As they boarded a private plane to see a recruit play in Comanche, Okla. earlier this month, Nebraska coach Tim Miles and longtime assistant Craig Smith couldn't help but chuckle.
No longer did this sort of trip require piling into a beat-up sedan, shelling out their own money for food and gas and arriving home close to dawn after driving seven hours both ways. They now have luxuries once unfathomable when they worked together in the lower levels of college basketball earlier in their careers.
"I remember telling Tim, 'Would you have ever imagined this 18 years ago?" Smith said. "We flew halfway across the country and we were back by 11:30 at night. We both just kind of shook our heads like is this really happening?"
Stories like that illustrate why Miles is unfazed by the challenge of revitalizing a long-struggling Nebraska basketball program that hasn't captured a conference title since 1950 and has never won an NCAA tournament game. The second-year Huskers coach has successfully rebuilt programs with far fewer resources during his unlikely rise from a 1,000-student NAIA school in Mayville, N.D., to a little-known Division II program in Marshall, Minn., to a trio of success-starved schools in Division I.
Whereas Miles frequently lost recruits who were turned off by leaky roofs, cracked walls and aging locker rooms at his previous stops, Nebraska just unveiled a sparkling new 15,100-seat arena and state-of-the-art practice facility. Nebraska also has provided Miles with an ample enough budget to lure highly regarded assistant coaches from Georgetown and Saint Louis and to fly anywhere in the world in search of potential recruits.
Combine Nebraska's newfound financial commitment to basketball with Miles' track record of rescuing programs in a tailspin, and perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise his rebuilding process is ahead of schedule. The Huskers (16-10, 8-6) have won five straight and eight of their last 10 to surge into NCAA tournament contention in just Miles' second year in Lincoln.
"When I look at some of the other jobs I've had in terms of difficulty, there's no question I have some advantages at Nebraska I didn't have elsewhere," Miles said. "There's not a better place to be in terms of facilities, fan support and administrative support. It's a first-class operation in every way, shape and form.
"For all the people who think we're cursed like the Cubs, no, we're the Red Sox. We'll take that curse and we'll bury it. We're going to have our time, and that time is now."
In a sport where most top coaches either played at a high level or were mentored by a legend, a self-made success story like Miles is a rarity. Not only is he not part of any famous coaching tree, the highest level of basketball he reached as a player was playing guard for the JV team at an NAIA school in Bismarck, N.D.
Miles pushed his way into coaching anyway with a combination of enthusiasm, perseverance and a salesman's knack for making strangers warm up to him and believe in him.
A native of a small town in South Dakota with one stoplight and only about 300 citizens, Miles decided he wanted to become a coach before he even finished grade school. When Miles was in high school, he coached Little League baseball and softball. His mom recently found a document Miles wrote as a 10-year-old when he served as the player-coach for his PE basketball team, "the Super Jocks."
"Apparently I had some rules for the team," Miles said. "One was to get a big lead and keep scoring if you can, which I have found is a golden rule. The next one was to get the rebound. The next one was to get open. The last one was don't shoot all the time if there is someone else opened -- and it was with the "ed" at the end. Those are the ones I remember. And so there's proof that basketball isn't all that difficult to coach. All those still apply today."
Miles earned a scholarship to play basketball for the University of Mary, but his first three years he seldom got off the bench. Before Miles' senior season, coach Al Bortke warned him he likely still wouldn't crack the eight-man rotation and offered him the chance to become a student coach instead.
If Miles previously planned to make a living coaching a high school team and teaching elementary school kids, the season he spent as a student assistant to Bortke helped him expand his goals. He coached the JV team, peppered Bortke with questions at every opportunity and even memorably called a timeout from the bench late in a varsity game without Bortke's permission.
"We had a comfortable lead but we were kind of blowing it down the stretch, and all of a sudden I hear, 'Timeout, timeout!'" Bortke said with a chuckle. "Tim walked over kind of sheepishly and he said, 'I just got wound up in the game and I called a timeout.' I said, 'Well, I'll tell you what Tim. You saw something. You tell the guys what you saw.' We just kind of walked away, and he handled that timeout."
Despite Bortke's recommendation that Miles succeed him at Mary, school officials decided Miles was too young for the job and hired Augustana College assistant coach Jim Feeney instead. When Mayville State hired the 28-year-old Miles the following year in 1995 at the modest salary of $28,000 a year, a friend joked with him "You'll never beat Feeney." To keep himself motivated the next two years, Miles kept a yellow sheet with that phrase written on it taped to his desk.
"He beat Feeney a couple times," joked Smith, who first coached under Miles at Mayville State. "Mayville beat Mary to go to the national tournament his first year. Then the second year, we clocked them in the semifinals. It was no disrespect to Jim Feeney. He's a great guy, one of our biggest supporters. It's just what Tim's friend said set him off, and he always kept it in the back of his memory."
That Miles led Mayville State to back-to-back league titles and a pair of appearances in the NAIA national tournament was pretty remarkable considering the state of the program when he arrived. Not only had Mayville State gone 2-22 both of the seasons prior to Miles' arrival, its budget was threadbare even by NAIA standards.
Players were only allowed two $1 items from Hardee's for their pregame meals before road games. In the spring, water would seep through the ceiling of Miles' office and onto the floor once the snow that had collected on the roof began to thaw. In the winter, Miles' office got so cold that he and the staff would don ski hats and gloves and lug in portable heaters yet they would still see their breath when they made calls to recruits.
"There were times when he brought recruits to campus and they had three other visits that were better than that," said Minnesota-Morris women's basketball coach Tim Grove, an assistant under Miles at Mayville State during the 1995-96 season. "But the thing that he did that was crucial was tell kids, 'Don't look at what's here. Look at who's here.' That's really the message he got across. Mayville State was a special place because of who was there and not what was there."
