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A Sad Day in Tucson and Pittsburgh

If you’ve ever lived in Pittsburgh and you come across someone else from the area, the first thing they will ask you is where you went to high school. More people can probably tell you that Joe Namath went to Beaver Falls High School than that he went to Alabama. That’s how strongly people from Pittsburgh value their hometowns.

I’m a Cleveland Indians fan, so I know what disappointment feels like. There’s a completely different kind of disappointment in sports that in some ways cuts even deeper than losing. That’s when you find out that someone you were rooting for was cheating.

Five miles down the road from Beaver Falls High School is Blackhawk High School. Their most famous alumnus is Sean Miller. Miller played for his dad in high school and starred at Pitt as a hard-nosed point guard in the 80s. Miller had some teams at Xavier that matched his playing style: tough, smart, and overachieving. He has been at Arizona for 10 years, and rather than replicate what worked at Xavier he began going after high profile recruits, especially the one-and-done types. While it may be overly harsh to say that a four-time Pac-12 champion has underachieved, Miller has never been to the Final Four, so it would be hard to argue that his perennial top-notch recruiting classes have translated into an elite program.

None of that matters now, of course, with the revelation that Miller was caught on tape discussing a payment of $100,000 in order to secure the recruitment of DeAndre Ayton, the freshman center who is a candidate for national player of the year. Miller is younger than me, but my high school played his high school in basketball, so he caught my eye early in his career at Pitt, and I’ve followed him ever since. I felt even more connected to him after he went to Arizona because my daughter and her husband graduated from UA. Now that I’ve moved to Seattle, I see enough Arizona games on Pac-12 Network that it’s almost like they’re the local team.

So, the fall from grace for Sean Miller feels different for me than, say, Rick Pitino. It’s different because he’s a Pittsburgh kid. It’s different because the team to which my daughter and her husband are devoted will have a new coach. They now face sanctions that will take the program years to recover from. It’s also different because now Arizona is one of those programs. Like USC football a decade ago or Louisville basketball more recently, everything that has been accomplished is called into question. For a fan, the idea that your years of emotional investment was spent on something that turned out to be a fraud is far worse than cheering for a losing team.

There is, of course, a presumption of innocence, but it strains credulity to believe that the one time Sean Miller was recorded cheating was the only time he cheated. That’s like saying that the time you got a speeding ticket was the only time you drove fast. How many of the four Pac-12 titles Miller won would stand up to real scrutiny if the facts were known? Maybe all of them. Maybe none. As a fan, you can’t look at those banners in McKale Center and feel the same way about them that you did before Friday.

Here’s the real tragedy in all of this: Sean Miller is a great coach. Even as a freshman at Pitt, he thought like a coach. He could have had a team that contended for Pac-12 titles for the next twenty years just by doing the things he knows how to do. Would he have won a national title, or gone to the Final Four, erasing the one blemish on his resume? There’s no way to know because the tournament is so often a roll of the dice. Lute Olson, the standard against which all Arizona coaches are measured, had the same sort of stigma for a long time, then he won his only national title with a fifth seed team that had a conference record of 11–7 and was considered a disappointment until the third week of March.

But anyone who coached or played against Miller’s Xavier teams knows he’s a great coach. He took a squad whose best players were Stanley Burrell and Drew Lavender and won three A-10 titles and went to the Sweet Sixteen twice, once missing out on a Final Four bid on a last second 3-point shot. He took an Arizona team with Derrick Williams and nothing else to 30 wins before his recruiting kicked in. Here’s a thought: If he had just kept to the same pattern of finding overachievers and developing them at Arizona, would he have accomplished more? Instead, he went after the one-and-dones, which meant getting cozy with the AAU crowd and the shoe reps. Not only did he never develop the continuity that helped Xavier advance so deep into the tournament, that choice probably led him to the trouble in which he finds himself today.

There will be those who say that Miller is just part of an overwhelming rot that has enveloped college basketball, that he did what he did because everyone around him was doing it, that he sold his soul to keep up with elite programs that were getting away with even worse. As the revelations linked to the FBI investigation of payoffs between coaches, agents, and shoe company reps unfold, it will be more and more tempting to excuse what Miller — and everyone else — did as the inevitable result of operating in a corrupt system. It may turn out that the only coaches who aren’t cheating are the ones in the NIT, or it may turn out that, because his cheating was so brazen, Miller becomes the focus of so much outrage that everyone else slides through unscathed. Either way, it’s a sad ending.

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