Scott Winter is an assistant professor of journalism at Bethel University. He is the author of Nebrasketball: Coach Tim Miles and a Big Ten Team on the Rise (October 2015). Follow Scott on Twitter or visit his website.
Miles: Right where he wants to be
As Nebraska prepared to play Indiana at Assembly Hall Wednesday, I daydreamed about researching my book Nebrasketball: Coach Tim Miles and a Big Ten Team on the Rise. During that season two years ago, my favorite moment happened in Bloomington, Indiana.
I had limited resources to research the book, a lack of time and money. I wanted to interview all the coach’s family, friends and enemies in person at all his stops on the way to Lincoln, but I had to cut back to a circuitous trip through Minnesota and the Dakotas. I also wanted to be in the locker room for every game that year, home and away, but taking that kind of time would get in the way of my day job teaching journalism, and probably cost me a great marriage. Plus, I’d go broke.
So I had to make choices.
To decide, I asked basketball folks this question: “If you could go to any two Big Ten venues, where would you go?” I already knew my answer. My favorite Big Ten gyms were The Barn/Williams Arena in Minnesota, Assembly Hall at Indiana and the Breslin Center at Michigan State. I’d been to The Barn many times, but never to the other two. The answer was clear. But I asked everyone anyway for confirmation, and everyone came through. “Go to Michigan State and Indiana.”
Creighton refused to let me in the locker room in Omaha, and the Huskers lost. I skipped the holiday tournament in South Carolina and two more losses. I missed a few games in January because of my own work-related trip to the Dominican Republic, and the team lost games on the road, and one at home to Michigan by a bucket. By the time the Huskers reached my first road trip at Michigan State, they were 13-10, on a bit of a roll, but had played terribly on the road.
Then they beat Michigan State 60-51 in one of Miles biggest wins of his career. And I was there to document it.
At that point, the team was less annoyed with me. I’d been around coaches and players so much in practice, shoot-arounds and locker rooms that they didn’t notice me much anymore, which was exactly what I wanted. More importantly, maybe, the team was 12-0 with me in the locker room. Again, 14-10 overall, but 12-0 with me there.
Logically, I had nothing to do with those wins, but superstitious coaches don’t deal in much logic. They deal in ritual, lucky ties, lucky pennies, lucky rocks. Anything. So assistants begged me to go to the next road game at Illinois 10 days later. I told them I couldn’t afford it. One offered to pay my way, but I refused. I didn’t want to accept anything from the program aside from access. I wanted the book to be an objective account of Miles’ coaching recipe—win or lose—of toughness, tenderness and doofus.
Illinois creamed the Huskers. The final score was 67-58, but Nebraska had no chance.
The next road game? At Indiana. To afford the flight, I flew to Cincinnati and drove three hours to Bloomington. In a pub the night before the game, as would become custom on the road, Miles and I had dinner, both of us exhausted. At that point, the team had gone 9-3 in its last 12 conference games. It was on the verge of making the tournament. A win over Indiana on the Hoosiers’ Senior Night would help. How unlikely was this for a team picked to finish last? Miles thought about it as he stretched out sideways in a booth. Then he shook his head and looked over at me:
“We’re awful,” he said.
Symbolically, that was Miles. Success was torturous because he always had to be a little guy from Doland, South Dakota. A guy who wasn’t supposed to succeed. Who wasn’t supposed to win with a team picked last in the conference during pre-season by coaches and media. Picked to lose 13 straight games by a national statistician. Now, he was winning and he was still miserable.
Nebraska then beat Indiana 70-60 with that awful team.
Eventually, I’d be 15-0 in the Huskers’ locker room before a post-season meltdown. Miles was right. His team was flawed.
The good news these days is that Miles’ teams are as significantly flawed as ever. And he must have a Chimney Rock-sized chip on his shoulder. When he brings this year’s mediocre team—14-12 overall, 6-7 in the Big Ten going into the Indiana game—to the Big Ten tournament, he’ll be the little guy in the fight, which is right where he wants to be.