Using Basketball to Impart Vital Life Lessons

Using Basketball to Impart Vital Life Lessons

Octogenarian coach can’t stop giving

By Jessica Gardner
Current Contributor

College basketball fans may know Frankfort resident Eldon Miller (83) as the 500-plus-game-winning coach who led the Ohio State University men’s team to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) Championship in 1986. They may also know that he began his career in 1961 as the assistant coach at his alma mater, Wittenberg College, becoming the head coach a year later, and then at Western Michigan University before landing at Ohio State. Moreover, he retired from the University of Northern Iowa  in 1998 but later returned as a volunteer assistant coach for his son, Ben Miller (54), the then-head men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Along the way, Eldon led his teams to five Ohio Athletic Conference (OAC) titles, the Mid-American Conference (MAC) title, and the Mid-Con Tournament championship. Hewas recognized as “Coach of the Year” in the OAC, MAC, Big 10, Mid-Con, and Missouri Valley Conference, and he was inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame, Wittenberg Athletics Hall of Honor, and Western Michigan University Athletics Hall of Fame.

What you may not know is how Eldon Miller became Coach Eldon Miller and what drives him to continue to coach and mentor kids in Benzie County today as an octogenarian.

Growing Up on a Farm
Growing up on a small family farm with beef cattle and dairy cows in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, Eldon Miller quickly learned the work ethic that has shaped his life. His father, whose formal schooling ended in third grade, and his mother, a college-educated teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, instilled the values of faith, family, hard work, and serving others. As Miller told The Betsie Current

“Dairy cows don’t take a day off—it doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas, Easter, or a day you just don’t feel like getting up. They must be milked every day.”

Miller says Gnadenhutten is what many people would consider a poverty-stricken town, but his upbringing did not feel impoverished. 

“It was a tough life, but it was a wonderful life,” Miller recalls. “We had no money, but we were not poor.”

Families in Gnadenhutten raised and grew their food and helped each other through the tough times. The Moravian Church was the center of their community—and where Miller learned that being a good Christian is about action, not just sitting in a pew on Sunday mornings.

Though most of the time people in Gnadenhutten had what they needed, when they did struggle, Miller says that there were no social service organizations where neighbors could turn for help. Instead, friends and family learned of financial hardships, illness, and/or death at church and immediately did what was needed to support one another. The Miller family, for example, farmed for three separate neighbors, in addition to their own.

Although working on the farm and school consumed Miller’s time, when he was 11, his father hung a basket in the barn. He soon discovered that if he could not find his son, he only needed to search as far as the barn, where he would always find Eldon shooting hoops. It was here, in a dusty old barn, that Eldon Miller discovered his life’s passion.

From shooting hoops on the farm, Miller later joined the basketball team at Gnadenhutten High School—where his mother, notably, had played three-on-three basketball in the 1920s, almost five decades before Title IX opened school-sponsored organized sports to girls. 

High school basketball in central Ohio was *the* sport. Pep rallies and bonfires preceded games, which people stood in line for hours to get into—no one dared miss a game. The way that Miller tells it is like a scene from the movie Friday Night Lights, in which Texas towns live and die for their football teams.

At 5 foot 10 inches tall, Miller was one of the tallest players on his high school team; this enabled him to play all of the positions—which was also necessary, because he was one of only two basketball players in his graduating class of 17 students. During his senior year, Miller was recognized as the school’s “athlete of the year,” an award that remains one of his proudest moments today, almost 50 years later. 

After graduating high school in 1957, Miller attended Wittenberg College, in Springfield, Ohio, where he was named the “most valuable player” during his senior year—he had led the team to the NCAA College-Division championship, during an era when only two divisions were in the college game. 

Wittenberg taught Miller—who graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics— the value of being as focused on academics as he was on basketball, and also what it takes to be a good citizen. He honed his skills, focusing on always becoming better. 

“If you’re not improving, you’re moving backward,” according to Miller.

During his senior year of college, he not only earned big basketball honors and a degree but he also met and quickly fell in love with Dee Millikan, then a freshman studying to be an elementary school teacher. Originally from New Castle, Indiana, Dee spent summers in Benzie County, where her family had been coming for years before her birth. 

Life Philosophies
Mentors have long played a key role in Miller’s life and have driven him to serve as a mentor to others. 

For instance, Miller’s sophomore high school math teacher and basketball coach, Fritz Jacobs, taught him the value of time and remained a mentor for many years. For every minute that Eldon was late to class, he was paddled once. (Yes, this was back when physical punishment was allowed in schools.) It did not take Miller long to understand that punctuality is a sign of respect for himself and others—a lesson he lives to this day, always being on time or early.

