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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Mountaineer basketball fans will see a familiar face when UNC Pembroke arrives in Morgantown to play an exhibition game against West Virginia this Friday night at the WVU Coliseum.
Former Ohio State coach Eldon Miller will be on the Pembroke bench helping his son Ben, who is now in his third season coaching the Division II school. The elder Miller, used to barking out orders, now gladly takes them from his son.
“If you knew my son you’d understand,” he laughed. “You have to take orders. I really appreciate the opportunity to get back to doing what I love to do on the floor.”
Having an experienced hand on the bench for strategy is nothing new. Steve Alford and Jeff Lebo have done it with their fathers, and Steve Lavin is doing something similar with former Purdue coach Gene Keady at St. John’s this year.
“I think because of the size of the staff a lot of schools can do this,” Miller explained. “I think experience is helpful. You have to understand your role as an assistant - you make a lot of suggestions but you don’t make very many decisions. As I always told my assistants, ‘I never hired anybody that I didn’t think could be a head coach.’ I never hired a recruiter or hired a guy like that. I always wanted guys that could be head coaches, and a lot of them have been.”
Including Bob Huggins, who joined Miller’s Ohio State staff for two seasons as a graduate assistant coach from 1978-80.
“We both have a very good friend named Chuck Machock,” Miller recalled. “I knew Bob when he was at Ohio University and Chuck told me Bob definitely wanted to coach and would like to come and be a part of our staff at Ohio State. I said to him, ‘That’s a given; if he wants it then it’s his.’”
After observing Huggins for two years, Miller told Huggs it was time for him to spread his wings and go out on his own.
“I fired Huggins,” Miller joked. “I fired him because I knew he was going to be one of the best coaches in the game and I said to Bob, ‘Get out of here and get a head job.’”
Huggins took over the Walsh basketball program in 1980 and from there he quickly worked his way up the coaching ladder to Akron and then to Cincinnati.
“Bob was a self-made coach,” Miller explained. “I knew that was going to happen. He wasn’t hanging on anybody’s coattails. I was just glad to have him.”
In the meantime, Miller was winning big at Ohio State, his 1980 Buckeye team with an all-Ohio starting five of Kelvin Ransey, Herb Williams, Clark Kellogg, Jim Smith and Carter Scott finishing that year ranked 10th in the country.
“It was the best team in the country,” Miller said. “We got upset in the regional. Back then we beat Arizona State on their floor by about 18 and then traveled back to Columbus and then went back out to Tucson, which was close to UCLA, and they beat us in a close game.”
The next year in 1981, the Buckeyes fell to 14-13 before rebounding to finish second in the Big Ten and returning to the NCAA tournament in 1982.
“We struggled at point guard so it was really tough,” Miller said. “But that was the only year we really struggled. We tried to make Bob’s brother (Larry) a point guard and that was unfair to him – he was a great competitor, but he was really a two-guard.
“Kelvin Ransey, Herb Williams, Clark Kellogg, Tony Campbell, Brad Sellers and those guys were all NBA players - and (Jay) Burson would have been if he hadn’t got hurt,” Miller said. “I coached against his father when he was playing at Muskingum, and I also coached against him when he coached there.”
Miller coached 10 seasons at Ohio State with one-year contracts before finally forcing the issue with the administration after the 1986 season – his last in Columbus.
“I kind of forced them to fire me because I had one-year contracts and I said, ‘It’s not about having a job: it’s being in the position to do one,’” Miller said. “It was an easy decision. I told them, ‘You better hire somebody else because I’m not going to do it.’ Fortunately, we left them in good position because Jay Burson and Dennis Hopson were all-Big Ten players there. We always had good players there.”
Miller and Huggins both grew up in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, the two easily having more combined coaching victories than there are people now living there.
“Huggs had a little bit of the same deal,” said Miller. “Every place I went, other than Wittenberg, the program was at the bottom. In fact, one of the reasons why my son wanted me here was he always has been with Roy Williams at Kansas or Bill Self at Kansas or Missouri State, which were always winning. Every place I went people told me not to take the job. They said don’t go to (Ohio State) and six years later we’re 10th in the country in Division I at the end of the year.”
Ohio State and West Virginia had an annual basketball series going on when Miller worked the OSU bench, the two schools playing six times from 1977-82. Miller had a 4-2 record against the Mountaineers.
“To me that was a great series,” Miller said. “Talk about people getting excited about a game - other than a league game, why not West Virginia and Ohio State? They are neighboring states, both great programs with great coaches, and that’s a game that is exciting for everybody. You can do that when you’re coaching there, as long as you don’t load up with nine games like that to play.
“What a great deal that is and I am glad they played a little bit recently,” he said.
Miller is also glad to be making a return trip to the Coliseum to face a Mountaineer team coming off their first Final Four appearance since 1959.
“I’m excited about coming up there and giving these kids a chance to play against a program like Bob’s,” Miller said. “We’re building a program here. The school has not had that much success, but we’re making progress.”
Miller, 69, says he really enjoys working alongside his son.
“One good thing about my son, most of his coaching jobs he’s kept moving a little farther south so I can stay warm. For us older folks the warmer weather is pretty good,” he joked.
“The thing that excites me the most is the people in the game. What made the game great for me were the players, coaches and opposing coaches. I didn’t have to change, but I absolutely love college basketball: the challenges it affords, the opportunities and what it means to the kids that play. That’s what it’s all about,” Miller explained.
As for his old pupil, Miller says Huggins’ coaching philosophy hasn’t changed much since the first day they met.
“I think (Huggins' players) will figure out what a defensive stance is,” Miller laughed.
Yes, coach, now that’s a given.