Though Miles only spent two seasons at Mayville State before moving on to Division II Southwest Minnesota State, he says his philosophy on how to rebuild a program took shape at the NAIA school.
Miles describes his approach to rebuilding as recruiting "the best players from the best teams who are the best people," a phrase that is as over-simplistic as it sounds.
Current and former assistants under Miles clarify he strives to find high-character players with the talent to help the program compete at a national level and the skills and basketball IQ to thrive in his free-flowing system. He also seeks jobs where the administration is willing to be patient enough that he won't have to sign high-risk prospects in a short-sighted attempt to accelerate the process and become competitive faster. Lastly, Miles always makes it a priority to reinvigorate his fan base, a skill he is naturally gifted at thanks to his self-deprecating sense of humor, knack for social media and willingness to make time to chat with every last student at a pep rally or booster at an alumni function.
That formula has served Miles well everywhere he has been. He has left every program at which he has coached in far better shape than when he arrived.
Southwest Minnesota State had one winning season in 13 years before Miles arrived in 1997. In Miles' fourth and final season there, the Mustangs won 28 games, took first place in their league and advanced all the way to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
North Dakota State was a middling Division II program with an arena so aged that drywall dust fell from the ceiling of Miles' office when players did squats or cleans in the weight room one floor above it. Miles not only helped the Bison transition to Division I but also recruited the class that led them to the 2009 NCAA tournament after he left.
Colorado State endured an 0-16 Mountain West campaign in Miles' debut season after star forward Jason Smith turned pro and seven other underclassmen either bolted following the coaching change or got dismissed for academic or disciplinary reasons. Five years after inheriting only two scholarship players from the previous regime and holding walk-on tryouts to fill out his roster, Miles led the Rams to the 2012 NCAA tournament with a junior-laden team that went on to win 26 games under Larry Eustachy the following season.
"If you follow his path, it's really incredible," Grove said. "I remember sitting at a hotel with him his first year at Mayville State, and we stated talking about goals for the future. Here's a guy who was a JV player at the University of Mary and had just taken over a two-win program, and he says, 'Someday I want to make Notre Dame a basketball school.' I don't know if he has that goal today. I know he loves Nebraska. But the point is, even way back then, he had the mentality he was going to get it done."
The combination of Miles' youthful energy and knack for turning around struggling programs made him an attractive candidate for Nebraska when athletic director Tom Osborne fired sixth-year coach Doc Sadler following a 12-18 season in 2012.
If other coaches were scared away by the Huskers' bleak basketball history, Miles was smart enough to recognize Nebraska was better positioned to compete than ever before as a result of its new facilities and commitment to increasing staff salaries and the recruiting budget. That contributed to Miles' decision to accept an offer from Osborne in March 2012, as did his belief that his recruiting ties to the Northern Plains and his knack for reinvigorating a fan base were both good fits for Nebraska.
One of the reasons the Nebraska job is difficult is because the state doesn't consistently produce enough high-major Division I talent. To enjoy sustained success, coaches must identify under-the-radar out-of-state prospects and persuade them to come to Lincoln, no easy task since players from neighboring states seldom grew up dreaming of playing for a program with as little pedigree as the Huskers.
By bringing Smith from Colorado State, plucking well-respected Kenya Hunter from Georgetown and hiring Australia native and international recruiting specialist Chris Harriman away from Saint Louis, Miles believes he has a staff capable of overcoming that challenge. Their defense-oriented 2013-14 roster is a mixture of holdovers from the previous regime and newcomers Miles has persuaded to be part of the rebuilding project.
Big Ten player of the year candidate Terran Petteway and third-leading scorer Walter Pitchford were transfers from Texas Tech and Florida whom Miles had previously recruited at Colorado State. Standout guard Shavon Shields is a fellow sophomore who originally signed with Sadler and honored his letter of intent when Miles was hired. And freshman point guard Tai Webster is a promising New Zealand native whom Harriman landed despite interest from the likes of NC State, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Virginia.
If improved talent is one reason Nebraska is winning, the other has been Miles' ability to sell Nebraska fans on supporting the basketball team.
From buying pizza for the first 500 students in line for games, to taking photos with folks in the stands after games, to making a video to help one fan propose to his girlfriend, Miles has gone above and beyond to win over a football-first fan base skeptical the Huskers can ever flourish in basketball. The combination of Miles' efforts, the unveiling of the new arena and the unexpected success of the team has turned Lincoln into one of the Big Ten's most difficult road trips.
"Tim is a heck of a coach, but he's unbelievable rallying the fans and student body," Smith said. "That's always been a huge strength of his. One comment we've gotten at Nebraska is, 'Wow, he's willing to talk to anybody.' Well, yeah, why wouldn't he be? They're just not used to it because there are so many more egos at this level and some guys won't do that."
Since Nebraska won at Michigan State earlier this month to solidify itself as a surprise NCAA tournament contender, the buzz surrounding Huskers basketball in Lincoln has risen to unprecedented levels. Miles says he can seldom walk across campus or have dinner with his family without a stranger approaching him to congratulate him on the success of the team or wish the Huskers good luck in their next game.
"I wish I could tell you the number of apples I've seen when I look at the back of someone's phone the past few weeks," Miles said. "If I had a nickel for every picture I've been part of, I'd be a rich man. There's not anywhere we go where we're not signing autographs and taking pictures."
Just like playing in a flashy $179 million arena or taking private jets on recruiting trips, it's another new experience for a former NAIA coach still getting used to the perks of climbing to college basketball's highest level.
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