He said, ‘You know, Greg, I’m going to be 70 years old. … I’ve been at this a long time and there’s nothing left in the tank. I think I’m done. – Greg Miller on Jerry Sloan leaving the Jazz
SANDY — People still might not know this guy like everyone knew his late father, but Greg Miller opened up like never before with Utah media outlets Tuesday afternoon from the 10th floor of the Jordan Commons Office Tower.
In a rare and wide-ranging media interview, the Utah Jazz CEO shared stories about his job and personal life, gave details about the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies' unprecedented growth while under his supervision and, of course, talked about his favorite NBA team.
For 2 1/2 hours, the media roundtable was an interesting peek behind a curtain that's usually pulled shut.
That included Miller — often reserved and distant, unlike his emotional and vocal father Larry — sharing his version of what happened on the night Jerry Sloan shockingly decided to resign during the middle of the 2010-11 season.
"You want Larry," he said, smiling, "you're going to get him."
No tears were shed.
But for a change, some light was.
Miller's conversation bounced around the globe — from the 43 states in which his companies have businesses to the fact that by the end of this year he'll have visited all seven continents, including a unique driving expedition across Siberia.
The chat session spanned 47 years, including Miller talking about living in Denver, where his dad's legacy began in an auto parts shop in the 1970s, to how he was excited to celebrate his granddaughter's 3rd birthday at a barbecue Tuesday night.
It also included him giving Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin a public vote of confidence while acknowledging that the bench boss needs to improve.
"I think Ty feels the support," Miller said. "It may be wrong, but my perception is that it's common knowledge that I'm a firm supporter of Ty."
Enough to extend the contract of Corbin, who's now the NBA's eighth-longest-tenured coach despite only being on the job since February 2011?
"It's a delicate balance. We all want Ty to know that we support him," said Miller, who admitted the coach needs to improve his team's defense. "We're glad he's our coach, but we also don't want him to be too comfortable."
The funniest part came when Miller related a conversation he had with NBA Commissioner David Stern in a buffet line during league meetings a few years ago. After replacing his dad on the NBA Board of Governors, Utah's representative was trying to establish himself on a league level and volunteer for committees.
The chat ended with the commissioner bluntly telling the eager, young team executive, "You're just a pissant."
Miller laughs about it now and described having a "great relationship" with Stern and commissioner-to-be Adam Silver (both of whom are pro small-market, he added).
The juiciest part came at the end when Miller was asked about Sloan, who was hired as a senior basketball adviser last week.
"I should tell you guys the story," he said.
None of the media roundtable invitees talked him out of it.
The beginning of the end for Sloan and his 23-year tenure as the Jazz's head coach, Miller explained, began with the last play of the first half in Utah's home game against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 9, 2011. And, yes, it revolved around an increasingly contemptuous relationship All-Star point guard Deron Williams had with the Hall of Fame coach.
"The last play of the half," Miller said, "Deron got after Gordon Hayward, the play broke down and we went into the locker room."
During that fateful halftime break, Sloan "reprimanded Deron" for freelancing. According to Miller, who usually accompanies the team into the locker room, the Jazz coach told his star player something to the effect of, "Hey, if you're going to change the play, it would be nice if you'd let the rest of the team know so we have a chance to score."
Williams' response: "My bad."
Much to Miller's chagrin, the contentious moment, however, continued after that exchange.
"If (Williams) would've left it right there, Jerry might have never left," Miller said.
Instead, Williams allegedly continued to pop off. Jazz center Al Jefferson even reached over and tried to ease tensions by telling his teammate, "C'mon now."
Sloan had had enough.
"Jerry said at that point, 'I don’t have anything else,'" Miller said.
Instead of turning the time over to his assistants, Sloan headed to his office around the corner from the players lockers. As he passed Miller, the then-68-year-old coach told the Jazz CEO, "I'd like to have a word with you after the game."
"Deron was right behind us and he said, 'Yeah, I want to be in the meeting too,'" Miller related. "Jerry said, 'Do you want me to just quit right now?'"
