University of Arizona basketball stood at a crossroads in 2009 when former athletic director Jim Livengood backed into hiring head coach Sean Miller. After a tenure that arguably saved the program from possible extinction, the situation in Tucson comes full circle.
Miller’s alma mater, Pittsburgh, reportedly has come calling.
Miller isn’t going…
Sean Miller to Pitt – NOT a thing pic.twitter.com/OcdaSZj00Y
— Michael Lev (@MichaelJLev) March 21, 2018
…but he should entertain the idea.
This isn’t the first time his name has been rumored in association with coaching vacancies during his tenure at Arizona, nor the first refutation of such rumors via Twitter. There was the abortive interest from Maryland in 2011, scrapped because of Kevin Anderson; and Pitt was rumored to have poked around just two years ago when Jamie Dixon left for his own alma mater.
The latter prompted a rather definitive rebuttal of anonymous sources, even more emphatic than today’s.
Last I checked there weren’t any cactus (or is it cacti) in Pittsburgh. pic.twitter.com/d0rh1CBdwt
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 22, 2016
Based on my own interactions with Wildcats fans, and perusing Arizona fan sites, supporters were desperate to keep him in Tucson in 2011, and laughed off the implication he’d leave for a decidedly lesser job, alumnus or not, in 2016. However, the best situation for everyone involved — Sean Miller, Arizona basketball and Pitt basketball — may well be for the coach to head home.
Despite an ugly performance in last week’s NCAA Tournament loss to Buffalo, my suggestion has no basis in Miller’s on-court performance. Not in the past, at least, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Three Elite Eight runs in five seasons is a remarkable stretch that Lute Olson accomplished only twice in his illustrious tenure: Once was from 1997 through 2001, the best run in program history and the period that solidified Arizona as a nationally prominent basketball program. The second began with the national title game loss in 2001, and ended with the historic, overtime loss to Illinois in 2005.
The 2005 Midwest Regional has special significance to the Sean Miller era, as it marked a sort of unofficial end to the glory days under Lute Olson. The Hall of Famer coached just two more seasons due to health reasons, and the only Arizona team to advance beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a No. 12 seed led by interim Russ Pennell.
Save some teams in the days of what would today be a low-major league, the Border Conference, and Fred “The Fox” Snowden’s squads of the mid-1970s, the entirety of Arizona basketball success was tied to Lute Olson. I noted the similarities between Arizona and UNLV when the news of Book Richardson’s arrest and the ongoing FBI probe, though in 2009, UA faced a future more akin to UConn now. The program post-Jim Calhoun is at a pivotal moment in its history, when it could fade to the irrelevance of its pre-Calhoun existence, without the right direction forward.
Miller proved to be the right plan to keep Arizona relevant in 2009. It took him just two seasons to end the longest conference championship drought since Olson won his first in 1986, and the Wildcats claimed claimed four since — including this season’s.
But in that 2011 team might be the strongest indicator that this is the right time for both Sean Miller and Arizona to begin new chapters.
The uncertainty of Olson’s health, which lingered for two full seasons, gave way to a coaching search rife with red herrings. Names that were never going to come to UA surfaced, like Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino. The more realistic possibility of John Calipari gained traction, until Kentucky severed ties with Billy Gillispie.
The Calipari non-starter led to rampant rumors that Tim Floyd was leaving Pac-10 rival USC for the opening. Olson praised Floyd during the latter’s tenure at Iowa State, and Floyd had just oversaw the first run of three straight NCAA Tournament appearances in USC history.
A domino effect ensued. With the NCAA sniffing around USC in relation to Floyd’s signing of O.J. Mayo, and Floyd’s tenuous relationship with then-athletic director Mike Garrett, Floyd left L.A. two months later. USC hired Kevin O’Neill, a former Lute Olson assistant who filled in for the ailing head coach during the 2007-08 season. And the tumult around the program contributed to an exodus from USC…
…and into Arizona.
The 2009-’10 and 2010-’11 Arizona teams featured the trio of Derrick Williams, Solomon Hill and Momo Jones in prominent roles. All three were USC verbal commits who flipped to Arizona after Sean Miller’s hire, and amid the uncertainty lingering over the Trojans. Williams was a Pac-10 Player of the Year, and arguably ranks among the Top 20 players in program history. Hill was a four-year starter who has since carved out a surprisingly solid NBA career. Jones transferred to Iona, closer to his native New York City, but not before playing a critical role on the 2011 Elite Eight run.
Nine years, three Elite Eights and five Pac-12 championships after that trio flipped, Arizona finds itself in the USC role. The ongoing FBI probe, including a contested ESPN report that specifically named Miller as having been caught on wiretaps discuss payment for a player, decimated a previously promising 2018 signing class.
Jahvon Quinerly, Shareef O’Neal and Brandon Williams backed out of verbal commits. Bryan Penn-Johnson pledged to Washington this week. No fresh blood is yet coming into the Arizona program, while Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, DeAndre Ayton, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic all depart.
Immediate outlook for Arizona’s 2018-19 is bleak, and there’s no foreseeable timeline for the FBI cloud to pass.
Arizona’s a program with greater resources and a much more storied, recent history than Pitt. Tucson is a college town, while Pittsburgh’s a city obsessed with its professional sports, relegating the universities to the background. UA fans call the Old Pueblo “Basketball Town;” Pittsburgh is Title Town for football and hockey, and baseball has a storied history there, but basketball’s an afterthought.
A rebuild at Arizona is likely an easier process for these reasons and more — say nothing of athletic department budgets — but there’s no telling when such a project could even begin at UA. Pitt’s disastrous few years under Kevin Stallings knocked that program down to its foundation. The next regime is inherently a fresh start at Pittsburgh, and the job would be a fresh start for Sean Miller.
And for Arizona, starting anew may be the only way to ensure a future direction for the program.