Brandon Miller in charge at Butler
Indiana native knows his way around the place as he takes over for Brad Stevens
INDIANAPOLIS – They started trickling in around 9 a.m., claiming one of the white folding chairs lined neatly in the concourse to wait their turn.
By now, a week into Butler's Select-a-Seat program at Hinkle Fieldhouse, there weren't many choices left. The white laminated seating charts showed just upper deck options remaining for these, the last of the season-ticket holders who got to claim their piece of real estate for the year.
But an upper deck seat is better than no seat, and the folks came through the doors in a steady stream to scoop up whatever was left.
Brandon Miller understands these people well, appreciates the allure of it all -- of Hinkle and Butler and Indiana basketball -- because he is one of them.
Miller can almost trace his life through those bleacher seats.
Here's where he sat as a 4-year-old to watch New Castle Chrysler High School play in the semi-state, the first basketball game he can remember watching in the old building.
There on the court, that's where he got to practice as a high school freshman alongside his older brother and teammate, Scott, and better yet, got to miss classes in order to prepare for his own semi-state game.
Down there at midcourt, he found himself as a Butler player in the middle of a dizzying court storm after Avery Sheets hit a game-winning buzzer-beater to lead the Bulldogs to the 2002-03 Horizon League regular-season championship.
And there on the home bench, that's where he'll take the first chair as the Bulldogs' head when Butler hosts Lamar on November 9.
"The atmosphere, the feeling, the game, the players, shoot the popcorn in the air, all of it, you have that moment,'' Miller said. "Hinkle Fieldhouse moments -- Butler fans have them; Indiana basketball fans have them. Everyone has those moments.''
It's now up to Miller to create more of those moments. He is charged with the unenviable task of replacing Brad Stevens, an unassuming man who left a Sasquatch of a footprint at Butler and in college basketball.
The comparisons are and will be inevitable. Miller, like Stevens, is a homegrown Indiana product, a guy who can spin tales of backyard games and enjoyable bus rides, his entire childhood written to the drumbeats of a bouncing basketball.
In fact, in the hyper-connected world that is Indiana basketball, Stevens once played AAU ball alongside Scott Miller, back when the boys were 10.
Brandon Miller, too, tried something other than basketball for a time, and like Stevens, the other was pharmaceutical sales. Like Stevens, the sabbatical only reinforced that Miller was destined for basketball.
He's young, just 34 years old -- but still a "four whole years older" than Stevens when he was hired, as athletic director Barry Collier joked -- and he's thoughtful, direct and honest like his predecessor.
Except here's the thing. Brandon Miller is not Brad Stevens, nor does he necessarily want to be or need to be.
"Frankly, I think it's an honor to be compared to him,'' Stevens said. "I coached him. He was the ultimate competitor as a player. As tough a guy as you'd ever coached, as tough as ever suited up at Butler. At the same time, he's a terrific person off the court. The value he placed on the intangibles at Butler, nobody gets that better than Brandon. He'll be a great fit.''
Fit really is what it's about at Butler. It's what it should be about everywhere, but long is the list of schools that have lost their way and their identity in desperate attempts to grab the next hot thing.
Collier doesn't work that way. Miller, who played at Butler and in April returned for his second stint as an assistant, will be the fifth homegrown product to lead the Bulldogs. Stevens, Todd Lickliter and Thad Matta were all former assistants; Collier and Matta are grads.
"I look at relevant experience,'' Collier said. "Brandon, as a student-athlete here, as an assistant coach here twice, that experience is really significant to me, more so than somebody who just coached basketball longer. The program is a little unique in how we've done what we've done. Some of that has been a really deep embracing of our culture and an awareness of it. That's probably best if you've lived it previously.''
Miller, frankly, has been reared on it. Butler basketball is really Indiana basketball, deep-rooted and old school, yet pliable enough to change as the game evolves.
