PEMBROKE — Eldon Miller led a film session for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team on Wednesday afternoon inside the English E. Jones Center.
When the Braves took to Lumbee Guranty Bank Court for practice, Eldon let his voice be heard again as the team went through a defensive drill.
Clearly, the 78-year-old hasn’t lost his drive as a coach.
“I never had to work in my life, so I never got tired,” Eldon said with a smile. “It’s just a lot of fun for me to be around young people. I always like to teach. To me, coaching is teaching. You don’t ever get over it.”
As a volunteer assistant for the Braves, who are led by his son Ben, Eldon — better known as “Pop” on campus — is beginning his 46th season as a collegiate coach and his 10th in Pembroke.
“He’s just a 78-year-old gym rat who loves being around the players and the campus community,” said Ben, who is entering his 10th season as head coach of the Braves.
“It’s been a blessing for all of us. I’m lucky to have an amazing staff.”
A legend on the sidelines, Eldon has 568 victories as a head coach, including five NCAA Tournament wins. His record includes 142 wins at Wittenberg, 86 at Western Michigan, 176 at Ohio State and 164 at Northern Iowa.
This weekend, when the Braves head to the Midwest for a pair of exhibition games against Creighton and Northern Iowa, Eldon will have the chance to take a trip down memory lane.
“I’m excited because I get to see people,” he said. “I’m excited for our players because of the games. Ben has always tried to schedule the toughest competition that he can and it’s tough competition. Both teams have a great winning tradition.”
As coach of the Panthers from 1986 to 1998, Eldon helped build that winning tradition in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
He led Northern Iowa to its first NCAA Tournament victory — a monumental upset of third-seeded Missouri — in 1990. Eldon, along with that squad, will be honored this weekend.
“Northern Iowa is one of mom and dad’s many homes,” Ben said. “It’s where I graduated high school. My sister still lives there. For dad, everyone appreciates what he brought to the university and the basketball program. I think he’ll get a great reception, as will the 1990 team, which kind of put Northern Iowa on the map. It’ll be a fun trip. It’s an exciting time for the Braves.”
Laying the foundation
Ben Jacobson was an assistant coach at Northern Iowa in 2000 when he met Eldon Miller for the first time.
Now entering his 12th season as head coach of the Panthers, Jacobson said Eldon’s presence still resonates around the program and throughout the community.
“From that point until now there are so many things that come to mind,” Jacobson said. “The ones that stand out are the impact (Eldon) had on our program, university and community. You can find that, feel that and see that with wherever you go and whoever you talk to. Even though he’s been gone for awhile, he’s still here.”
And Jacobson is excited to honor Eldon’s 1990 squad that helped set the new standard for Northern Iowa basketball.
“Again, going back to that time, that was what really gave us some hope that it could be done at Northern Iowa,” Jacobson said. “We always looked at that 1990 Northern Iowa team. … we’ve really accomplished some amazing things. What I’ve enjoyed the most is we’ve been able to tie it all together.
“This isn’t about one team having one great year. This is about a family at Northern Iowa with our basketball program. … that’s what I’m really proud of.”
For Eldon, who lived in Cedar Falls for 17 years, building those lifelong connections is the most important aspect of coaching.
“My memories are people,” he said. “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.”
Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, who played for Eldon at Northern Iowa and coached the Panthers from 2001 to 2006, can’t wait to welcome his former coach to Omaha, Neb. on Friday night for UNCP’s exhibition game against the Bluejays.
Creighton assistant coach Darian DeVries also played for Eldon in Cedar Falls.
“It was a thrill to play for him. It’s going to be really cool for me,” McDermott said. “There’s a lot of connections to our program. I got together and played golf with him this summer up in Michigan. To see him back storming the sidelines will be a real treat.”
Like Jacobson, McDermott credits Eldon for helping the Panthers take the next step on the basketball court.
“Obviously, he was well respected in the profession coming from Ohio State, having just won an NIT Championship (in 1986),” McDermott said. “He really rejuvenated the Northern Iowa basketball program. A lot of the success that we’ve had the last couple of decades would not have been possible without the foundation that he was able to lay while he was there.”
McDermott spoke highly of Eldon’s teaching ability and, more importantly, his values.
“From a basketball standpoint, in my opinion, he’s one of the better fundamental teachers of the game that I’ve ever been associated with,” McDermott said. “I’ve heard a lot of people talk and I’ve been to a million clinics, but in terms of understanding how to teach the game and break it down into the smallest parts, and then put it all together again, I think Coach Miller was as good as it gets.
“Just as a person, he demanded that we acted a certain way, representing the university in a first-class manner in everything that we do. While you don’t appreciate that when you’re 20 or 21 (years old), as you look back on it you certainly understand and appreciate how much impact that’s had on the person that you are today.”
Eldon resigned from his position at Northern Iowa following the 1997-98 season. A decade later, his son gave him a call about a new gig.
Back on the sideline
In 2008, Ben Miller was hired as UNCP’s men’s basketball coach.
The Braves’ new head man wanted to bring his dad along for the ride.
“Before I got this job we had kind of joked about him coming out of retirement to come help me out,” Ben said.
“When it actually happened, and I got this job, he was all in. Of course, he had to clear that with mom first. She was supportive of it. What’s funny is, I think he told her a year or two, and 10 years later he’s still here. I think he’ll continue to come back as long as he’s able physically. Thank the Lord he’s in good health.”
Eldon, who lives in Frankfort, Mich. with his wife Dee during the offseason, was thankful for the opportunity to coach again — and this time with his son.
”I’ve loved basketball since my dad put up a basket on the barn when I was 11,” Eldon said. “I quit coaching too soon. I probably shouldn’t have done that. Ben saved my life. Fortunately, I told him a long time ago that he wouldn’t hang on my coat tails. He was never going to work for me, but it’s nice that he lets me work for him.”
Crediting Dee — who Eldon calls “one of the strongest people on the face of the earth” — for being by his side every step of the way, Eldon said he’s “never really worried about” what he’ll be remembered for most as a coach.
“When I first started out coaching I was like everybody else. You’re nervous, scared, wondering how it’s going to work,” he said.
“Over a period of time that leaves and you’re really not that concerned about what happens. Everybody likes recognition but that’s not why you do it. I’ve had fun everywhere I’ve been. I’ve had as much fun here (in Pembroke) as I’ve had anywhere, just watching the program grow.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.