Miller sees his role as a mentor to young people—but without the paddle—teaching them how to be good team citizens, family citizens, and world citizens. 

Here in Beulah, where Miller attends church and volunteers, St. Andrews Presbyterian Church’s pastor, Dr. Reverend Anne Hébert, describes him as “a man of principle and integrity. A true man of faith. He tells young people he works with that their name and what they do with their lives is where respect and integrity will be made. That how they conduct themselves and care for one another on a team is of utmost importance. Eldon is a man who shows forth his beliefs in the way he lives—he does what he says. And it’s all undergirded by his faith in God.”

Miller believes: “Teams aren’t successful because of an individual star athlete; they are successful when each athlete learns the importance of turning the ‘m’ over in ‘me’ to make ‘we’.” 

Eldon Miller’s coaching and life philosophies were honed on his family’s Gnadenhutten farm, according to his son, Ben: 

“Roll up your sleeves and do the tough, dirty work; master the fundamentals; no matter someone’s job or status on the team or in life, see them as people first, and treat them with respect and dignity. Everyone has important gifts to contribute… Pop always told me, ‘Many hands make work light. Doing a little of your neighbor’s work for them never hurts’.”

In a 2017 interview, Eldon Miller told The Robesonian in Lumberton, North Carolina: 

“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, and you really appreciate those. There are a lot of frustrations, but it’s about building relationships.”

During his induction speech in 2009 to the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame, Miller said:

“To say I love the game of basketball is not adequate, but I love the people involved more. I love what the game stands for. It’s a game that requires great integrity.”

How would this author sum up Eldon Miller? 

Relationships first.

These are the lessons, values, and moral compass that not only guide Eldon Miller’s life but that he imparts to players and others he comes across, as well. 

Becoming Coach Eldon Miller
Earning a Bachelor’s degree followed by a Master’s degree in mathematics and school administration, Miller became a math teacher in Cincinnati, a position that he held for just one year before being recruited back to his alma mater, Wittenberg College, in 1961 as the assistant basketball coach under his former coach and mentor, Ray Mears. Coach Mears left Wittenberg for the University of Tennessee in 1962, and—at age 23—Eldon Miller became the youngest head coach in college basketball nationwide at the time.

During his first year as head coach—coaching several players that he had played with—Miller’s team was ranked #1 all year in both wire service polls, and they became the runner-up in the NCAA national tournament. During Miller’s eight-year tenure, Wittenberg had a record of 142-55. To this day, Wittenberg remains the all-time winningest school in NCAA Division III Basketball history, with an overall record of 1,813 wins and just 731 losses.

While he was still a coach at Wittenberg, Dee Millikan graduated and became a teacher in Springfield, Ohio. The couple were married in 1964, and they had their first two kids—Amy and Ben. 

In 1970, Eldon, Dee, Amy, and Ben moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Eldon served as head coach for Western Michigan University for six years. He capped off his career at WMU by winning the MAC championship, taking a trip to the NCAA tournament, and establishing a conference record of 19 straight wins that continues to stand almost 50 years later. Their third child, Caroline, was born during this time in Kalamazoo.

Basketball for BACN's Neighbors Camp 2023 coach Eldon miller coach ben biller coach Tim reznich Frankfort High School gym the betsie current newspaper
Details on the upcoming camp.

Miller has had many former players who have gone on to compete in their post-college lives.

For instance, Paul Griffin—from Shelby, Michigan—was one of Miller’s stars who later enjoyed a professional career playing for the New Orleans Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. Tom Cutter, who later played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, also got his start playing for Miller at WMU.

A call from Ohio State University enticed the Miller family back to the patriarch’s home state in 1976, where Eldon Miller spent the next 10 years rebuilding a struggling program from the bottom up. 

At OSU, Miller recruited players like Kelvin Ransey, later the first-round draft pick for the Chicago Bulls in 1980; Herb Williams, the #1 pick of the Indiana Pacers in 1981; Clark Kellogg, the #1 Indiana Pacers draft pick in 1982, and notably one of the leading men’s college basketball commentators on television who is instrumental in March Madness coverage; Tony Campbell, who went to the Detroit Pistons in the 1984 first-round draft; and Brad Sellers, the Chicago Bulls’ first-round pick in 1986. 

