Cheryl Miller needed a job. Her resume was impeccable as a Hall of Fame basketball player and for years, she was a success as a college and pro coach as well as a broadcaster.
But no one, it seemed, was interested when Miller sought to return to coaching in recent years. She was fine interviewing Kobe Bryant or LeBron James after NBA games, but Miller couldn’t get her foot back in the door as an NCAA Division I coach.
That’s how she ended up this season coaching the women’s team at Langston University, an NAIA program in central Oklahoma with an enrollment of 3,000.
“It’s called needing work,” Miller said after the Lions defeated Pikeville (Ky.) University 80-71 in the opening round of the NAIA Division I Women’s Championships on Wednesday at the Independence Events Center.
“Desperate people do desperate things. When you knock on doors and phone calls aren’t returned, and you’re called irrelevant and maybe the game has passed you by … You’re looking for anything, and Mike Garrett was my anything. That’s why I’m here. I was given an opportunity, a great one at that, and I’m making the most of it.”
Garrett, the former Chiefs running back and athletic director at Langston, shared roots with Miller at the University of Southern California, where he won the Heisman Trophy and later as the school’s athletic director, hired Miller in 1993 as the school’s women’s basketball coach.
Miller, a four-time All-American at USC, an Olympic champion and WNBA star, coached the Trojans to NCAA Tournaments in her two seasons there before guiding the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA finals and later working as a sideline reporter for NBA games.
How could Miller, 51, possibly be considered irrelevant after leaving TNT in 2013?
“Evidently, I’m not the better looking Miller anymore,” she joked about her younger brother Reggie, also a Hall of Fame player-turned-television analyst. “No, they said the game has changed so much, recruiting is different. … I’m having a conversation with this AD, and I said, ‘Unless the games and rules have changed vastly, I know a little bit about this game.’
“It was humbling. It was great to go through it, but it really motivated me and forced me to commit to the women’s game, and this is what I want. I’ve been able to do a multitude of things, but this is my passion. Just like a player, this is my passion.”
Miller walked into a pretty good situation left by coach Dave Johnson, who resigned last spring. The Lions had qualified for the NAIA tournament in six of the past seven years but hadn’t advanced past the second round since 2007.
“Cheryl is terrific,” Garrett said. “I told her there was a young generation of ADs out there, who at times are afraid of a big name, and I had a job opening, so I said, ‘Why don’t you come with me? Come here, do a good job, and everyone will know how good you are, and you’ll get a job out of that (in NCAA Division I).’
“That’s what she’s done. She’s gotten our girls, who were not terribly organized and not that well-trained, and in a short period of time, has made it into what we think is a championship team.”
Miller admits she had never heard of Langston before Garrett called.
“I knew where Oklahoma City was because I’m covering the Thunder for TNT, and in the WNBA, I get the Shock in Tulsa,” she said, “but where in the heck is Langston. I had to Google … but there were a lot of positives … it was open and available.”
Miller made it look easy as Langston won its first 17 games en route to a 27-3 season entering the tournament.
“I had ‘em all fooled, didn’t I?” she laughed. “But then reality struck. You know your time is coming, and each team has to go through an ebb and flow. But I’m really enjoying this.”
The Langston players were awe-struck by the chance to play for Miller.
“Everyone knows she’s a legend,” said senior forward Lynette Holmes, the nation’s fifth-leading scorer at 20 points per game. “She’s one of those players who a lot of us looked to growing up and tried to resemble our game. She brings discipline, she brings intelligence, she brings a lot of energy and a lot of fire where we needed the most.
“She’s done so much in her career, and in her lifetime, and she wants to give back to programs that don’t have a Cheryl Miller or a Sheryl Swoops. For Langston to land such a legend is really big for the university.”
The NAIA women’s tournament was not Miller’s first trip to the Kansas City area. Miller, who once scored 105 points in a high school game, participated in an AAU tournament in Kansas City in the early 1980s.
“My first autograph was from Lynette Woodard, my idol growing up,” she said. “I grew up being a big KU fan … I loved the Jayhawks … Marian Washington and Lynette Woodard. That was women’s basketball in my eyes.”