PEMBROKE — It’s April 21, 2003 and Bill Self is about to be introduced as the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Kansas.
Ben Miller is there, waiting to meet the man who is set to replace Roy Williams, the coach who gave Miller is start with the Jayhawks. Williams left Lawrence to coach his alma mater North Carolina, leaving Miller to mull over his future.
“I remember when Coach Self came for his press conference, walking down the hall, he knew the names of my kids before I even introduced them,” said Miller, who is entering his ninth season as the head men’s basketball coach at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
“That’s just the kind of guy he is. He treated me like family from day one and he didn’t have to do that.”
Miller capped his 11 years with Kansas in 2004, leaving to pursue a coaching opportunity at Missouri State after Self’s first season with the program.
Though his time with Self was brief, Miller carried plenty with him as a young coach and built a friendship that culminated on Sept. 8 during Self’s enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Miller was among the former players and coaches at Symphony Hall that worked with Self over his now 14 seasons with the Jayhawks. Self was the first of 11 inductees in the Class of 2017 to give a speech at the enshrinement ceremony.
The 54-year-old coach gave a 9-minute, 58-second talk to a crowd that included Self’s former players and staff members from KU, Illinois, Tulsa, Oral Roberts and Oklahoma State.
To best describe Self’s mentality, Miller pointed to a quote from Bill Self Sr. that reads, “Don’t worry about the mules, just load the wagon.” That quote is now on display at the Hall of Fame, inscribed within the base of a statue of James Naismith.
“That’s how Coach Self handles things,” Miller said, “not worrying about the pressure, but just continuing to work hard.
“It was a really neat weekend. Not only Coach Self and the 2017 inductees, but there were guys like Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas in the audience. … Larry Brown there presenting Coach Self. Then Coach Williams, with the connection to KU, on video speaking about Coach Self and what he’s done with the Kansas basketball legacy. Just seeing all of those former KU players there and assistant coaches, it was a really neat weekend and a great way to get your juices pumping for the upcoming basketball season.”
Turning the page
When Williams left for Chapel Hill in 2003, he offered Miller the chance to stay on his staff and join the Tar Heels.
Self offered Miller the chance to stay with the Jayhawks as the director of basketball operations.
He accepted Self’s offer.
“It was a whirlwind,” Miller said of the transition period. “Coach Williams was nice enough to offer me an opportunity to go to Carolina, but Kansas had become home and Coach Self was also generous enough to give me an opportunity to just have a chance to learn from another coach. It was really neat.”
But that didn’t mean it was a seamless transition. Self was set to follow a man who led the Jayhawks to 418 wins over 15 seasons, nine conference titles and four appearances in the Final Four, including back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2002 and 2003.
“It was a tough adjustment because there was so much emotion when Coach Williams left. He was beloved and was so successful,” Miller said.
“There were a lot of hurt players and people in the community. It really took a guy with the confidence of Coach Self to come in and kind of embrace that challenge and be his own man. That’s a big shadow to come in behind, but (Self) handled it with grace, rolled up his sleeves, went to work and built his own identity there as the Kansas coach.”
He did, indeed.
Self is the fifth head coach in KU history to join the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, joining James Naismith, Phog Allen, Larry Brown and Williams.
A three-time National Coach of the Year, Self has led the Jayhawks to 416 wins, 13 straight Big 12 titles and a pair of Final Four appearances, including the 2008 NCAA Championship, in his 14 seasons with the program.
“Seeing that transition and seeing Coach Self go on to win a national championship and 13 conference championships in a row, which is unheard of. … being there at the beginning of that process was really great for me,” Miller said.
‘Seven minutes or 77 minutes’
Having coached under two of Kansas’ five men’s basketball coaches in the Hall of Fame, Miller said he “feels so blessed to have been in the right place at the right time.”
But while there were some similarities between Self and Williams, Miller recalls a few differences.
“I remember some really long practices those first couple of weeks,” he said with a laugh. “Coach Williams was so efficient in practices. Practices were organized down to the minute. If we had seven minutes scheduled for this drill, we did it for seven minutes. … With Coach Self, we’d go to a late lunch as a staff at 1:30 p.m. or 2 o’clock — practice might be at 2:45 p.m. — and he’s scribbling out a practice plan on a napkin.
