A discussion among a group of retired tennis coaches included this question posedof a new retiree : Why did you retire so early? The amusing answer included new limitations on the amount of cursing, dress requiremrnts, shorter practices, and such. The coach laughingly concluded ” Heck, they were taking away all my main tools and techniques. Basic fundamentals of my coaching!
Subsequently, on a trip to celebrate the 80th birthday of friend Bill Morningstar, we again told old basketball tales. Which inevitably led to Bill’s college basketball coach, Bill Miller. M’star not only played point guard for Miller’s Elon College teams, he was his assistant for a record number of seasons.
Here is an earlier discription of Miller tales I collected:
Coach Miller was from Harlan, Kentucky, and he spoke that language. Around anyone from the Dean to his players. I knew him not only from the basketball world, but tennis too. AC was in the same conference as Elon (the North State, then the Carolinas Conference) and Coach and I were around each other often. I’d heard countless stories about him, and had witnessed several “classics” myself.
One pastime in my early times at Elon was to ask anyone who had been around Elon for a while if they “Knew Coach Miller?” This invariably drew one of two unequivocal responses.
#1 “I didn’t care form him.” (that meant my interview subject had probably walked across the gym floor in street shoes. If so, some variation of “Get your goddammed ass off my gym floor”, came from Coach.
Author’s note: I know I’ll be chastened for language, particularly for using Coach Miller’s, but “ if I’m lying I’m flying.” Ask any Elon veteran.
Miller was rawboned, black haired, and glared at you. His assistant Coach Bill Morningstar covered for him as best he could. Booze, language, threats, violence itself, was everyday “Miller Time.” Miller would run ‘em off, “Star would go get ‘em.
The #2 reaction I got was always priceless, and always different. Coach Miller was creative.
Once the “Fightin’ Christians” had uncharacteristically lost its first four games at home, all the while winning three straight on the road. The team was to play its next game at home. Instead of meeting at the usual 5:30 pm time for pre-game meal, Miller told Morningstar to “get their asses down here at 3 o’clock sharp. Tell them to wear their road uniforms.” Morningstar never questioned Miller. No one was more loyal.
Dressing in their team room, Miller ordered them outside into the travel vans. He and ‘Star drove both vans all over Alamance County. Then, back in the gym lot, he coached them to go get dressed, eat, and come back and play like you are “on the road.”
Elon had great teams under Coach Miller. The fans wondered what he’d do next.
Once the van stalled on the railroad tracks. Miller goosed the ignition, while admonishing, “don’t none of you bastards move.”
Grr! Grrr! Then a train whistle. Here came the Norfolk Southern, balling the jack. No one moved. Finally, moments before the 80 m.p.h. train knocked the van over a power line, Miller relented “Every man for himself.” Morningstar was in that van.
Miller cancelled a game with Campbell University and Coach Danny Roberts: “There’s a dangerous snow up here, Danny.” Really it was a snow job. Elon had four starters with the flu.
Administration, faculty, students, fellow coaches all had a Miller story. If you meet one, ask ‘em.
Perhaps my favorite was from Bill Bowes. Bowes was typical of most freshmen in the early ‘60’s. Fresh, tender, white, and about to confront his coach. At 6’7” Bill started his first game. It was home, in Alumni Gym. Packed house for rival High Point College coached by Jerry Steele, 6’9” Hall of Famer.
On his first college play Bowes said that as he battled for the rebound under High Point’s basket, he inadvertently tapped it in….for High Point.
Embarrassed, then stunned, as he saw Coach Miller bound off the bench calling “Time out,” just before grabbing Bowes in the center circle.
Miller walked his puzzled freshman center right up to Coach Steele and said “Steele, this Son of a Bitch is knocking them in for you guys. Let him sit his ass on your bench.” And plopped Bowes in to an empty chair.
One player resented being called an S.O.B. and requested a conference with Miller; telling his coach he objected to him insulting his parents. Miller paused ever so briefly, and according to Morningstar concluded. “You are right. I’ve met you parents and they are really fine people. I guess you’re a self made Son of a Bitch.”
Morningstar swears that when he and high school teammate, Chip Connors, tried out for Miller and Elon, Miller recruited them thusly: (He was in his Boxer Shorts) “Well if you two Sons of Bitches want to come to Elon, I’ll give both scholarships. If one of you only wants to come, I’ll give that Son of a Bitch a scholarship. If neither of you comes, I’ll go find me two more Sons of Bitches.” He walked out.
