CLARKSVILLE — It turns out you can go home again. Just ask Ryan Miller.
The 1999 Providence High School graduate was named the Pioneers’ head coach — the program's fourth in four years — earlier this summer. After 10 years as an assistant coach, at Providence and Floyd Central, and after nearly taking over the Pioneers last summer, Miller couldn’t resist the draw of returning to his alma mater this time.
“Providence has always been a place that has been near and dear to my heart. I went to school here, played here, then coached here,” the 38-year-old said in late June. “In terms of the timing of it — because this position had become available a few times — I think those previous times helped me to get ready for this opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity that Miller has seemingly been preparing for his whole life.
BORN AND RAISED
Miller is the eldest of two boys born to Larry and Cindy Miller. Before he was a long-time children’s dentist in New Albany, Larry Miller (PHS Class of 1968) was a blue-collar basketball player for the blue-and-white Pioneers.
"The only reason he got to play was because he just played with a toughness and a grit, and he played defense. The coach would put him in and say, 'Hey, don't let this dude score,'" Miller said with a laugh. "I think he can count the number of buckets he made on one hand in his varsity career, but he got to play because he would defend and he would rebound, and he wasn't a big guy either, 6-[foot]-1. ... It was just so ingrained in him — you do not get scored on, and if you do then you're coming to the bench, because that was his reality."
Raising Ryan and his younger brother, Keevan (Providence's all-time leading boys' scorer), in New Albany’s Silver Hills neighborhood, Larry Miller instilled the values of hard work, toughness and defense on the basketball court in his boys.
"He made sure that we worked on our ball-handling and shooting, but he also made sure we would defend," Miller said. "I grew up with two cousins as well, and then my younger brother and younger cousin. We grew up playing one-on-one, it was just so competitive ... every point, every possession mattered."
Miller attended St. Mary’s in New Albany before going to Our Lady of Perpetual Help for junior high, then to Providence. He was a four-year varsity player for the Pioneers, a self-described “intense” point guard for coaches Bob Bennett, Pat McKay and Doug Bibby. Miller credits Bibby, currently the head coach at Louisville Central High School, with injecting even more persistence and perseverance in him.
After graduating from Providence, Miller briefly attended the University of Southern Cal (where Bibby's uncle, Henry, was the coach), before heading to prep school in New Hampshire, where he was roommates with future Indiana University player Mike Roberts. After that he went to Eastern Kentucky for a year. He averaged 1.2 points in 24 games during the 2000-01 season before returning to finish up his undergraduate degree at IU Southeast.
In coming home, Miller found his true calling.
“Basketball, obviously, wasn’t entirely out of my system, even though I was focusing on my studies,” he said. “I started coaching junior high here and then-Coach [Joe] Hinton was around and he was letting me help out some. And then when Lou [Lefevre] came on board in ‘04 I was a full-time assistant with him.”
Lefevre, who was named the coach at North Harrison this spring, recalls some of his first interactions with Miller.
“I was coming from down south and I didn't really know anybody, or have anybody to help me. His brother was on the team and he'd watch a little bit of practice. Then, since it was just me, I asked him to run a drill. I watched him a little and went, 'Oh my gosh, I need this guy on my staff!'" Lefevre said. "He's just such a great people-person. He can really connect with all sorts of kids. ... If a kid does something wrong, he's so good at telling them in a way where he's working with them. He can get on kids, but they know the way he feels, that 'I'm getting on you because I believe in you and I think you're awesome.'"
Miller was with Lefevre for his first three seasons at Providence. The Pioneers went 60-11 in that time. They were 19-1 in the first season (in which they were ineligible for postseason play), 19-6 with a sectional title in Year Two and 22-4 with a second straight sectional and the program’s first regional championship in Year Three.
“Coach Lefevre, he was, obviously, my coaching mentor,” Miller said. “He served as the foundation of my basketball knowledge and my basketball beliefs, because as a player you think you know the game, and you really don’t. Until you start coaching you have to start actually thinking the game, and seeing the game, in ways that you’ve never viewed it before. And Lou, he sees the game differently than most people. He teaches the game differently than most people.”
Miller took time off from coaching to attend medical school at the University of Louisville before rejoining Lefevre’s staff in the latter’s final three seasons, during which the Pioneers went 54-15 and won another sectional and regional title.
After Lefevre’s ousting, following the 2013-14 season, Miller joined Todd Sturgeon’s staff at Floyd Central.
The Highlanders, 21-48 in the three seasons prior to the arrival of Sturgeon and Miller, are 91-28 over the past five seasons.
“Ryan’s the best assistant coach I ever had, and I’ve had some good ones,” Sturgeon said. “He’s the 10th of my former assistants that have gone on to be a head coach, either in college or high school. ... His commitment and passion to the team just rubs off on everybody. And he’s one of those guys, because he puts so much into it … some kids, don’t like coaches to coach them because they don’t respect what they’re telling them. And Ryan was a guy ... he got on Cobie Barnes and Luke Gohmann, guys like that, hard! And those guys let him coach them because they realized, ‘Man, he is invested. He puts his heart and soul into this team. And, he knows what he’s talking about.’”
Under Miller's guidance, Floyd Central ranked 33rd, 26th and 13th, respectively, in scoring defense in the state the past three seasons. That followed up an even more successful stint at Providence, where the Pioneers never finished lower than fourth in Miller’s final three seasons on the bench (including leading the state in scoring defense, 34.43 points per game, in 2012-13).