That shocked Miller and, no doubt, everybody who heard him drop the foreshadowing bombshell.
After team members went their separate ways during halftime, Miller approached Sloan and pledged his support.
"I want you to be very clear on one thing," Miller told Sloan. He continued, "If anything got to the point where we had to make a choice between a player and you as our head coach, we would side with you a hundred times out of a hundred."
"He said, 'Well, I don't know how much I have left in me,'" Miller said.
Sloan mustered the strength to return to the court and coach the rest of a game the Jazz lost 93-89 to the Bulls.
The conversation continued in the coaches office after the game (while media waited and waited for about an hour, not knowing what was going on behind the scenes).
Miller tried to convince Sloan to "muscle through" the rough times — but to no avail.
"He said, 'You know, Greg, I'm going to be 70 years old. … I've been at this a long time and there's nothing left in the tank. I think I'm done."
Miller responded, "Jerry, c'mon. I understand … "
Sloan cut him off. "I'm serious. I'm out of gas."
Miller tried to convince him to coach the rest of the season — or at least through the upcoming All-Star break.
"You're not hearing me," Sloan told Miller. "I'm out of gas."
Miller eventually got Sloan to agree to contemplate his decision overnight after telling him that the Jazz would have a "PR nightmare" to deal with if he quit midseason.
"We are going to have a very, very difficult time managing (that). It's not going to reflect well on the franchise," Miller told Sloan. "That stopped him in his tracks."
Miller was hopeful Sloan would reconsider his decision after sleeping on it and talking through things the following morning. The Jazz set a meeting for 11 a.m.
But news broke before that even began. Sloan's tank was on "E."
"Going into the meeting I was convinced that I was going to turn him around," Miller said. "He came in and he just said, 'I stand by what I said last night.' And we were done."
Jazz owner Gail Miller also pleaded with Sloan to reconsider resigning, but the coach's mind was made up. Assistant Phil Johnson, who'd been promised the job if Sloan ever left, resigned with his longtime coaching partner.
"We had to respect Jerry. He's a professional. He'd given us 23 great years and you can't hold somebody there against their will," said Miller, who admitted to being upset but not in a position to do anything but accept the decision. "As difficult as it was, we had to let him go. I had to say, 'OK. I respect you. Good luck.'"
Jazz brass was then put in the unexpected position of quickly replacing the man who had coached the organization to two NBA Finals and had won 1,127 games in Utah dating back to 1988.
Miller went into what he called "mental survival mode," but he knew that the Jazz needed "franchise continuity" with Sloan's successor. Miller said the "best candidate" was clear to the organization's top executives: Corbin, who had been Sloan's assistant for seven years and previously played for Utah.
Twenty-eight months later, Miller and Sloan are happy to have been reunited, albeit under different circumstances than in 2011.
"My observation is that he is very glad to be back with us in that official capacity," Miller said. "There were a lot of smiles."
Miller also addressed the trade that took place less than two weeks later when Williams was shipped off to New Jersey in exchange for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, two first-round picks and $3 million.
"They were very separate," Miller said. "We just wanted to control our destiny."
In fact, Miller said he had the same reaction as media and fans when then-general manager Kevin O'Connor told him about the blockbuster deal the morning it went down. His response: "You want to what!?"
And about that rumor that Gail Miller was so upset at Williams for his role in Sloan's resignation that she forced the trade?
Greg Miller laughed and denied that.
"My mom loves everyone," he said.
The Jazz maintain that they weren't sure whether Williams would stick around the organization in 2012 when his contract was up, so they were proactive about ensuring that they weren't left high and dry if he did choose to go to a bigger market. Miller said the Jazz are where they thought they'd be at this point after getting rid of a franchise cornerstone.
"It made sense for the long-term well-being of the franchise," Miller said. "So we made the tough decision."
That's one thing Miller has shown he's been willing to do at the helm of the LHM Group of Companies, even more than his successful father.
