The rules were pretty basic in the Lafayette, Indiana, home of Cliff and Tricia Muller. They were not posted on a wall or recited each night at the dinner table. Their four sons simply knew them by heart.
They were the cornerstones of a family built on love more than money. Follow them and you got along fine, regardless the situation.
Son No. 2 recalls learning them at “an early age.” At 36, Dan Muller ’98 still can rattle them off without hesitation.
“Do the best you can and treat people the right way,” Illinois State University’s first-year men’s head basketball coach said.
Is that it?
Not quite. Mom and Dad had one more requisite for living under their roof.
“That God gave us certain talents, and it was our responsibility to use those talents,” Muller said.
It is all so simple, familiar. Who hasn’t been told to do the best you can, treat people right, take advantage of your God-given ability?
The secret to Dan Muller’s success—as a student, player and coach—is no secret at all. He just followed the rules more diligently and unconditionally than most.
Muller arrived at Illinois State in the fall of 1994 as nervous and unsure as any freshman. He wasn’t thinking about becoming a Bone Scholar, or being in the starting lineup from the opening game of his college basketball career.
“It wasn’t a goal of mine to start. It wasn’t a goal of mine to average a certain amount of points,” Muller said. “I really just wanted to do that best I could, and I’d be fine with whatever.”
Do the best you can. Not tomorrow or in two weeks or somewhere down the road, but every day. A lot of people aspire to that mindset. Muller had it ingrained in him.
It drove him to become a better student in college than he was at Lafayette Central Catholic High School. Mom and Dad weren’t around to remind him anymore. It was all on him, and time to find out what his “best” truly was.
“You get there in the fall and you just worry,” Muller said of being a freshman. “It’s college and you want to do your best. As time went on I was just way more motivated because it was about me.
“I had a semester of really good grades and then another semester. After that, it kind of just snowballed. It was like, ‘All right, I might as well keep it up.’ The bar was raised and stayed up there.”
Turned out it was historically high. Muller is the only Redbird men’s basketball player to become a Bone Scholar, ISU’s highest academic honor. He also was a two-time GTE Academic All-American and received the NCAA’s Post-Graduate Scholarship. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership.
“Education was something that was important in our family,” Muller said. “It wasn’t something that was like ‘every day hammer it home’ with my parents. I had the foundation with the schools I’d attended and I had the intelligence, but I started to take more pride in it when I got here.”
God had supplied the ability. Muller’s responsibility was to use it. No need for Mom and Dad to tell him. The voice in his head was loud and clear. It got him through a lot at ISU, on the court as much as anywhere.
Muller’s 1,445 career points rank 10th in school history. He led the Redbirds to a 91-37 record while making 128 straight starts, still a school record. He was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the Valley Tournament as a senior.
ISU won back-to-back MVC regular-season and tournament titles his final two years, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament both seasons. The Redbirds have not been back since.
Look at all that and it would appear Muller’s playing career was smooth sailing. He will tell you otherwise. Muller was among eight new players on then-ISU head coach Kevin Stallings’ roster in 1994. Stallings was entering his second season and eager to establish a culture with so many new faces.
“It was hard,” Muller said. “Coach Stallings was very intense. It was not just your ordinary intensity, but even more with our team because Coach knew how important it was to build toughness, build togetherness.
“There are a lot of groups that can’t handle that. We had a group that could handle it. That can get you through a lot of hard things if you stay together. Coach certainly knew how to get the best out of us.”
The payoff was NIT berths in Muller’s first two years. They were followed by 24-6 and 25-6 NCAA Tournament campaigns the next two seasons. All the while, Stallings kept the heat on. There was nothing smooth or easy about it.
“He was very demanding, very hard to play for at times,” Muller said. “There were a lot of times we didn’t like him, and he knows that. But we trusted him, we knew he loved us, and we knew he had our backs.
“Even in the times we didn’t like him, we knew those things. We didn’t want to admit it, but we did always trust him. Even if we didn’t agree with the beatdowns he was giving us, and we would complain to each other about it, deep down we knew it’s what we needed, it’s what we deserved, it was going to win us championships.”