With players like Ransey, Williams, Kellogg, Campbell, and Sellers on OSU’s team before they “made it big” in the NBA, it is not surprising that Miller’s coaching took OSU to the NCAA Tournament four times and the team won the NIT Championship in his final year. He was also named the Big Ten’s “Coach of the Year” during the 1982-1983 season.
In 1986, Eldon and Dee moved their family once more to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where Eldon spent the final 12 years of his professional coaching career leading the University of Northern Iowa’s men’s basketball team. Of his many accomplishments at Northern Iowa, Miller is most proud to have taken the team to their first appearance in the 1990 NCAA Tournament—after just three years as head coach—where they upset No. 3 seed University of Missouri.

Not only has Miller coached players who went on to the NBA, he has also seen players go on to be successful coaches, themselves.

At Northern Iowa, Miller had the privilege of coaching and mentoring such players as Greg McDermott, the current head coach at Creighton University, whose teams have seen post-season play during eight of his 10 years as coach, including finishing in the NCAA’s Elite Eight earlier this year; Darian DeVries, the current head coach at Drake University; and Nick Nurse, current Philadelphia 76ers head coach in the NBA.

Back In The Game
Upon his retirement in 1998 at age 59, Eldon and Dee moved full-time to Frankfort, where they had been vacationing for decades prior. 
As one of the winningest basketball coaches, Miller could rest on his laurels and enjoy his well-earned retirement playing golf. But, as much as he loves golf, Miller is not a man to rest on his laurels. Instead, he and Dee continue to serve their community through volunteer work with St. Andrew’s Mission Project (STAMP, which The Betsie Current profiled in 2017), at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Beulah, and with the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse.

Through their work with STAMP, Eldon became involved with Benzie Area Christian Neighbors (BACN), because he values BACN’s work to uplift neighbors through their five signature programs: food, clothing, education, financial assistance, and social support. BACN’s work reminds Eldon of the grassroots ways that his community in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, supported each other—through the good times and bad.

About 10 years ago, Miller also joined forces with Tim Reznich (54), Frankfort High School science teacher and notably girls’ basketball coach since 2002, to help develop the team members into great athletes and citizens. Listening to Miller talk about the Frankfort team, he clearly loves mentoring young people—first and foremost, he sees their strengths and focuses on who they are as people. He cares for each player as if they were a member of his family.

“I don’t care how talented you are—I care about who you are and what you stand for. That’s what matters in life,” Miller says.

Speaking of family: college basketball coaches spend weeks on the road each year recruiting high school players to their programs and traveling to games, and Miller was no exception during his 50-year career. But Miller’s travel schedule and long work hours did not stop him from being a dedicated husband and father. As proud as he is of his professional accomplishments, Miller’s first loves are Dee, Amy, Ben, and Caroline, and now his six grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. Because he was gone so often during his working years, when he was home, he focused on quality time with each family member and imparting life lessons and solid values. 

Eldon Miller’s son, Ben, remembers growing up in a home filled with college basketball players who regularly joined them for weekend dinners, because Eldon Miller’s teams were part of the family, too. Additionally, Ben shares that some of his fondest memories with his father include going to the gym or playing one-on-one games in the backyard—and that his mother often had to break up the game when the father and son became too competitive. 

No matter where they were, Dee was right by Eldon’s side. 

“She has always been an ambassador for the teams and communities, supporting Pop and the players. She was the Team Mom,” Ben says.

Betsie heather ben Charlie miller joey elser dee eldon miller Caroline paul elder university of northern Iowa men's basketball NCAA coach the betsie current newspaper Benzie County
Left to right: Betsie, Heather, Ben, and Charlie Miller; Joey Elser; Dee and Eldon Miller; and Caroline (Miller) and Paul Elser at a University of Northern Iowa men’s basketball game last year. Charlie Miller is Eldon’s grandson and Ben’s son; this was at one his games during his (redshirt) freshman season playing for the same team that his grandfather retired from coaching 25 years ago. Photo courtesy of Ben Miller.

Becoming Coach Ben Miller
Like his father, Ben Miller grew up on the basketball court, playing and serving as the timekeeper at his father’s camps. As point guard and team captain at Luther College, Ben majored in psychology. After graduation in 1991, he spent a year working under his father at the University of Northern Iowa while earning his Master’s degree in physical education in 1992. He later earned a Ph.D. in sports psychology from the University of Kansas and served on their coaching staff for 10 years. In 2004, Ben served as the assistant coach and later the associate head coach at Missouri State University before becoming the head coach at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in 2008.

When Ben took over at Pembroke, it had been 18 years since they had had a winning season. To rebuild the team and take it to the NCAA tournament—which was his goal—Ben knew that he needed help, and so he invited his father to be his assistant coach—a volunteer position for the entire 12 years of Ben’s tenure, from 2008-2020. 

“I retired too early, and Ben saved my life,” Eldon likes to reflect.