“But we got in there and they were great practices. Coach Self is different in terms of how he approaches things with planning. We may have seven minutes planned on a drill and we may go 77 minutes in that drill if that’s what he feels like doing. It was a very different style, but it was also, obviously, very successful.”
Miller also remembers spending some long nights in the office with Self during those first few weeks.
“He didn’t know me at all, but his first couple of days we were in the office until 1 or 2 in the morning,” Miller said. “While he’s a very confident guy, there’s no ego. He wanted to know what I thought about this and that. Not just me, but all the assistants and secretaries. He makes everybody feel special. I was a young assistant on the staff and we might be getting ready for a big-time game against Missouri and he would want to know what I thought about defending the pick-and-roll (offense). … Coach Self jumped out right away with the respect he had for other people and how much fun he had with the game. He was demanding, very demanding. But I think he can do that because his players, the staff, they know he cares.”
‘Pulitzer Prize plagiarism’
Miller has a quote on his desk at the English E. Jones Center on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
“I heard a quote one time about ‘Pulitzer Prize plagiarism,’” Miller said. “I think as a coach, you can’t be afraid to steal and learn from the best. (Self and Williams) are two Hall of Fame guys who are quick to tell you they learned so much from their mentors. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t try to soak up as much as I could from Coach Self and Coach Williams.”
It’s worked out for Miller during his tenure at UNCP. Adding his own flavor to what he learned from Self and Williams, Miller helped the Braves go from a 6-21 record in his first season in Pembroke to 24-8 last season with a pair of Peach Belt Conference championships. He’s also helped the Braves earn four NCAA Tournament appearances.
“Starting with Coach Williams, he gave me the opportunity to help out, starting out in small ways with the jayvee team and the basketball camps,” Miller said. “Those opportunities led to more and more with him, which was an amazing 10 years in a variety of roles.
“Then having a chance to learn some different things from Coach Self and his staff was a great opportunity as a young coach.”
Above all, it was the work ethic of Self and Williams that stood out to Miller when he got his start as a coach.
“Both of those coaches really believed in caring about their players, building a program and doing it the right way where guys graduate. They believe in team defense and team offense and working very hard every day,” he said. “That’s something that sticks with you as a young coach. Seeing these Hall of Fame guys roll up there sleeves, go to work every day, and really enjoy teaching the game.”
Miller also noted the importance of recruiting and teaching the fundamentals, placing an emphasis on “recruiting the right talent and the right kid” and “attention to detail.”
“I think both coaches stood out right away with their passion and work ethic on the recruiting trail. What really stood out from day one with Coach Self was the attention to detail with the fundamentals of the game,” Miller said.
“Little things like setting up your man on a cut, the proper way to closeout in a defensive stance. Both Coach Williams and Coach Self are quick to give credit to their mentors, guys like Dean Smith and Larry Brown. I think sometimes when you’ve had the talent that those coaches have, I don’t think they get enough credit for how well they teach the game and their passion. When you combine great talent with great coaching, it makes it so much fun.”
Family for life
Miller only spent one season on Self’s staff before pursuing another coaching opportunity at Missouri State.
The Jayhawks finished with a 24-9 record in Self’s first season in Lawrence, making a run to the Elite Eight before losing to Georgia Tech.
Miller’s time in Kansas was over, but that didn’t end his relationship with Self.
Despite the strains of being a head coach at the college level, Miller still gets to make the occasional trip to Lawrence.
Earlier this summer, Miller returned to Kansas for Self’s basketball camp, tagging along with his son, Charlie, who participated in the annual event.
Betsie, Miller’s daughter, took an official visit to Kansas last week. Her other visit was at North Carolina.
“When I was out at the Hall of Fame, Coach Self asked me about my kids,” Miller said. “Both Coach Williams and Coach Self spent time with Betsie on her visit, treating her like a big-time recruit. I don’t even know if she can make a 10-foot jump shot, but just because there was a connection with me working for those guys, they made her feel really special.
“That speaks a lot to the kind of people they are. Both of those guys are family guys who care about the people in their program and it doesn’t stop when guys’ eligibility runs out or an assistant moves on. You’re their family for life. You could see that last weekend with all the people that came to see Coach Self.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.