Damon Bailey might be in the building.
It's late September, the Indiana Hoosiers' first day of fall practice, and as they take to the Assembly Hall court, with those crimson banners trumpeting their onetime renown, whispers percolate about Bailey dropping by to observe the first day of a new era. Indiana secured a pair of Big Ten titles and a Final Four berth when Bailey wore candy stripes from 1990 to 1994. He had played high school ball 25 miles outside of Bloomington, then hopped on Indiana 37 North to join Bob Knight for four years. Fans of Bedford North Lawrence High School used to purchase season tickets for Bedford's opponents just to make sure they bore witness to Bailey's every act of Indiana basketball excellence.
Bailey hasn't shown yet, though, and on the floor, these new Hoosiers are still getting their sea legs. Half the team lines up, a ball in each hand, under the basket on one side of the court. On the whistle, they arc one ball between their legs, then the other. It's an endless loop that's part ballhandling drill, part Harlem Globetrotters razzle-dazzle.
About 100 feet way, clear on the other side of the court, Archie Miller takes a knee. The Hoosiers' new coach is the shortest man on the floor -- at 5-foot-9, he doesn't clear sophomore forward De'Ron Davis' shoulders. But after Devonte Green, Miller's flashy New York-native guard, lobs a sloppy pass, Miller feels far from small. He waves his arms in a frenzy and his whole being practically vibrates -- a powerful tornado of disgust.
The rest of practice unfolds in much the same way: Miller kneeling, taking a worm's-eye view; Miller gesticulating, imploring his new charges to PICK. UP. THE. PACE. But Bailey never shows. And isn't that just like Indiana these past few decades? Pining for yesterday, grappling with today.
Tomorrow for Indiana has been entrusted to 39-year-old Miller, an opportunity he recounts with the same jubilation he might an impending root canal. "Really, really excited," he says at a podium in late September, his words flat, his face granite. Later, sitting in his office, a still-mostly-barren enclave six months into his Hoosiers tenure, he concedes that his emotional reticence is hardly new. "They like to say there's not a whole lot of baby pictures of me. I was always grumpy or mad about something," he says with a shrug. "Ornery, I guess, would be the word."
He was born Ryan but earned the nickname Archie early on as an homage to perpetual TV crank Archie Bunker. His is a hesitant, creeping grin that quickly settles back into its natural state: resting grim face. He cracked a quick smile at the podium when ruminating on ways to tone down Green's showmanship ("He's definitely an East Coast guard"), but if you blinked, you missed it. "He'll cuss somebody out and it can be funny," says Indiana's fifth-year senior forward, Collin Hartman. "But then you're like, 'Well, I don't know if I should laugh or not; his face hasn't changed.'"
Miller doesn't lack charisma, though -- he has inspired near-fanboy adulation from college basketball's hiring class since the day in 2002 when he stepped off the NC State court, where he spent his college years as a gritty, undersized point guard and helped lead the Wolfpack to their first NCAA tournament berth in 11 years. "I'm telling you, he's gonna be a star," insisted Dave Telep, a recruiting analyst who now moonlights as scouting director for the San Antonio Spurs. Almost 15 years ago, Telep assured Darrin Horn, who was assembling his staff at Western Kentucky at the time, that Miller -- fresh off his playing days in Raleigh -- was a no-brainer as a young coaching talent to invest in early.
Over the next decade and a half, as Miller wound his way from Western Kentucky back to NC State, then to Arizona State, Ohio State and Arizona, the star label traveled with him. It followed him to Dayton, where he settled in for six years in his first head-coaching gig and promptly led the Flyers to four straight NCAA tournaments for the first time in school history. It eventually surfaced in southern Indiana. "I started talking to people in the basketball world whose judgments I value," recalls Fred Glass, Indiana's athletic director, "and he was just widely perceived as a superstar among people that had no dog in the fight."
And so shortly after Indiana let go of nine-year head man Tom Crean in mid-March, Glass phoned Miller, reaching him when the coach was in California watching his older brother, Sean, coach the Arizona Wildcats in the Sweet 16. The two spoke, agreed to meet after Miller's West Coast trip and hung up. Glass called back immediately.
