About 45 minutes north of Oklahoma City lies the campus of Langston University. It’s a small, traditionally black college in a town of fewer than 2,000 residents — and women’s basketball legend Cheryl Miller admits she had to Google the place when athletic director Mike Garrett called her up and asked if she might be interested in coaching there. What Miller’s search found was that Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes graduated from Langston, and that the Langston Lady Lyons are a very good team in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. (The NAIA is a community of smaller colleges and universities and was the first collegiate association to invite historically black institutions into membership.)
Miller, who is a member of pretty much every basketball hall of fame you can think of, parted ways last year with the Turner Network and her 14-year job as a sideline reporter with the NBA on TNT. She was looking to get back into coaching — she’d coached at USC for two years and in the WNBA for four more — but she’d been out of the game for almost 15 years and no one was knocking down her door to hire her. Some speculated that athletic directors were remembering the flamboyant showboat from her college days and wondering if her charismatic personality would intimidate young athletes — and potential recruits. But low and behold, Garrett was her boss when she coached at USC in the mid-1990s. Now the athletic director at Langston, he was looking for a women’s basketball coach. She came for a visit, he offered her the job, and she decided Langston was where she belonged. Garrett thinks Miller’s personality is exactly what Langston needs to to “take the program to the next level. And Miller says “this is where I need to be right now.”
Still, Langston Oklahoma must seem a million miles away from Riverside, California, where Miller grew up and began to create the legend that surrounds her name.
Cheryl Miller, whose college years at USC ran from 1980 to 1984 — and who led the US women to victory at the 1984 Olympic Games in LA — played on the cusp of the modern era in women’s basketball. In the years before ESPN became the flagship for televising women’s sports, women’s college games were rarely on TV. Yet Miller managed to grab the headlines and become the most visible symbol of the modern era of women’s basketball not only because of her prowess on the court, but also because of her outsized personality. She was to women’s basketball in the 1980s what Magic Johnson was to the NBA: the embodiment of basketball as “showtime.’
“One thing Cheryl had besides the skills and athleticism was showmanship,” Linda Sharp, Miller’s coach at USC told ESPN in 2014. “She stepped on the court and just did her thing. She had character; she entertained. She’s still that way.”
“I played to the crowds. I was an entertainer,” Miller told me in a 1995 interview. “As long as you have passionate players who capture the attention of the audience, that’s all women’s basketball needs.”
Many people didn’t agree. One coach called Miller a “typical hot dog” after one game in which she continually wagged her finger, blew kisses to the crowd, and did cheerleader-type leaps after her baskets. But Nancy Lieberman came to Miller’s defense. “The flamboyance is her bread-and-butter,” said Lieberman. “I think Cheryl is the best thing that could’ve happened to the game.”
While her personality drew attention, Miller’s fame would have lasted for the cliched 15 minutes if she didn’t have game. She led USC to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1983-84, and was a three-time Naismith Award winner — a distinction no other college female can claim (as of 2014). In 1986, Sports Illustrated named her the best male or female player in college basketball. She scored 3,018 points for a 23.6 career scoring average, and she averaged 20.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.2 steals and 2.3 blocks in 16 NCAA Tournament games. She was a two-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player and still holds the tournament records for field-goal percentage (79.4, 121-for-245) and most free throws made (91). She also was the driving force behind the US Olympic team’s big win at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
“Cheryl came to college as sound as any player I’ve ever coached,” said Sharp. “I first saw her play in seventh grade, and I knew she was going to be great.”
Even after her playing career ended, Miller’s swagger created headlines. She stirred controversy in 1994 when she was hired to coach her alma mater after Marianne Stanley parted ways with USC because of a salary dispute. Stanley, who played on two national championship teams at Immaculata College in the 1970s and guided Old Dominion University to three national championships in the early 1980s, had sued USC for $8 million in back wages and benefits after she was denied a salary increase equal to that of the men’s coach.
