PEMBROKE — Eldon Miller was never going to let his son, Ben, ride his father’s coattails on the way to becoming a college basketball coach.
In his 46th season as a collegiate coach and his 10th as a volunteer assistant for UNCP’s men’s basketball team, the 78-year-old can remember the conversations — or lack thereof — surrounding Ben’s interest in pursuing a coaching career.
“There really weren’t a lot of conversations,” said Eldon, who has 568 victories as a head coach, including five NCAA Tournament wins.
“I was happy that he got his master’s degree at Northern Iowa when I was coaching there. He was going to continue on and I said, ‘You do whatever you want to do, but you’re not going to work for me beyond this year.’
“I see that too many times and it wasn’t going to happen in our family. He didn’t need me. Whatever he wanted to do, he could get it done himself. He’s done that.”
After stints as an assistant coach under a pair of Hall of Famers at Kansas and time as an assistant and associate head coach at Missouri State, Ben got his opportunity to be a head coach in Pembroke.
And he proved his father was right.
On Feb. 10 against Young Harris, Ben captured his record-breaking 170th victory to surpass Lacey Gane atop UNCP’s all-time wins list.
Like his son, Eldon was focused on the task at hand that Saturday afternoon: helping the 2017-18 Braves notch another victory.
“I have to be honest with you. What was going through my mind was the game that day,” Eldon said with a laugh.
“That’s kind of the way he lives and the way I live. The program is very solid. The reason it is: we have very fine people in the program. Despite their youth, they’ve been relatively consistent. They keep improving.”
Eldon was there for the beginning of Ben’s journey in 2008. Ironically, Ben asked his father to join the coaching staff.
“When you turn it around, it’s a little different,” Eldon said with a smile. “Basically, I’m not looking for a job so it’s a little bit different.”
The eldest Miller remembers the negativity that surrounded the program when he arrived in Pembroke. Ben was set to take over a team that hadn’t experienced a winning season in eight years.
He quickly restored the program to prominence. Last season, the Braves claimed a pair of Peach Belt Conference titles and earned their fourth trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
“It’s been a lot fun watching this program grow,” Eldon said. “I remember when I came here, a longtime faculty person told me that we had never competed in this league and we’ll never be able to. I said, ‘I think that’s going to change.’”
To receive a lesson in UNCP’s rich basketball tradition, one only had to look at the crowd of faces that returned to Pembroke to witness Miller’s milestone victory.
“What I appreciated most about it was seeing all of the former players back,” Eldon said. “You see the great tradition and listen to some of those stories and spend time together with those that support our current team. That was a beautiful thing to me.”
Ben also received praise from his former bosses — North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Kansas coach Bill Self — following the record-breaking day.
Miller was an assistant coach under Williams with the Jayhawks from 1995 to 2003.
A three-time national champion at UNC, Williams is the only coach in NCAA history to win 300 games at two different schools. He’s won 418 games each at Kansas and North Carolina.
Williams could see Ben’s potential all those years ago in Lawrence.
“Ben has done a great job at UNCP and this doesn’t surprise me,” Williams said. “As a coach he has all the ingredients a leader needs and has continually shown them during his tenure there. Just a great coach and a greater individual. I am very proud of him.”
Miller capped his years at Kansas in 2004 after one season on Self’s staff. Although his time with Self was brief, Miller carried plenty with him as a young coach and built a friendship that culminated on Sept. 8, 2017 during Self’s enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
A three-time National Coach of the Year, Self has led the Jayhawks to 13 straight Big 12 titles and a pair of Final Four appearances, including the 2008 NCAA Championship.
Like Williams, Self could see that Miller was destined to accomplish great things as the leader of his own program.
“We are all so proud of Ben and all his successes at UNC Pembroke,” Self said.
“We knew way back that Ben would prosper wherever he went. Pembroke got a great one when they hired him. Becoming the all-time wins leader there is an outstanding accomplishment for a great coach.”
That journey to Pembroke was set in motion by Eldon, who wanted Ben to find his own way as a coach.
It came full circle when Eldon got the chance to come out of retirement and share the bench with his son.
“It’s been fun for me because both of us have experience with a wide variety of people,” Eldon said. “All of that experience that I’ve had and he’s had, there are ways to make a difference. That’s what I try to do. I basically follow the instructions he gives me.”
Now, the Braves have a chance to add to the trophy case. At 21-4, including a 17-2 mark in PBC play, UNCP is in a position to claim its second consecutive conference crown.
“I think (Ben) has a lot of fun with it, primarily because he recruits really good people,” Eldon said.
“They’re fun to be around every day. They want to win, they want to play well and they’re a very unselfish group. They’re good students. He’s very demanding from a standpoint of focusing on what’s most important in getting an education. Basketball is a short time in our lives, but education is forever.”
And it all started with a phone call.
“Ben called me when he was in college, majoring in business, and said, ‘Dad, I really want to coach,’” Eldon said.
“He decided to do that and I think he enjoys it now. He’s doing a great job.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.