"I don't want to interrupt your vacation, but could you meet me at a hotel near the San Francisco airport?" he asked Miller. They did meet, at a hotel by the airport the next day, Glass flying in and out in 24 hours. He was that certain he had found his man. Glass liked Miller's DNA as the youngest, brashest branch of a coaching tree that began with Miller's father, John, a Hall of Fame high school coach hailing from the Pittsburgh region, and gave way to Sean, the Wildcats' coach of nine years. He loved Miller's tenacity, how he willed into existence a prodigious career as an ACC point guard (he remains NC State's fourth-leading 3-point scorer of all time) despite no height and lackluster athleticism. And he downright coveted Miller's full embrace of the expectations Glass laid bare for Indiana basketball.
After all, Glass had fired Crean, who fielded two Big Ten championship teams and three Sweet 16 squads in his nine years in Bloomington and was just one season removed from a Big Ten Coach of the Year campaign. But Glass was after national championships, even if the Hoosiers hadn't claimed one in three decades. "I would argue their expectations cannot be met," says one Division I assistant coach. "What Crean did was stuff that hadn't been done there in a long time. To say 'We're not where we want to be' or 'We're not where we used to be'? Well, you haven't been there in a long time."
Miller, though, to Glass' approval, didn't balk. The coach knows and buys in: Indiana the program and Indiana the state consider basketball a bedrock and championships their birthright.
"You're driving and you see the sign for Bedford and you say to yourself, 'Wow, the players that came out of there,'" Miller says. "You go across the state and you reminisce about the players and coaches who have made those same drives. I say, 'Man, I hope I get an All-American out of one of these towns one day.'"
Head south on Indiana 37. Nestled between the corn stalks and churches is basketball.
Drive by Bedford, where Bailey once filled the rafters. Hang a left onto State Road 60 East and pass through Borden, where a stark-white sign boasts in bold red, "2008 Boys Basketball: 1A-2A 6th Grade State Champions." Swing back on State Road 135 North and find Brownstown, population 2,947. Its high school gym sat 3,000 fans until this year. With recent renovations came downsizing -- so the town's populace now surpasses its arena's capacity -- but Brownstown is special in Indiana precisely because it's not unusual here.
"There are 20 or 30 high school gyms where the size of the gym is equal to or almost exceeds the population of the town," Glass says.
Seven years ago, Glass received a four-page, handwritten note from an 84-year-old grandmother from Topeka, Indiana. "Dear Sir," she wrote in looping cursive. "After watching these last several games, which I know have been against some of the best in our league, I am feeling a bit depressed and find it more difficult to watch." She was distraught, she explained, at the Hoosiers' Big Ten-worst free throw percentage. But she offered a solution: retired Indiana high school coach and free throw savant Virgil Sweet. "A clinic might also be helpful if he conducts them."
"They like to say there's not a whole lot of baby pictures of me. I was always grumpy or mad about something. Ornery, I guess, would be the word." Archie Miller
Basketball is oxygen in this state.
After Crean was relieved of his duties, Glass laid out three "double-check-plus" assets for his would-be coach: ties to the state of Indiana; ties to the university; and collegiate head-coaching experience. The subtext of those assets read something like a love letter to current UCLA coach Steve Alford. The New Castle, Indiana, native was 1983's Mr. Basketball and helped capture the Hoosiers' last championship in 1987. He boasted plenty of college coaching experience, at Iowa, then New Mexico and now UCLA -- even if his record, on and off the court, was far from pristine.
Six months later, Glass insists he was misunderstood. He wasn't using Indiana pedigree as a litmus test, he says now, just as a nice-to-have bit of résumé padding, which was why Miller's lack thereof was not a deal-breaker. And then Miller went and did the next-best thing. He poached Indiana native Ed Schilling from Alford's coaching staff at UCLA.
Kyle Simpson is the head basketball coach at Southport High in Indianapolis (though he's originally from small-town Milan, Indiana, he notes with pride, home of the 1954 high school state champs). Simpson's father coached in Indiana. His grandfather did, too. "The high school coaches that I've talked to," he says, "they wanted somebody that understood the landscape of Indiana high school basketball."
