Matt Miller has spent nearly his entire life in the Maryland and Washington D.C. area. As he embarks on his first season with the Loyola Greyhounds, he brings a wealth of experience.
The Washington, D.C., native spent the last five seasons as an assistant at Mount St. Mary’s. His coaching career began mainly as a head coach at the high school level in Maryland before making the jump to college as an assistant at Shepherd University, a Division-II school in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Miller returned to high school and coached at Goretti High School in Hagerstown, Md. He posted a 100-42 record there. The team reached as high as No. 7 in the USA Today Northeast Region Poll during the 2017-18 season.
Coaching was never in his plans, but now he is entrenched in the profession.
Miller recently spoke with Mid-Major Madness’ Ian Sacks. Below is their conversation:
Ian Sacks: What drew you to Loyola, Maryland?
Matt Miller: We’ve actually been competing against them the last five years. I’ve been an assistant coach at Mount St. Mary’s University. I was assistant coach for one of my best friends, Dan Engelstad. I’ve always enjoyed scouting Loyola, watching what they do. When I was a high school coach at Goretti High School, I was familiar with the program.
I think it’s in a great location. It’s a beautiful campus, and our head coach at The Mount actually had a relationship with Coach Hardy. They were golfing and talking about how he was looking for a defensive-oriented guy, and a golf game turned into a job opportunity for me.
So, it was a great opportunity that I was very blessed that Dan Engelstad and Coach Hardy discussed, and they both thought it’d be beneficial for both sides. And I decided to jump on the opportunity.
IS: Amazing how that works, just a little conversation out on the golf course could lead to that. What was so special about your time with Mount St. Mary’s?
MM: I’ve had a connection there a long time. I was good friends with Coach Jamion Christian and his staff and Coach Milan Brown and his staff when they were the head coaches there. I’m friends with a bunch of alumni, and I’ve gotten to know them really well since I was coaching high school ball in Montgomery County and at Marymount University when I was 23, 24 years old.
Even my college assistant coach, Kevin Robinson, is now the athletic director at Catholic University, was an assistant coach. Dan Engelstad was also an assistant coach at The Mount. A lot of my connections were coaching there, working there. I had a bunch of their players that would work my basketball camp, when I was a head high school coach.
It was close enough to where I was living and operating. And it was a good place for me to learn from as a high school coach. When I was the head coach at Goretti High School, it was 25 minutes away. We’d bring our players over there a lot, go to games. It just seemed to be kind of this reciprocal relationship I’ve had for a long time.
One day again, it just randomly turned to a job opportunity. My college point guard got the head job there and offered me the job immediately. It was another position that I just couldn’t say no to.
IS: Definitely love that you have such strong ties there, but you’ve touched on how you were coaching high school and moved up to the college ranks. What has that transition been like moving from high school to the college ranks?
MM: I think it’s interesting because there’s just little bit more detail, a little bit more basketball-centric focus. Not that we don’t do administrative work at the college level, you know, there’s a lot of a lot of scouting, recruiting, checking in on guys.
But I feel like at the high school level, I’ve been a PE teacher, I’ve been a dean of students, I’ve taught special education. Heck, one year I was teaching Spanish I. I don’t know if I was qualified for it, but I was doing it. You kind of wear a lot of hats at the high school level, and I think that goes overlooked sometimes. I have so much respect for every high school coach because I’ve been in their shoes, and I understand the amount of detail and effort and the amount of people you have to collaborate with.
I think the college level, your job is a little more specific. You’re locked in on a certain area. You have to be able to do a little bit of everything, but your main job is develop players, scout, make sure your players are doing great academically and recruit great student-athletes.
It’s just a little more focused when at the high school level, you got to wear a few more hats, but if you coach high level high school, it really isn’t that different from college. You got to scout, you got to prepare, you got to you got to go get good players, and you got to beat good coaches out.
I think I really learned that in coaching in the Baltimore Catholic League when I when I was at Goretti. It’s kind of like a small college level with some big-time players that just they’re just not that old.
When I was coach a high school ball, we’re couching against Immanuel Quickley and Jalen Smith on a nightly basis. That’s pretty tough to prepare for whether they’re high school or college.
IS: Talent is talent at any level, no matter if it’s high school, college or pro. I know you also have a little bit of experience in Division II. What are the biggest differences that you see between Division II and Division I?
MM: In Division II, I remember my first scrimmage, I almost had a heart attack because I was on staff and being a defensive-oriented guy, I look up to the score’s like 105-101. So that was very different for me, just kind of seeing that it’s like a scoring level and I was coaching in a scoring league.
At that level, you got a lot of players that they might be an inch or two shorter or maybe half a step slower, but I mean they can all really score the basketball. And I think there’s a mentality of really pushing the basketball, attacking presses, attacking zones and not over-coaching them.
