After attrition-filled offseason, Miles rights the ship
It’s 9 a.m. at Big Ten Media Day. The coffee is flowing, the breakfast line is starting to die down, electrical outlets are reaching a dangerous premium.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney is finishing up his opening remarks filled with details on the new 20-game schedule, the new location for the Big Ten Tournament and the state of the conference; details are fresh but are simultaneously hollow in intrigue for the dreary-eyed media members.
Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles walks on stage and ears perk up.
“They always have me early. I feel like I'm the ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ guy,” Miles says. “But I love following the commissioner. You know a guy is highly intelligent when he can say that much and say that little.”
He goes on.
“We're picked 13th by most of you in this room and some others, and that's fine. I think we're going to outperform that.”
And we’re off.
That’s Tim Miles: Brash, candid, unfazed. His personality attracts him to media and fans, even if it alone does little to help Nebraska win basketball games.
As he fields and answers questions from the hundreds of media members in attendance, Miles knows he’s on the hot seat.
The Cornhuskers are coming off a season in which they lost twice as many conference games as they won. Nebraska lost its final five games of the season, including a first round Big Ten Tournament loss to Penn State. Only Rutgers finished worse. From there, things only deteriorated. During the offseason, Miles lost seven players from his roster — two graduated, three transferred and two walk-ons chose to walk off.
The player attrition offered the most damning account of the Tim Miles era to date; his program appeared to be a sinking ship devoid of life rafts.
In a conference with two legitimate Final Four contenders and plenty of blossoming storylines, Miles’ Nebraska team falls mighty low on the list of priorities for the day.
But in a day flooded with coachspeak, you can’t help but find yourself seeking out the loudest coach at the table in the furthest corner who either doesn’t have a filter or doesn’t care enough to abide by it.
Miles vacillates between lawyer jokes and roster breakdowns. One moment he’s playfully bantering with reporters, the next he’s detailing the gut-wrenching feeling of learning he was losing yet another of his players.
“And you really feel like you see one of those movies with ‘Too Big to Fail’ or whatever it might be,” Miles says. “You feel you're in the room with the Wall Street bankers saying this can't be happening.”
It can be easy to forget the momentum Miles had early in his tenure in Lincoln. He led the Cornhuskers to a 19-13 record — and a fourth place finish in the Big Ten — in 2013-14, his second season with the program. That offseason, he signed three four-star recruits and registered the 27th best recruiting class in the country, according to 247Sports.
Perhaps that’s easy to forget because in the three seasons since, Nebraska has won just 17 Big Ten games and finished no better than 11th in the conference. Not only had the momentum disappeared, it took a serious downward spiral.
Miles had to grapple with the reality that the program he had so carefully crafted — a program that had reached the NCAA Tournament just two years prior — was ripping at the seams.
Instead of dwelling on it, he used the mass exodus as a rallying cry.
“More than anything I think that galvanized us, going through those moments together, figuring out, alright, ‘who is really in here and why are you in?’ … What's interesting about it is this team is probably more cohesive than any team I've had now in about three or four years, what's left.”
“Cohesion” is one of those buzz words that coaches love to use. Most teams are cohesive in October, and it’s an easy trait to praise when all else fails. But amidst roster turnover and job uncertainty, Miles meant it.
“I'm going to come through for (former Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst),” Miles told media shortly after Eichorst announced the 51-year-old coach would return for another season. “We're going to show him his faith in us is justified.”
Eichorst has since been fired as athletic director, only ratcheting up the pressure for Miles to prove his capabilities to his new boss, Bill Moos.
The decision was less a vote of confidence from the former athletic director than a shot across the bow. Win now, or don’t return to Media Day next year.
Against the odds, Miles and his team are doing just that. With a win over Illinois on Monday, Nebraska earned its 13th win, already one more than it did all of last season.
Heading into the matchup with Michigan on Thursday, the Cornhuskers sit above .500 in Big Ten play, comfortably slated for their best season since the 2013-14 season that offered the promise of a Miles-led “Nebrasketball” rennaisance.
Nebraska is winning close games — by one against Illinois, by four against Wisconsin, by four at Mississippi State, by 10 against Minnesota. It has lost only once at home in a nail-biting, one-point loss to No. 10 Kansas.
And a win over Michigan Thursday would do far more than notch a fifth conference win. It would signal intent. It would change the present complexion of Cornhuskers basketball. It might just secure Miles’ job.
If that happens, Tim Miles might have a little more than a good lawyer joke to tell at Media Day next year.