Oregon Tech's Danny Miles reluctantly celebrates his 1,000th win
On more than one occasion, usually when he was in the middle of a 400-mile, eight- or nine-hour trip between Klamath Falls, Ore., and Caldwell, Idaho, Danny Miles swore to himself that the minute he pulled up to Oregon Institute of Technology, he would resign.
Instead, he always showed up for practice the next morning.
The coach of the Hustlin' Owls, now in his 43rd year at OIT, estimates he's spent at least 500,000 miles in cars, vans and buses going back and forth between OIT and other schools in the Cascade Collegiate Conference, a powerhouse in NAIA-Division II men's basketball. The trip from OIT to College of Idaho, in Caldwell, is one of the longest, and can take 12 hours via bus if the roads are bad.
Miles isn't sure of the exact number, but he knows the miles are even more when you add in trips to the national tournament and recruiting. But he knows another number well: 1,000. That's how many games Miles has won at OIT in a storied career that includes three national championships, all of them in the last decade.
Still, Miles would rather not talk about No. 1,000.
Friday, OIT plans to hold a celebration after its game with Evergreen State, win or lose, to honor the guy who started four decades ago and hasn't left. The Owls (13-12) are having an average year by their standards, but OIT officials anticipate close to a sell-out crowd. (The gym holds 2,066 and the Owls are traditionally one of the top 10 NAIA-DII schools in average attendance.) Klamath Falls is still recovering from the recession, but $10 buys you a seat at Danny Miles Court, where you can watch one of the best small college programs in the country.
"There have been some downtimes in this economy lately, but he brings joy, entertainment and excitement here," says Austen Flint, a sophomore guard from Bendigo, Australia, who is the 28th international player under Miles. "He's not just a big influence in Klamath Falls, but in the whole state of Oregon."
In the run up to No. 1,000, there were plenty of articles, TV reports and general hoopla, all of which made Miles, 68, uncomfortable. The Owls beat Eastern Oregon 81-60 on Jan. 24 to bring Miles to No. 999, then dropped two in a row. Many of Miles friends flew in from out of state to witness Miles' first shot at the mark only one other men's coach at a four-year college has hit. (Harry Statham of NCAA D-II McKendree University of Lebanon, Ill. was the first.) But the Owls fell to College of Idaho, 79-65. The second chance came on the road at Northwest Christian in Eugene, when OIT lost 62-55 on Jan. 31.
"Everyone in the conference knew he was getting close — and they didn't want it to be them," says Jjguwon Hodges, who played for Miles from 2007-09 and remains close to the program.
On Feb. 1 before the Owls took the floor against the Warriors of Corban University in Salem, Ore., Miles gathered his team in the locker room and finally acknowledged the inevitable.
"Guys, let's just get this thing over with," he told them.
When they won, 71-51, Miles took the mic and said a few words to the 1,000-plus people who had crowded into Corban's gym, a testament to the little guy who's built a giant legacy.
"In the last few minutes, when it was about to happen, I think we all realized what a great achievement it was," Flint says. "It's not just about that moment — it's about the 999 games before it, the 43 years of coaching, the hundreds of players that it took to reach that milestone. The celebration was so much more about his body of work and what he's put into the program, the school and the community."
When Miles took over the program in 1971, the Owls had gone 1-21 the year before. In his office "there was a stack of numbers, people who who had called and wanted to play us, because we were an easy win." OIT started 0-3 that year before beating Northwest College 106-71. After notching his first victory, a neighbor Miles didn't know knocked on his door and offered congratulations. "He told me, 'Coach, you're gonna do a good job here,'" Miles recalls. "That meant a lot to me."
Miles grew up in southern Oregon and, after a brief stint at Oregon State, became a three-sport star in football (All-American honors), basketball (all-conference) and baseball (all-district) at Southern Oregon University. It didn't matter that he stood just 5-foot-7. He set the all-time record in college football for all divisions by completing 190 of 247 passes in 1965, a 77.9 clip. When he took the job at OIT, Miles figured he would he would stay two or three years, then move on somewhere else. Instead, he built a juggernaut.
Miles believes in up-tempo, motion offense where everyone shares the ball and is a threat, and contain and contest defense. The Owls don't deny passing lanes so much as they make you work, long and hard, for a good shot. He is a numbers junkie, having created a formula called the Value Point System to determine playing time and rotation. He preaches class and composure, and models it daily: He hasn't be assessed a technical in 23 years.
"It's almost like a military mentality," Hodges says. "Not, 'Hup, two, three, four,' but he expects you 15 minutes early to practice, and you better look presentable. Coach always used to say 'When you're playing at OIT, you could be interviewing for your next job, so you better make sure you're presenting yourself in the best light you possibly can.'"
Miles has coached 25 All-Americans, is 14-0 in the first round of the NAIA-Division II tournament and has those three national championships (2008, 2010, 2012). For his career, he boasts a staggering .709 (1,000-409) winning percentage. He's done it in arguably the best NAIA-DII basketball conference in the country, and with just 4.3 scholarships, split this season among 17 players (NAIA-DII schools can have six scholarships at most). Through it all, the town has always come out to support "Danny's boys."
"I'm from Modesto, Calif., and I came up here to look around because I'm a 5-8 guard, and coach had coached a three-time All-American (Levell Hesia) who was a 5-6 guard," Hodges says. "I didn't think this was going to be like Hoosiers High School, where they shut down the town to go to games. It blew me away, the crowd that came out. I fell in love, and it felt like I needed to be here."
Much likes Miles, Hodges hasn't left — not for long, at least. After a brief tour in the NBA D-League he returned to the area to coach high school basketball and works now as an assistant for the Lady Owls (currently No. 21 in the nation).
Perhaps Hodges — who says he got into coaching partially because he wanted to be like Miles — will take over when Miles steps down, though no one knows when that day will come. Miles says he has to coach through at least 2016, because each of his last Leap Year teams won the national title, and that's the type of streak you don't mess with. Miles and his wife, Judie, have five children and 19 grandchildren between them, and are about to bring another child into the fold.
A few years ago during an Athletes in Action trip to Rwanda, Danny and Judie met Honorine, a young woman who had lost her parents in the Rwanda Genocide when she was 5. They were smitten instantly. Now 23, Honorine "already calls us 'Mom and Dad'" Miles says proudly, and she will be part of the family once she can secure a visa. He plans to coach while Honorine attends OIT (They hope she's admitted for the fall of 2014). After that, who knows.
"I've had a couple coaching friends tell me when I finally retire I can come be the old guy who hangs around their practices," Miles laughs. "I'm going to have to kind of wean myself off it. It's really all I've ever known. There were so many times, we'd be driving through the desert at 4 a.m. and I'm thinking, 'I'm turning in my keys and my grade book as soon as I get back.' But I love it, and I was always ready to go again the next day."
Miles' best friend, Craig Howard, is the football coach at Southern Oregon University, so maybe he'll end up on that staff. But Miles knows the pull of OIT is strong, and maybe if he steps down as basketball coach, he can still be part of the Hustlin' Owls.
"You know," he says, "my son (Matthew) is the baseball coach here. Maybe I'll go be his first base coach when this is all over."