"I'm like a Gila monster." – John Miller
TUCSON, Ariz. – Here is the problem: the Gila monster is living in a climate-controlled world these days.
It's all too easy. Too comfortable. Too convenient. Nobody wants to bake on the rocks the way the old man did.
When you've lived your basketball life in the equivalent of a 120-degree desert – and loved it – how do you adjust to a world gone soft? How do you push players when they have so many options beyond the gym? How do you get young people to immerse in the game the way you did with your sons?
John Miller was a legendary Western Pennsylvania high school coach who won more than 600 games and four state titles at Beaver Falls Blackhawk High. He produced two great players who happened to be his boys, Sean and Archie Miller. They both had stellar college careers – Sean at Pittsburgh, Archie at North Carolina State – then inevitably went into the family business.
Today Sean is the 44-year-old coach of the No. 8 Arizona Wildcats, and Archie is the 34-year-old coach of the Dayton Flyers. John is the proud 68-year-old grandfather.
But he is a Gila monster at heart, struggling to soften his hide.
He identifies with the reptiles that thrive in the harshest of climates, impervious to the flattening heat. Discomfort doesn't bother the Gila monster. It's never bothered Miller, either. The harder the task, the happier he's always been.
"Whatever I'm doing, I'm never going to give up," he said. "I'm going to keep coming and keep coming and keep coming. I guess I passed it on a little bit to my kids."
The tricky part is passing that along to their kids. The hothouse John Miller built for Sean and Archie has been air-conditioned for the next generation. That's not necessarily a bad thing – but it takes some getting used to for a tough old Gila monster. Who will bake with him?
In his coaching days, John Miller used to drive by the outdoor courts in Beaver Falls on August days. He was looking to see which of his guys were playing pick-up.
This was in the days before AAU ball ruled the world and the calendar. Before travel teams played 100 games a summer, under the leadership and guidance of God Knows Who. Back then, when it was all about the high school team, players had to work out on their own.
Those drives by the courts helped John Miller know who was putting in the work.
There were two kids he didn't have to worry about. Sean and Archie had a ball in their hands, every day. They didn't want a day off and their dad wouldn't dream of offering one, so there was a clear understanding.
Basketball was the family vocation, and the family avocation. Especially since there were no vacations.
"I hate to say it," John said. "We just never went on vacation."
But you don't miss what you've never had, and the Miller boys had the gym and the game. Basketball was the topic of conversation every day in the car and every night at the dinner table.
"That was all we knew, to be honest," Archie said.
"My dad was a high school coach and a P.E. teacher," Sean said. "June, July and August, it was almost like it was his job to be with me. It was such an advantage."
The passion for the game was all-consuming, the sweat equity immense. In blue-collar Beaver Falls, the work ethic came naturally. Given the boys' lack of imposing physical size, they had to maximize every other facet of their abilities.
"It was every day," John said. "Every single day, working out in the gym, working on it to the nth degree. Our motto was, 'We're going to be the hardest-working guys out there.' It just came back to the same old thing: every day shooting the ball, every day handling the ball, every day working."
Sean was the first Miller boy, and Sean was the best. He was a classic point guard and a classic coach's son – smart, skilled, fierce. He was also his father's whipping boy. Nothing was ever good enough. Every great performance still held flaws to be critiqued. Perfection was the unattainable goal, but the goal nonetheless.
Sean says the family dynamic is very similar to the Hurleys at Jersey City St. Anthony: dad Bob was the legendary coach; oldest son Bobby was the star point guard who was relentlessly coached by his father to excellence; and Danny was the slightly less-accomplished and less-pushed younger sibling.
Less-pushed being relative, of course.
"I think my most difficult challenge was playing for him," Archie said. "He was always 50 times harder on us than on the other players."
Said John: "I pushed them about as hard as you could push them. Especially Sean. He'd get 30 and I'd be on him. We had a real good relationship, but I pushed them."
