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Family affair for Braves basketball

By Nick Phillips
Sports Editor

Braves rip Fayetteville State
Photo by Nick Faulkner
UNCP head basketball coach Ben Miller (squating) and assistant coach Eldon Miller look on during a recent Braves game. The father and son duo has helped lthe Braves to their first winning season since 1999-2000.

A quick look down the UNCP men's basketball coaching roster will find a head coach, two assistant coaches, two graduate assistant coaches and two student coaches.

You will also notice two with the last name Miller.

One has 39 years of experience as a head coach, the other, three years.

Braves' head coach Ben Miller might only have those three years of head coaching experience, but the knowledge and guidance he and the rest of his staff and players get from having Eldon Miller alongside them is endless.

Eldon Miller, affectionately labeled 'Pops' by Braves players, stepped out of retirement when his son took his first head coaching job in Pembroke, and thus has created a win-win situation for everyone involved with the program.

Father and son are able to spend time together, players learn from the endless well of knowledge the elder Miller has to offer and it gives Eldon another chance to be around the game he loves.

Eldon Miller played collegiate basketball at Whittenburg University and led his team to a Division III National Championship during his senior season.

After serving as an assistant the next season, Miller was given his first head coaching job at the ripe age of 23 with his alma mater.

After eight seasons at Whittenburg, Miller moved on to Western Michigan University in 1971 and inherited a team in the midst of seven-straight losing seasons.

Miller turned Western Michigan into winners instantly, guiding them to the Mid-American Conference Championship, the school's first conference title in 24 years.

From 1977-1986, Miller sat atop the Ohio State University program, guiding them to four NCAA tournament appearances and two trips to the Sweet Sixteen, as well as a NIT Championship his final season. Miller was the 1983 Big Ten Coach of the Year and coached numerous all Big- Ten players as well as several future NBA first round picks.

Miller took over the reins at the University of Northern Iowa in 1987, coaching the team for 12 seasons before retiring.

During his time at the helm, he led Northern Iowa to its first ever NCAA tournament appearance in 1990, where, as the 14th seed, they knocked off third seeded Missouri in the first round.

Miller earned the Missouri Valley Coach of the Year honors in 1996-1997 before retiring in 1998.

Back in the game
Growing up with his father in the midst of all those coaching jobs, Ben Miller says that, obviously, his father was on the road a lot, coaching or recruiting, which has made this time in Pembroke together that much more special.

"It's been a lot of fun having this time to spend together. When I was a kid growing up and he was coaching, he was gone a lot. So we missed some of that father-son time," Miller said.

"It's been neat the last few years to have a chance to work together to try and build something here," he added.

The decision to bring his father onto his first head coaching staff was a decision that was well thought out by Ben, as he came close to landing several other jobs over the years.

"Anytime you get close, you start thinking about your staff. We had discussed it before," he said about his father joining his staff.

So when the younger Miller was hired to turn around struggling UNCP, he wanted his father along for the ride. But bringing his dad to the bench with him wasn't an automatic thing.

"The first person I had to discuss it with was my mom. She's the one that I think has sacrificed more than anything," Ben said about pulling his father out of retirement.

"She was ok with it; she knew that he was kind of itching to have another opportunity," he quickly added.

Two-sided affair
The younger Miller enjoys the opportunity to spend time with his father as they both do what they enjoy. Players value the elder Miller as well.

The team came up with 'Pops,' a way to joke and laugh with a man they have great respect for.

"The players came up with that, I've just kind of bought into it," Ben jokes about his dad's name.

"Pops is a fundamental prone coach who cares about players," sophomore George Blakeney said.

"He wants to see the best for us. He pushes us every day, and he's a big help to our team," Blakeney added of the elder Miller's role.

Junior Nate Priest talked about the wealth of knowledge that Eldon Miller brings to the Braves.

"It's definitely an asset. Anytime we have a question he'll have an answer for us. We know we can go to him for anything, basketball related or any other thing," Priest said.

Each player has their own favorite memory about Pops, and the fun he brings to the table isn't only from the player's standpoint.

"This is so much fun for me just to be a part of this whole deal," Eldon Miller said of UNCP and the team.

"As much as they (the players) enjoy it, he enjoys it even more," Ben Miller said about his father's relationship with the players.

Ben Miller said his father has built relationships with each player, both on and off the court.

"They know how much he enjoys the chance to work with them, as individuals on fundamentals and teaching them life lessons. I think they realize how fortunate we are to have his experience here," Ben said.

"They also know that he really cares about them off the court. He helps them with career planning and things like that as well," he added.

Priest talked about Pops' help off the court as well.

"His knowledge surprises you because you think a coach wouldn't know as much as he does about life, but he always seems to have really good answers to every question you ask him," Priest said.

Even with all his experience, Eldon Miller knows and is happy with his role as an assistant on the Braves' staff.

"I stopped (being a head coach) when I turned 59. It's a lot of fun being an assistant; I don't make decisions but I give a lot of advice," the elder Miller said. 

"I get my assignments as an assistant coach. He asks for input about offense and defense and I try to, based on the things I've seen over the years, use my experiences to be as much help as I can," Eldon Miller added about how he works with his son in preparation for games. 

The players also understand the elder Miller's attention to preparation. 

"He knows a lot about the game in general. Like how to break down film - every little detail, he sees it," Blakeney said. 

Priest added, "If we aren't running the plays right and executing in practice, he'll stop us and tell us what we need to hear, not always what we want to hear." 

A year at a time
With the Braves' tripleovertime victory over Flagler on Feb. 5, UNCP clinched its first winning season since the 1999-2000 season, and currently sit in the middle of the conference standings heading into the final regular season games and Peach Belt Conference tournament. 

"Basketball in this league is great. I love Peach Belt basketball. It's a wonderful Division II league," Eldon Miller said. 

So now that the father and son have helped lead UNCP back down the right road, how much longer will the elder Miller be around? 

"We take that one year at a time. After each season, we sit down and discuss it," Ben said. 

By listening to the way he talks, Eldon Miller doesn't sound like he's leaving anytime soon. 

"My son has given me the opportunity to do what I like to do, get back on the court," Eldon said. 

Now into his sixth decade of coaching, Eldon Miller knows what he's doing when he gets on a court. 

The Braves and his son are happy he's spending his time on their court. 

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Updated: Monday, February 14, 2011
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