WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It takes only a few minutes of talking to Paul Mills before realizing his love for the Astros runs deep. He grew up going to games in the Astrodome and recites the names of Jose Cruz, Nolan Ryan and Craig Biggio like friends. He laments the Astros losing repeatedly to the Braves in the playoffs in the late 1990s and was on “cloud nine” when the they won the World Series in 2017.
“I still remember Mike Scott when he pitched a no-hitter to clinch the division in 1986,” he said.
Mills has created some unforgettable sports memories of his own within the last week by coaching the Oral Roberts University men’s basketball team into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The Golden Eagles became the second-ever 15 seed to make the Sweet 16, upsetting Ohio State and Florida last week. Next up is a date with Arkansas on Saturday.
“I grew up and was a much better baseball player than I was a basketball player,” he said. “I enjoyed baseball. I just loved basketball more, but I've always been a sports guy. And for all these years, watching the success [of the Astros] in ’86 and then never being able to win it. Then the Killer B’s [Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Biggio] made it to the World Series and played the White Sox in 2005. You’re like, ‘All right, this is finally going to be it.’”
As a kid, Mills was a member of the Astros Buddies club, which came with discounted tickets and other perks. As an adult, he made it a tradition to attend Opening Day, which often meant driving from Waco to Houston and back. No one in the family complained. His wife, Wendy, and daughters, Audrey and Abbey, are also huge Astros fans.
“Both of my daughters, but one in particular -- the 13-year-old -- she'll stay up and watch games with me,” Mills said. “So when she was 9, she fell in love, too. … They were indoctrinated pretty early.”
Mills, 48, was born and raised in Houston and began coaching high school basketball in 1996. He joined the staff at Rice University in 2002 and moved to Baylor in '03, becoming an assistant coach under Scott Drew in '09. ORU, which is in Tulsa, Okla., gave him his first head coaching job in '17 -- the year the Astros won the World Series.
“Because of my fandom, Christmas presents since 2017 have been nothing but Astros gear,” he said.
Former Astros owner Drayton McLane is a huge Baylor booster -- the team’s football stadium is named after him -- and made his private plane available on occasion to make sure Mills and Drew could get to Houston and cheer on the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
“I mean, just to watch their success over the years, but especially after the 100-loss seasons, is great,” he said. “I remember talking to people and everybody's just like ‘We love [Jose] Altuve.’ And then, once you got Alex [Bregman], and you had [Carlos] Correa, and [George] Springer and the big guy, [Yordan] Alvarez. It was just so fun because everybody at every position was quality, from the mound to the bullpen. It was really impressive.”
That passion for baseball, Mills said, has helped him succeed in his basketball career as well. He said “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’ book that detailed how the Oakland A’s used analytics to compete, had a huge impact on him. Analytics have become an integral part of basketball in recent years.
“There are a number of things basketball-wise I could bore you with that I found really interesting,” he said. “But it was baseball that kind of got that whole ball rolling, in my opinion, that made basketball really begin to look at it from a different perspective. There's a lot that basketball takes away from baseball, and the analytics is one of them.”
While the Astros are gearing up for the season, Mills is hoping to keep ORU’s alive for another week. His team will once again be the underdog when it faces Arkansas, a team ORU led by 12 points in the second half in the regular season but couldn’t put away.
“You can imagine how upset you are after a game like that where you feel like you couldn't really tighten some things up in order to get a win,” he said. “So, we'll be anxious to play again. Obviously for much higher stakes.”