last season. And perhaps just as importantly, they return a reigning Southern Conference Coach of the Year who is determined to keep improving as a coach while building a program that pushes the pace, clamps down on defense, consistently competes for championships and knows how to win in the clutch.
That season-changing (and perhaps career-changing) win over The Citadel last December was certainly a start to the latter.
"I'm still not exactly sure where I got that play -- but I'm pretty sure it was from a Knicks game a couple of years ago, and it just stuck in my mind," Miller said, smiling. "I'm just so happy it worked."
And in more ways than one.
"When he drew up that play, I think we all had a few reservations," Simpson said. "But after that night, we were like, 'Whatever he says, we believe it. We're behind it. We're behind him.'
"He's our coach. And just like he believes is us, we believe in him."