The greatest women's basketball player left her TV gig to get back into coaching, even after twice burning out on the bench. She took her best offer, at an NAIA school, where she has turned around the program—and rediscovered herself
This is an article from the July 6, 2015 issue
LAST JULY, Ronnie Barney took a wrong turn. Out in the forested expanse between Tulsa and Oklahoma City, only water towers and the occasional oversized cross stand out above the tree line. Cows graze along the roadside, and every so often an armadillo lies paws up, a casualty of one of the few cars that traverse these rural routes.
As Barney gained elevation on Highway 33, he could glimpse the school where he'd agreed to work as an assistant women's basketball coach. Langston University's 40 acres are perched on one of the area's highest points, and Barney figured he could navigate there without issue. One turn, then another—and somehow he was on a dirt road. He could still see the campus—until he passed it. When he finally rediscovered pavement and pulled into a parking spot, he'd blown his shock absorbers and his silver Volkswagen Jetta was coated in orange-brown dirt. Everything in his U-Haul was just as grimy.
No one was around—school had yet to start—and doubts filled Barney's mind as he settled into his on-campus apartment. What am I doing here? I left Louisiana Tech for this? After a few days of getting settled, he heard a voice outside, one of the first since he'd arrived. It was female. It was loud. It was the owner of the boxes that had been shipped to the apartment below his.
It was Cheryl Miller, sweating in the humidity, hollering up at her new assistant. When Barney came down to say hello and offered his hand for a shake, Miller hugged him instead. "Those big old arms, they wrapped around me and then they wrapped around her," Barney says. "Her elbows were around my back. It was a tight squeeze."
When Miller let go, Barney exhaled. He wasn't quite sure how either of them had ended up there, but he figured things would shake out just fine.
ON APRIL 30, 2014, Langston announced the hiring of Miller as its new women's basketball coach. It was the biggest news the NAIA program had ever generated, but the players were clueless. Children of the 1990s, the Lady Lions had never seen Miller play; guards T'Keya Mason and Jhordyn Patton hadn't even heard of her. They knew nothing of the swagger, the close-cropped curls she made trendy in the 1980s, the 105 points she scored in a high school game, the talent and grit that earned her the title she still holds: greatest women's player of all time. And so, neither student paused to wonder how this superstar had landed with their team, making $50,000 to coach in a gym with a capacity of 2,200.
In 2012, Miller allowed her broadcasting contract with Turner Sports to expire after 17 years; she wanted back on the bench. (A four-time All-America and two-time national champion at USC, Miller had coached her alma mater in 1993--94 and '94--95 and the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury from 1997 to 2000.) For years she'd double-dipped during games, working the sideline while also picking the brains of coaches and inundating scouts with questions about game strategy—all to prepare for this move.
But when Miller began job hunting in the spring of 2013, she made about 20 calls and landed just three interviews, even though she'd gone 42--14 at USC and 70--52 with the Mercury, who made the 1998 WNBA finals. (She resigned from both jobs, citing burnout in Phoenix.) USC brought Miller in, as did Pepperdine, and she did a Skype session with Santa Clara. None bit. None told her why. "I was shocked," she says, "but I was O.K. with it. I knew it was going to be difficult."
Still, as her first full year out of broadcasting came to a close, Miller began to panic. In April 2014, she got a call from Mike Garrett, a former athletic director at USC and a good friend. He asked if she wanted a job. "Where?" she asked. "Langston," Garrett answered. Pause. "Where's that, exactly?"
Garrett had been the Lions' AD since 2012 (he resigned in April to spend more time with his family), and his coach had just quit. If Miller wanted the position, he said, he'd fly her out that week. The visit was a formality. "They didn't really have to give me a spiel," Miller says. "I was that hungry. I had truly been humbled."
Decked out in her school's black-and-orange gear, her short curls confined by a zebra-print bandana, the 6'2" Miller looks younger than her 51 years. A self-proclaimed homebody, she has embraced dinners in the Langston cafeteria, and when she's hankering for something different, she makes the trip down the hill to the Sonic drive-in in Guthrie. The amenities in her campus apartment are the same as those of the students who live next to her: two bedrooms, basic cable. There's no DVR to record the games her brother Reggie broadcasts, but a friend recently introduced her to Netflix, which has been a godsend, as has the Subaru Outback that Langston leased for her midyear. Before that, she rode around campus on a bike she calls Betsy, which she still takes for spins almost daily.