With my fondness for characters, I delighted in Miller at conference games, when he or I scouted, or at tennis matches.
Actually at tennis matches we rarely watched tennis. The routine went about like this if we were at Elon: He’d always give me something, a shirt, a film of a game I played in, some shoes, or something. He’d then give the balls and the scorecard to his “captain.” Miller didn’t know but one player’s name, his “captain.”
Then we’d go back to his office, or the gym and talk basketball, for a while. Then we’d ride to Huey’s BBQ for a “gratis” sandwich. We’d be in his pickup and when he finished his beer, he’d left hand the can out the driver’s window into the truck bed. It had a lot of beer cans in it.
If we played in Wilson he was trapped at the courts. One sunny March day he started taking off cloths. Got down to his pants only. I thought he was going to keep going so I asked him a question.
“Coach, did you see the All-East basketball team in Sunday’s News and Observer?”
Integration was in full bloom and Eastern NC High Schools had a particularly good crop of talent.
“You got that paper?” he asked.
“Its over at the library? Wanna go?”
I walked him over. I owed him many favors, plus I was afraid he’d strip.
The librarian at Hackney Library was Irene Harrell. She was a tough one. I asked her if she’d let us see this particular issue. “Sure” and she brought it to the reference desk.
Miller located the sports section, then the All-Star page. He simply ripped it out of the paper and walked out the door. I didn’t go in the library for a long time, and Mrs. Harrell never spoke to me again.
Miller was so colorful, people tended to look over his virtues. While intense as a coach, he was just as intense as a friend. Almost always people would cite his generosity and kindness to less fortunate community people.
Bill Morningstar said he’d use the team to pick strawberries and pass them around the town and campus. Need your swimming pool cleaned? Call Coach. Years after his departure, good deeds were revealed. Mostly when he made an attempt to be anonymous in his generosity.
I was moved to hear two incidents revealed by a former football player, Prince Deese, on his induction into the Elon Athletes Hall of Fame.
Obviously Prince was a fine young man. He did the perfunctory task of thanking his football coaches. He then told of his relationship with Miller.
Prince said he was an oddity at Elon his first year. A black kid, and very limited in ability. He only knew Miller as someone who didn’t like Blacks. He’d never met him.
One day he got a call from Coach Miller saying he’d heard Prince liked to fish. Prince agreed to meet Miller in front of his dorm, 4:30 am, the next morning. They rode to a local pond in the dark. It was very cold. Very little was said. Coach Miller lent Prince the proper tackle and they fished. Prince got his lure caught in a tree that hung out over the water. He couldn’t untangle it. And Coach Miller ignored him. Finally, Prince said, “Mr. Miller, what should I do about the lure?” Miller responded, “ Get your black ass out there and bring it back.”
Aghast Prince contemplated his options.
Before he could act, Miller stripped, shoes up to waist, waded out waist deep and threw the loosened lure back to Prince.
They fished frequently without anyone’s knowledge until now. Once, as they were coming home from a successful day, Prince felt brave. Brave enough to ask Coach Miller what he saw when he looked at Prince” “Whadda ya mean?”
“Well, I’m quite black, and we always listen to that gosh awful country music. Couldn’t we play some ‘soul’ once in a while?”
Miller reached across Prince’s midsection and started opening his door. They were running about 50 m.p.h. Miller tilted back, still driving, and started trying to push Prince out of the right side with his foot. “You don’t like my music, you can walk your ass home!”
I began to wonder what “tools, techniques, behaviors the late Coach Miller would have cited as deterents to his coaching:
- They gonna let them damn girls play in my gym.
- Gotta limit the “F” word.
- No more drinking in the office or on the bench.
- Players can’t smoke during practice.
- Can’t cut the gate receipts.
- Can’t bang em around any more. Damn.
- No queer or ethnic jokes.
- Can’t take things I need from professor’s offices, or the library.
- No more waving a noose at referees
- Can’t schedule games on Christmas day or after 4pm on Thanksgiving.
In Coach Miller’s time you almost had to be a “mean man coach” to get a job. Almost all of his peers were tough cookies. None I ran into could challenge Bill. “He would make coffee nervous.”