In the spring of 2003, Indianapolis was bidding for the NCAA’s 2006 Final Four. Even though the NCAA is headquartered here and the city had set the standard for hosting the event at the RCA Dome in 1991, 1997 and 2000, no one was taking anything for granted.
I was working for the Indiana Sports Corp. at the time and was part of the bid team. While we certainly wanted to feature the track record and Indy’s downtown convenience, the bid team decided it needed something else. We chose to focus on the experience of the student-athletes.
And we recruited Brandon Miller.
Miller had just completed his eligibility at Butler, ending a stellar three-year career as a feisty player who could light it up offensively. Out of New Castle High School, Miller embodied the prototypical Indiana high school basketball player: a smart, competitive, plucky guy with a jump shot.
So, in preparation for the NCAA committee’s site visit to Indianapolis, RCA Dome Director Mike Fox pulled a basketball floor out of storage, placed it in the middle of the dome, and put a portable basketball goal at each end.
And when the committee walked in, there was Brandon Miller, stinging the nets with accurate jump shots. As the committee members approached the court, Miller stopped shooting and addressed the committee. We had coached him on what to say, but it was left to him to ad lib.
He flat nailed it.
“Hi, I’m Brandon Miller from Butler. It’s every basketball player’s dream to play in a Final Four. And while my career is over, take it from this Hoosier—there can be no better place for that dream to become true for a student-athlete than right here in Indianapolis.”
Miller then turned and swished another jumper. Performance under pressure.
The committee members smiled and nodded. An NCAA staffer later remarked what a favorable impression that moment made.
Ten years later, after a career as an assistant coach and even a year off when he contemplated whether basketball was the best path for him and his family, Miller is back at center court and getting ready to perform before another committee of sorts.
Talk about a dream come true. He’s the head coach at his alma mater, and the fabled Hinkle Fieldhouse is his center stage.
But this dream is wrapped in a bundle of harsh realities. Miller succeeds Brad Stevens, who stunned the basketball world with his July announcement that he was leaving the Fairview campus for the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Rightly or wrongly, Miller will face inevitable comparisons to Stevens, who led the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA tournament championship games and took Butler on a rapid ascension from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 to the Big East in the space of 24 months.
Cinderfellas no more, the Bulldogs have now moved into a world inhabited by the big-basketball-budget likes of Georgetown and Villanova.
Oh, and Butler’s arrival coincides with the loss to injury of its best player, Roosevelt Jones. It’s almost like the unproven lounge singer with a sore throat trying to follow Sinatra.
Butler Athletic Director Barry Collier, who surprised some when he quickly elevated Stevens to replace Todd Lickliter (who had left for Iowa), is keeping it all in the family again. Miller is, in fact, the fourth straight Butler assistant—following Thad Matta, Lickliter and Stevens—to move into the Big Chair.
Matta went 24-8 in his first (and only) year at Butler. Lickliter was 26-6 out of the gate. Stevens was 30-4 in his first campaign.
But none was going into a new league without his best player. This season—which officially begins with a Nov. 9 visit from Lamar—could well test both the Butler faithful and the newly converted drawn to the dazzling success of the Stevens era. Butler was picked ninth in the Big East, and isn’t that a fine how-do-you-do?
Still, there’s something enduring about The Butler Way, which has proven to be far more than a cuddly catchphrase; it’s a philosophical intangible. Miller lived it as a player, and he’s certain to continue it as head coach. And the landscape is littered with big-name opponents who counted Butler out before the first punch was thrown.
It might take him a little longer than his predecessors, but I believe Miller will have Butler playing in the tough, tenacious and efficient manner that has become the staple.
Hey, 10 years ago, he helped get Indy a Final Four. Maybe someday he’ll get Butler back to one. Now that would be a dream come true.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at [email protected] He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.