Sean Miller meshes past, present

Embracing Lute Olson, but still with an eye on the future, working out well

Originally Published: October 21, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The commercial begins with students, lunch ladies, random firefighters and folks walking their dogs talking about how "Coach Miller might be switching to football."

Eventually Sean Miller shows up in front of a bank teller to switch to a football-themed debit card.

And then cut to the kicker, where a white-haired gentleman surrounded by students shrugs his shoulders and smirks "You know, I switched way before Miller did. Just sayin.''

The white-haired gentleman, of course, is familiar to the intended audience in Arizona. He is Lute Olson, founding father and beloved patriarch of the Wildcats' basketball program.

Whatever the little zinger of an ad has done to help business for Hughes Federal Credit Union pales in comparison to what it has done to show the relationship between Miller and Olson.

Rebuilding a team under the presence of the architect can be a messy and clumsy affair. The old coach might be meddlesome, the new coach too determined to erase the past and put his stamp on the present.

Neither has happened at Arizona. Instead there is a mutual respect and kindness between Miller and Olson. And while good recruiting has been the backbone of the Wildcats' resurgence, that relationship is every bit as critical to Arizona's return to the national conversation.

[+] EnlargeSean Miller
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe task awaiting Sean Miller at Arizona was two-pronged: Build for the present and repair some damage with the past.

"What I understand is that Coach Olson gave 25 years of his life to this program,'' Miller said. "He built this and he's always welcome here. I want him to be viewed as the father of this program. I'm just the current caretaker.''

Humble pie is an uncommon dish on the menu of athletics these days. Too many coaches, especially young ones, believe the only way they can succeed is by pretending nothing happened before they arrived on campus.

But when Miller came to Arizona, he immediately recognized the importance of what came before him and set about restoring it.

If the relationship between the past and the present of Arizona basketball wasn't fractured four years ago, it certainly had a deep bruise. Olson's protracted departure from the program was a bungled mess. He missed all of the 2007-08 season for health reasons and assistant coach Kevin O'Neill, whose prickly personality is the antithesis of Olson's community-embracing charm, took over.

When Olson returned to the team in April 2008, he announced that O'Neill was no longer part of his staff, but that Olson would coach through 2011. Instead, the university abruptly announced his retirement in October of that year.

The next day, the university named Russ Pennell, who only a year earlier had been a radio broadcaster at Arizona State, as the interim coach.

Pennell was not retained following his one season.

Into that mess walked Miller, a blue-collar Pittsburgh guy with strong East Coast recruiting ties thrust into the middle of the wealthy retirement enclave of Arizona.

And somehow it worked.

It worked mostly because Miller recruited his tail off, establishing connections on the West Coast and convincing guys to consider the Wildcats once again; landing former USC commits Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill after Tim Floyd was fired didn't hurt.

It worked because new athletic director Greg Byrne agreed that living off the past wasn't enough, and that to succeed the program needed some spit shining. The AD has fundraised the money to upgrade the facilities and give Arizona the preferred status treatment (chartered flights, etc.) that other high-level programs commonly receive but that the Wildcats had passed on.

And it worked because Miller can coach.

But to discount the impact of Miller and Olson coming together would be a disservice to both.

Despite the stumbles on the way out the door, Olson remains a beloved fixture in Tucson. The man who brought hoops glory and a national championship to the desert is a big-name draw for any civic event, and is as adored now as when he coached.

"Sean has navigated things as well as anyone has done in a similar situation,'' Byrne said. "When I hired Rick Rodriguez, he asked me if everyone here was pulling the rope in the same direction. I said yes and that's the case with basketball.

"Any time you have a program that has the history and stature that Arizona has, there will be some people involved in making that a reality. Sean has done an incredible job in embracing all of that. And Coach Olson deserves credit, too, for embracing Sean.''

[+] EnlargeLute Olson
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesLute Olson once again feels the welcome embrace at Arizona, a program he built.

The old coach still knows a thing or two about the game. Ask him about this version of the Wildcats and he can break down the roster as if he just looked at game tape. He'll tell you that the team is young but should be a force by January, and that Aaron Gordon is "special, a great athlete who can really see the floor."

But he's involved without being an interloper. Olson is a regular at home games, but he amiably takes his seat with little fuss. Miller has granted Olson an open door at practice but the old coach doesn't take advantage of the offer.

"He's been as gracious as you can possibly be towards me,'' Olson said. "I try to go to practice every now and again, but I don't want to intrude. But it's nice to know that the offer is there.''

Much has been made about the Herculean task Tom Crean undertook to restore Indiana, but Miller's job was only slightly less daunting. He did not have the NCAA sting or stigma, but he had a proud program that was close to shambles -- four coaches in four years and a serious dent in what once was a pretty impenetrable armor.

Miller's willingness to publicly recognize instead of ostracize Olson, coupled with the mayhem the Wildcats had been through, bought the new coach a little time and patience with the Arizona fan base.

In his first season, 2009-10, the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament, ending the nation's longest tourney streak at 25. Where once there might have been apoplexy, there was understanding of what Miller was trying to do.

A year later, the Wildcats finished 30-8 and went to the Elite Eight. Just like that, order in program and fan base was thoroughly restored.

"Any good program understands you have to honor the past, focus on the present and look to the future,'' Byrne said. "Sean has that balance.''

He officially married the past and present in May when he named Damon Stoudamire to his staff. This wasn't just a PR move. Stoudamire spent the last year at the University of Memphis and, prior to that, worked with the Memphis Grizzlies. He's a beloved former player, but he's also a coach.

That's not to say the symbolism doesn't matter.

"That's a really nice hire,'' Olson said. "That makes the connection between a guy who played for me and the current team.''

Now with the past properly feted, the present and future are starting to turn heads once again.

The annual Red-Blue Scrimmage sold out a full month before the actual event. Certainly the presence of the 1994 Final Four team -- honored for its 20th anniversary -- helped, but the real excitement is reserved for the 2013-14 Wildcats.

The overwhelming favorite to win the Pac-12, Arizona -- hot off a Sweet 16 run -- should be ranked in virtually every preseason top-10 poll.

"When I came here, there was all of this tradition and these relationships with the community,'' Miller said. "For me to act as if none of that mattered would have been foolish. If that wasn't firmly in place, it would have been hard, if not impossible, to start the process of rebuilding things here. What Coach Olson did here allowed me to do what I'm doing.''

There's another commercial that features a busy Miller on the go, showing how he can take his banking with him on his phone. In one scene he walks by a wall at the McKale Center. It's dark blue, emblazoned with the words, "A Player's Program."

Beneath it, it reads simply:

"Past. Present. Future."

It ends in the locker room with Miller checking his cell phone.

Beside him sits Olson, doing the same.

They're both wearing Arizona shirts.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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