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Tougher Together

March 3, 2022 20 min read
By Tim Miles Head Coach, San Jose State University Men's Basketball
Rev. Craig Vasek Athletics Chaplain, University of Mary
Joe Kittell Director of Undergraduate Admission, University of Mary
A basketball flies through the hoop

Coach Tim Miles, head coach of the San Jose State University men’s basketball team, joined Father Craig Vasek, athletics chaplain of the University of Mary, and Joe Kittell, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Mary who previously spent five seasons as a member of Coach Miles' coaching staff, to discuss his famously principled approach to coaching and the formation of his scholar-athletes.

Father Craig Vasek (FVasek): Could you start by giving us a little bit of your coaching history?

Coach Tim Miles (TM): I’m originally from Doland, South Dakota, and I went to Mary College – now the University of Mary – as a student in 1985. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the basketball and track teams, but I wasn’t very good! I majored in elementary education and physical education with a minor in coaching. There was an explosion of growth after my first couple years there. So there was a great community, and we could really see the growth, development, and building take place later. There was nothing better than going to Saturday evening Mass, getting something to eat, and then watching the sunset over the western edge over the Missouri River.

It was at Mary that I had the opportunity to discover myself and to realize that I wanted to be a basketball coach. On the advice of Father Blaine Cook, I followed that desire and made phone calls, and I eventually got a job as an assistant coach at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Since then, I have served as head coach at Mayville State in North Dakota, head coach at Southwest Minnesota State, head coach at North Dakota State when we transitioned up from NCAA Division II to Division I, head coach at Colorado State, and then head coach at Nebraska in the Big Ten Conference. So that’s 31 years overall since I was a student at the University of Mary. It’s been a long and wonderful journey. After coaching at Nebraska, I’ve been a commentator at Fox Sports in the Big Ten Network.

Joe Kittell (JK): Coach, we’ve known each other for a long time, and I know that Sister Thomas Welder – president of the University of Mary when you were a student here – and Al Bortke – basketball coach at the University of Mary – both had a tremendous impact on your life. Could you speak to some of what you learned from the two of them that you still carry with you today?

TM: Both of them were hugely influential on my decision to go to Mary in the first place. There was a leadership program that really intrigued me. I had an interview with Sister Thomas as part of that application process on the morning of a big banquet they were throwing for all the applicants. I’ll never forget her saying to me in that interview that a true leader is the person who organizes the banquet, delegates responsibility, helps to ensure that it is set up correctly, and also is present at the end to take out the garbage. And that just never left me. Years later, when I was preparing to move from Northern State to Mayville for my first head coaching job, I was worried because I was so young. Jim Kretchman, who was the athletic director at Northern State at the time, gave me simple advice: recruit the right kind of guys, coach them the right way, and leave the locker room cleaner than it was when you arrived and the right people will notice. That reminded me of the advice Sister Thomas had given me when I was 18 years old, and I thought it was amazing how those two things lined up. Two different people offered me the same vision of leadership.

Coach Al Bortke was such a good man. I think I was more of a nuisance to him as a player than I was a help! But after I quit playing, I was coaching the junior varsity team. Coach Al would stay in his office as I conducted practice alone, but he never left me alone: he always stayed there for me. One night I had a player that was going to quit the team, but Coach Al came out and calmed the situation. The young man ended up quitting on the spot, and that really disappointed me. He’s reached out to me since then and apologized, and we’ve been in touch for years. But that wasn’t a great experience, and I remember Coach Al saying to me, “As a coach, there’s no handbook. You’re going to go through every situation, so you have to do what’s in your heart. Because what’s in your heart will be the right thing.” He was exactly right on that.

FVasek: I want to build from the valuable lesson you mentioned receiving from Sister Thomas, which is that the true leader is also a servant. We try to impress upon our scholar-athletes that they should be striving for greatness and at the same time growing in humility. It all comes down to understanding the truth of oneself. I think in our most basic notions of leadership we already recognize the greatness aspect. So many young people who want to be leaders want to strive to be on top. But in order to be leaders in the most complete sense we need to learn the humility part. That doesn’t seem to be there if we don’t teach it.

TM: I have a few thoughts on that. First, I don’t use the term “servant leader.” It was already implied to me at a young age that service is what leaders do: leaders serve the greater good of those they are working with. So even when the idea of servant leadership was such a big deal about a decade ago – there were books coming out about it constantly – I didn’t like using the term. Maybe the people who were writing those books were trying to get through to people who had a kind of an authoritarian outlook on leadership. Servant leadership? That’s what a leader is!

