This story is for all you middle-aged people who are not ready to give up your dreams.
It is a story for the community theater actor who is still eyeing Broadway. It is a story for the wedding singer who is still sending out demo tapes. It is a story for the sports writer who keeps reworking her novel.
Mike Miller’s accession to interim coach of the Knicks is the one feel-good story in a decidedly feel-bad basketball season. How can you not root for a 55-year-old guy who after three decades of working in such basketball outposts as Eastern Illinois and the G League lands one of the most high-profile positions in all of sports, albeit probably only temporarily?
“This isn’t a guy who has been living on Hollywood Boulevard with glamour jobs,” said Jeff Van Gundy, who had Miller as an assistant on his staff with the USA World Cup qualifying team in 2018. “Absolutely, that’s what’s great about it, to see someone rewarded not only for their loyalty to the organization but their dedication to the profession.”
From his hardscrabble resume to his self-effacing demeanor to his flat-voweled Midwestern accent, there is nothing glamorous about the man who was tabbed to run the team last week when the Knicks parted ways with coach David Fizdale after the team opened 4-18. Those who have worked with Miller, however, think he is well suited to take on the challenge of working in the World’s Most Famous arena and bringing some stability to a team that has been rocked by its poor start.
“This is a person who has been totally dedicated to his craft since the very day he decided to be a basketball coach,” said Jim Woolridge, who hired Miller as an assistant at Texas State, Kansas State and UC Riverside. “He was born to coach. He’s doesn’t have any other interests. He’s all in.”
Miller’s journey to the Knicks started in 1989 when he was an assistant at Western Illinois. It includes stints as an assistant at Sam Houston State, Texas State, Kansas State, UC Riverside and the Austin Toros/Spurs of the G League. He has had head coaching jobs at Texas State, Eastern Illinois and the Westchester Knicks of the G League.
“Obviously, this is the biggest challenge he’s faced, but Mike has never had a job that’s easy,” Woolridge said. “When we took over Texas, they never had a winning season. Kansas State, we had to rebuild the whole thing. I think with his upbringing in coaching, he knows how to overcome the odds.”
He also knows how to believe in himself. In 2013, after spending his entire career in the college game, Miller told Woodridge he wanted to coach in the NBA and he took an assistant’s job with the Austin Toros, San Antonio’s G league team
“He wasn’t a silver spoon guy,” Woolridge said. “He didn’t play in the NBA. He doesn’t have any friends in the NBA or anything like that. He just set a new goal. And he just took a job and starting working hard to get himself into a good position.”
The Austin job put Miller on the radar of former Knicks president Phil Jackson. Miller had a working knowledge of the triangle offense, having run it on the college level, and Jackson wanted that G League team to run the same offense that he had the Knicks running at that time. He hired him to coach the Westchester Knicks in 2015.
Miller was named G League coach of year in for the 2017-18 season and was appointed to be an assistant on the World Cup qualifying team. This season, he was elevated to an assistant on Fizdale’s staff, meaning he had a full two months of NBA coaching experience when he was tabbed as the interim.
Van Gundy had never met Miller before they coached together, but said he was quickly impressed by his competence, dedication and work ethic.
Van Gundy stressed that he is a fan of Fizdale as a coach and person. He said, however, Miller might be what the Knicks need right now as they attempt to recover from a tough start to the season.
“When you are 50-something years old and have coached for 30 odd years and have come through a challenging journey in the profession, you are well prepared for this opportunity,” Van Gundy said. “Don’t count him out. The only people who underestimate Mike are the people who don’t know him and don’t know what he’s capable of coaching-wise.”
Woolridge couldn’t agree more. He believes Miller’s strengths are that he has worked in so many places and with so many players that he’s able to tailor his coaching philosophy to the players he has around him. He thinks that his style will win over the Knicks players and fans.
“It really is the great American story,” Woolridge said. “It’s what we’re all raised to believe. If you work hard enough, if you have talent, if you put your nose to the grindstone, the world can happen for you. And for Mike it did.”
Mike Miller’s coaching stops:
1989–1990 — Western Illinois (assistant)
1990–1991 — Sam Houston State (assistant)
1991–1994 — Texas State (assistant)
1994–2000 — Texas State (head coach)
2000–2005 — Kansas State (assistant)
2005–2012 — Eastern Illinois (head coach)
2012–2013 — UC Riverside (assistant)
2013–2015 — Austin Toros/Spurs (assistant)
2015–2019 — Westchester Knicks (head coach)
2019 — Knicks (assistant)
2019-present — Knicks (interim head coach)