New assistant coach Miller aims to rocket Illini volleyball to top

Kent Miller faced a difficult decision: remain the Toledo Rockets’ volleyball head coach, a program that has gained respectability during his 12 year tenure or accept an assistant coach position on the staff at Illinois, a program that reached the Sweet 16 in 2008.

“In looking at the opportunities that were out there, there’s a handful of unique opportunities that would interest me as a coach,” Miller said Monday. “(Illinois) was one of those opportunities.

“It was a difficult decision,” Miller added. “When you are in a community and in a home for 12 years, it’s hard to leave. In coaching, it’s one of those things that when opportunities come, you have to take advantage of them and, really, that’s what the decision was based on.”

Miller’s official hiring was announced by Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly on Feb. 26. Miller, who recently had his contract renewed at Toledo before leaving for Illinois, had been talking to Hambly and Illinois since the summer.

The relationship Miller had built with Hambly since the mid- to late-1990s was the foundation of the discussions, especially when relating their USA Volleyball and international experiences. With a Big Ten conference littered with teams boasting two coaches with head coaching ability, Hambly believes Miller’s varied experience can only help.

“I think the Big Ten is one of the better coached conferences in the country, and it’s certainly nice to have a coach that has that experience and understands what it takes to play at a high level,” Hambly said.

Illinois’ storied history was hard for Miller to ignore. The Orange and Blue have appeared in 17 NCAA Tournaments since 1985, including two third-place and three fifth-place finishes during the span.

After inheriting a program that had only recorded two winning seasons in 17 years at Toledo, Miller’s efforts to resuscitate the Rockets began in 1997. During his career as a Rocket, the Oregon State alumnus led Toledo to a 17-11 finish in 2001, consecutive winning seasons in 2004 and 2005 and two appearances in the semifinal of the Mid-American Conference Tournament.

“I want to thank Kent for his 12 years of service to the university,” Toledo Athletic Director Mike O’Brien said in the team’s press release announcing Miller’s resignation on Feb. 26. “His teams competed hard, and they were always one of our department’s top performers in the classroom.”

While at Toledo, Miller’s Rockets welcomed the Illini to Savage Arena in 2007, which he went on to call “a great matchup.”

“I’ve known (former Illini head coach) Don (Hardin) for a long time, and I’ve known Kevin for a long time, and they had a player (former Illini Vicki Brown) from the area, so it was a great opportunity,” Miller said of the game, which Illinois won 4-1. “As a head coach at Toledo, I always wanted to challenge our team with some of those types of matches.”

While Miller and his wife Melissa are still in transition, including selling their Toledo home, he said the staff has been accommodating. The Anchorage, Alaska, native started familiarizing himself with the team at the first spring practice on Monday, calling the players “great.”

Breaking the news of his departure from the Toledo program to his former team was very difficult, Miller admitted, and he felt fortunate that the players were not bitter.

“It was a great experience,” Miller said of his time at Toledo. “Being able to get a program on track, and we certainly had some ups and downs and some challenges there, but to really have a broad-based program with solid foundation for success, year in and year out, was a great challenge. It was very exciting for me to learn through that challenge.”

Hambly appreciates the challenges Miller has faced during his coaching career and the many positives that have followed.

“It’s nice to have someone that we can work with that has been in the position that I’m in,” Hambly said. “This is my first time as a head coach. To have someone that’s been a head coach for 12 years and to be able to bounce ideas off of, like administratively … that’s huge.” But both Hambly and Miller realize leading the Illinois volleyball team to the top of the Big Ten and the nation will be no easy task.

“I think everyone here on the team is looking for the next step at the end of the year,” Miller said. “Great accomplishments, it’s going to be a challenging Big Ten season and a challenging NCAA Tournament. Sweet 16 is a great step, but getting to the Elite Eight, Final Four, is on everyone’s minds.”