Muller spent the past 12 years coaching under Stallings at Vanderbilt, helping the Commodores to six NCAA Tournament berths and two Sweet Sixteen appearances. He knew of Stallings years earlier, prior to being recruited by him.
Stallings played and later was an assistant coach at Purdue, the hometown team when you live in Lafayette. Cliff Muller is a Purdue grad. He and his sons were “huge, huge Purdue fans,” Muller said.
The dream initially was to play there, and the Boilermakers recruited the 6-foot-6 Muller in high school despite a knee injury that required surgery following his junior year. It never reached the point of a scholarship offer.
Stallings began an all-out pursuit of Muller in February of 1994, and signed him to a national letter of intent in April.
Now Muller is settled into Stallings’ former Redbird Arena office, intent on returning ISU to the top of the Missouri Valley and the NCAA Tournament. He has a clear vision for the program he seeks to build, beyond what happens on the court.
It starts with every player getting a degree. It also includes getting out in the community, creating a “great connection with Bloomington-Normal.”
Muller sees the basketball program as “the front porch of the University,” adding, “We’re the best way for free marketing for the University. That’s a responsibility I look forward to doing a good job with and embracing,” he said.
Then there is the basketball side. His expectations are high.
“I want to win championships,” said Muller, who bolstered the Redbirds’ schedule by adding competitions against Dayton and Louisville to the 2012-2013 season within days of his arrival.
“I want this experience for our players to be an unbelievable college experience. The only way to do that is to win. To create the best experience you can create, you have to do things the right way and win…win championships and play in the postseason.”
Muller scored the winning basket in ISU’s last NCAA win, an 82-81 overtime victory over Tennessee in 1998. He won’t talk about that or much else from his playing days with the current players.
This is their time, and Muller said he won’t ask any more of them than he asked of himself as a player.
“I also won’t ask them for more than I’m doing as a coach, or what my staff is doing,” Muller said. “We’re going to work extremely hard. We’re going to treat people the right way. We’re going to coach with toughness. We’re going to play with toughness.
“We’re going to have good sportsmanship. We’re going to respect people and we’re going to compete. Every program has a culture. The head coach obviously defines that culture. There’s no job too small for me. I truly believe that and that will never change. We’re going to do what it takes the right way and do what it takes to be successful.”
The rules will be simple. Do the best you can, treat people right, make the most of your God-given gifts.
It’s the Muller way.
WATCH MULLER’S TEAM IN ACTION
Redbird Arena has been energized by the return of Dan Muller as the men’s basketball team head coach. With most of the season still to come, there is plenty of time for alumni to share in the excitement!
The season’s schedule is available at GoRedbirds.com, including information about which games will be televised. Tickets can be purchased from the webpage, or by calling (309) 438-8000.
Fans unable to see the game in person can still follow the action. A link on the Web page makes it possible to listen to live coverage, or go to WJBC.com. Updates are also available with the mobile app .
THE PLAYER YEARS
1995: Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Freshman of the Year
1995; 1996: Two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year
1997: First Illinois State student-athlete to receive the athlete of the year and scholar-athlete of the year awards in the same year
1998: MVC Tournament MVP and four-time letterwinner
1998: Finished with 81 career double-digit scoring games and 204 3-point shots; two-time GTE Academic All-American and recipient of the NCAA’s Post-Graduate Scholarship.
1998–2000: Played professionally for two years, including with the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies.
2009: Inducted into ISU Athletics Percy Family Hall of Fame
THE COACHING YEARS
2000–2012: Assistant at Vanderbilt under former ISU coach Kevin Stallings.
Took over as Vanderbilt’s recruiting coordinator in 2006; built the highest-rated recruiting classes in school’s history.
Vanderbilt tallied seven 20-win seasons during Muller’s years on the coaching staff and six NCAA tournament appearances.
The school had a 100 percent senior graduation rate in college basketball under Muller’s watch as director of player academics.
Named by FoxSports.com in 2010-2011 as one of the top two men’s assistant basketball coaches in the SEC, as voted on by coaches in the league.
Named Illinois State head men’s basketball coach in May 2012.