January 13, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When the University of Nebraska tapped Tim Miles to take over as head coach of the men’s basketball program in early 2012, Nebraska fans everywhere let out a collective “huh?” But in less than three years at the helm of a sport-that-is-not-football, Miles has gone from “Coach Who?” to “Coach Cool.”

The reigning National Coach of the Year and Big Ten Coach of the Year can’t get two steps from his shiny black Escalade in downtown Lincoln without someone shouting his name, shaking his hand, or asking him to share a selfie. Miles never turns down a photo request (except once in a men’s room when he politely asked the guy to wait outside) and his face is plastered all over Twitter and Instagram. His boyish exuberance, mega-watt smile, and social media savvy make Miles approachable, while his quick wit and self-deprecating humor make him quotable.

That he delivers wins to a program starved for them makes this son of the Northern Plains a rock star. Last season the Huskers went on a tear, going 19-13 (11-7 in the Big Ten) and rode a surge into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998. Though they lost to Baylor in the first round, the Huskers put the league on notice that they are no longer a cupcake game on their opponent’s schedule.

“There’s a thing all fans need to know, especially Husker fans,” says Miles, 48. “They can make a difference between winning and losing and they’ve already done it. We were 15-1 at home last season. We rattled the cages for basketball.”

What was it about the Nebraska job that attracted this married father of two? After all, the Huskers haven’t won a conference title since 1950. They’ve never won a March Madness game. The program was, well, underwhelming. But none of that mattered.

“I knew Nebraska was bigger than just football,” he explains. “You see how good the attendance is for all the sports; volleyball sells out. I thought all the resources were in place to be successful here. The facilities were lights-out.”

Lights out, indeed. When Miles interviewed to replace 6th-year head coach Doc Sadler, fired after yet another disappointing season, Nebraska’s decision to sink serious money into the program was evident in a new $20 million practice facility. The state-of-the-art Hendricks Training Complex boasts enough technology and electronic gadgetry to make NASA jealous. And construction was already underway on Husker basketball’s new home, the $180 million, 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Miles knew the state of Nebraska doesn’t yet produce an abundant crop of high quality Division I basketball players on an annual basis, “so I told [the interview committee], ‘you can’t say no to me when it comes to recruiting. We have to travel.’ And we’ve been able to do that.” In November, Miles announced the 2015 recruitment class, one of the strongest in program history.

What did Nebraska see in a man whose basketball pedigree is humble? Miles would have us believe, “It’s the photogenic fake teeth,” he says in one of his trademark off-the-wall answers. “I bought these. I had to. They got knocked out in a kickball game in fifth grade.” Miles then demonstrates how the dentist jammed the original front teeth back into his gums, “but they eventually turned yellow and grey: dead. So I got veneers when I got the coaching job at North Dakota State (2001-2007) so I could smile for the cameras.”

A more plausible answer: the committee, headed by then-athletic director and football coaching legend Tom Osborne, smelled a winner. In his previous four head coaching gigs at small colleges in small leagues with bare-bones budgets, Miles transformed squads in a tailspin into contenders, slaying Goliaths along the way—pretty good for a hyperactive kid and the youngest of five from Doland, S.D., whose parents published the local newspaper.

Where does he get his sense of humor? “Probably from my Mom,” he says over a pizza lunch. “She could always deliver a punch line.”

He rode the bench for most of his four years at the University of Mary in Bismarck, the only private Catholic college in North Dakota, giving him ample time to watch and study the game he has always loved. A physical education and elementary education major, Miles can break down complex ideas into the simplest terms and communicate them. He has a special gift for getting through to young people.

He also has a gift for molding a game plan to fit the talent of his team. “People will ask me, ‘what’s your style of play’ and I tell them, ‘winning.’ That’s the only system I have,” he deadpans.

It’s a system that now brings sellout crowds and national attention to Lincoln—even after football season. Can a coveted March victory be far behind?