When it comes to humility, I think many people believe that being humble means being self-deprecating. As the saying goes, humility isn’t thinking less about yourself, it’s thinking about yourself less. Focus less on yourself and more on the people you’re trying to serve – that’s where humility is. I think that’s the best way to understand humility. In fact, I think the idea that being humble means being self-deprecating can actually be dangerous. That mindset can get to the point where self-doubt and insecurity begin to creep in. That’s not good – you have to believe in yourself.

When we think about the characteristics of a leader, we have to recognize that service and humility are part of it. Everybody wants to gain in life or aspires to greater things or whatever it might be, and those things have a place in life. But if those things are the only reason you’re pursuing that next big step in your career, that next big step in life – I think you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment.

JK: Coach, you always used to refer to fear, worry, and doubt as the three biggest demotivators in life. As we think about the role of virtue in sport, that idea comes back to mind. You can’t lead without faith and belief, especially at a Christian university. And it seems like faith and belief are what stop us from falling into fear, worry, and doubt. If someone is constantly overcome by fear, worry, and doubt, they won’t be able to lead others. And that takes us back to the idea of getting humility right. When we become self-deprecating we can become filled with self-doubt, and if we don’t believe in ourselves why would others believe in us?

TM: Exactly. We all have fear, worry, and doubt to a certain extent. I worry about my children like crazy. I’ve heard it said that someone is only as happy as their unhappiest child, right? I’m sure you can say the same about your parishioners and students, Father! The same is even true about coaching – you’re only as happy as your unhappiest athlete! And that’s tough, but it also reminds us that we’re never going to live a life completely free from fear, worry, and doubt. We have to learn how to navigate through them. That’s where faith comes in. Without faith, those things can creep in and get their hooks into us even more. Faith helps us to navigate those waters.

JK: And that’s where virtue and growth come in. You can’t grow without being uncomfortable.

FVasek: This is exactly where the understanding that virtues are powers – or strengths – comes into the picture. Unless there is something inside of me that is even stronger than fear, worry, and doubt, I’m going to become a slave to them. There has to be something inside of me that I can bring against those threats to be victorious. Virtues are powers we can harness that allow us to acknowledge fear, worry, doubt, or whatever else comes against us, and then to say, “I’m going to bring this power of courage, or confidence, or magnanimity to bear and I’m going to do what I need to do.”

I was hoping we could take a step back for a moment. Coach, I wonder if you could speak about the experience you’ve had of moving up through the ranks of bigger and bigger programs? Walk us through the process of going from Northern State, to Mayville State, to North Dakota State, to Colorado State, and to Nebraska. What is that experience like, and what are some of the threats that come with getting called up to positions of greater and greater prominence?

TM: Each time you move up from one conference or division to the next the numbers that allow you to be successful get smaller and smaller. The basic recipe of how I run a program and how I run my staff don’t change. Joe can back me up on this: I have the same handouts, philosophy, and rules. We basically just change the header as we move to a new program. But with each step up, the competition gets fiercer.

JK: Right. The staffs got bigger and the competition got more intense, but the recipe always remained the same.

TM: At the higher levels, the money is bigger and getting attention is a bigger deal. There’s more ego, there’s more backstabbing, and there’s less virtue. It’s a lot more cutthroat. It’s harder to come by jobs at that level, so once you’re there, the competition to keep those jobs is fierce. For me, getting hired to coach at Nebraska was like hitting the lottery. There is nothing else I could ever do in my life to make that kind of money outside of hitting the lottery. I’m qualified to teach and coach. A lot of people are willing to change their lives and compromise on their principles in order to maintain those multi-million-dollar salaries. I don’t think that was ever a driving factor for us. It always felt surreal to see when they printed my salary in the paper.

As my staff and I moved up to higher levels, our vision of leadership didn’t change but the environment and circumstances did. We encountered more bad intentions and less virtue. I have always enjoyed being around people and have always felt like a fairly happy-go-lucky guy, but we faced some real adversity and ran into situations where we had to make choices on whether we were going to go against our principles or not. When things are at their worst we have to be at our best.

There are a lot of outside forces that put pressure on you at those higher levels of competition, and you have to be sure not to let those forces control your decisions. At one point I had negative media coverage because three of our players had transferred. So when I then had a player going against my principles, the temptation was to let things slide a bit – in a way, that seemed easier than potentially losing another player and having the media write another long story about how I can’t keep players around. You can’t let that sort of pressure control who you are or how you act. Little decisions to let go of your principles on small things add up over time, and you can really lose yourself in times of adversity. If you’re going to have the respect of your team, you have to stick to your principles. That’s true of everything in life.

A woman on a morning run through a forest

Awe and Admiration

Sabrina Little, PhD, a philosophy instructor at Morehead State University in Kentucky and an elite ultramarathoner, spoke with Fr. Craig Vasek on awe, admiration, and motivation.

