By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - When the Arizona Wildcats announced a $1 million gift from Steve Kerr and his wife this week, it was appropriate and without surprise that the press release included the words "A Player's Program."
That phrase is now a distinctive brand in college basketball - it is uniquely UA.
They are words that speak to recruits, as well as to all the talented basketball alums that have an open door to Sean Miller's program. And Miller is no dummy. It never hurts to have famous NBA millionaires stopping by at practice, visiting in the locker room, dispensing advice to the players ... and taking out their checkbooks.
With the Wildcats at the dawn of a new basketball golden age - the Cats have knocked hard on the door to the Final Four twice in the past four seasons and debuted at No. 2 Thursday in the preseason coaches' poll - Miller has simultaneously put his stamp on the program while preserving all the links to the past.
Miller got it right from the very start. It didn't take him minutes, it took him seconds.
As he entered onto the McKale Center court in April 2009 for his introductory press conference at Arizona, he, naturally, began walking to the interview table at an impromptu press area. Before he got there, he made a quick right turn.
That's where Lute Olson was sitting.
The coaches spoke briefly and exchanged a light embrace ... and just like that, Miller let it be known that the Wildcats' past was also going to be its present and future. Miller would embrace everything about Arizona's history while forging his own identity. The two concepts were not mutually exclusive.
During his opening comments that day, he turned to Olson and said: "Before I even thank the appropriate people, I want to make sure I thank Coach Olson for being here at this press conference. It means the world to me."
That was the prelude to what has become Miller's philosophy that arches over the entirety of Arizona basketball: A Player's Program.
"It's unbelievable what he's done," former guard Matt Othick, whose UA career ended in 1992, said in an interview this spring.
"He has brought all the players back to U of A. It's not just that we're winning again; it's more than that. He makes you feel like you're wanted there."
Othick, who visited Tucson and spent time with the Wildcats leading up to the Arizona State game last season, said he was as impressed with the detail of an Arizona practice as he was with Miller's hospitality.
"He made me feel like I was an NBA all-star when I walked in," Othick said.
"He gets it. I don't know any other way to describe it. I feel so connected to the university again, and there were a few years there where I didn't feel connected at all. I was still rooting for the team - I bleed blue and red - but I did not feel connected at all. He has done an amazing job. He really has."
It's obviously not just about the money, but the gift from Steve and Margot Kerr, in support of on-going McKale Center renovation, follows a donation of $800,000 earlier this year from ex-Wildcat George Rountree, who played in the 1950s and has previously donated to the university. Back in 2007, before Miller arrived, Richard Jefferson's gift of $3.5 million kick-started the funding for the dedicated basketball facility that bears his name adjacent to McKale Center.
In fundraising, it's sometimes a case of it's easier to get the next donation when somebody already has paved the way.
"I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Steve and Margot for their incredible generosity and continued support of our program," Miller said in a statement. "Steve's basketball career is extraordinary on so many levels. However, his qualities as a person and the qualities of his family are equally exemplary. Today's gift epitomizes the reasons that we take so much pride in referring to Arizona basketball as 'A Player's Program.'"
The beat goes on. Miller is working on his fifth consecutive top five recruiting class. Some of those committed players, as well as recruiting targets, will be in attendance for Saturday's Red-Blue Game at McKale Center to see A Player's Program in action.
The motto began to become popular in 2011. During a minor renovation of McKale Center, Arizona splashed its alluring basketball history in the hallways leading to the basketball office: All-Americans. Wildcats in the NBA. Trophy presentations. Panoramic views of McKale Center.
And the message posted near the players' entrance to the court: "A Player's Program. Past. Current. Future."
Arizona also uses those words - "A Player's Program" - at the top of every men's basketball press release. Even the official Twitter handle of Arizona basketball is @APlayersProgram, and those words are often used as a hashtag and to headline YouTube videos.
"What it means to me is we have the strongest family of basketball players and people in the United States," said center A.J. Bramlett, a starter on Arizona's 1997 championship team.
"It spans across all generations of Arizona basketball, from guys I never played with like Sean Rooks or Kevin Flanagan to guys I did play with like Miles (Simon) and J.T. (Jason Terry). There's an instant bond there."
And it's getting stronger all the time.
"I have never been as emotionally invested in a team or as tied in as I was with this one," Bramlett said of last season's Wildcats. "I felt like I really knew those guys and that those guys are family. That's really the first time I felt like that about an Arizona team since I played there.
"He's done an exceptional job with the branding of the program and elevating it to where we definitely should be."
Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.