Miller grew up in New Castle, home to both Steve Alford and the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Basketball wasn't a sport so much as a lifestyle. Roger Miller, who as a high schooler played in his own Indiana state Final Four at Butler, taught middle school and coached at the high school. When his boys were younger, he packed them up for the road trips -- "I heard the older boys once locked (Brandon) in a locker, but he loved every second of it,'' Roger said.
The gym was always open and the boys always found their way into it, hearing the voice of Sam Alford, Steve's father, suggesting the old rhetorical question in their ears: "What are they doing at Marion today?'
"The answer, of course, was they were probably working out. So what are you doing?'' Roger Miller said. "When Brandon went to his first practice as a first-grader, Rick Jones, who was a Mr. Basketball at Muncie, said, 'That boy is something special.' He was just so enthusiastic about the game and he did have some skill.''
Stories about the fiercely competitive Miller sound almost like tall tales -- how he did agility drills at age 9, broke both bones in one arm during a football game, injured a ligament in his knee his senior year but kept on playing. He parlayed that talent and ferocity into a scholarship to play for local hero Steve Alford at Southwest Missouri State. His first college game was at Butler, against Butler. The Bears won. But by the end of that year, Alford was off to Iowa and Miller wasn't interested in staying behind.
He got to thinking about where he wanted to transfer and remembered that first college game at Butler. He ended up there, playing for Matta and later Lickliter. In three years he scored more than 1,000 points, hit a game-winning runner to beat Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA tournament and steered his way through Louisville's double teams to advance to the Sweet 16. In 2006, he was named one of Butler's top 15 players of all time.
"I've told him many times that when they come out with the next list, he won't be on it,'' Stevens joked.
Miller is well aware of the fateful impact of that pivotal U-turn. Had he not arrived at Butler, he wouldn't have met Matta, who gave him his first job as a video intern at Xavier, which led to assistant gigs at Ohio State, Butler, Illinois and back to Butler.
Would he be where he is today? Hard to say.
But Miller also knows he wouldn't be the coach he is if, ironically, he didn't stop coaching. Following the 2011-12 season, Miller, who had spent six years at at Ohio State, resigned from his position. For an upwardly mobile assistant it was a stunning and daring decision, but one that Miller felt he had to make.
He grew up in a town where the high school gym, the largest in the country, sits 9,300 and the town population is only 17,000. He only knew one way to go at basketball: all-in. But the 100 mph speed limit was taking a toll on Miller and his young family (he and his wife, Holly, have two boys, Mason and Michael).
"There is always the feeling that you can always watch the next tape,'' he said. "Shoot, I fight that still today. But the year away, my perspective on the game itself and coaching, it was really good for my family. My kids and my family will always be my first priority.''
Nobody balanced that better than Stevens. In that way, Miller hopes he is his predecessor's clone. It's not easy, not with two Final Four banners hanging in the rafters and another bigger one outside of Hinkle, proclaiming Butler's future as a member of the Big East Conference.
Practically overnight, Miller has gone from just another Indiana boy making good to the face of one of the state's treasures.
When Roger Miller stopped by a local Walmart the other day, people stopped to tell him how excited they were for him and his boy. Scott Miller, now an optometrist in Indianapolis, cut out the articles about his baby brother and hung them in his office. A funeral director in Sheridan asked the new Butler coach to sign a framed picture of the Butler mascot. Just the other day, Roger Miller heard, they had a funeral, and at the end, the family requested the folks in attendance stand up and sign the Butler fight song.
"So they all got up and sang, with the picture right there with Brandon's signature,'' Roger said.
As gentle and quaint as the notion of Butler is, winning still will be expected here, new coach and new conference be damned, because winning is now part of the Butler Way.
The winning, more than the nostalgia, is why fans took time out of their day to pick out their seats, gobbling up all but a few in the lower section of Hinkle and a good number up top.
"I can't wait. I'm ready to see how this thing goes," said Roger Miller, who bought his tickets three weeks before his boy was put in charge, came to campus to pick his seat even though his son is the head coach, and who, like everyone else, expects Brandon Miller to create more memories in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
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