I think at the Division I level, there’s so much detail. One of the things I really like about Loyola is we’re trying to play a free-flowing style and get the ball up the floor quickly and share the ball with all five guys.
A lot of times you see so much directing traffic and coaching every single possession. The detail is at such a higher level. You have so many people on staff, so you can get into the nuts and bolts, where I felt like Division II was a little bit more free-flowing. You’re going to live some shots you may not be comfortable with. You don’t score over 100 points without that.
You saw that in the national title this year with West Liberty and Nova Southeastern. The league I was coaching in Division II as an assistant coach was with West Liberty. Coach Crutchfield is at Nova Southeastern now but was the head coach at West Liberty back then. So, they kind of dictate the style. Those are two of your best programs in all of Division II. So, it’s just a little bit a little bit more pace I would say.
IS: That’s a really good point about how it’s a little bit more free-flowing than, say, a Division I game might be. You have such deep ties throughout the Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia area. You’ve coached, just about your entire career there, went to college there, high school as well. How important is it to have such deep roots in a general area and community, especially recruiting wise, but just broader also?
MM: I feel like I’m trying to touch every corner of Maryland at this point. I think it helps.
One thing I’m excited about is Coach Hardy here wants us to do a great job locally. And obviously you have to be able to expand your recruiting network wherever you can and identify and evaluate great talent and great kids that fit the program, the school, the head coach.
But I think the fact that we want to recruit locally and, you know, I have the ability to use my network, not only from playing days and early coaching days, that makes it enjoyable for me. I can tap into guys that I’ve coached against, that I’ve coached with, former players that might be coaching, etc., you know, different leagues, whether it’s public or private high school leagues that I’ve coached in, it definitely helps. There are a lot of great coaches that are also tremendous people in this area.
A lot of times, some of my friends in Division II and Division III within the area, they’re great at identifying quality student athletes for our level because they might be able to be on the road more than us based on rules.
So, I think it helps a lot because you can get the truth on young men. I mean, we want outstanding young men that can play. We want high-quality student-athletes. And when you can get real information on them, it helps. And I think you can only really get that if you have strong ties and strong roots.
It really takes the risk out of things when you’re dealing with people that you trust. That’s one of the things that really drew me to this job is that we have a great place, where local kids want to go to school here, whether they’re student-athletes or not. People want to go to school here, and you can tell.
IS: What is it about the area for you that has kept you there for just about your whole career?
MM: What a great basketball area, whether you’re coaching Division II, III, I, high school, it doesn’t matter. I think it’s a tremendous area for hoops at all levels.
It’s a beautiful area. It’s an area that’s just flush with jobs. I know my wife can snap her fingers and get a job in anywhere in this area, in the D.C.-Baltimore area. We’re very blessed to have so many opportunities here and tremendous neighborhoods to live in.
[We have] professional sports teams all over. I’ve got a newfound love for the Baltimore Orioles. I grew up in D.C., and we didn’t have the Nationals when I was a kid. So, I’m kind of circling back to being an O’s fan. So, I’m enjoying that. I think it’s a great area to raise a family. I think it’s a great area just to live and work and be a young professional.
IS: The Orioles are definitely having quite a season, hopefully they can keep it going down the final stretch.
MM: Yeah, not a bad year for me to jump back on the bandwagon.
IS: Not at all. Especially being a Yankees fan myself, definitely looking up at the Orioles. You began coaching basically as soon as you graduated from college. What drew you to the profession in the first place?
MM: It was a complete accident. I had zero interest in coaching. I was really enjoying playing down to St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland, playing D-III ball, enjoying my experience.
[I was] excited from a senior year, and I blew my knee out in August right before my senior year. My dad, my hero, my mentor, kind of convinced me, ‘hey, you should stay involved. What else are you going to do down there?’
Kind of by default, I just started helping out as a student assistant and doing and learning as much as I could and try to soak up as much information as I could.
We had a head coach at the time who had been an assistant coach in Miami and Tulane, so he had some different ideas. He really stuck a chord with me on the defensive end, and he really taught us to guard my junior year.
And I kind of always took that, from that moment on, like, alright, this is what I enjoy. I like coaching this, I like playing it. I kind of took that into every stop I’ve been.
From there, I started working a job with the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Downtown D.C. once I graduated. Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., asked me if I would coach their summer league team with Dan Engelstad, the current head coach The Mount. So, we kind of co-coached in the summer league.
I had so much fun, and they said, ‘alright, do you do you want to coach for the regular season?’ I said, ‘sure.’ Then I started realizing I was treating it like a full-time job. I’m in my cubicle at the Bureau of Labor Statistics doing scouts, coming up with practice plans, talking to the coach about drills.
We ended up having by far the best defensive team in the state. It’s easy to say it’s your scheme. Well, we had some really, really good players that we put in the right spots to make plays and guard guys and three of those players were who is now the head women’s coach at The Mount, Antoine White; Michael Gruner, who ended up playing at Lafayette in the Patriot League; and Mikey Fitzpatrick, who is now the head coach at Northwood High School. So, we had three premiere lockdown defenders there among a couple other guys in there that led us to a state title.
So, I got tricked. I had so much fun. I said, ‘I’m going to go back, get my master’s degree. I want to be a high school coach and a teacher.’ So, I completely changed careers.
It’s kind of like beginner’s luck. You have some success early. You enjoy your experience, and all of a sudden, I’m coaching full-time. So, it was not by design or by plan. It kind of just happened by trying things and having so much fun doing it. You know, 20 years later, I’m still coaching.
IS: Amazing how something like that can work out of just a summer league opportunity and now you’ve turned it into a whole career. What’s your what are some of your defensive principles?
MM: As detailed as it gets, I think it always comes back to the nuts and bolts.
I really try to emphasize ball pressure. You can’t let people just tee up their offense as much as you do. I’ll tell you what, especially in this league, I’m really watching and studying with the Patriot League, if you let people just be comfortable, you’re going to be in trouble. You’ve got a lot of skill players that make great decisions.
[It’s] the old adage, you’ve got to rebound. Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships. You’ve got to rebound basketball. As basic as it sounds, I think that’s very key. And then just having a great transition scheme.
Luke Yaklich, he was an assistant coach and defensive coordinator at Michigan, and he moved into the head coaching role at UIC. I called him because I was making the transition from high school to college. I was kind of stamped with, ‘Hey, you’re going to be our defensive coordinator.’ I asked him for advice. He said, ‘Get your transition defense right.’ And boy, was he right. If you don’t get that right at this level, you get blown out.
I think the biggest way to stay in games is to make sure that you take care of that, eliminate all the easy baskets and a lot of those high points-per-possession shot attempts are off second-chance points and off transition.
I learned that in our first game, trying to coach the defense. We played N.C. State. We’re hanging in there, and then all of a sudden, it went from seven points to 50 really quickly. That was eye opening: how quickly things could open up, especially when you’re playing those November, December high-major games.
Back to the nuts and bolts, I think it’s those three basic things. You take care of that, and you take care of the basketball. It’s really going to key your defense.
IS: How would you describe life as an assistant coach?
MM: It’s different. As a head coach, you’re constantly worrying that everything’s okay. You’re concerned about your guys in every aspect: do they show up for class, are they on time for this? There’s constantly something on your mind. As a head coach, you think big picture with that.
As an assistant coach, I feel like I’ve been blessed to be able to look at details of defense or details of recruiting. You’re kind of like a gopher. You’re trying to find all the information you can. But it’s not as much pressure in terms of having to make the final decisions.
You’re kind of like researching and constantly trying to find the best information and presenting that and presenting different options. It’s a lot of work and hustle, but you’re not tasked with the final decision.
I enjoy that part of it, but I’ve always enjoyed being a head man as well or where you do make those decisions. So, I think there’s positives and negatives on both sides. I like it. I like working at this level with high-quality players.
Being an assistant coach, I still get to learn from different staff members, other assistant coaches, different head coaches, and you’re constantly studying other opponents. If you’re a head coach, you may not be studying the opponents as much. So, I get to learn, not only from our head coach, but I get to learn from other staffs, like what are their pressure points or how do they hurt us?
I feel like I constantly get to learn being an assistant coach. As a lifelong learner, that’s tremendous.
IS: That’s a really good point that as an assistant, you get to really dive into and even learn more from the other teams that you might not get to as a head coach. What are some principles or lessons that you try to instill in your players?
MM: When I was a high school head coach, I always talked about, be on time, work as hard as you can and just show respect everybody in the community. I don’t I don’t think that changes anywhere you go.
I think we all want punctual players that work their butts off, and they’re showing respect to referees, coaches, players, people in the community. I think that’s pretty standard across the board.
The biggest thing is trying to establish relationships with them so that when you have to make a teaching point, it’s not taken as ‘oh, alright coach,’ You want it taken that it’s coming from a good place. You’re just trying to try to build relationships with them, so whatever the teaching point is, we can make that.
I think trying to help guys get routines, whether it’s showing up on time for class, being dressed and ready to go so we can get a few shots up before or after practice, or maybe just being on top of communicating with coaches so you can get a couple clips of film.
Just teaching guys how to be organized, how to take initiative, how to communicate [is so important] because if you can teach them to communicate on the court, then they’re going to be communicating off the court.
If you want them to learn how to communicate with a professor, let’s teach them how to communicate on the court. Let’s teach them how to communicate, setting up the time to come in and talk about a scheme or watch film or whatever it is.
Everything is an opportunity to learn. On the court translates to off the court, and off the court translates to on the court. So, I think just developing those types of habits.