Taking charge in Greensboro
Despite youth, Miller has impressive basketball resumé
He just turned 29, but even among seasoned veterans of the college basketball world, Wes Miller has a longer resume than most.
Miller played on a national championship team at North Carolina. He wrote a book about his senior season in 2007. He played a year of pro ball in England and has been an assistant coach at three schools.
And now he's the youngest head coach in Division I.
“I’m young,” Miller said, “but I’ve covered a lot of Division I basketball ground, I will say that.”
What’s more, Miller has turned things around at UNC-Greensboro, where things were so bad early in the season that head coach Mike Dement was fired after a 2-8 start, putting Miller as interim head coach and squarely in the spotlight in a state where basketball rules.
Not that things got better right away. Miller lost his first six games, including UNCG’s first four in Southern Conference play.
“You know, I’m young, but after (head) coaching for more than a month now I feel like I’m old,” Miller said last week. “All these gray hairs are starting to come in.”
But now the Spartans are standing atop the SoCon North Division after winning seven in a row. The Spatans had their winning streak snapped on Saturday afternoon, dropping a hard-fought contest to Furman.
Perhaps his players relate well to him because Miller is so close to their age, and, as he pointed out, he’d been with most of them all of last season, too.
“You have personal relationships with these guys as an assistant coach, but with me in a new role, they had to take kind of a blind leap of faith, I would say,” Miller said. “And it has a lot more to do with them than it does to me and they came out the first day and gave a great effort.”
That’s kind of how Miller went about basketball his whole life. He was born in Greensboro,NC but when he was 10 his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Charlotte.
“But I always came back a lot because my dad was living here.”
He went to a high school in New Hampshire before signing with James Madison, where he averaged 17 minutes and 4.1 points per game as a freshman.
But it wasn’t the right fit for him and Roy Williams had just taken over at North Carolina. Miller had a chance to walk on at UNC and took advantage of the opportunity.
He sat out the 2004 season, but in 2005 the Tar Heels, led by Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants, won it all as Miller played sparingly in 24 games.
Most of that team went pro and Miller stayed and played quite a bit as a junior, the same year Tyler Hansbrough, who was in Miller’s wedding last summer, was a freshman.
And in his senior year, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson came in.
"Wayne took my spot. At the time I was livid about it, but now I’m watching him in the NBA and feeling a little bit better," Miller said. “I got to play with 12 NBA players in my four years at Carolina.”
That season, UNC was a win shy of another Final Four and spawned a book Miller wrote with Adam Lucas called “The Road to Blue Heaven: An Insider’s Diary of North Carolina’s 2007 Basketball Season.”
From there, Miller went to London to play before catching on as an assistant at Elon under Ernie Nestor and then at High Point for another former Tar Heel, Scott Cherry. This is his second season at UNCG, which boasts a roster quite different from what Williams has at UNC.
Trevis Simpson, a 6-foot-4 sophomore swingman from Douglas, Ga., leads the Spartans at 17.0 ppg. Derrell Armstrong, a 6-foot-1 junior guard from Mechanicsville, Md., by way of Allegany Community College, scores 11.4. After that, six other players score between 5 and 7 points per game.
The key to winning of late has been a combination of working hard on the court and coming together off, Miller said.
“When those things come together in any group, in any sport at any level, you start to see some special things,” Miller said.
It started to pay off with a two-game victory swing in Charleston, S.C., with wins at the College of Charleston on January 12 and at The Citadel two days later. For that matter, those victories not only snapped an 11-game losing streak, they represent UNCG’s only road wins this season.
“This is such a resilient group of young men,” Miller said. “They’ve been through a ton of adversity, adversity in terms of losing a ton of games, adversity of being in the middle of a coaching change in the middle of the year, and they’ve just chosen to respond the right way. And to see them get some rewards and results for their hard work is the most pleasing thing, here.”
The Spartans returned home January 19 and beat Chattanooga, got past Samford, and then went to overtime in back-to-back wins over Appalachian State and Western Carolina. Then they beat The Citadel again last Thursday.
“We’ve spent more time these past six, seven weeks that I’ve been in this role preaching consistent effort and energy and passion and being together as a group and trying to play with confidence more than we’ve talked about anything else,” Miller said. “From an X’s and O’s viewpoint, we’ve really tried to channel all that into the defensive end of the floor.”
Six regular-season games remain followed by the SoCon Tournament March 2-5 in Asheville, N.C., where schools like UNCG hope to be the next George Mason or Butler or VCU, smaller schools that made it to recent Finals Fours.
“I don’t think any of us in this program feel like we’ve been successful yet. We have big goals and dreams and not all of them have to do with winning streaks in the middle of the season,” Miller said.
|FROM PLAYER TO COACH|
|Wes Miller isn' t the only twentysomething leading a DI program. Michael Tompkins just became the youngest coach in DI Baseball.|
“I think that’s been the other thing with this group. One win or two wins hasn’t made them happy and content. If anything they’ve focused on the next day and getting better every day. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve had a little bit of success and positive results over the past couple of weeks.”
In the meantime, Miller, who turned 29 on January 28, will still be known as the youngest coach in the game. He knows that Bob Knight, for example, was just 24 when he took over at Army in 1962, and that plenty of other young coaches have done well.
“If anything, and I don’t know this, but if there’s anything I hope my age contributes is that they feel like I can relate to them,” Miller said. “I do remember what it’s like to be in their shoes. Even though my body feels like it was a long time ago, it really wasn’t that long ago that I was dealing with many of the same things they’re going through on a day-to-day basis.”