Awe and Admiration

FVasek: The vision we try to give our scholar-athletes is that the objective of sport is to win, but the purpose of sport is to advance as human beings – to become who we’re meant to be and grow in character. It seems like as you move up through higher levels of competition it becomes more difficult to pursue that purpose of sport.

TM: Right, the mentality is “win at all costs.”

FVasek: With that mentality, anything that could hold me back has to be pushed aside, including morality. Obviously that’s what is meant by “at all costs.” “We need to get this player.” “We need to win this game.” It’s a major threat to players and coaches.

TM: That mentality appears in college basketball, in politics, in business – it can appear anywhere. If we look at our society and our world, it’s pretty obvious that there are some dangerous things going on. There is a lot of division. In times of adversity we have to stay true to our principles and we have to stay true to God. That’s why an athletics program that focuses on developing athletes as human beings can have such a phenomenal impact.

JK: Coach, one thing that’s always impressed me is that you’re always talking about forming your athletes into better husbands, better fathers, better employees – better men. You spoke that way so often that when I was just getting started in the world of coaching I assumed that’s how all college coaches speak to their athletes. And when I worked with other coaches who were part of your orbit, they spoke the same way. Even at Nebraska, you made it clear that your priorities and principles were the same. But as I’ve discovered over time, many coaches don’t speak to their athletes about character development like you do. Many coaches don’t have the same principles. Can you say a bit about why that is so important to you? Why is that so ingrained in your coaching philosophy? Even when I was a student manager, I felt like you were trying to help me to become a better man.

TM: I don’t think there was ever a lightbulb moment for me where I thought, “Yep, this is what is important to me and this is how I want to do things.” I think a lot of it goes back to my own family background. I grew up the youngest of five in an Irish Catholic family. Growing up Catholic tends to give you discipline – I think the Catholic Church has the highest expectations and ideals in terms of standards and discipline. My experience at the University of Mary was part of that, too, as was my early coaching experience with Bob Olson and Jim Kretchman.

There are three things my staff and I communicate to our players when they start with our program. We expect them to have these in mind every day.

First, I want you to have an attitude that creates improvement. I want you to have some optimism and enthusiasm about what we’re doing as a team and who you’re working with. I want you to show up every day feeling like we’re growing and getting better.

Second, if we’re going to build honest, forthright relationships, it matters how we communicate with one another. I don’t care who you are in the organization or what your role is: everyone is to be treated with respect. Respect for one another is given – it’s not earned. I expect everyone to give respect and loyalty. I have a philosophy that comes out of that mentality: bad news gets delivered early. We don’t run from bad news and we don’t bury the truth: we communicate early.

Third, I expect my people to have an idea of what they want for their future and invest in it. I want them to know what they stand for and have an idea of who they want to be. I don’t expect someone who is 20 years old to have that figured out completely, but I want them to start thinking about it.

Those three points aren’t just about college basketball. If a man shows up willing to build and communicate and knows what sort of person he wants to be, that’s going to improve his marriage, his family, his job, and his community. So I want my players to know that these principles aren’t just about basketball. If you do those things on the team, we’re going to have an incredible team – that’s how this living organism that we call a basketball team is going to be healthy. If you do those things in life, you’re going to be successful.

I still believe in those three principles to this day. I believe that if we have an attitude for improvement, if we have the right kind of approach to relationships, and if we have the idea that we’re going to stand for something greater than ourselves, we’re going to be alright no matter what comes our way. That’s true at any level of competition.

FVasek: I respect so much that your philosophy of life comes first: you want to get life right first, and then you can work on technical basketball skills.

TM: That other stuff – the life stuff – can get so messy. People can have personal agendas or insecurities and aren’t as grounded as you hope they would be. But it’s okay not to be okay, right? When we focus on the life stuff first, players know they can communicate with their coaches. A player is more willing to talk to their coach and seek mentorship when we’re focusing on improvement, communication, and investing in the future. And when that is the case, players are less tempted to think that the grass is greener elsewhere and just transfer when adversity arises.

JK: Coaching is about relationship and communication. Until those are in place, the program won’t be healthy.

TM: As a coach, you want players to realize that you are there for them for their whole lives, if that’s what they want. If you want me to be there to support you for four years, great. If you want me to be there to support you for 12 years or 24 years, great. In the past week I’ve heard from five players from two different programs over the course of six years. They just wanted to chat. Then sometimes you have guys who appear out of the blue, and that’s great, too. Then there are guys who I haven’t heard of since they left the team, and I’m here for them if they ever reach out.

FVasek: I haven’t ever lived within the world of sport, but now as the chaplain of an athletics department I’m seeing just how important and personal the relationship between players and coaches can be. These relationships really are for life.

