For years, it has been indisputable. Ralph Miller is the greatest basketball coach in Wichita State history.
During Miller’s 13 seasons, from 1951-64, the Shockers became a college powerhouse. He took WSU to
the brink of the Final Four in 1964, then left for Iowa as the Shockers were preparing to crash their first Final Four in 1965 while being coached by Gary Thompson, previously a loyal Miller assistant who played for the legendary coach during the 1950s.
Miller, who attained Hall of Fame status after successful stints at Iowa and Oregon State, is one of six people – and the only coach – whose tenure at WSU is acknowledged with a banner that hangs from the rafters at Koch Arena. He was 220-133 with the Shockers.
Some believe current Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has surpassed Miller as the Shockers’ greatest coach in history. And they present a solid argument.
Marshall, in his seventh season, has a 166-68 record. His winning percentage (.709) is significantly better than that of Miller (.623). Marshall has led WSU to a Final Four and followed that up with a 27-0 run into late February this season. He has a solid chance to be the national coach of the year.
But it’s not yet a consensus that Marshall has gone by Miller as Wichita State’s all-time best coach and here’s why. Schedule.
College basketball was a much different animal when Miller coached the Shockers. Wichita State played in what was then a powerful Missouri Valley Conference, one of the best two or three leagues in the country. At times, even, the best.
And unlike now, when Marshall has to fight tooth and nail to put together a representative non-conference schedule, Miller was able to play the teams he wanted to play. The Shockers’ non-conference schedule in those days was always loaded.
I went back and looked at the final Associated Press college basketball rankings during Miller’s time at Wichita State and twice the Shockers were included in the Top 10. But what really stood out was the teams that Wichita State played in those days. It was often a Who’s Who of college basketball.
During the Miller era, the Shockers played 71 games against teams that finished the regular season inside the AP Top 20. From 1961-68, the AP released only a Top 10 poll, and WSU played 14 games against teams with that distinction.
Forty-seven of those 71 games were played against teams from the Missouri Valley, most often Oklahoma State, Saint Louis, Bradley and Cincinnati.
Conversely, the Shockers have played 16 games against teams ranked in the final AP regular season poll during Marshall’s first six seasons. And four of those came last season in the NCAA Tournament against Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Louisville.
Miller has to get credit for all of those games against great competition, the kind of competition Marshall would love to encounter more frequently.
The Shockers were only 16-55 against those Top 20 and Top 10 teams during Miller’s Wichita State coaching career. They are 6-10 against teams that finished the regular season in the Top 25 during Marshall’s years.
The Miller-Marshall debate is sure to become even more pronounced as the Shockers continue to enjoy success not seen around here since the early-1960s. Right now, I’d still say Miller is Wichita State’s greatest all-time coach. But it’s just a matter of time before he hands over that mantle. Perhaps even a few short weeks.