From the Desk of Scott Winter: Tim Miles and his mentor

Winter-Nebrasketball.inddScott Winter wrote Nebrasketball (Nebraska, 2015) while working as an assistant professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He now teaches journalism and English at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Hanging with his mentor

Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles gets serious about three seasons of losing, and maybe that will lead to winning, for you and for me.

My wife keeps asking me if Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles might lose his job. She went to college with Miles at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. She had no idea he would be such a big deal. Nobody did. Which is why, twenty years later, I wanted to write a book about him.

Based on the press room reaction to Tim Miles’ performance at Big Ten Media Day Oct. 18 in New York, the coach isn’t going to get by on his comedy. Wins in the press room won’t cut it anymore. But telling him any of this would be silly.

Nobody knows more than Miles that a non-event like Big Ten Media Dayjust like football media daymeans nothing. Winning that room never cut it.

And nobody knows more than Miles that he needs wins on the court, at Pinnacle Bank Arena, throughout the Big Ten and into March Madness.

Veteran men’s basketball reporter Lee Barfknecht, the next day on The Bottom Line with Mike’l Severe, admitted he likes this 2017-18 Huskers team after watching it in practices and scrimmages twenty-six times this summer and fall, but “Now, it has to happen when the lights are on and the popcorn’s popping.”

Miles needs to win games.

Despite that, Miles started telling jokes at the microphone in New York, and finished with one, too. He didn’t get many laughs. He also dealt with awkward silences when no reporters really wanted to ask him anything, leading to an awkward finish. But two-thirds through the non-event, Miles was asked about losing starters who transferred away. And he got serious.

Throughout his coaching career, Tim Miles has always contended that his mentor wasn’t a person. His mentor was losing. And that’s how he turned losing programs into winners, from Mayville State to Colorado State. By paying attention to the losses. How they happened. Why they happened.

And since the fairytale 2013-14 season that was featured in my book Nebrasketball: Coach Tim Miles and a Big Ten Team on the Rise, Miles has spent loads of time with his mentor, losing fifty-five of his next ninety-six games, rendering the title of the book borderline silly. Big losses, too, like a buzzer-beater against a good Michigan team, or a buzzer-beater against a bad Rutgers team, or an inexplicable loss at home to the University of Incarnate Word, a Catholic School in San Antonio with a smaller endowment than Ndamukong Suh.

On the podium in New York, Coach Miles scrapped his jokes and got serious to answer the question about losing significant players Michael Jacobson (to Iowa State) and Ed Morrow (to Marquette), among others.

“Look, no one likes losing,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. When you’re struggling, kids don’t like losing. … You know, you understand it. Young people get frustrated. There’s no question about that.”

He took some shots at players for thinking of themselves before the team, but later admitted they only have four years to play college hoops, so they have to do what they have to do. He compared losing and parting ways to actual divorce and people quitting on a business. Then he told a story that’s really about hanging out with his mentor again, looking him in the eyes, maybe having a reckoning with him:

“Last spring … we had two guys who were stars who transferred out and were part of our coveted recruiting class and all heck is breaking loose,” he said. “And that’s putting it as mildly as I can. And all the sudden … Shawn Eichorst, the athletic director at the time, is in my office and (assistant coach) Kenya (Hunter) walks in and we’re going to lose another starter. There’s rumors out there.”

He pauses. No smiling now.

“And you really feel, like you see in one of those movies, like Too Big to Fail, or whatever it might be… You feel like you’re in the room with the Wall Street bankers going, ‘This can’t be happening.’ More than anything, I think that galvanized us. Going through those moments together. Figuring out who’s really in here? And why are you in? And who’s out?”

Barfknecht, the Omaha World-Herald reporter, says Miles’ team is deep, talented, and getting along. No drama, which is what derailed the 2013-14 season that ended in the first round of March Madness. The team fell apart and devoured itself on the court and in the locker room. And maybe hasn’t ever really recovered. Then the drama of this spring, losing likable and hard-working players like Jacobson and Morrow.

Miles knows the way to really fix things is to ditch his mentor. Win about twenty to twenty-five games. He may have the talent that to win, even though the conference will be better across the board than it was last year. The Huskers are picked to finish thirteenth out of fourteen in the Big Ten, but Barfknecht sees the Huskers as a bubble team at ninth. Miles sees teams from No. 3 to No. 12 fighting it out NFL style.

The stakes, for Miles, aren’t high because of Big Ten conference standings or Media Day non-events. Nebraska fired Shawn Eichorst in September and new AD Bill Moos is expected to fire likable football coach Mike Riley at the end of the season for not winning. Which has to make a Nebraska basketball coach stare at ceilings late into the night.

Like Riley, Tim Miles is likable. So much so that he transformed my wife into a basketball fan. She hasn’t really missed a game in person, on TV, or on radio since that 2013-2014 season. But she needs him to win, too, if only to improve book sales and make that title honest again. You see, she wants a new kitchen. She knows that when John Feinstein wrote Season on the Brink about Bobby Knight in the late 1980s, Knight’s Hoosiers won the Final Four the next year and the book’s updated edition went to No. 1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list. I mean, two million copies. My wife figured that would happen three years ago to Nebrasketball. But she also likes the idea of it happening next March.

We don’t even have a dishwasher.