TM: Some of these guys arrive on the first day feeling like basketball is all they have in life. They believe that basketball is the one thing they’re truly prepared for or good at. We had a young guy at North Dakota State, Tom Lunde, who had several concussions in a row. He had to give up basketball because of it, and he was really sad – but he had so many other interests and hobbies that he was able to see that everything was going to be alright. On the other hand, you have some guys who are just laser-focused in their love for the game, and that’s fine, too! Ben Woodside, another player at North Dakota State around the same time, is a perfect example of someone who is just intensely focused on the game. He played professionally here and in Europe for eight years, and then he used the money he made playing to set himself up to stay involved in the game. So he was able to find a way to continue to support himself and contribute to his community while also offering basketball training on the side. Eventually, the ball runs out of air. Eventually, you have to stand on your own feet – Tom and Ben are both great examples of what that can look like. Eventually, you have to be more than just the guy who can throw the leather ball through the iron hoop.

FVasek: Coach, as we’re coming to the conclusion of this interview, I was wondering if you could share a top memory, or encounter, or victory? Is there something that just rises to the top that you cherish?

TM: This story doesn’t have a deeper meaning, but it’s my favorite! In 2014, which was my second year at Nebraska, we played Michigan State at Michigan State. They were ranked 9th in the country at the time. And our next game was going to be Wisconsin at home. They were ranked 8th in the country. We had been playing well and were close to making the NCAA tournament, but with that schedule, we really had to win this game. You could feel it.

It was a Sunday night game, and as the guys were warming up, the president of the Big Ten Network came up to me and said, “Tim, we expect this to be our biggest share of audience of any Big Ten men’s basketball game we’ve ever had. You guys are playing great and fans are really behind you, and Michigan State always has such a huge following.” So I’m starting to get nervous. He walks away, and about five minutes later comes back and asks, “Could we bring a camera into the locker room and broadcast your pre-game talk live? You would just talk to your guys for a minute on camera, and then the cameras would clear out. We want to do this about eight minutes before the game starts.” As the youngest of five, I’ve been an attention-seeker my whole life, so I said, “Yes, let’s do it!”

Imagine the room. There’s a whiteboard with three rows of chairs facing it. That whiteboard usually has our offensive plans and defensive notes on it. For example, it might have our plans for how we’re going to guard different guys –“This guy is left-handed. This guy does this and that really well.” – that type of stuff. So I rush into the locker room and erase all of that, and I write in big, bold, black letters, “We are tougher together longer.” And underneath that I write, “Togetherness.”

The guys come into the locker room and are sitting in the chairs, and then the cameras come in. We’re live. So I give my talk: “Guys, here’s the deal. We’re little Nebraska, and Michigan State is the big bully on the beach kicking sand at us.” Pat Reilly had this quote from his dad, and I had it ready to go: “Every now and then, somewhere, someplace, sometime, you are going to have to plant your feet, stand firm, and make a point about who you are and what you believe in. When that time comes, Pat, you simply have to do it.” So I read that quote and said, “Guys, tonight is that night. And we’re going to do it because we’re more together than those guys are. We’re going to do it because of togetherness. All right, take a knee.” I always had my teams take a knee – at those larger public schools, you’re not allowed to have the team pray, so I just had my teams take a knee. I prayed, and I hope my guys prayed! But that night, as I heard the cameras shuffle out, I was really thinking about myself: “Tim, you nailed that speech. You had the quote, you had the passion, and you made that togetherness point so well.” When we stood up, a couple of guys were shaking their heads at me, smirking. I looked at one of them – Shavon Shields, an academic all-American – and said, “Shavon, what’s so funny?” “Coach,” he said, “you can’t even spell togetherness!” And I turned to the board and realized that in big, bold, black letters, I had written not “Togetherness,” but “Tougherness.” I spelled “togetherness” wrong on national television in front of the largest audience a Big Ten men’s basketball game had ever had!” So of course I played it off to the guys like it was intentional: “Of course I meant to spell it that way! We’re tougher when we’re together! Tougherness!” None of them bought it, and as they walked out of the tunnel, they were all laughing at me. But they were never behind once that entire game. We won that game and then we went home and beat Wisconsin. Both were huge upsets. We made the NCAA tournament. But of course when I showed up to practice on Tuesday, everyone was wearing “Tougherness” shirts!

FVasek: Tougherness should be a word!

JK: Can we add it to our list of virtues?

TM: As I told the guys, if we will always be alright if we’re tougherness! It was one of those moments that really brought the team together. For the rest of the season I refused to admit fault, no matter how painfully obvious it was that I was wrong.

FVasek: Coach, I think tougherness is a final point! Thank you so much.

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