It worked out in the end. Sean became a prep All-American who was convinced by Pitt assistant John Calipari – a cousin of John Miller's – to turn down North Carolina and Virginia and stay home for what would be a highly decorated college career. Archie, all 5-foot-9 and 156 pounds of him, went to N.C. State and had a very good career as well.
Naturally, both went immediately into coaching. But they did not follow dad's footsteps into the high school ranks. Instead, they went straight into college ball.
And that's where the branches on the family tree began to grow in different directions.
John Miller's players came to him. They were in his district and in his neighborhood. That's the difference.
Sean and Archie Miller have to go get their players. They have to follow them on the AAU circuit, visit their schools, visit their homes. Recruiting is the lifeblood of college basketball and the most time-consuming aspect of a coach's job.
Sean and Archie are two of the most relentless recruiters out there. Which means they're gone a lot.
John was home with them for long stretches of time. They are not home with their kids – Sean has three boys, Archie has one girl – in the same way. And it bothers them.
"There's a lot of guilt," Sean said. "To be a college basketball coach or football coach, you have to almost be selfish in a way."
Said Archie: "You feel great pressure to not take time off. You feel like you have to constantly be working, especially in recruiting. I'm probably one of the worst at it."
That disconnect means that the family dynamic is nothing like what they grew up with. Archie said his daughter, Leah, is not a basketball player but is a basketball fan. Sean's boys – Austin is a junior in high school, Cameron an eighth-grader, Braden a fifth-grader – all play basketball, but they don't have the same daily coaching immersion their dad grew up with.
"It's night-and-day different," Sean said. " In spring or summer I try to catch as many games as I can."
Said John: "Sean has no time. He just doesn't have the time to spend with them. But they're living a pretty nice life."
In Sean's absence, the Gila monster enters the picture.
When basketball season starts, John Miller begins his migration. He will travel from his home in Pennsylvania to Dayton, to catch up with Archie and his family for the beginning of practice and the early games. He goes to the Flyers' practices and will even take notes, but only offers input if Archie asks for it.
"If they ask, I'll say what I think," John said. "Otherwise, I lay back. It's their turn."
When the snow starts to fly, John heads to Tucson. He'll spend a couple of winter months there, soaking up the sun and going to Arizona practices and games as well. And when he's not doing that, he's working out Sean's boys or watching them play.
John built a hoop in the family garage for the boys to shoot at when the weather is too hot to go outside. And there is plenty of room in the garage for skill drills as well.
But this is not the same environment Sean and Archie Miller grew up in. And not the same coach.
"It's a much softer, kinder grandfather," Sean said with a smile. "They may not run back on defense – if I did that in fifth grade, oh my God."
Said John: "I don't have 'em by the collar. I'm trying to be nice. I'm Grandpap, and Grandpap is supposed to be fun to be around, right?"
He can handle the being nice part. The hard part is simply the difference in dedication. By all accounts, Sean's boys are gym rats – "they're around a lot, getting a workout in," said Arizona forward Solomon Hill – but they don't live it like Sean did at their age.
And this is where the Gila monster struggles.
His grandchildren are growing up more affluent and exposed to more of the world than his kids were. Those are not bad things. But the basketball coach wonders: will they have the hunger of boys growing up with much less?
"It's a pretty nice life," John said. "Arizona goes to Hawaii over Christmas for a tournament, guess what? The family gets to go. But then they're missing some of their own [basketball] things at home.
"There's give and take. In sports, nobody's going to give you anything. You have to earn it. You either put the time in and earn it or you don't put the time in and you don't have nearly as much of a chance. Whether his guys will become players, we'll see."
You want your kids to have a better life than you did, and they in turn want the same for their children. That's happening for the Millers, at least in terms of standard of living and overall opportunities. There is a wide world outside the sweaty gym, after all.
But will any of the young kids want to bake on the rocks the way the old man and his boys did? And if not, will something in the family DNA be lost along the way?
For a Gila monster living in a climate-controlled world, those are the hardest questions.
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