CHICAGO — “So what do you think of Tim Miles?”
Friends, fans, emailers and chatters have hit me with that question since Miles took the Nebraska men’s basketball job nearly a year ago.
First impressions, in this day of instant expertise and commentary, are everywhere from everybody. Me, I’m leery of first-year impressions when assessing power-conference coaches.
The love for Miles right now is near full bloom — and deservedly so.
This was a Husker team that people near the program feared might max out at 10 wins.
He got to 15, including an upset of Purdue in the Big Ten tournament, which has led friends to tell him semi-seriously that he raised the bar too high too soon at the start of his seven-year contract.
So after Miles’ first 12 months on the job, what should we think?
I see parallels between Miles’ early days at NU and the early days of Kansas State football under Bill Snyder. I’m talking about what Snyder often calls “intrinsic values” on how to do business.
Such foundation-building — regardless of wins and losses the first few years — is non-negotiable when trying to get out of the basement. We’ll address the stark differences in the two men’s personalities in a moment.
Like Snyder, Miles has created an internal standard of excellence in how you practice and how you play that won’t be compromised.
Like Snyder, Miles has refused to put limits on what his program can achieve in any single year, regardless of the roster composition.
Like Snyder, Miles has identified in recruiting which players fit his style. Miles’ simple mantra is “he better be able to pass it, catch it and shoot it.”
Miles doesn’t know Snyder and hasn’t studied how the purple people’s “Manhattan Miracle” in football came about. When told of some of Snyder’s principles, Miles offered something I could imagine Snyder saying:
“What it comes down to is you get what you tolerate.”
What gives Miles an edge over the often-crotchety Snyder in the early stages of rebuilding are his people skills and media savvy.
Now, Miles is no softie. He’ll cuss-bomb in practice with the best of them. Also, try telling him sometime he can’t do something. Remember in his opening press conference when he was asked about his basketball mentor?
“Losing,” he said.
Yet Miles, at age 46, looks 26 and acts like he’s 16. Those are compliments, folks. No program at Nebraska has ever been more in need of youthful enthusiasm mixed with proven experience than men’s basketball.
His likability quotient is through the roof, from peers and media.
Fellow coaches genuinely praise him. It’s not just the clichéd line of “his team plays hard.” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Ohio State’s Thad Matta all have said: “He can coach.”
In public, Miles grabs audiences by the funny bone with his line about life being too short to live in fear, worry and doubt.
On the job, writers and talkers alike come away beaming after fun and intelligent interviews. BTN announcers act giddy around Miles, and he left ESPN2 sideline reporter Samantha Ponder giggling after Thursday’s halftime interview.
(Bo Pelini, take a lesson. This stuff really does matter in recruiting and word-of-mouth promotion of your product. Perception becomes reality.)
Miles has been honest, consistent and, best of all, never phony. He doesn’t just act like he enjoys dealing with players, boosters and media. He really does.
How wide a swath has Miles cut through the Big Ten?
At the league tourney on Thursday, two student journalists from the Daily Illini walked into the press room, put down their work bags and considered whether to go courtside for Nebraska vs. Purdue.
“Not a great game,” one said. To which the other replied, “Yeah, but let’s go get us some Tim Miles. I love that guy.”
If Miles can motivate students from 500 miles away, maybe even the Husker fan base — a group that ex-Iowa State coach Johnny Orr once likened to dead dogs — has hope.
Going forward, we’ll need to see if Miles can emulate how Snyder got Kansas State football from poor to fair to pretty good to good to really good.
The answer is by staying true to his intrinsic values while recruiting unsung but difference-maker talent.
With that noted, Nebraska fans need to go slow on next season.
Social-media “experts” bleat that the record will automatically be better because there will be new players. But it’s rare for teams with one senior and at least seven Big Ten newcomers to excel. Especially with a lack of Big Ten size and strength.
Ask Miles about the three players he has sitting out — 6-foot-6 Texas Tech transfer Terran Petteway, 6-10 Florida transfer Walter Pitchford and 6-1 Omaha Central guard Deverell Biggs — and you’ll get one of his classic no-bull responses.
“They look good at times,” the coach said. “But when the thumb is on them, we’ll find out.
“I mean that as a challenge to them, and I mean it honestly. You don’t know how guys are going to react when pressure is applied. It’s a different beast. They aren’t being judged in public this year. They are playing with house money.”
As for touted point guard recruit Tai Webster, first he has to arrive from New Zealand. Then he’ll have to prove his worth in the Big Ten instead of against the unknown caliber of play he faces overseas.
But with Miles, like Snyder, it’s not about a single player. It’s about development of all players.
“Our style of play is motion offense,” Miles said. “Actually, motion offense is not an offense — it’s a way of life. So you’re only going to go as far as your player development.
“If you’re not doing that and your players aren’t getting better with their skill and decision-making, then you’re in trouble. In fact, you’re going to be brutal.”
Scheduling matters, too, while flipping a program’s culture.
Snyder at K-State used his baby-bottom-soft nonconference slates to get up to speed and later flourish in the way the Bowl Championship Series system is structured.
Miles has learned through his days at North Dakota State and Colorado State that you can’t use that model to game the Ratings Percentage Index of the nation’s 347 Division I basketball teams.
“Yeah, we need to learn how to win,” he said. “But you always need X amount of top 50 games and X amount of top 100 games. Then you’ve got to be careful about playing games against 250-plus opponents.”
Miles displayed his scheduling acumen this season.
Instead of playing four or five schools from bottom-feeder leagues, he picked up mid-level teams such as Valparaiso and Tulane and Kent State. That’s why Nebraska, even with a losing record, was No. 99 in RPI this weekend — the only under-.500 team in the top 100.
In sum, Miles appears to have the chops to perform his own miracle in a program that desperately needs one. As always, though, it will come down to recruiting.
“I know the recipe,” he said. “I’ve just got to find the right ingredients.”
Contact the writer: