By Alex Parrish
Winter, Scott, foreword by Tom Izzo. Nebrasketball: Coach Tim Miles and a Big Ten Team on the Rise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. Pp. xvi+355. 22 black and white photographs. $24.95 Hardcover.
In 1985, Indiana University men’s basketball coach Bob Knight gave journalist John Feinstein extraordinary access to his locker room and team for an entire season. Knight, at that point, had led the Hoosiers to two national championships (’76 and ’81), but was coming off a disappointing season, which ended with a loss in the championship game of the National Invitational Tournament. Feinstein recorded his experiences with the team in the book A Season on the Brink, which is often considered one of the greatest sports books ever written. Feinstein’s book was unique for two reasons: first, it chronicled a team for an entire season, a task generally reserved for beat writers, and second, for its unfiltered presentation of the controversial Bob Knight.
The Hoosiers were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament that year, but Feinstein’s book was a success. What made the book even more special was the following year, the Hoosiers won 30 games and captured the National Championship. The book gave the team attention, but the championship gave them respect.
Scott Winter stated his goal with Nebrasketball was to give Nebraska head coach Tim Miles “his Season on the Brink” (p. 1). The 2013-2014 year was important for Miles and the Cornhuskers. A new arena, new players, and increasing expectations from the Nebraska faithful meant that the 2nd year coach had to prove he was the person for the job. Miles had two concerns when Winter approached him about the book – his team and his mother. The team was raw and coming off a losing year, generally not the dream subject of journalists. And he did not want his mother to know the language he used when he addressed his team, as she was already displeased with his vocabulary that made it past censors. Eventually, Miles relented and agreed to give Winter the access he needed to write such a book. Nebrasketball is an inside look at an improving basketball program, its fans, and the coach behind the transformation.
Winter contends that Miles is a program transformer, and is successful in those transformations because he has taken to heart every lesson he learned from failure. He wins because he is all too familiar with losing: “My mentor is losing. That’s taught me everything” (p. 73). Winter crafts the stories of these losses, lessons, and the transformations they led to into the story of the 2013-2014 season.
The book is divided into six sections, each with a heading related to a Tim Miles-inspired concept or quote. As coaching terms so often do, each carries a corresponding life lesson or two along the way. Section one, “Money at the Bank”, is concerned primarily with preparation. Miles has to win over donors, athletic department leaders, and a small fan base that has grown tired of losing. Miles prepares through media appearances, transparent meetings, and brilliant scheduling. But talk is cheap, and winning over a room must be joined with winning on the court. This two-part job leads to a Jekyll and Hyde presentation of Miles, which Winter calls “Miles the Marketer” and “Miles the Tyrant” (p. 15). Winter details the brutal practices, highlighted by the cringe-worthy GATA drills (Get After Their Asses). GATA drills are preparation for two important factors for success: hard work and team unity. Hard work and unity are themes repeated throughout the rest of the book. Winter details the on court and off court preparation to demonstrate that Miles does not just talk about reforming the program, but puts in the work and preparation necessary to reform the program.
Section two, “Making Do”, is about Miles finding success with the talent and resources he has. With the media and his superiors, Miles uses his charm to make up for the lack of tangible success with his team. His concern with the Cornhuskers is not talent, but consistency and discipline. Consistency and discipline are important parts of changing losing programs. Section three, “Us Always”, is the longest section and the most intimate look at Miles’s life and career, including 22 black and white pictures. Details of Miles’s family life and youth are mixed with specifics of some of the team’s highest and lowest points of the season. Each detail pointed to the necessity of unity, for family and the team. By highlighting Miles’s resourcefulness and commitment to team building, Winter emphasizes the value of a coach who does not make excuses and promotes commitment to the program above individual glory.
