Local roots send Miller around the world

First Posted: 7/21/2014

CHICAGO — For Regina Miller, every chance she could get to play basketball growing up was one she would take.

“Riding my skateboard to the gym so I could shoot by myself, hoping that I could go somewhere,” Miller said, “and I did.”

Miller has used basketball to travel the world, but it all started at Parkton High School where she learned to play the game, and took her school to its only NCHSAA state championship in girls basketball in 1980.

“That’s your roots,” She said. “You never forget where you come from.”

From those humble roots, Miller went on to a playing career that led her to a pair of NJCAA championship games, an NCAA Division I womens Final Four and a coaching career that has touched in three Division I programs and taken her overseas as part of team USA.

The journey has ultimately taken her to the University of Illinois-Chicago, where she recently finished the most successful season in the schools history in her third year.

“It’s interesting, I think each step prepares you for the next,” Miller said.

The early part of Miller’s playing career had limited failure.

Miller led Parkton to its only state championship in school history as a senior in 1980. Shortly after, she was the first athlete from Parkton to be selected to play in the East-West All-Star Game where she helped the East to a 95-76 win.

Miller moved on to Louisburg College the next season. She led the team to the junior college national championship game in both seasons, capturing the title as a freshman and earning All-American honors before catching the eye of Old Dominion University.

Wendy Larry, who coached the Monarchs at the time, was looking for a point guard that would fit with her older players.

“I didn’t really do much recruiting at the junior college level,” said Larry, who is now an assistant commissioner for the Atlantic 10 Conference. “We really looked hard to find a point guard that would work well with our seniors.”

Larry said Miller showed a determination and a basketball knowledge that the team needed at the position.

Miller’s playing career continued to flourish in her junior season as the Monarchs went to the Final Four in 1983. It was the second womens Final Four event in NCAA history.

“I had a fantastic career,” Miller said. “I was very fortunate to play for a couple of national championships. To do that over a four-year span is kind of unheard of.”

Recently, Miller has seen some of her college accomplishments resurface, most notably the national championship at Louisburg. The school inducted her into its Hall of Fame in 2010.

“That was very humbling,” Miller said. “For them to show that amount of respect to me and towards me, and to recognize some of the accomplishments that we were able to achieve, it means a lot.”

When Miller graduated in 1984, she wasn’t ready to hang up the sneakers. She continued her playing career with the Virginia Waves in the Womens American Basketball Association. The team didn’t make it through its first season, finishing only 14 games of a 22-game schedule.

Miller then moved on to coaching, which she had begun to consider while playing at Old Dominion. The decision led her to Western Kentucky where she went to graduate school as an assistant coach, going to the Final Four in the 1985 and 1986 seasons.

Miller said those first years were a different feel to the game, but she was committed to the path.

“When you first finish college, you still look at yourself as a player,” Miller said. “This was a way to give back to younger players behind me and stay in a game I love.”

The coaching path took her to Arizona, where after a year as an assistant she moved back to Old Dominion where she would be reunited with Larry, this time as a coach.

“Regina coached the same way that she played,” Larry said. “She was a very consistent person and the players could count on her to be the same every day.”

After six years of assistant coaching, Miller decided it was time to take the next step, as Western Illinois became her first head coaching job.

“I thought my time at Arizona and my time at Old Dominion had prepared me for that first job,” she said.

It only took her three years to make a statement as a head coach as the team was given an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history in 1995.

“I thought I could make a difference, and wanted to accomplish something that had never been done,” Miller said.

Looking back, Miller is proud of her accomplishments but said she doesn’t worry about checking items off a coaching bucket list.

“I keep myself in the moment and in the present. I just take it one step at a time,” she said.

The trip to the NCAA tournament was the highlight of Miller’s six years at Western Illinois. She eventually moved her career out west to coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1998. For the next 10 years, she had one of the most successful stretches of her career, taking the Rebels to six straight postseason appearances, including another NCAA tournament trip in 2002.

“You look at what she did at Western Illinios, and then UNLV,” Larry said, “And even now at UIC, she has shown the ability to rebuild programs that are down.”

Miller also dabbled in international coaching. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Miller worked with Team USA and was an assistant in 1997 for the World Championships in Sao Palo, Brazil. She also was a court coach on multiple occassions.

“That’s another way of just paying it forward,” she said of the experience. “It’s an opportunity to work with some of the best coaches in the country (and) I enjoy that. I am going to work to get more involved with that moving forward.”

Miller said the atmosphere in Las Vegas was different from anywhere else she has coached.

“In Vegas, UNLV is the only team,” Miller said. “(The media) watched everything you did. I established a rapport with the media and felt it was very important. We wanted to bring that experience that I had with me.”

Miller has begun to build a successful program in her first three years at UIC, taking the school to its best postseason finish in school history this past season by winning the WBI Championship and taking the team to a 26-9 record. Miller said coming back to the Midwest was a help to her, as she had more familiarity with recruiting, as well as the teams they were facing in the Horizon Conference.

“We are all chasing that NCAA title and want to win a Horizon league championship,” she said. “If we can accomplish that it would be huge.”

Miller is keeping her plans for the future open but has some idea of what could be next.

“I want to get back into USA basketball,” she said. “Everyone wants to coach at all levels and maybe down the road (the WNBA) would be something that would interest me.”

Miller only hopes her story of success is motivation for current generations to build on.

“I tell the stories to my players,” she said. “It’s kind of like being a pioneer in the sport. It’s kind of branded me with who I am today.”