Nebraska's Tim Miles is college basketball's goofiest coach -- and also one of its best
College Contributor Network
As Nebraska coach Tim Miles struts to the podium at Big Ten Media Day, the conference room at the Hyatt Regency in Rosemont, Ill. perks up just a bit.
Writers look up from their computers and sit ears peeled, fully focused on the slight, bespectacled math-teacher-looking man about to begin his press conference.
Among accomplished coaches like Tom Izzo and Thad Matta and star players like Yogi Farrell and Frank Kaminsky, Miles is one of the day's biggest attractions.
The 48-year-old South Dakotan takes his seat at the front of the room, next to the bow-tied public relations flack moderating the news conference portion of the afternoon.
"Coach, if you'd like to start with an opening statement?"
"I think that tie is better than last year's tie," Miles quips.
Thus begins the comedy routine.
"First of all I want to coach you guys up a little bit," Miles starts. "Today is not Media Day, it is the nightmare for sports information directors.
"Second of all," he continues, "when a coach walks into a room, we're used to the school song or a standing ovation, and we get none of that from you, and I want to know when that's going to stop... We walk in here and you guys are just punching your keys, drinking your coffee, grumpy that it's the morning."
Miles notes that at past Media Days he's been asked predominantly about other schools.
"Today, I would like to just field questions about Nebraska," he says.
Pause for a beat.
"No questions?" he asks and pretends to stand up. Mild laughter, some shaking heads, lots of keyboard noise.
So Miles is no George Carlin. But next to his coaching colleagues, he might as well be.
* * *
Terran Petteway is hesitant to share specific examples of his coach's eccentricity (in part because, "you can't write those in the paper") but acknowledges they're numerous. "It's a lot," Petteway says. "You have to be around us. He does stupid things all day long."
Petteway, Nebraska's leading scorer, says Miles sometimes jumps into drills with the team, problematic because, "He has no athletic ability at all. None."
Minutes later, faced with this allegation of un-athleticism, Miles reveals he was the first male in South Dakota to wear tights at the state track meet, back in 1983. "How about that?" he says. "Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
Miles' path to big-time college basketball was not one oft-traveled.
He was born in Doland, S.D., population 180, as of the 2010 census. He attended the University of Mary, in Bismarck, N.D., famous for just about nothing. He began his coaching career at Mayville State in 1995 and stopped at Southwest Minnesota State, North Dakota State and Colorado State before arriving in Lincoln in 2012.
Then, in only two years, Miles lifted the Cornhuskers from perennial bottom-dweller to Big Ten contender.
For the first season and a half of Miles' time at Nebraska, any attention he drew resulted from colorful interviews and an active Twitter account (In August 2013, Sporting News ranked him the strongest Twitter presence among Big Ten coaches).
But midway through the 2013-14 season, circumstances began to change for the long-dormant Cornhuskers program.
Nebraska entered a Feb. 8 game at Northwestern with a 12-10 record and losses to UAB and Penn State on their resume. But behind a combined 32 points from Petteway and Walter Pitchford, the Cornhuskers beat the Wildcats 53-49, launching a season-ending stretch during which Miles' team won eight of nine games.
Nebraska finished fourth in the Big Ten to earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament and, despite losing to Ohio State in the second round, qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
Only 17 years after coaching in the NAIA-associated North Dakota College Athletic Conference, Miles had taken a Big Ten team to the Big Dance.
That considered, it's no wonder he's having fun.
"I see too many guys that just are miserable about things that truly don't matter," Miles says. "I'm not gonna go down that path. I worked too hard to get here not to enjoy it."
* * *
At Media Day, Miles is followed at the podium by Northwestern coach Chris Collins, who announces an end to the comedy act. "I didn't realize I was following Coach Miles," Collins says, "so I won't even try to be funny. He's the comedian of the conference."
Other Big Ten coaches seem to view Miles with curious admiration. Ohio State's Thad Matta, personable in his own way but certainly not the jovial jokester Miles is, says he appreciates the honesty of his colleague's persona.
"I've always appreciated guys that are who they are, and Tim definitely appears to be that," Matta says. "He seems like a guy who enjoys his profession, that wakes up every day and says 'Hey I'm gonna have some fun.'"
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, young and energetic like Miles but not nearly as outlandish, says he wishes more coaches would channel their inner class clown.
"I respect Timmy so much because he's comfortable in his own skin," Chambers says. "I think in this day and age we're so politically correct that we're afraid to be ourselves. I really respect it, and I wish I would do it a little bit more because there is a goofy side to all of us or a funny side to all of us."
In addition to risking offense or scandal, comedy and candor pose the inherent risk of alienating players and recruits, who (theoretically) may prefer that their coach pipe down and rely on more familiar, uncontroversial tropes.
But just as a player afraid to face a public scolding would never enroll at Bobby Knight's Indiana, someone in search of a traditional coach won't find himself in Lincoln any time soon. To play for Nebraska requires a sense of humor.
Petteway says the players are onboard with their unconventional coach, that they love that Miles has "no filter at all."
"I wouldn't want to play for anybody else, man," Petteway says. "He's always like that. He's not just putting on a front. He's like that every day. Even in practice he's like that, cracking jokes, always fun, coming in with a smile on his face. It's a lot of fun playing for him."
* * *
Of course, Miles strives to be more than just conference jester, and last season suggested he may not only be the funniest coach in the Big Ten but also one of the best.
Coming off the shocking turnaround, the Cornhuskers -- who return seven of their top eight scorers for 2014-15 -- find themselves ranked No. 21 in the USA Today/Coaches poll and are picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten.
In only six months, Nebraska went from a team opponents look past to one they look ahead to. And who to credit but the self-deprecating basketball guru with the bright eyes and inviting smile, preaching fun in addition to discipline.
Miles says there's no need to indicate to players when the jokes are over. They know that at practice and in games, the attitude becomes serious. In case his intensity was ever in question, Miles was ejected from the Cornhusker's NCAA Tournament game against Baylor for squabbling with the referees.
"When we're on the court, it's business," says Pitchford, a junior forward. "He's pretty good with that. If he cracks a joke it's time to crack a joke. He knows when to and when not to."
But in the end, humor helps define Miles' personality and Nebraska basketball's culture. And If the Cornhuskers match the lofty expectations set for them this season, more and more people will be laughing along.
"One thing I don't want to do is wear the clown nose," Miles says. "But I do want to have fun with my job. I found out a long time ago I'm going to do this for a long time. So I'm going to enjoy it. And if that's having fun with your team or having fun with your friends or on the golf course or with a group of media folks it doesn't matter. We're going to enjoy life."
Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University and sports editor of the Daily Northwestern student newspaper. He has fairly eclectic interests but loves baseball above all. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexPutt02