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MEN'S BASKETBALL: From Mayville to the Big Ten

Prior to Tim Miles' last season as the head coach at Mayville State, he was looking for an assistant. With the help of a UND assistant, Miles was put in touch with Craig Smith -- who was looking to get into the college game.

Their meeting came at the Ground Round restaurant in Grand Forks prior to the 1996-97 season.

"It was my second season at Mayville," recalled Miles, now the University of Nebraska coach. "We had met in the spring and he wanted to be a part of the program. After we met, I remember calling him and telling him we had only $500 for an assistant's position. I said something like, 'I'm sure you don't want it. It was good to meet you.' And I wished him luck."

Miles was surprised by Smith's response.

"Craig said, 'Coach, I've already moved to Mayville,' " Miles said.

And that's how it all began for Miles and Smith, two coaches from small towns in the region that have helped turn around one men's basketball program after another.

Smith is from Stephen, Minn., while Miles is from Doland, S.D.

"Doland is about one-third the size of Stephen," Miles said.

And now, they face their biggest challenge at Nebraska, a Big Ten program that has struggled but wants to play with the big boys in one of the country's top conferences. Nebraska has had two losing seasons in the last three years and the Cornhuskers have not made the NCAA tournament since 1998.

Miles hired Smith as a Nebraska assistant last week. It's the fourth time that Miles has called on Smith. After Mayville State, Miles hired Smith at North Dakota State. When Miles went to Colorado State, Smith followed.

After Miles left CSU for Nebraska last month, Smith stayed behind in Fort Collins. He was named the interim coach but Larry Eustachy eventually landed the Rams' head job.

"It was a great experience," Smith said of his interim position. "I just tried to hold down the fort. I tried like heck to get the head job but it didn't work out so it's on to the next challenge."

And that challenge is to get fans in Lincoln to think more than just football.

"Tim has always done a great job of turning programs around," Smith said. "Basically, all of the jobs Tim has taken have been rebuilding jobs, with the exception of NDSU. But that was another challenge because of the Division I transition."

Wins and titles follow

When Miles landed the Mayville job, it didn't take him long to make an impact. He coached the Comets for two seasons, leading the program to the national NAIA tournament. He left for Southwest Minnesota State but Smith didn't follow.

Smith left Mayville when Miles did, going first to Northern State then Minot State.

When Miles landed the NDSU job in 2001, he again hired Smith. But Smith eventually left the Bison staff to take the head Mayville State job in 2004. And, like Miles, Smith had success in Mayville as well -- leading the Comets to the NAIA national title game in 2007.

But Smith later joined Miles at Colorado State. And the two helped elevate the Mountain West Conference program to a Top 25 status this past season as the Rams qualified for the NCAA tournament.

Their mission at Nebraska, however, already has received a jumpstart.

The school is pumping money into its men's basketball program. The $19 million Hendricks Training Complex is up and running. "It's a state-of-the-art locker room and every guy is given an iPad," Smith said, referring to some of the facilities amenities. "There are 65 TVs in the facility. I feel like I'm walking into Disneyland every day."

Also, the $200 million Pinnacle Bank Arena is under construction in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers will play there in time for the 2013-14 season. It will seat 16,000.

The two coaches realize they are a long way from Mayville, in both distance and dollars.

But Smith said the differences between Lewy Lee Fieldhouse and Lincoln aren't necessarily night and day.

"Bricks and mortar are great but at the end of the day you realize it's all about the people that surround you," Smith said.

Looking ahead

From Mayville to Nebraska, Miles has virtually seen it all in men's college basketball.

The new Nebraska coach can't wait to get started on another coaching venture.

"I'm really excited about this challenge," Miles said. "It's a premier conference in the country. It's a situation that has unbelievable fan support. It's a great university and great athletic department.

"We've built programs before and I believe we'll do it again."

And he's glad Smith again is on his staff.

"I believe unconditionally in Craig," Miles said. "We both see the game in a similar manner. It's like we're golfing partners. And you probably wouldn't pick us out of a lineup but we figure out ways to win."

How long the two will stay together isn't known.

"Craig is a bright young coach," Miles said. "There is no question he will be a future Division I head coach."

Smith, who is in Dallas this weekend watching an AAU tournament, said he has no regrets joining Miles at Mayville with virtually no pay.

"I can't say I was hired at Mayville," said Smith following his meeting with Miles at the Ground Round. "I still remember people saying, 'Why are going to do that for basically no money?'

"But I had the other philosophy. For me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime."

Nelson reports on sports. Reach him at (701) 780-1268; (800) 477-6572, ext. 268; or send e-mail to wnelson@gfherald.com.

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