After Stanley was let go, the members of her team — including star player, Lisa Leslie, held a press conference and threatened to transfer. They hoped that the coaching community would align themselves with Stanley so that the position would remain vacant and the university would have to reconsider. When Miller was announced as Stanley’s replacement, the players felt betrayed. “I remember the meeting when Cheryl was introduced as our head coach,” recalled Lisa Leslie in her 2008 memoir, Don’t Let the Lipstick Fool You. “Several of us were sad and crying. I was stunned.”
The administration likely believed that their most illustrious alumna was the only person who could step in and be accepted by the players and staff. Miller told the USC players that she had taken the job out of a sense of loyalty to the school and that if they couldn’t accept her, they were free to leave. But her decision angered some of her female colleagues, who felt she had betrayed the cause of pay equity. What made the coaches even angrier was the fact that Stanley was having trouble finding another job. She ran into the same “glass wall” that other female coaches have after they complain too loudly or are dismissed from a coaching job for not winning enough. “I applied for close to 100 jobs and had one interview,” Stanley told me in a 1997 interview. “My lawsuit was a lightening rod.”
Players also questioned Miller’s credentials and her coaching methods. Leslie, who was going into her senior year, found herself staying after practice to break down drills with the younger players because her teammates were having trouble understanding Miller’s systems and directions. “We could see and feel her passion, but there were times when we couldn’t understand her terminology,” recalled Leslie. “And if we were not on the same page with our coach, USC basketball had little chance for success.”
In her two years at USC, Miller did prove she could coach, leading USC to a 44-14 record and the NCAA tournament both years. Leslie came to appreciate Miller’s competitiveness, but she always wondered whether they could have won it all had Stanley still been at the helm. “I truly believe that played a huge role in our not winning a national championship,” Leslie said in 2008.
Miller only coached the Women of Troy for two years. The spotlight lured her into broadcasting and a job broadcasting NBA games for with Turner Sports. The “hot dog” of women’s basketball proved to be as comfortable with the microphone in her hands as she had been performing on the court or answering questions after a game.
She was coaxed back into coaching, though, when the WNBA was formed in 1996. Needing a marquee name to help generate interest in the new league, the Phoenix Mercury named her its first head coach. It was a move that generated lots of ticket sales but also produced success on the court. Miller took the Mercury to the playoffs in three of her four seasons – including one trip to the finals in 1998. Miller was a lively, animated, trash-talking coach, pegged with more technical fouls than most of her colleagues in the fledgling league. She also took to the floor and showed her dance moves with the Mercury’s dance team from time to time – to the delight of the Phoenix fans.
In 2000, Miller shifted gears again and joined the NBA on TNT broadcast team where she showcased her interviewing and commentary skills for a national audience for the next 13 years. It’s a role she relished all the more because her brother Reggie, who joined her as a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, was also a member of the NBA on TNT team.
Now, the woman who played to the crowd all those years will be lucky if the stands are half-filled for the Lady Lions’ games. Miller says she views it as a challenge to take a school and a team that is considered small by the outside world and build it into a national power. “We may be small, but we have big time potential,” she said. “And that’s what drove me.”
Langston has 10 players returning from a team that was 20-13 and lost in the first round of the NAIA Division I tournament to the eventual champion, Oklahoma City. If Miller can take the Lady Lions all the way, perhaps her stay on this small stage will be a short one. Perhaps she’ll break through that glass wall and find — at the age of 50 — that the road back to a big time coaching job is open again.
“I have my goals as a head coach and I certainly won’t leave” before they’re accomplished, she told a reporter for her hometown paper in Riverside, California. “But it wouldn’t be truthful to say that if another Division I (program) came calling I wouldn’t look at the situation. Everybody’s realistic when it comes to those things.”
But whether it becomes a stepping stone to a bigger stage, Miller will likely be learning a lesson this year about re-inventing herself in the face of changing times and expectations. It’s a lesson that even legends sometimes have to learn.