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Basketball has taken McMillan to Final Four, Kuwait and SRJC

Santa Rosa Junior College men’s basketball coach Craig McMillan has reached unique pinnacles in his sport.

As a player, he led Cloverdale High School to state championships in 1983 and 1984 and starred for the University of Arizona in a run to the Final Four in 1988.

As a coach, he guided the Bear Cubs to a California community college championship in 2014.

McMillan, 54, has a record of 425-196 in his 20 years at the helm of the SRJC program. He has built one of the most respected community college basketball programs in the state, one that competes with teams from much larger metropolitan areas. He said he plans to finish his coaching career with the Bear Cubs.

“SRJC has been a great place to work. I have been really fortunate to have a lot of support from local high school coaches and good players in the area,” McMillan said. “It helps to have fans. Junior college basketball in California does not draw well, but we draw better than average. A lot of areas look down on junior colleges but not in Santa Rosa. This school is really respected.”

McMillan grew up playing ball as a kid in his hometown of Cloverdale under the tutelage of his father, John, who was the head coach of the Eagles for 24 years. McMillan, a 6-foot-6, 190-pound guard, combined with several other homegrown stars, including Craig Bergman, to light up the gym in Cloverdale and win the Division 3 NorCal championship (prior to state titles) in 1982. In McMillan’s junior and senior seasons (1983 and 1984), the Eagles won the first two California state titles in Division 3.

“Cloverdale has always had great sports teams. We played basketball growing up together,” McMillan said of his Eagles teammates. “It was a good run that we had.”

When McMillan graduated from Cloverdale in 1984, the Eagles had won 48 straight games. He finished with a 25-points-per-game average his senior year and was heavily recruited by Arizona, UCLA, Stanford and Idaho. He chose to play on a four-year scholarship for legendary Arizona coach Lute Olson.

“Lute sold me on the fact that the program was getting turned around,” McMillan said. “Lute was a great guy to play for. He demanded people play unselfishly and be held accountable. He was tough. A lot of guys at Arizona were successful in life from the discipline that you learned in the program.”

McMillan cracked the starting Wildcats lineup as a shooting guard late in his freshman year and was a starter his final three years. McMillan played with a cadre of star teammates (Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Tom Tolbert, Anthony Cook, Jed Buechler, Kenny Lofton and Joe Turner) and was a big part of the team that went to the Final Four in 1988 and lost to top-ranked ranked Oklahoma.

McMillan averaged 9 points per game at Arizona and was 12th on the school’s all-time scoring list when his Wildcats career ended.

“My height made up for my lack of speed,” he joked.

McMillan wanted to play professionally but that opportunity never materialized.

“I was on the Pistons for the NBA summer league, but they didn’t really look at me. I realized I wasn’t getting a serious look. I was looking at playing in Portugal, but it fell through,” McMillan said. “My goal was always to make the NBA and I didn’t do that, but I also always wanted to coach.”

After graduating from Arizona in 1989 with a degree in economics, McMillan spent seven years as an assistant coach to Kevin O’Neill at Marquette (1989-94, where he also earned an MA in Sociology in 1991), and Tennessee (1994-96). After the second Volunteers season, McMillan decided it was time for a change.

“I didn’t want to stick with what I was doing,” McMillan said.

He took a job as a head coach for a club league team in Kuwait for three years (1996-99) and then a club league team in Lebanon for a year (1999-20). His first son, John, was born in Kuwait and his second son, Jason, was born in Santa Rosa while he was in Lebanon. His family spent time with him in both locations.

“It was right after the Gulf War, so Kuwaitis liked Americans a lot. It was a lot of palm trees and sand,” McMillan said. “Lebanon is a beautiful country in a lot of ways. We had fun in both places. I didn’t plan on doing it forever. It was never a long-term plan. Overall, I am glad I had the experience.”

He heard about the SRJC coaching job from a friend, flew back to interview and landed the job in the spring of 2000, first coaching the Bear Cubs in the 2001-02 season. He earned a master’s degree in physical education in 2001 from the United Sports Academy and has also taught at SRJC in addition to coaching.

He has run successful program in his SRJC tenure, having only one losing season (2015) and missing the postseason only twice in 20 years. In the 2013-2014 season, the Bear Cubs (26-8) won the state title over San Bernardino Valley College.

“That was an amazing run. We had a team that really meshed,” McMillan said. “We were not the most talented team I have had, but they really played together and came through when they needed to.”

SRJC has won eight conference titles under McMillan, who has been named league coach of the year eight times. McMillan also runs the college’s summer basketball camp and coached both John and Jason (both 6-foot-6) as Bear Cubs.

McMillan eventually moved to Santa Rosa from Cloverdale and was renting a house in Coffey Park when the Tubbs fire broke out in 2017. McMillan escaped the fire but lost all of his possessions and mementos.

“It was an empty feeling. It was kind of emotional losing all of my stuff,” he said. “I found another house to rent; I got lucky to find a house in the McDonald Avenue area.”

The game of basketball has evolved over his 20 years at SRJC, McMillan said, and so has his strategy and offensive and defensive sets.

“The game of basketball has changed to spread the floor more. We have a read-and-react motion offense. We attack the basket more than we used to, instead of going inside out,” he said. “We don’t play zone defense. A lot of teams do, but we play mostly man defense.”

McMillan said weightlifting has become a bigger part of his conditioning program for players as referees allow more physical play in the paint. However, he said most of the conditioning is still on the basketball court.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bear Cubs’ 2019-20 season ended abruptly right before the state playoffs. The Bear Cubs finished their incomplete season at 23-7.

McMillan said he has not seen his players since the day in March when the season was canceled. His sophomores have moved on and he is focusing on rebuilding the team, a tall order in the era of COVID-19.

“I am not doing much recruiting right now. I am giving our players stuff to do (virtually),” McMillan said. “I’m hoping it is back to normal soon. I haven’t been on campus since March.”

In recruiting, he targets players who have a good attitude, know how to shoot and have significant athletic ability. He said he doesn’t usually recruit high-risk players even though junior colleges are sometimes the last stop for players who have run into trouble.

“I had to let a few high-risk guys go early in my career. I learned lessons from my mistakes,” McMillan said. “I try and encourage guys to set their goals high. Most of the guys that come here are realistic about their goals.”

McMillan has never had a former player make the NBA, but he has had over a dozen former players go on to NCAA Division I teams and more than 25 play abroad. He has also mentored numerous players that have become local coaches at high schools like Petaluma, Cardinal Newman and Montgomery.

“I am in touch with a lot of my former players. When you coach as long as I have, you have a lot of former players,” McMillan said.

McMillan said he likely will coach about another decade and plans to finish his career running the Bear Cubs program.

“I kind of considered looking into coaching a four-year school (earlier in his career), but that is not a goal now,” he said of his vision for his last decade at SRJC. “I want to have successful teams and have guys graduate and move on to four-year schools.”

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