Section four, “Planting Two Feet”, recounts how Miles and his team respond after a demoralizing loss. It is a back to the basics chapter, detailing Miles’s four “core values” for the Huskers. When his players could not remember their values, which was tantamount to forgetting their identity, Miles tore his team down to build them up again. Of course, the tactic was successful, and the Huskers recovered their identity in time to defeat the powerhouse Michigan State Spartans (whose coach, Tom Izzo, provided the foreword for Nebrasketball). Winter recounts the recovery of the team identity to point to Miles’s ability to overcome adversity.
Section five, “Tougherness”, covers the final stretch of Nebraska’s regular season, which was their last few chances to make their case for the NCAA tournament before the Big Ten tournament. It recalls Miles’s other programs and their rise in the NCAA ranks, including his North Dakota State team that defeated #15 Wisconsin in the 2005-2006 campaign, and his Colorado State team that made the NCAA tournament in the 2011-2012 season. The final section, “Why Not Us?”, details Nebraska’s berth into the NCAA tournament, highlighted by their defeat of #9 Wisconsin in the final game of the regular season. These two sections contribute to Winter’s argument the most, as they demonstrate Miles’s ability to win against top teams at pivotal points in the season.
One of the strengths of this book is the access Winter had to Miles and his staff. There are no secondary sources listed, and other than paraphrases of an occasional newspaper article or ESPN reports, no secondary source is used. The book is truly a firsthand account of the coach and the team. Miles was so interested in the book that he went so far as to suggest titles to Winter (p. 4). Another strength is in Winter’s excellent prose. He expertly weaves together Miles’s family stories, behind-the-scenes insight, and game coverage in a careful and excellent mix of entertaining anecdotes and thoughtful analysis.
However, there is one critique I have for this book. Nebrasketball gushes over Tim Miles, to the point that it seems too generous a depiction. How involved were Miles and the University of Nebraska in the writing of this book? According to his Bethel University profile, Winter is a graduate and current PhD student at Nebraska, and his book was published by University of Nebraska Press. In my opinion, it reads like an attempt of the University of Nebraska to capitalize on Tim Miles’s likable personality to gain larger interest in its program (and justify its multimillion dollar arena). Winter even points out Miles’s understanding of the book as a public relations tool (p. 4). If this is the case, Nebraska is certainly within its rights to do so. However, the value of this book for journalists and academics becomes very small. I do not challenge Winter’s credentials or ability as a journalist, but question the true transparency and accountability present in a book about a university figure from the university’s perspective.
This critique makes it a challenge to identify the intended audience of Nebrasketball. Fans within the University of Nebraska-Lincoln community seem to be the target audience. Fans of the Big Ten or college basketball in general will likely appreciate the stories and the quality of writing.
At the same time, Winter’s ambitious task to write book that could become a new generation’s A Season on the Brink is intriguing to the point of being audacious. Tim Miles lacks the controversy and success of Bob Knight, and the Nebraska program has largely been mediocre. Miles being relatively unknown and Nebraska’s history of futility in basketball make the decision for in-depth analysis fascinating. Its occasionally clichéd life lessons are few and subtle enough that they are not the focal points of the book, but poignant enough to elicit personal reflection and even admiration for Coach Miles. Many basketball fans will likely find Nebrasketball an excellent read.
Ultimately, Nebrasketball contributes little to the field of sport history. It is not as culturally significant as A Season on the Brink or an analysis of sport and culture like The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam. Nebrasketball’s significance and contribution are really up to Tim Miles and the future of his program. The strength of Winter’s argument, that Miles is a true program changer, is also ultimately up to Miles. If Nebraska can become a consistent contender in the Big Ten or NCAA, then Nebrasketball could become an important book for analyzing coaching and program development. If Miles continues to build his program, he may become a major figure in NCAA basketball. It is tournament season, and Nebraska has already knocked Wisconsin out of the Big Ten tournament. To echo Coach Miles, why not?
Alex is a master’s candidate in theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. His academic interests include American religious history, Alaskan religion and culture, hip-hop and religion, and sports and religion. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.