On the day last week when his successor was introduced as the new head coach of the Nebraska men’s basketball team, Tim Miles hopped in his car and started driving north.
It was nothing personal against Fred Hoiberg, a coach he hopes succeeds. But it was personal in the sense that Miles thought to himself: I don’t want to be around for this. The end of his tenure with the Cornhuskers had been staring at him for months like a flat stretch of prairie.
Those Dakota instincts – he’s from South, I’m from North – told him it was time to hit the road. So he left Lincoln, Neb., and drove up to Sioux Falls, S.D., to see his parents. And from there, instead of heading back to Lincoln and getting on a plane, he continued on some familiar stretches of highway to Minneapolis for the Final Four.
College basketball coaches all congregate at the culmination of the tournament every year. Miles is still a college basketball coach, but as of a couple weeks ago he’s one without a job.
What’s it like to be at the Final Four when you’ve just been fired for the first time in your life?
“Yeah, even my Red Owl job in Doland, South Dakota – which I was not great at,” Miles said of his previously spotless employment history as we talked Monday in a Minneapolis hotel lobby, a few hours before Virginia defeated Texas Tech in the NCAA title game. “It’s hurtful in a manner that I feel like I let people down – my wife, my children, my brothers and sisters, those people. I feel like I let my players down. The people closest to you who are in the battle all the time. Other than that, I look at it like, ‘OK, what should I have done differently?’ Like a reflective state.”
He had plenty of time to think about it on the long drive, before being reunited with his family (who flew from Nebraska) in Minneapolis. Truth be told, though, he’s been thinking about it for a while.
Miles said he knew he was on the hot seat after getting just a one-year extension after winning 22 games in 2017-18 and narrowly missing the NCAA field despite a 13-5 Big Ten record. Reports about his eventual successor surfaced long before word became official – the culmination of what Miles called a “stressful” last three years as head coach of the Cornhuskers under athletic directors Shawn Eichorst and Bill Moos (fired and hired, respectively, in 2017).
Miles was a fan favorite in Nebraska, but his record was lukewarm. He finished 116-114 in seven years there, making one NCAA tournament.
“The Big Ten is so demanding. When we were not good enough, we never had enough shooting. So you think about what you’d do this or the other way, and it’s a smidgen of a decision here or there. You go back to that margin of error,” Miles said. “I grew up a Big Ten fan. I grew up a Minnesota Gopher fan. I am proud of what Richard (Pitino) has done, and I think he’s done a heck of a job. I’m disappointed most that I won’t be in the Big Ten.”
Miles’ hometown is about 250 straight west of Minneapolis, and his career path is one that has led him to be mentioned at various times as a candidate to coach the Gophers. But the timing and/or mutual interest have never connected.
Miles, 52, started his head coaching career at Mayville (N.D.) state in 1995 and also coached at Southwest Minnesota State before taking the North Dakota State job in 2001. He oversaw the Bison’s transition to Division I and helped put that program on a successful path. In 2007, the Gophers job was open after Dan Monson was fired. Miles thought he might be a candidate, but …
“I called a friend of mine who worked in the (Minnesota) athletic department at the time. And he had some juice, as you call it,” Miles recalled. “He said, ‘Timmy, you’re great. But go to a mid-major, have success. We have a chance to probably hit some home runs here. And quite frankly, you’re not a home run.’”
Miles took the Colorado State job on March 22, 2007 – the same day the Gophers hired Tubby Smith. That looked like a home run at the time, but six good but not great years later, Smith was ousted. Miles had already been at Nebraska for a year when Pitino was hired. Now Miles is out and Pitino is entrenched, fresh off an NCAA tourney win and a contract extension.
“I think Minnesota has hired really good guys,” Miles said. “I am a fan. I’m not the guy hoping for a job, I’m the guy pulling for the Gophers – except when I play them.”
So the question then becomes: What’s next for Miles? In the short-term, it was bringing his family to the Final Four and trying to enjoy the weekend. That worked out pretty well, except …
“I would tell you my left shoulder is bruised from enough people patting me on the back, saying, ‘Oh, gee. Hey, hang in there coach,’” Miles said. “I probably need to start working out again at a new level.”
In the long-term, Miles is certain he will coach again. If it doesn’t happen right away, he plans on learning from other coaches and staying visible because “Twitter only takes you so far, man.”
“I feel like we’ve built every program up. Even Nebraska. And I’m glad they got their quote-unquote guy. Good for them. At my expense? Not so good. But it happens. You win a whole bunch and you lose a whole bunch. That life. That’s life for me getting fired,” Miles said. “But I left for college in 1985, and I just never left school. I went from one campus to the next to the next. I’m probably not very grown up. I might be idealistic and have this dream. But I’m going to find another spot. We’re going to dream the same and we’re going to fight the same. And I can’t wait to do it.”