While at Pembroke, Ben did end up taking the team to six NCAA tournaments, and they won the Peach Belt Conference for the first time in the team’s history. 

Like his father, Ben has coached many players who succeeded on and off the court, including Shahmel Brackett, who enjoyed a professional career playing in El Salvador; George Blakeney, who played in Burundi; and Quamain Rose, an All-American player. Connor Keltner and Tony Jones served as assistant coaches under Ben and now serve as head coaches for esteemed high school teams. To this day, Ben remains the winningest coach in the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s history.

However, Ben was in a life-threatening car accident a few years ago, and he has not coached while rehabbing from his injuries. Now, he splits his time between Frankfort; Chicago; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Jacksonville, Florida, where he receives treatments to help him to walk again. 

Ben has been involved in the STAMP program also. He is excited to get involved with BACN this summer, and he is finding his own niche in Benzie County—whatever the future holds, Ben says that he will continue to honor one of his family’s highest values by serving others.

Basketball for BACN’s Neighbors Camp
During their coaching careers, Eldon and Ben ran hundreds of basketball camps. So it seemed only natural to partner with Coach Tim Reznich of Frankfort to launch “Basketball for BACN’s Neighbors,” a three-day camp at the end of June for kids in Benzie County to learn basketball—and life fundamentals. 

Athletes will be coached and mentored by numerous former players that both Eldon and Ben Miller have coached who later succeeded as NBA players and/or college coaches, including the previously mentioned Connor Keltner; Tony Jones; Greg McDermott; and Paul Elser, Eldon’s son-in-law (married to Caroline), who led five teams to the Iowa State High School Tournament, including winning the championship in 2008. 

Additionally, Presley Hudson—former Wayland High School standout and Central Michigan University’s all-time scorer and four-time All-Mid-American Conference selection who led the team to four consecutive MAC regular-season titles from 2016 to 2020, the MAC Tournament title in 2018, and to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2018—will be a featured coach and speaker. (She is, as of printing, the new physical education teacher for 6-12 grades with Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools.) 

The coaching staff for the camp will be rounded out with Frankfort High School graduate Brenna Bankston Nugent, a former Western Michigan University player and coach, and current Frankfort girls and boys basketball coaches Tim Reznich, Dan Loney (who also played at WMU), and Dave Loney, respectively. (The oldest Loney brother is a Benzie Central graduate, and the younger is notably a Frankfort graduate.)

One of the driving forces behind the camp is to better not only the kids but the community as a whole. 

Eldon and Ben Miller have recruited sponsors to cover the camp’s costs and to provide scholarships for families who cannot afford the fee; 100 percent of the camp registration fees to be donated to BACN to help our neighbors.

Ben Miller wrapped up our conversation by saying: 

“We’re excited to give the kids a great basketball experience, have a lot of fun, and make a difference in the community. That’s what’s important to Pop and the coaching staff.”

“Basketball for BACN’s Neighbors Camp” will run from Thursday, June 29, through Saturday, July 1, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. every day at the Frankfort High School. The cost is $25, but scholarships are available for families that cannot afford it. There will be optional free breakfast and lunch on Thursday and Friday, and each camper will go home with a camp t-shirt, a basketball, and a “Blessings in a Backpack” sack of goodies. All rising 4th through 12th graders are eligible for camp; they do not have to be Frankfort students. Download the camp application from online ahead of time and mail it in; day-of walk-in campers will be accepted, as space allows, but it is best to pre-register.

Full Disclosure: Jessica Gardner is the new director of development for BACN.

Featured Photo Caption: Left to right: Eldon Miller, Tim Reznich, and Ben Miller in front of Frankfort High School, where  they will be hosting a youth basketball camp at the end of June for children entering 4th-12th grades. Both Eldon and his son, Ben, have had amazing careers of coaching college basketball. At age 83, Eldon Miller continues to help on the court, like the Frankfort girls basketball team, which Reznich has coached for the past two decades. Photo by Jessica Gardner.

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3 thoughts on “Using Basketball to Impart Vital Life Lessons

  1. This is a great story. I played for Central Michigan when Coach Miller coached at Western Michigan. His teams were always well coached and extremely competitive. I love the fact that he is now volunteering with his son. Family first! Congrats on a great career! Denny Parks

  2. My sister went to Wittenberg when Elden was there. She always spoke highly of him.

  3. I graduated from Wittenberg in 1972, so I was able to watch Coach Miller’s final seasons there. He was a class act and had some GREAT teams during my time there! We sure hated to see him go, but he left the program in great shape. I also followed him at Ohio State. Not surprising to find out that he is still a class act. We need a lot more like him!

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