Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Justis Creative Communications.
I have been coached by, worked for and watched hundreds of coaches in my competitive days, professional life and now as a youth sports spectator.
Very few, if any, can be compared to Eldon Miller, former men’s basketball coach at the University of Northern Iowa. I had the honor of working with Miller while he was with the Panthers.
Miller and members of his 1989-90 team, the first to reach the NCAA Division I tournament in school history, were honored at a banquet recently at UNI. I had the privilege of attending.
After resigning from UNI in 1998, “Coach” sat on the sidelines until his son, Ben, was hired at North Carolina-Pembroke in 2000. Miller has served his son as a volunteer “consultant” every year and now, at the age of 78, still has a love for the game, for teaching the game and for the kids who play the game.
UNC-Pembroke played the Panthers in an exhibition game the weekend Miller and the team were honored. “Consultant” or whatever, he was totally engaged in his role, still coaching from his chair, walking up and down both ends of the bench to give his advice, discoursing with the officials, sharing insights with his son.
The banquet the night before was full of laughs, memories and hugs from long-lost friends. Miller’s graduate assistant from 1989-90 traveled from the state of Washington to reconnect. One of the players came from Texas, others from Illinois and surrounding states.
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Several former players recounted stories about “Coach.” The love and respect they still feel for him was evident. All spoke of how their lives have been influenced by Miller.
In a recent Robesonian article, Miller was quoted as saying, “I never had to work in my life, so I never got tired. It’s just a lot of fun for me to be around young people. I always like to teach. To me, coaching is teaching.”
When talking about his return to Cedar Falls and the McLeod Center, the arena he helped get built, Miller said “my memories are people. It’s not about what you do. I love the game because it’s a game that requires cooperation, unselfishness, talent and effort. There’s magic moments in coaching ...”
There are a lot of opinions about what makes a great coach. This one particular list was provided by “Coaches Network.” Miller exemplifies each and every item.
l They care deeply about people. I don’t know one person who hasn’t been affected deeply by their association with Miller.
l They have incredibly high personal standards and ambitions. Nobody wants to win more than Miller, but he always has done it the right way.
l They have a high level of self-knowledge. Miller played the game and became a collegiate head coach at the age of 22.
l Sincere interest in players and a desire to help. One of his recruits to UNI came with a troubled background, Miller saw potential in the young man and mentored him while on campus.
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l Highest regard, caring and respect for players. I never saw Miller use belittling language to a player, no matter how they performed in practice or a game. He encouraged and taught.
l Humble, open, nurturing and grateful to the world. If Miller had an ego, he hid it well. He accepted accolades in a humble manner but always gave credit to his players and assistant coaches. He was truly thankful for his position in the world of competitive sports.
l Walk the talk and model a good life for their players. In today’s environment of winning at all costs, you never needed to worry about the way UNI basketball was led.
Miller still loves UNI and the Cedar Valley. He had an opportunity to leave and coach elsewhere, but he wasn’t interested. He loved the campus, the culture he could build and the community, where he could raise his family and his players could grow into young men.
A banner featuring Miller was unveiled before the UNI-Pembroke game and will hang forever in the McLeod Center. He is, after all, the reason the Panthers are where they are today — not only on the basketball map, but playing in the McLeod.
I was thrilled to introduce my grandsons to “Coach” before the game. He shook their hands, treating these 7- and 9-year-olds as young men. You might say there are a lot of coaches out there like Eldon Miller. Maybe, but I haven’t met them.
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