Oral Roberts' Sweet 16 run is coach's favorite movie come to life

Pete Thamel
·9 min read

The night before No. 15 Oral Roberts pulled off the most stunning win of the 2021 NCAA tournament, coach Paul Mills pulled his laptop out and flipped on the movie "Hoosiers." In his life, Mills swears he’s watched the movie more than 1,000 times.

During his time as an assistant coach at Baylor, Mills so frequently watched "Hoosiers" that coach Scott Drew would have him deliver lines on the team bus and then play the scenes to test his accuracy.

“Literally, you can pause it at any time in the movie and he’ll give you the next 10 lines in a row,” Drew said with a laugh. “He has it memorized.”

Never in NCAA tournament history has the coach of an underdog been so diligently auditioning for his moment. In an NCAA tournament that’s been played exclusively in Indiana, Mills’ team has stolen the national spotlight with upsets of No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Florida to become just the second No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.

Mills’ favorite line from the movie about a small-school team of Indiana upstarts merges his childhood as the son of a pastor with his professional life’s obsession with basketball. As the underdog character Ollie is preparing to attempt clutch free throws, the coach played by Gene Hackman sees the team’s most religious player, Strap, blessing Ollie before he goes to the line. Hack says sternly about the prayer: “Make it a good one, Strap."

Oral Roberts, the school flanked on campus by the world’s largest praying hands, has found the right prayers this tournament. The Golden Eagles finished fourth in the low-profile Summit League this season, but will find themselves among the final 16 teams playing when they face No. 3 Arkansas for a spot in the Elite Eight.

Paul Mills and Oral Roberts' run to the Sweet 16 embodies the underdog spirit of
Paul Mills and Oral Roberts' run to the Sweet 16 embodies the underdog spirit of "Hooosiers," which is Mills' favorite film. (Photo by Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The unassuming Mills’ career path has wound here through three jobs that required pay cuts to move up in the profession. He once painted 1,261 bleacher steps to help nab his first college job and later gave away his car to a woman he’d never met but drove by each day at a bus stop.

Mills is religious enough that he earned a Master's last year from Dallas Theological Seminary. He’s also fiery enough he once almost fought Kevin Bacon in a Las Vegas barbershop, ordering the person cutting his hair to “Untie my cape!” (They never did come to blows.)

After years of toiling in obscurity, Mills, 48, has found sudden fame with an irresistible out-of-nowhere plot line. While America ponders how far Oral Roberts can go, those who know Mills best look back in appreciation of how far he’s come.

Oral Roberts' overachieving courses through its coach

Paul Mills grew up the son of a pastor in the inner-city Aldine area of Houston. His family lived in the home known as a parsonage that’s attached the church where his father preached, and he recalled them being one of the few white families in his neighborhood.

He was obsessed with Michael Jordan, riding his bike every day to play basketball at nearby Lauder Park. The park had six goals with chain nets, the courts enveloped by a covering to combat the searing Texas heat. He grew up on the age-old Darwinian method of learning to win to avoid waiting two more hours for the next game.

Mills stands around 5-foot-8, but shot the ball well enough and practiced hard enough that he made the team at MacArthur High School in Houston. His coach, Walt Kaser, said that he remembers Mills being the last white player he coached. (Mills’ close friend, North Florida coach Matt Driscoll, says that Mills would check back at MacArthur High occasionally to see if this was true so he could use the line in recruiting.)

Kaser told Yahoo Sports he could instantly tell that Mills would be a coach, and he found an immediate role model. Mills’ mother pulled aside Kaser once after practice and said, “My son thinks you hung the moon.” Mills was good enough to earn an NAIA scholarship to Southern Nazarene in Bethany, Oklahoma, but was far from a star.

Mills recalls suiting up just one game in his college career in 1990-91. That fall, Mills cracked a vertebra while diving for a loose ball in practice. His lower back landed on a concrete step, and a doctor soon declared his career was over. “I knew it right away, I couldn’t walk,” Mills said. “When the doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to play again, I was in full-fledged tears.”

The back still bothers Mills, especially when he’s scouting AAU events. It’s part of the reason you’ll never see him sit during a game. He transferred to Texas A&M to be closer to home, majored in finance and would occasionally sneak into the upper deck and watch A&M’s practices. (He remembers a young assistant named Porter Moser catching his eyes.)

