In the nine days since Indiana revealed Tom Crean would be fired, speculation surrounding the job was awash with nostalgia and fanboy zeal. Athletic director Fred Glass wore an Indiana logoed-zip up pullover to the press conference announcing Crean’s dismissal and read a statement of expectations that made nearly every athletic director in the country cringe.
As Glass noted a “double-check plus” for coaches with ties to the school and state, the process gave off the vibe of a circus of sentimentality. Glass laid out his goals for the program as if posting on an Indiana message board: “The expectations for Indiana University basketball are to perennially contend for and win multiple Big Ten championships, regularly go deep in the NCAA tournament, and win our next national championship-and more after that.”
Glass’ comments came off like a love letter to former IU star and New Castle, Ind., native Steve Alford. And as the current UCLA head coach’s non-denials during the Bruins’ NCAA tournament run this year fueled speculation, Indiana appeared destined to let the faded glory of its past dictate its future.
But pragmatism and common sense won out in Bloomington on Saturday afternoon. The Hoosiers agreed to a seven-year contract with Dayton’s Archie Miller to become their new head coach. Indiana ditched Glass’ naive “double-check plus” comments and went outside the IU family to make a fine hire, luring the best attainable coach in college basketball. (Xavier’s Chris Mack is a close second after bolstering his reputation in the tourney this year.)
Miller, 38, is the top coach in the sport under the age of 40. He went 139-63 over six seasons at Dayton, including four consecutive trips to the NCAAs and one Elite Eight. His teams play with actuarial precision and guard like their per diem depends on it. And Miller, more bland than brash, managed to turn Dayton into a juggernaut with little drama or attention drawn to himself.
In a state filled with billboard slogans that read “Indiana/A State That Works,” so will Miller. For Miller, basketball is the family trade, a background so hokey it could inspire Mellencamp lyrics. His father, John, was a longtime successful Pennsylvania high school coach. His brother, Sean, starred at Pittsburgh and has developed into one of the country’s top coaches at Arizona. His sister, Lisa, played at Toledo and Elon. “Having grown up in a family where basketball is so important, I’m sure Indiana is the amplification of that,” said Richmond coach Chris Mooney, who competed against Miller annually in the Atlantic 10. “His instincts will help him to understand what Indiana basketball is.”
Miller’s hiring is no surprise, as he brings experience in the Midwest footprint, a strong pedigree and a low-key day-to-day temperament that marks a sharp contrast to the over-caffeinated Crean. Miller had long been pegged as a coach with an elite ceiling, and he’s been defiantly patient in waiting for the next opportunity. Even when his alma mater, N.C. State, opened up earlier this year, Miller’s name was immediately cast aside as a reach candidate for the Wolfpack. (They eventually hired UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts.) It was going to take a true blue blood to persuade Miller to leave Dayton.
For a long time, his next step appeared to be Ohio State. As Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta’s health and record have deteriorated, that increasingly seemed like the most logical landing point for Miller. And you can rest assured there’s more than a few Ohio State fans grumbling this morning that Miller, a former Buckeyes assistant, will be coaching against their favorite program in the Big Ten.
In many ways, Miller’s time at Dayton served as an ideal apprenticeship for a place like Indiana. At Dayton, there’s a passionate fan base and an arena with 13,455 seats that’s sold out nearly every night. It’s also a town where basketball matters more than most; a full arena for a No. 16 versus No. 16 game at the First Four every year is a window into Dayton’s hardcore basketball soul. Miller managed the expectations, handled the spotlight and won in an understated manner. “He seamlessly stepped in at Dayton and did a magnificent job,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop. “You look at the history of that job, it’s sensational from the standpoint of performance level. He’s prepared himself. He’s taken that step necessary to make himself prepared for Indiana.”
The identity of Miller’s teams was rooted in defense. In the past four seasons, the worst the Flyers finished in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric was No. 72 nationally, and that team reached the Elite Eight in 2014. The past three years Dayton has finished No. 31, No. 15 and No. 41, with the Flyers playing what Mooney calls “99.5-percent halfcourt man-to-man.” Mooney described Dayton’s offensive system as more fluid than rigid, structured but free. Those are tenets that would make Bob Knight smile. “I think he’ll do great,” Mooney said. “Their style of play will be embraced by the Indiana fans, the way they move the ball. He’ll be able to bring in versatile players who are athletic and really thrive in the system he runs.”
The question that will be debated on barstools at Yogi’s in the coming weeks is how serious Indiana was in its pursuit of Alford. Until he finally came out and definitively told ESPN he wouldn’t be leaving for Indiana last night, Alford had kept the door wide open. His clunky public handling of the rumors didn’t win him any fans in the UCLA athletic department. But he hadn’t been all that popular back in Westwood anyway, as evidence by him giving back a year on his contract last year and the banners calling for his firing flying over campus.
Glass’ press conference to announce Crean’s departure sounded like a fan letter to convince Alford to come back home. But the $7.8 million buyout and Alford’s pedestrian postseason record-including no Sweet 16 appearances in eight seasons at Iowa-made him more of a fit in sentiment than reality.
The truth is that Indiana got the best coach it could, one who is young but prepared, measured but not overwhelmed.
The spin from Indiana will be that Miller was its top target. Only a few people know if that’s actually the case. But that shouldn’t matter anymore. Indiana’s nine-day trip into a time machine ended where it should have-pointing forward instead of back. Glass deserves a “double-check plus” for not being wed to his own pom pom criteria. This is the best hire Indiana could have made.