Schilling is that somebody. He coached Yogi Ferrell and trained with in-state products Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Gordon Hayward and Jeff Teague. He spent four years at Park Tudor High in Indianapolis, securing two state titles, and served as the executive director for Champions Academy, an Indianapolis-based youth basketball organization. His wife, former WNBA player April McDivitt-Schilling, was an Indiana Miss Basketball from Connersville. Those Indiana credentials matter, especially for the state school trying to regain its footing among the in-state talent. Since 2000, only five Mr. Basketballs have gone on to be Hoosiers, and none since Cody Zeller in 2011 -- the rest mostly opting for Big Ten foes (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State) or national brands (Kentucky, North Carolina). Kris Wilkes, the 2017 winner, followed Alford and, yes, Schilling, to UCLA. And of the 25 Indiana-based ESPN 100 preps since 2012, only four have signed on to play in Bloomington.
Schilling, of course, cannot stanch the flow of Indiana's top players by himself. But Miller is betting Schilling's encyclopedic knowledge of the state and his decades-old roots will help. "You almost have a history book at your disposal," he says.
A tour guide, as well, to the excitement that surrounds the program. In Schilling's four years in Westwood, he would go out to lunch nearly every day with Alford and the UCLA staff. They'd go on campus or close to it, but Schilling can't recall a single time anyone asked for an autograph or a picture. "Now, if we have a kid on an unofficial visit?" he says. "Shoot, there's pictures already online. It's just a different thing."
And that's the part of this whole Indiana experience that still leaves Miller a bit flummoxed. The part in which Miller dropped by an open gym at a high school in his first week on the job and eight news cameras descended. The part in which he pulls up to Joe Huber's Family Farm & Restaurant, on the border between Indiana and Kentucky, and the line for the IU fan event snakes its way down the length of the road.
Pulling up to the farm that day, Miller looked out the bus window and thought to himself: "It's this big that they want to come down and hear me speak for 25 minutes?"
Archie Miller is in the building.
It's the open gym session in New Albany, Indiana, in late September -- three days before Miller will officially kick off his 2017-18 debut campaign with the Hoosiers' first practice -- but he's here, two hours southeast of Bloomington, to check in on Romeo Langford, the fifth-best high school senior in the country.
The new coach's timing is fortuitous. It's never a bad moment to check in on the state's top-ranked prospect, but Miller happened to drop by on the same day the college basketball landscape imploded, when a federal investigation into corruption in the sport led to charges against four assistant coaches and, ultimately, the dismissal of Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Pitino, like Miller, was vying for Langford's services. (Arizona's Emanuel "Book" Richardson, one of the four charged, was an assistant with Miller's brother, Sean, for 11 years. Sean has not been accused of any misconduct to date.)
It's early in the Langford sweepstakes, but Miller is no stranger to recruiting splashes. He steered Courtney Lee to Western Kentucky, and Lee wound up the school's all-time scoring co-leader with 2,238 points. Miller nearly persuaded seven-time NFL Pro Bowler Darrelle Revis to be a Hilltoppers basketball player, too. And while he'd never call Langford a must-get -- recruiting is too fickle and 18-year-olds too capricious to bestow that kind of weight on one player -- Miller does not shy away from making clear just how important he considers keeping Indiana talent in Indiana -- and, specifically, Bloomington.
"The most important," he says.
So Miller -- and John Calipari and Bill Self and Roy Williams, among others -- will keep tabs on Langford's winter exploits. Basketball devotees in Indiana will follow along as Langford, with 2,090 career points, attempts to add 1,044 more to hunt down Damon Bailey's 27-year-old state scoring record. They'll hope that one day soon, Langford will hop on Interstate 65 North to join Miller for a year or two. Fans of New Albany might even purchase season tickets for New Albany's opponents, simply to bear witness.
Nearly 30 years ago, Brownstown, the small town with a big gym, added bleachers to its gymnasium to accommodate those zealous Bedford supporters tailing Bailey around the state. The school packed in about 3,300, way over capacity, and the fire marshal told the principal the next Monday, "You will never do that again."
But Indiana, and Archie Miller, would be just fine repeating history.