Great Expectations
By Charles Smith
Special to the Times

LACC Coach Mike Miller Is a Tough - and Successful - Taskmaster

It was Dec. 23, but the Los Angeles City College mens' basketball team was celebrating Christmas early. The Cubs had just defeated Chaffey College had and its star player, Avondre Jones, in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Los Angeles that included several Division I college coaches and scouts.

In the locker room , however, the players weren't given much time to relish the 18-point victory that made them champions of their three-day tournament. Coach Mike Miller and Scott Sandler, who played for Miller and is now on the University of Michigan basketball staff had something more important on their minds.

Miller had Sandler take off his ring - awarded to the players and staff from Michigan's 1992-93 NCAA runner-up team - and pass it around the locker room. "I want a ring like this, except I want the one given to the champion," Miller said. "This [ring] is what we are playing for. Tonight was a big win, but this is not the championship. I will not consider this a successful season unless each one of you has a ring on his finger at the end of the season."

The expectations may seem high, but that's what helps make Los Angeles the No. 1 community college men's team in California. "[At LACC] we strive for perfection, and if we come up a little bit short, that's OK," said Miller, now in his third season. "But I expect nothing less than the best from my players and staff."

That's just what Miller has received from his team so far this season. LACC (23-1) is off to its best start in school history and is on track to bring the school its first state championship in 62 years. The Cubs began sowing the seeds of this season's success immediately following a loss to Chaffey in the third round of the community college championships last year. "Last year we got closer than the previous year, and so this year, I expect to be in the finals," Miller said. "You have to set a goal and then strive to attain it. If your goal is to have a good season, then you accept losing. If your goal is to win a championship, then you do not accept losing. At LACC, we do not accept losing."

Which is reflected in the Cubs' near-perfect record and the players' attitude. "He is the hardest coach I have played for," said point guard Jason Wright, who had a team-record 21 assists in a game against San Diego."He never lets up and demands 100% from his players. He doesn't care how good you are. If you don't play hard, he doesn't want you."

Miller's Cubs will never be accused of playing less than 40 minutes of basketball. "Those guys constantly play hard," said Kevin Eastman, Washington State coach. "I have never seen a team play with that type of pressure and execution while up by 40 points." Eastman could have been referring to any one of a number of blowouts that Los Angeles has rendered.

On Jan. 7, Los Angeles embarrassed host Trade Tech, 135-51. The previous week, Miller's squad defeated Pasadena, 111-62. The Cubs blew out Long Beach, 99-70, to avenge their only loss. "They beat us, so it's only right that we pay them back twice as bad," said forward Derek Brown, who is averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds a game.

Although Los Angeles' average margin of victory is in the 30s, Miller insists that his goal is not to embarrass opponents. "You're not playing against your opponent - you're playing against yourself," Miller said. "The score is immaterial and the opponent is immaterial. The goal is to play your best and be your best." This is what makes the long, hard practices tolerable. "He brings out the best in us and makes us play harder," said 6-4 Derek Higgins, one of the most explosive players in community college basketball. "He is so enthusiastic that is brings out the enthusiasm in us. We are learning how to tune out [the crowd and other distractions] and focus on the game. He is hard on us, but it prepares us for the next level."

Which is Miller's primary goal. "We demand more than some Division I coaches," Miller said. "We are here to prepare our players to move on and to prepare our players to move on and be successful. This is just one step on the ladder, not the stopping point." Still, Miller's demands and frank criticisms can sometimes be too much for a group of young players. Last year, the team called a meeting to address Miller about his harsh reprimands.

Miller understands this, but will not change his approach to coaching. "Some kids will take criticisms differently than others," Miller said. "You get it done or you don't. I don't accept excuses. Some kids can't handle that. When other players see us win by 70 points they think it's all fun, but in fact it is the result of hard work. So many coaches want to be friends and buddies with the players, and the kids suffer. The coach's job is to make that kid better and prepare him for the next task, whatever that may be."

Miller has been the taskmaster when it comes to coaching, the owner of an impressive 167-38 lifetime record that includes two Southern Section high school championships at Ribet Academy of Los Angeles. The Fighting Frogs won the Small Schools Division title in 1990 and the Division V-A title in 1991.

Credentials like these make a greater impression on a player than any spoken word. "We listen to him because he is a winner," said sophomore guard Markee Brown. "He teaches us the fundamentals to go along with our natural talent." And in the process, Miller's winning ways have brought the team closer together.

"It's been a good relationship between [Miller] and the team," Brown added. "It's been a good experience. We have grown as players and as a team."