“Obviously his passion is defense and so he was a big part of what we’ve done defensively,” Sturgeon said. “But beyond that, he just has the mentality of unselfishness. He played on good teams [at Providence]. He played in college. He was with Lou all those years there when they had good teams. He just is all about the team, the team, the team. He’s knowledgeable in all sorts of things, but obviously as a defensive coach he’s terrific.”
Following his fourth season, when the Highlanders went 24-2 and lost to Romeo Langford, Sean East and New Albany by six points in the Class 4A Seymour Sectional final, Miller nearly left Floyd for his alma mater. After much consideration, however, he turned down Providence's job offer. The school eventually hired Sean Smith.
Then this spring, following Miller's fifth season at Floyd, Lefevre was hired at North Harrison, after five successful years at Tipton, and asked Miller to join his staff. He accepted, reuniting with Lefevre as well as fellow former Floyd assistant Greg Walters. But then, less than a month later, Smith resigned his post at Providence, after guiding the Pioneers to an 8-17 mark last season, for the same one at Charlestown, where he had success earlier in his career.
This time when Providence came calling, Miller couldn’t say no.
“I kind of knew, there’s only so many times you can not be ready to accept a position that you’re excited about,” he said. “I was on the cusp of taking it last time and then when I turned it down it was one of those things where you look back and say, ‘Well, was that the right decision?’ At the time it was what was best for our family. My wife [Danielle, PHS Class of ‘99] wasn’t ready for me to make that commitment at that point, because she had seen how much I put in as an assistant at Floyd — and of course we were highly motivated to do well, because we realized the opportunity we had there with the great players we had, so we were all working really hard. But my wife saw that and thought, ‘Well, what’s it going to look like when you’re a head coach.’ Because we’ve got one [11-year-old Rece] going into fifth grade, one [8-year-old Lara] going into second and one [3-year-old Anna] starting preschool."
ON THE JOB TRAINING
Since being hired in early June, Miller has hit the ground running.
One of his first duties was recruiting Lance Stemler to be his assistant. The former IU player, who is married to a Providence graduate (the former Amanda Loi), previously worked with Miller on Lefevre’s staff.
“Coaching with him a few years back, obviously we connected on different levels,” Stemler said. “There’s a lot of familiarity with teaching and how we want to play, how we like to play. So when the opportunity came, it was kind of a no-brainer to be able to work with somebody that you respect and you kind of fit right into. At the same time we’re not afraid to challenge each other to grow, to expand our knowledge. I don’t think either one of us have egos with that, so it’s not about the overall mentality of the program. It’s about the program, it’s not about any individual, idea or a coach, or player — it’s about the program in general. That was the draw, plus obviously he’s a great teacher of fundamentals. He’s very passionate. He really, truly cares about the kids and about the community. Which, sometimes kids can read into. People can read if you’re fake right away and I think that’s part of the culture that we’re trying to build and get them to buy into is, ‘We’re here to help you and help the community and win basketball games.' … And they’re willing. The kids are willing to do more for you if they know you truly care, and he really does, and it comes across that way.”
Early returns have been good.
The Pioneers, who lost only one player (forward Hayden Burke) off last season's squad to graduation, went 6-2 in the summer. They’re set to return several seniors, led by 6-4 forward Austin Grantz, as well as Sterling Huber, Austin Barnett, Alec Fougerousse and Bryce Hutchins.
“Just our overall attitude [has changed],” Grantz said after a practice in late June. “We’re coming into practice, we’re ready to play and fight, whereas last year it was just different than that.”
If that June morning was any indication, Providence practices will be fast, physical and educational.
“Guys, when we don’t talk we cost ourselves. We cost our team and we cost ourselves opportunities,” Miller said at one juncture.
“He’s positive, but he’ll tell you when you need to be better, when we’re not doing what we need to do up to the standard. But he’s also positive all the time, and he gets us going,” Hutchins said after that practice. “I think we’re learning a lot of stuff too, how they want us to play the game. We’re learning something new every day, offensively and defensively.”
There wasn't much of the former, however, in early workouts.
"The first three weeks was nothing but defense," Miller admitted. "I'd come in with some practice plans to work on defense, kind of split it up half defense and half offense, and then I'd look at the clock and 90 minutes would've gone by and it was all defense."
And although Miller is taking a lot of Lefevre and Sturgeon, who "are currently No. 2 and No. 3 in active win percentage in the state of Indiana behind only Criss Beyers," he isn't expecting divine providence in his first season.
“What we did [at Floyd] was obviously working, now you have to make adjustments per personnel,” Miller said. “What we did was defense, rebounding and valuing the basketball. It might take us awhile to get to where we want to get, but that’s eventually where we want to get. I think we'll get everybody on the same page there in due time, but I realize I’m having to be a little bit more patient than I’m used to being. When you come from these two programs that really had it going you expect certain things, but you realize you know it’s a process, it’s not going to happen overnight. We have to have those expectations, but we have to be patient with them and we have to be positive and just know that if we stay true to the process that we’ll eventually get there.
“We never know what the future has in store, but for me I hope things work out and we can be here and establish things and get this program going to the way that it had been.”
That would make Miller's homecoming even more special.