In his first year as CEO of the large organization, the younger Miller cut $29 million in expenses, including making the decision to close his father's beloved Mayan restaurant (saved $3.1 million) as well as selling a Subaru dealership and laying off several long-tenured employees with big salaries.
Miller doesn't like to think about what might have happened had cost-saving measures not been taken, even admitting, "We may not have survived."
Five years later, Miller continues his dad's philosophy of making sure the family's assets and companies "are used to enrich the lives of people they touch." From their movie theaters, to the track in Tooele, to Spring Mobile Ballpark and EnergySolutions Arena, the Millers are proud that their businesses "make communities better."
They vow to continue doing that with the "stewardship" they feel they have in terms of the community and its NBA team. That's why they agreed to purchase a massive state-of-the-art video scoreboard as part of $15 million in arena renovations. It's why they agreed, upon new GM Dennis Lindsey's recommendation, to spend more money on scouting. It's why they're planning on surrounding Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Co. with pieces that they hope will blossom into a championship contender.
"We as a family," Miller said, "are committed to making this franchise as best as it can be on all fronts."
Miller re-confirmed that his family wouldn't be tempted to sell the team for big bucks (like the $741 million on the table to move the Kings from Sacramento to Seattle). His family is willing to spend money on good players "if it can help us win." He's "as big of a fan as anybody," even if it doesn't show through his even-keeled demeanor.
"We're down in the bedrock. We know what we have to work with," the optimistic Miller said. "We have a solid foundation, and I'm very excited about our future."
This media meeting was much more than just Miller's take on the Jazz, though.
With remarkable detail, Miller explained how he met Heidi, his wife of 27 years, while "cruising State" in a red Toyota truck. He even rattled off the phone number she gave him — he still has the sticky note — from a root-beer-colored Mustang. It wasn't until the second time they met while going northbound on State Street that their relationship took off.
Miller told about his first job as a 13-year-old when his dad had him sweep rocks off the lot at the family's first car dealership in Murray.
He showed valuable notebooks — one of which he keeps in a fireproof safe — from the now-legendary "Family Council Meetings" his father began in 2000 to impart his life's wisdom and work strategies on his heirs.
The 47-year-old spoke of his occasionally frustrating relationship with his workaholic father, of leaving the family business to start his own company and then returning as the "Prodigal Son," of finally earning his dad's trust and being given more responsibility, including the task of running the Miller Motorsports Park when it first opened in 2006.
That chain of events led to Miller being named CEO of the LHM empire five years ago. He recalled that his dad — from his hospital bed — told him and other executives on a conference call, "You collectively are in charge of my life's work. Don't screw it up."
It appears they're doing the opposite.
Gail Miller, since remarried, continues her late husband's philanthropic efforts and was called "the benevolent one" by her son.
Since Greg Miller took over as CEO, the multibillion-dollar companies have steadily increased profits and revenue margins on an annual basis, including a best-ever year in 2012. The auto dealerships are projected to sell 93,000 cars this year. Prestige Financial has $600 million in receivables. LHM obtained a massive $320 million securitization on Wall Street. The Millers have split their organization up into six properties with infrastructure for future expansion if so desired.
Even while spearheading all that success on the business front, Miller, more of an administrator and delegator than an entrepreneur and hands-on micromanager like his dad, has managed to be a family man. He learned from his father's costliest mistake — spending too much time on work instead of taking better care of his health and having more family time.
"This organization in a very real way cost my dad his life," Miller admitted about Larry H. Miller, who died of diabetes-related complications at 64 years old. "I won't let that happen."
Sure, his work schedule is packed like any CEO's. But he takes his children on some business trips, and carves out chunks of time for hikes, Land Cruiser adventures and birthday parties, among other activities with his wife, six children and four grandkids. He's even moving to the city to better optimize the time he spends driving to the arena and the airport from his home in the southern part of Salt Lake Valley.
"There's nothing I love more," Miller said, "than being with my family — unless it's adventure travel with my family."