Matt Ryerson/Lincoln Journal-Star file photo
Matt Ryerson/Lincoln Journal-Star file photo
Tim Miles just wrapped up his postgame radio interview when a bunch of pep band members, cheerleaders and other students started chanting, “Coach Miles, Coach Miles, Coach Miles.”
The kids were imploring him to join them in shooting a video of the latest dance craze, the “Harlem Shake.”
Miles was in good spirits because Nebraska just beat Penn State, so he gladly obliged. It took all of 45 seconds. The YouTube video almost has 140,000 views in less than two weeks.
One might wonder what mingling with the student body has to do with his job as the Cornhuskers’ first-year coach.
There are two answers: nothing, and everything.
Miles isn’t winning many games. No one expected him to, at least not yet.
He is, however, winning over boosters, fans and students, too. That’s a good place to start for a coach at a school with a dearth of basketball tradition and where interest in the program has been lukewarm for decades.
“He’s very shrewd,” longtime radio play-by-play man Kent Pavelka said. “He’s pushing every button there is to push out there.”
Miles built his reputation as a fan-friendly coach at Colorado State, where he shot zany videos promoting the Rams and began his practice of tweeting his thoughts at halftime. The program was down when he took over at CSU, so he did all he could to compete for attention with the Denver pro sports teams and the mountains.
There aren’t nearly as many distractions in the Cornhusker State, he said.
“Here, at least, we have a captive audience,” he said. “They just need to be stirred. That’s our job, to put out the type of program that people love watching. Husker fans will support quality, and they will support success. It also is my job to be the front man for the program, whether that be to speak to the masses or to promote our program. There is a CEO element of the job, no doubt about it.”
One of Miles’ first tasks is to make Nebraska basketball relevant. The wins might not come in bunches immediately, but he’s well on his way to cultivating a supportive environment outside the walls of the team’s Hendricks Training Center headquarters.
“I haven’t talked to an ex-player or alum who doesn’t love the guy,” said Beau Reid of Lincoln, who played for the Huskers from 1988 to 1991. “He’s everything he’s supposed to be. He’s genuine, very excitable and passionate – which is what it takes to sell this place.”
If all goes according to his plan, the Huskers will become more entertaining to watch as new players come in the next couple years. Miles said several five-star recruits have visited and gone away impressed. The trick is to get them to sign.
Nebraska’s selling points are impressive. The year-old practice facility is the envy of most college teams and even some in the NBA. Next year, the 16,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena will open in downtown Lincoln, replacing the Devaney Center.
“State-of-the-art stuff means a lot to recruits,” Miles said. “We have a great gear contract. That means a lot to young people, too. What we don’t have is this steadfast tradition that’s been there over and over and over. But these young people have a short memory, when history is almost instantaneous, when your timeline is how you remember things, so to speak, whether it be Facebook or Twitter. They want to be part of something that’s up and coming and something that’s cool.”
As it is, the Cornhuskers (12-14, 3-10 Big Ten) have conference wins over Penn State – twice – and Northwestern.
Miles knew he would take his lumps this season. He has eight scholarship players on the active roster, with seven of them in the rotation. Three players who could have helped are redshirting, and two scholarships are unused.
Though the Huskers are offensively challenged – one of their top scorers, Ray Gallegos, went 0-for-13 against Michigan State last weekend – they play decent defense and have been able to slow the pace in order to keep a lot of games from getting out of hand.
Dave Hoppen of Omaha, the Huskers’ all-time scoring leader and a season-ticket holder, acknowledged he didn’t know what to think when Miles was hired to replace the fired Doc Sadler last March.
“I wasn’t jumping up and down or doing cartwheels,” Hoppen said. “After having a couple chances to meet him and having heard him speak quite a few times, I’m very impressed with him. The cupboard was pretty bare when he got here, and the record still isn’t great, but I can tell he can coach.”
Miles came to Nebraska known for building programs at the Division I, II and NAIA levels. His CSU teams increased their wins each of his five seasons; last season, the Rams went 20-12 and earned their first NCAA Tournament bid in nine years.
The question is whether Miles can have similar success in the Big Ten, which is the nation’s toughest basketball conference this season.
That answer won’t be known for years. In the meantime, at least people are talking about the Huskers. Nebraska’s home attendance of 10,051 is slightly ahead of a year ago, but the average of 11,511 for home games this month is up more than 1,300 compared with February 2012.
“Tim’s personality has brought people into the program to give it a look, and to think that maybe this time they have the equation right,” Omaha radio show host Gary Sharp said.
It’s been a long time since the Huskers’ basketball team has been relevant in these parts. They won a Big Eight tournament championship in 1994 and the NIT in 1996. But they haven’t won even a share of a regular-season league title since 1950 or had an above-.500 conference record since 1998-99. They are 0-6 in NCAA tournament games, with their most recent appearance in 1998.
“If Miles gets an NCAA Tournament win someday, he’ll be the best postseason coach in Nebraska history,” Reid said. “Let’s face it: The bar isn’t all that high.”
Nati Harnik/Associated Press file photo