Mills graduated and soon got a job as a bond analyst for American Bank. He made $80,000 a year – good money in the 1990s – and married his wife Wendy, who he has known since seventh grade.

Mills grinds up coaching ladder: 'You just keep going backwards'

But Mills couldn’t shake basketball, as he began coaching at North Belt Christian Academy. He would work at the bank until 4 p.m., drive across town and then return to the bank at night to finish any more work.

After three years of doing that, Mills began discussing coaching full-time. Faith is important to the Mills family, so he and his wife prayed about it. “My phone rings immediately after I say, ‘Amen,’” he said.

The athletic director at Fort Bend Baptist was on the other line and offered him the full-time job there. “I never applied,” Mills said. “To this day, I don’t know who told her to hire me.”

That required a pay cut to teach math and coach, which he said paid $12,000 per year. After three years, he led a team to the state Final Four and couldn’t ever envision returning to conventional work. “I just loved it,” he said. "That’s all I ever wanted to do.”

And that’s why Mills took another pay cut to coach at Rice, where he was a volunteer assistant who made a $2,000 stipend for painting the 1,261 steps in the bleachers in the basketball arena. When then-Rice coach Willis Wilson told him how much he’d make, Mills had one question: “Do I get to sit on the bench?”

Wendy Mills had a few more questions. He recalls her asking: “Is that how this works? You just keep going backwards.”

Former Rice assistant Todd Smith recalls the smell of paint filling the office they shared. Mills’ enthusiasm was so extreme that he beat Smith to the office every morning and stayed past him so consistently that Smith just gave Mills his set of keys.

Once of Rice’s early season games that year came at Stanford, and Mills was so enthralled by traveling with the team and coaching in that environment he knew this was exactly what he wanted to do. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he said. “I was hooked.”

Oral Roberts is benefiting from Paul Mills' grind up the coaching ladder. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)
Oral Roberts is benefiting from Paul Mills' grind up the coaching ladder. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

He soon hooked on with Drew at Baylor after a chance meeting at a clinic. Drew came from Valparaiso to resurrect the Baylor program from the ashes of the scandal under former coach Dave Bliss. Mills’ ties in the state intrigued Drew, who eventually drew him to campus to talk about an operations position.

“What do you make there at Rice?” Drew asked.

“I said around $20,000,” Mills replied. He then laughed. “My definition of around is plus or minus $18,000.”

Mills got there to visit and recalled long-time NBA player C.J. Miles being on campus. “This guy has only been on the job for a week and he’s already got the No. 1 player in the country here,” Mills said. “I was super impressed.”

The former Baylor staff members recall Mills' conviction — for players, to recruiting and even the smallest task. He wore trendy watches, the flashiest Jordans, played Xbox, bought the latest cell phone and listened to hip-hop to be able to connect with recruits.

After six seasons in operations, Mills got promoted to assistant coach when Driscoll left for North Florida. That meant Mills inheriting Driscoll’s courtesy car, a Chrysler 300. And it meant that Mills didn’t need his Honda Accord, which he gave to a woman he’d never met who he’d drive by every day and see waiting at a bus stop. “He just stopped one day and gave her the car,” Driscoll said. “She actually made him go to her house and explain it to her family.”

Mills, Oral Roberts ready for more 'Hoosiers' moments

It’s fitting that Mills’ final climb up the coaching ladder included a final pay cut to take the Oral Roberts head job in 2017. He brought in nine players in his first recruiting class, including beating Nevada for a forward from Houston named Kevin Obanor. And the next year he found a wisp of a point guard, Max Abmas, a 6-foot off-ball shooter who weighed about 135 pounds as a high school junior.

Abmas led the nation in scoring this year at 24.5 points per game, and he and Obanor are the country’s most potent duo. That’s extended to the NCAAs, where Obanor torched both OSU and Florida to average 29 points in the tournament.

It’s easy to see how ORU has taken on its coach’s personality, as there’s a nonchalance about ORU still being around after the first weekend. North Texas coach Grant McCasland ran into Mills in the hotel prior to both ORU games, and he spoke openly about winning with his trademark conviction. “He was 100 percent convinced they were going to win,” he said.

That’s a confidence built when preparation meets movie selection. Oral Roberts’ next chance to scream “Hickory” in Indiana comes on Saturday. (Sadly, not at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where parts of "Hoosiers" were filmed.)

You can be sure what Paul Mills will be watching to prepare. And you can be sure who he’s certain will pull another upset.

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