After her Lady Lions finished 29--4 and won the Red River Athletic Conference tournament for the first time since 2011, Miller became the toast of Langston (pop. 1,800). On campus everyone knows her name, and she at least knows faces. Walking to her office, she stops to chat with a thin student in a sport coat and tie. "Best-dressed man on campus," she hollers as he walks away, then admits she can't remember his fraternity. That matters here. She's still learning. "The best thing about taking this job was—because I'm a creature of habit—to prove to myself that I can live outside of L.A. and be successful out of my comfort zone," Miller says. "That was the most terrifying aspect: coming somewhere and living truly on my own."
Miller's office is spartan. Two nearly empty bookshelves collect dust—the only trophy on display is more than a decade old—and the walls are mostly bare. On her desk lies a manila envelope with a note from a man named Ronald Miller (no relation). He lives in her hometown of Riverside, Calif., and he saw just one of her high school games, in 1982. Enclosed is the program, and there, on the front, is Miller, grinning as if she owns the world. "I really thought I was cute back in the day," she chuckles.
In college Miller became the face of her sport. Sports Illustrated named her the game's top player—male or female—in 1985, and USC's women's games outdrew the men's. "Everyone wanted a piece of Cheryl Miller," recalls UNLV coach Kathy Olivier, a former Trojans assistant. "People would wait for us, and they would try to pull at her and grab her hair like she was a rock star."
In those days, Miller says, she developed a split personality, part diva, part clown. Worried that her fame would alienate her teammates, she made an effort to connect with the women around her, hiding under hotel beds and grabbing teammates' ankles once the lights went out.
When she first started coaching, Miller again felt that need to establish camaraderie. She didn't want to seem aloof with players who were roughly her age, so she let them in—too far in, she realizes now. "I've had a tendency to not set healthy boundaries," Miller says. "I've always tried to make people feel comfortable, and they get too comfortable." Things were no different at Turner Sports; as a woman in a boys' club, Miller wanted nothing more than to relate, again sacrificing boundaries and twisting her personality in order to feel accepted.
Only now, she says, is she comfortable in her own skin. At Langston she doesn't have to be the greatest ever. She bristles when the school's strength-and-conditioning director, Samuel Chatman, describes her as such, and she seems to enjoy that her players, however much Internet research they've done, won't ever fully grasp the extent of her fame.
When Miller arrived on campus, she knew she had to establish a power dynamic, so in high-energy, early-morning practices she routinely kicked players out of her gym. She's more than happy to point any player needing help in the right direction, but beyond that? "I don't want you knocking on my door for girl talk."
The tough-love approach worked: A team that had gone 20--13 in 2013--14 started with 17 straight wins. But when the Lady Lions hit a midseason slump, Miller stormed out of several practices, which Barney felt was sending the wrong signal to the team. "I wanted to chop her throat," he says. "We needed to stick together." Miller laughs when she hears that, a fantastic rumble that builds with each ha-ha-ha. But Barney, 28, is serious. He didn't want to criticize his boss but eventually mustered the courage to confront her about her behavior. Miller never left a practice again. She also began to distinguish between criticizing players' on-court effort and attacking their personalities. Instead of accusing them of not caring, of wasting her time, she began pinpointing the changes they could make to their games.
"A lot of people say the best players don't make the best coaches," Reggie says. "In this case, they're wrong. Not only does she care about the best player on her team; she's just as passionate about the 12th woman."
Mason, a junior, describes Miller's practices as "fun and intense," heavy on running, but you'd better not complain. "She makes me work," says Sharron Carter, a 5'9" senior point guard who has lost 32 pounds since last fall at Miller's directive. "She gets me out of my comfort zone."
LANGSTON'S LOSS in the second round of the NAIA tournament haunts Miller, and since she has no desire to look back, she's giving the net from the conference championship game and its accompanying plaque to university president Kent Smith. No one's ever presented him with a net before, he tells her; even now, a year into Miller's tenure, he's still a little awestruck that she's even here, in his wood-paneled conference room, which looks as if it hasn't been redecorated since the 1980s. He thanks her for bringing the memorabilia. "No, thank you," she tells him sincerely before bounding out the door.
Smith is a basketball fan who attends most of Langston's games, and he's proud to report that the school may start charging for entry next year, so huge is the demand to see Miller in action. Still, he knows what he has is fleeting. His coach may love her job. She may tolerate Oklahoma. But this isn't her endgame, not by a long shot. "I love the fact that I've had this opportunity, but I want more," Miller says. "I want bigger. I want better."
Last winter Miller hired an agent, Felicia Hall Allen, but jobs are still elusive. Miller figures she'll have to win a national championship if she wants to move up. That's less a fact than a challenge, and she will spend another year here, riding Betsy to and from her little apartment, consuming Sonic and Netflix and cafeteria cuisine. But even so, her mind wanders miles from this barren office to a million different places, because for Miller, a tiny school in Oklahoma has opened up her world.