One of the most successful teams at Florida Gulf Coast University is a squad whose production always is in full view, even though its members don’t actually compete before thousands of fans — and generally aren’t even noticed.
These Eagles don’t have the ASUN Conference championships that Coach Karl Smesko and his women’s basketball team own, or the combined 1,200 victories that coaches Dave Tollett and David Deiros have led in baseball and softball, respectively. What they do have is respect and appreciation from FGCU teams, opponents and spectators who visit The Nest. And make no mistake: This under-the-radar FGCU team behind the teams is responsible in many ways for the overall success that is the standard for Eagle athletics.
The head coach of this little-seen, little-known, little-heralded, but highly successful and respected FGCU team is Associate Athletics Director for Facilities and Operations Mike Miller. His players are six full-time staff members under his charge and a roster of up to 60 students who every day work to make the fields, floors and courts upon which the university’s 15 teams practice and compete among the best — if not the very best — venues in the ASUN Conference and beyond.
So, when softball coach Deiros points out that FGCU Athletics Director Ken Kavanagh likes to refer to the sports program as the “front door of the university,” and that his softball team and others representing the Green and Blue are “fantastic greeters,” he might also have added that once the guests have been greeted, they are seated in some of the most beautiful competition venues in collegiate sports.
“We practice and play at one of the best facilities in the country,” Deiros said. “This isn’t just us talking — we hear it from our visitors all the time. We couldn’t have what we have without the tireless work of Mike and his grounds and facilities staff. Mike combines a great vision for what our facilities should be with a work ethic unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met.”
For his part, Miller likes to throw a lot of the credit for FGCU’s athletics facilities back at Deiros and his coaching peers. “They deserve a lot of the credit,” Miller said. “They put a lot of themselves into this place … fundraising to add new elements to the fields and stadiums, laying the groundwork for what our facilities are now. I see my relationship with each coach as important, and everyone is different. You just have to learn how they want to approach things, what’s most important to them, and once you develop that relationship, you’ll get an honest assessment from them.”
Miller also talks about the “great partnerships” his team has with other teams at the university, such as Physical Plant, Campus Recreation and University Police staff. “We try not to bog them down with our smaller stuff, because there’s a whole different dynamic in athletics with different working hours, so we try to do as much as we can with our staff,” Miller said. “But we couldn’t do it without the great working relationships we have around campus.”
Miller also is quick to point out he couldn’t do his job as the figurative head coach of the Facilities and Operations team as well as he does without his “assistant coaches,” if you will: Tyler Keegan and Nick Reeves, the assistant directors; Dane Mehling, coordinator; and David Johnson, assistant grounds superintendent.
“We can’t really control the amount of resources we have, but we can control how we operate, how we approach projects, how we can be proactive,” Miller said.
And when you go about business the right way, people will notice — something Miller learned at the University of Florida, where he earned bachelor’s (2008) and master’s (2010) degrees in sport management, worked for the UF Athletic Association in a variety of roles and became head manager of the Gator baseball program. He also did an internship in 2008 with facilities and operations, which planted the seeds for his current job. Eventually, he would come to FGCU in 2011 as event manager, and was promoted to director of facilities and operations the next year before ascending to assistant athletics director in 2016 and associate AD in 2018.
“I want to be known as the school that has the best operation — the place that when other teams and visitors come here, they go back home and tell their operations people how we do it here,” said Miller, who loves hosting ASUN Conference championship events for that reason. He says that conference affiliates such as Liberty and Lipscomb also have excellent athletics facilities, but he has no doubt that FGCU’s “compete at the top end of the conference.”
Visit Miller’s office just off the lobby of Alico Arena and you certainly see evidence of what Deiros described earlier as “tireless work,” “great vision” and “work ethic unmatched.” There are piles of paperwork in and out of folders framing boxes of baseballs stacked in a corner, but such is the constructive clutter created when you are the guy in charge of staging several hundred exhibition, regular-season and tournament athletic contests on campus each academic year, keeping the facilities practice-ready every day for every team, and setting up and breaking down Alico Arena for special events such as commencement, conventions and fundraisers.
It usually goes like clockwork, because “professionalism is very important to me,” Miller said. There are intricate seating diagrams and detailed checklists for every game and event. Setup generally begins the night before an event once team practices are over. With a men’s basketball game, for instance, Miller’s team will start blocking off parking about 11 p.m., then do a walkthrough the next morning between 6 and 7 a.m. and finish the operations plan for the game. The entire staff meets around 9 or 10 a.m. to make sure everyone is on the same page, and the rest of the day is getting ready for tipoff. During the game, up to 16 students will work the parking lots while up to 25 volunteer ushers will tend to guests, while six other students help whatever UPD presence is there with security. After the game is over, the crew goes into breakdown mode and normal post-event procedures to start the process for whatever event is next.
Miller recalls one particularly challenging Alico Arena conversion in 2016. “Our women’s basketball team made it to the semifinal of the WNIT here against Michigan, and we had a Community Associations Institute trade show scheduled the same day,” he said. “The trade show finished at about 3, so we had to get up the mats (the protective coverings over the wood basketball floor) and get ready for the game in a few hours. As soon as the game was over, we had to push all the bleachers in, get the mats back down and get ready for a dance marathon the next day.”
For outdoor sports, the Facilities and Operations team will mow the grass every day during season — sometimes twice on game days to get those beautiful pattern markings in the turf — and line the fields. “But the most maintenance is on the infield skin (the clay or dirt area) in baseball and softball,” Miller said. “It’s a lot of detail work.”
What makes the job even more challenging for Miller’s team is the fact that without extra regulation-size fields and courts for Eagle teams to use, FGCU’s playing surfaces must hold up to the rigors of daily practices, yet always be at their best on game days and nights.
But all the work is worth it to Miller, for one main reason. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the student-athletes having a good experience here,” he said. “We want to make sure we have facilities they can be proud of.”