If you've read enough poetry, listened to enough songs, or been 18, you've undoubtedly heard the idea that a very thin line separates the conflicting passions of love and hate. Both are generally felt very strongly, are potentially destructive, and influence all manner of decisions. In American culture, sport inspires both love and hate, and that brings us to the story of Sean Miller and the Xavier Musketeers.
That story starts with Pete Gillen. Gillen was the Xavier coach for nine years and turned down jobs at Villanova, Ohio State, and Virginia in order to honor his contract. Gillen led the Musketeers to their very first Sweet 16 before he eventually moving to Providence to win a Big East title. Gillen was notoriously loyal to those who were loyal to him, saying "So simply put, I sacrificed money and glamour and prestige for being happy. That doesn't mean I'm right, but that's what I think."
Gillen was replaced by the himself irreplaceable Skip Prosser for the next seven seasons. Prosser became so beloved at the school that he's frequently quoted by people around the program and the team makes every effort to play the Skip Prosser Classic each year in his memory. Between the two coaches, Xavier had stability for 16 years and, despite earning a reputation as a bit of a stepping stone, became synonymous with coaching loyalty.
Thad Matta and Sean Miller changed that. Matta stayed for only three years before running off to the same Ohio State team that Gillen had spurned. Matta made things worse by pledging just a week before that the Buckeye position held no interest to him
"I'm not a candidate. It's that plain and that simple.I'm not a very public person, so nobody's ever going to know how happy I am at Xavier," Matta said last week. "Our players have three [Atlantic 10 championship] rings in three years. We've been to the round of 32, round of 32 and Elite Eight. I'm sitting here and I probably have one of the longest contracts in the country. I love that."
A week later, he was gone.
In his place came his assistant Sean Miller. Miller was aggressive and demonstrative on the sidelines and Xavier fans took to him immediately. After a rough first season, Miller became one of the top coaches in the history of Xavier. A first round loss to media darling Gonzaga in 2006 was followed by six NCAA tournament wins and an Elite Eight in the next three years. Miller turned down all manner of offers after the 2008 Elite Eight run to stay at Xavier, further endearing himself to Xavier fans. Xavier was in the midst of the most extended run of success in program history, without question.
And then things went south. Miller used Xavier as leverage to get more money from his eventual landing spot in Arizona in after the 2009 season. Miller asked to sleep on his decisions after speaking with Arizona AD Jim Livengood Miller than told sources he wouldn't be moving around midnight before calling back at 2AM the same night to accept the job. Miller broke down in a tear filled press conference, but then further angered Xavier fans by comparing the move as going from a Buick to a Lexus in a discussion with recruit Kevin Parrom, who reneged on his commitment to Xavier to follow Miller to Arizona.
That left Xavier fans suddenly adrift. When Thad Matta left after his cowardly chase of the money, it felt almost inevitable. Matta was a mercenary when he came to Xavier and a mercenary when he left. The only thing that tied him to the school, or any of the schools where he has worked, was money. Sean Miller felt different. He'd been on staff since 2001, he said all the right things about the city and the school when he came on, when he recruited (players like Jordan Crawford, Kenny Frease, Mark Lyons, and Tu Holloway were Miller recruits), when he was wooed in 2008, and even when he left. Sean felt like a coach out of the Prosser and Gillen molds. A Xavier lifer who wasn't just about prestige, but who valued stability and building something. Then he left with a phone call in the dark.
Sean Miller is inextricable from the memories of an entire generation of fans. If you watch the 2008 thriller against West Virginia, he's everywhere, cajoling, screaming, jumping up and down, and, eventually, celebrating. In the 2007 Greg Oden game, Miller is incandescent on the sidelines. If you watch Stanley Burrell come off the floor in tears after his last college game, it's Sean Miller who is there to hug him. It's not possible to be a Xavier fan and not have fond memories of the man.
And so that brings us back to love and hate, and Sean Miller. Director of Basketball Administration Mario Mercurio took to Twitter to publicly thank Sean this week, even as fans photshopped Miller's face into pictures of wrecked Lexus' while Coach Mack and Jalen Reynolds pilot a spotless Buick. Vitriol mixes with memories in almost every exchange. Sean Miller will never fail to inspire strong emotion from Xavier fans, what that emotion will be is forever going to be tangled in the two strongest passions anyone can ever feel.