Taking Over

For somebody like Glen Miller, who has loved basketball since his kindergarten days, having the chance to coach at The Palestra is just about as good as it gets. The storied old arena at 33rd and South streets is, after all, considered a basketball cathedral: It has hosted more games, and more great players and coaches, than any other arena in the world. And now, it’s Miller’s office.

“Every other day I walk around here, and look at the pictures on the walls, and take a step back to consider some of the guys who have coached here,” Miller says. “It’s amazing that I’m going to have this opportunity.”

Hired to replace Fran Dunphy as coach of Penn’s men’s basketball program, Miller faces the challenge of extending the Quakers’ winning tradition. Under Dunphy, Penn won 10 of the last 14 Ivy championships, dominating the conference and making regular appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Miller knows this, of course, because he comes to Penn from Ivy League rival Brown, where he helped revive a struggling program. He did the same at Connecticut College and, before that, worked as assistant under the legendary Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut. Now he’s left his home state behind for basketball-crazy Philadelphia. And he says he couldn’t be happier.

“This is a storied program,” Miller says. “It has a rich tradition, a winning tradition, and we’ve got The Palestra and the city of Philadelphia. To be in the Big 5, with the national schedule we have, it’s a high caliber of basketball.”

Q. Brown and Penn are Ivy League rivals. Does that make this transition any more difficult for you, or the players at each school?
A. I think it’s tough to take any job and leave behind the students you’ve recruited and spent a lot of time with. We had a terrific bunch of student-athletes at Brown. I built some strong relationships there with players, with the administration, with the Brown community. It was very much the same with UConn when I left there and the same with Connecticut College when I left there. It’s always difficult to transition to another school. But this job is a special place. College basketball in Philadelphia is special and it’s a great opportunity for myself and my family. That overrode anything else in that decision making process.

Q. When you arrived at Brown, the program was at the bottom of the Ivy League, but you were able to establish a winning tradition. You did the same at Connecticut College before that. What’s your secret?
A. The first thing you have to do is establish a work ethic, a commitment level and a style of play. Then you have to recruit hard to bring in talented players. But you lay the foundation first. Here at Penn, that foundation is already here. It’s a tradition here. It’s not something you have to establish. It’s already established, so you just have to keep it going.

Q. These Penn players were close with Coach Dunphy. How do you go about making this transition easier for them?
A. These transitions are tough for players. They are recruited by a certain coach, build a relationship, and they’re comfortable. Then all of a sudden there’s a change. But the kids have adjusted well and, so far, the transition has gone smoothly. I give a great deal of credit to (seniors) Mark Zoller and Steve Danley and Ibi Jaaber. They’ve been very mature and they’ve been leaders.

Q. What are your thoughts about the team this year?
A. We have quite a bit of experienced talent back, and that goes a long way. [Zoller, Danley and Jaaber] are good leaders, all three of them. It’s a good mix of experience and youth, because I like our three freshmen also. They add depth that we really need to improve. They’ve fulfilled that need. I thought last year, as they played, they were a tired team at the end of the season. They regrouped for the NCAA tournament, kind of limped into the finish line, and did a great job of grinding it out at the end with a small rotation. I think there are obviously some opportunities there for some guys who didn’t get to play that much last year … and I think the three newcomers are going to help us to increase that depth and hopefully we’ll be a strong team at the end of the season.

Q. Tell me about your coaching approach.
A. I think there are a lot of similarities between coach Dunphy’s approach and mine. We’ll be a movement team on offense. ... I like to play good, hard, aggressive defense. Some of the subtle adjustments are that we’ll probably run the floor a little more, open up the fast break, and just play more players.

Q. Working under UConn coach Jim Calhoun must have been a great experience. What did you learn from him?
A. Probably the No. 1 thing I learned from him is that you have to get the most out of practice every day. I can’t remember one time when he didn’t come to practice prepared. He concentrates and gets the most out of every practice, and creates a competitive environment so the guys are conditioned to play hard and give maximum effort. The practices are probably more challenging than the games.

Q. When did you fall in love with basketball? And how did you end up in coaching?
A. I was always in love with sports, right from the earliest stages of my life, probably when I was 7 or 8 years old. I played basketball, baseball and football ... and at some point, maybe my junior year, I decided to concentrate on basketball. I wasn’t always the most talented player, but I had a good basketball IQ. I thought of myself as a coach on the floor—as an extension of the coach—and I always knew I wanted to stay with the game for as long as I could. As a player you dream about playing in the NBA, or if you can’t play there, then maybe playing overseas. The next best thing, if you can’t do that, is to be a coach. And I suppose if I wasn’t a coach, I’d be a referee. I probably wouldn’t be a good one, but I like to think that I’d always be connected to the game. I really love it.

Q. Does the pressure of coaching—the pressure to win—ever get to you?
A. I’ve been around a long time. ... Somebody has to win every game, and somebody has to lose, and you just do the best you can to prepare yourself and your players, and hopefully that’s good enough. So far it’s been good enough at every stop I’ve been at.

Q. Can Penn fans expect another NCAA tournament appearance this year?
A. I think we can get to the tournament. But it’s not guaranteed just because you have three or four starters back from a championship team. You have to continue to work hard. You have to have some luck with health. You need the right chemistry on your team. There’s a lot of variables that go into success. We don’t take [the NCAA tournament] for granted. The Ivy League is our ticket to the tournament, but I respect every team in the league. It’s a tough league, and some of the teams that have been at the bottom are improving themselves.

Q. The big question seems to be whether Penn can actually win once they get to the tournament. What do you think?
A. The key to winning there is to get a better seed than a 15 or a 16 seed. So your out-of-conference success becomes critical. That’s where you have to look. If we can be competitive and win some big games in the Big 5 or elsewhere, then we’ll be in a position where we don’t have to play a 1 or a 2 seed in the tournament. … That’s not to say you can’t win as a 15 seed, but it’s very difficult.

Glen Miller