Winning by losing: Arizona coach Sean Miller finds success in lifestyle changes, eating habits

After a wakeup call, Arizona coach Sean Miller has found success in changes to his lifestyle and eating habits
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The moment Sean Miller knew his body and lifestyle required wholesale change came on a trip to San Diego this summer to attend a horse race at Del Mar. When Miller pulled on a pair of slacks, he couldn't button them.

Miller's 6'2" frame had ballooned to more than 240 pounds, and his waist size surged past 40. His youngest son, 14-year-old Braden, told him earlier in the year he'd never known his dad when he wasn't chubby. On the recruiting trail, he'd earned the nickname Nacho Miller for consistently being spotted in bleachers at AAU tournaments with the cheese-lathered chips.

Miller's inability to button his pants, however, marked rock bottom. Seven months later, Miller has lost 40 pounds and gained a perspective on health and work-life balance that can't be quantified by a scale. He traded nachos for almonds, Mike and Ikes for trail mix and Hot Tamales for dark chocolate. He rarely drinks but has traded beer for Tito's vodka when he does.

As Arizona grew into a No. 6 seed that will play the winner of Vanderbilt and Wichita State in the NCAA tournament Thursday, Miller shrunk to 205 pounds and trimmed five inches off his waist. "I couldn't take it anymore," Miller said in a phone interview last week. "I made up my mind to change, and looking back on it, it makes me sick that I got to the level that I did."

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Miller's change came after seeing a doctor, working with a trainer and embracing the discipline of a better diet, consistent workouts and a more balanced life. Eliminating sugary treats like Swedish Fish has been one big step, and he's only eaten pizza twice since August. For the first time in his life, he reads the labels on whatever he buys. As the months passed and weight flew off, Miller became adamant this has been a lifestyle overhaul not a quick-fix diet. "I've always had one-dimensional thinking, putting all my eggs in one basket," he said. "It's my strength and also my weakness. I lost my balance."

When Miller transitioned to coaching after his playing career at Pittsburgh, he didn't alter his diet. While Miller coached at Wisconsin in 1992, his younger brother, Archie, recalls him eating a pint of Ben and Jerry's Cookie Dough ice cream every night. Sean's affinity for Mike and Ikes was so pronounced that the former basketball office secretary at NC State, Beverly Sparks, still sends him boxes for Christmas 15 years after he last coached the Wolfpack. "I was like a college kid," Miller said of his diet.

Miller always rationalized his eating decisions— these Sweedish Fish will get me through film session or this bag of spicy Doritos will keep me locked in on recruiting. When the Wildcats lost, Miller admits he'd go to a "dark place," pigging out and watching film for hours to try to diagnose the Wildcats' problems. The confluence of Miller's passion for sugary treats and salty chips combined with his uniquely singular focus on his job to enable the weight gain.


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Miller grew up as a childhood basketball star, so freakishly dedicated he appeared on The Tonight Show at age 12 as a dribbling prodigy. After his career ended at Pitt, so did his desire to keep playing. Amy Miller recalls her husband declining to play when an assistant at Wisconsin, even though he was only a year out of school. He'd never really had the choice to say no, and he exercised it. And by doing so, his exercise routine became inconsistent.

As Miller quickly ascended the coaching ladder, becoming the coach at Xavier in 2004 and then Arizona in '09, his metabolism gradually slowed. The past two years, Miller admits that he poured everything into talented Arizona teams that ended up reaching the Elite Eight. He also coached for USA Basketball the past two summers, which added to the already crammed calendar of the regular season and recruiting trips.

Two summers ago, Miller served as an assistant to then-Florida coach Billy Donovan with USA Basketball and admired the consistency and pace of his workouts. Miller worked both summers with Providence's Ed Cooley, who lost more than 130 pounds after bariatric surgery. Cooley slimmed from 357 pounds to 225 and works out manically to keep his weight down. "I call him once a week and tell him how proud I am of him, " Cooley said. "This job is going to kill us. They're going to fire us all at some point. Let's make sure we have our health and our kids and wives to think about."

Donovan, now the coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, attended Arizona's game at UCLA in early January. He has known Miller since he was a senior at Providence, serving as a host on Miller's recruiting visit. When Donovan saw his old friend, he did a double take. "I couldn't believe how much he lost," Donovan said. "He was really locked into it. It wasn't one of those things that seemed like a trend or a fad."


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Miller's go-to joke about his weight loss is that for every person that tells him how great he looks, he wonders what they thought when he hovered around 240 pounds. But the results have transcended vanity, as he said he wakes up more rested, exerts more energy in practice and has found more balance. Amy Miller says she's gone to dinner with her husband five times this year, which is five more than they normally do during the season.

"He's feeling much better about himself," she said, "because he's feeling healthier."

Miller's transformation has altered the lifestyle of those around him. Amy Miller jokes that Lindsay Pasternack, the wife of associate head coach Joe Pasternack, has confided to her that Joe feels guilty eating junk food around Sean now. Wildcats athletic director Greg Byrne says he's down 15 pounds after his wife, Regina Byrne, listened to Miller preach his sugar-free gospel. Part of Miller's willingness to tell his story stems from hoping others hear it and can be encouraged the way that Cooley and Donovan inspired him. "There's been a lot of talk within the athletic department of how impressed people are," Greg Byrne said. "Sean's decision and lifestyle change will make a tremendous impact for someone else."

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Miller has lost so much weight this season that he has required two trips to the tailor to alter his suits, including new ones he waited until right before the season to purchase. Amy Miller jokes that her husband, who is down to a 35-inch waist, needs to stop losing weight because the tailors are tired of seeing them.

That's one of many tangible signs of how weight loss and lifestyle change have been Miller's biggest win this season. No matter how far the Wildcats advance in this NCAA tournament, this season will be hallmarked by off-court success that will reverberate for years to come. When Miller's pants wouldn't button, everything came together.