Many Ohio State basketball fans would rather forget the decade-long era between 1977 and 1986 when the Buckeyes seemed to struggle to win championships. But the truth is that those seasons produced a ton of memorable moments, thanks in great deal to head coach Eldon Miller, who celebrates his 69th birthday today.
Born June 19, 1939, in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, Miller was a standout guard at Wittenberg and helped lead that team to the Division III national championship in 1961. Two years later at the tender age of 23, he took over the program at his alma mater and compiled a 142-55 record over the next eight seasons.
He left Wittenberg to take over at Western Michigan, a program that had experienced seven consecutive losing seasons. In 1976, Miller coached the Broncos to the Mid-American Conference championship, the school’s first title in 24 seasons. He parlayed that success into the head coaching job at Ohio State.
Unfortunately, he had the distinction of following a legend in Fred Taylor and, as Earle Bruce can attest on the football side of things, pretty much nothing you can do is going to measure up to your predecessor.
Unlike Bruce, however, who was left a talent-rich team after Woody Hayes was fired following the 1978 season, Miller was left a basketball program in ruins. Taylor had seemingly lost interest in recruiting following the infamous 1972 incident in Minnesota during which several of his players were beaten and kicked by Gophers players. The legendary coach finally retired following the 1976 season, a year in which the Buckeyes finished 6-20 and dead last in the Big Ten with a 2-16 record.
Miller immediately began to turn the program’s fortunes around with his first major signing, shooting guard Kelvin Ransey out of Macomber High School in Toledo, the same program that would later send Jim Jackson to Ohio State. With Ransey in the lineup and Miller calling the shots from the sidelines, the Buckeyes began to improve. They finished 9-18 in 1977 and then climbed to 16-11, 19-12 and 21-8 the following three seasons.
Joining Ransey in the fold during the early portion of the Miller era were such notables as Herb Williams, Jim Smith, Carter Scott, Clark Kellogg and Larry Huggins. Later, the head coach signed the likes of Tony Campbell, Granville Waiters, Troy Taylor, Ronnie Stokes, Dennis Hopson and Brad Sellers, and the Buckeyes enjoyed three more 20-win seasons and the 1986 NIT championship in Miller’s final six years at the helm.
Miller recruited and signed six players at Ohio State – Ransey, Williams, Kellogg, Campbell, Sellers and Hopson – who became NBA first-round draft selections. During his tenure, Miller also mentored several notable assistant coaches including Jim Cleamons, Randy Ayers, Chuck Machock and Bob Huggins.
Despite his success, the perception during the Miller era was that the program couldn’t get over the hump. The Buckeyes never won a Big Ten championship during Miller’s tenure and made only four NCAA Tournament fields, never advancing past the regional semifinals. Before what would be his final season, Miller decided to discuss his options with then Ohio State athletic director Rick Bay. That meeting wound up with an agreement between the two that the 1985-86 season would be Miller’s last in Columbus.
The Buckeyes, of course, went on to win the NIT championship at the end of that season, and when Miller left Columbus at the age of 46, he landed squarely on his feet at the University of Northern Iowa. Ironically, he was joined there a couple of years later by Bruce after he was fired at Ohio State.
Miller served at UNI for a dozen years, earning Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year honors in 1997, before retiring from the game. In 37 seasons, he compiled an overall record of 568-419, which included a 176-118 mark at Ohio State. His record with the Buckeyes also included an enviable 112-35 home record in St. John Arena.
Since his retirement, Miller and his wife, Dee, spend most of their time in a small Great Lakes community in northwestern Michigan. The couple, which has been married for 43 years, also travels the world visiting their three children – Amy, who lives in the Cayman Islands with her husband and three children; Carrie, a teacher who has practiced her profession in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia; and Ben, who was recently hired as head men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
In addition to wishing Coach Miller a happy birthday, several others deserve our best wishes today. They include veteran French actor Louis Jourdan (“Gigi,” “Octopussy”); NHRA star Shirley Muldowney; Czech Republic president Václav Klaus; author Salman Rushdie; actresses Phylicia Rashad (“Cosby”), Kathleen Turner (“Body Heat,” “Romancing The Stone”); Poppy Montgomery (“Without A Trace”) and Mia Sara (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”); TV hostess Lara Spencer (“The Insider”); Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Doug Mientkiewicz; Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki; disgruntled former Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall; Heart lead singer Ann Wilson; and former Lakers Girl, Emmy and Grammy award winner and current American Idol judge Paula Adbul.
Today also marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of the best baseball player of all time. Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig was born June 19, 1903, in New York City and became a mainstay at first base for the New York Yankees throughout the 1920s and ’30s. Gehrig set a host of major league records, including his 2,130 consecutive game streak (later broken by Cal Ripken Jr.) and 23 career grand slams (a mark that still stands). But to get an indication of just how good he was, consider that he hit behind Babe Ruth for most of his career. In the 10 full seasons they played together in New York, Gehrig totaled 1,436 RBI to 1,316 for Ruth.
** The news that Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open with ligament damage and stress fractures in his left knee left no doubt that Woods is a truly remarkable athlete. Although he will miss the remainder of this year’s PGA Tour schedule – as well as the Ryder Cup competition – the win at Torrey Pines left him only four major championships behind Jack Nicklaus. I have no doubt that he will surpass Jack’s record. But I don’t think he’s going to get 10 or 12 more majors. As he continues to age and put tremendous amounts of stress on his body, he will begin to break down. It happens to most golfers and it will happen to Tiger, too. Regardless of what he appears to be sometimes, he is still human.
** Amid all the tributes to the late Tim Russert, I discovered that in addition to all of the other things he packed into a very full life, he somehow found time to serve on the board of directors for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
** The Chicago Cubs continue to have the best record in baseball, and their insufferable fans are beginning to believe that maybe this is their year. The Cubbies, of course, haven’t been in a World Series since 1945 and haven’t won one since 1908. If you know the last manager to win the world title with the Cubs was Frank Chance, then chances are pretty good you know Waveland Avenue from Sheffield Avenue.
** Forget about Notre Dame joining a conference any time soon. The university just extended their contract with NBC to show Fighting Irish football games through the 2015 season.
** The Yankees just signed journeyman pitcher Sidney Ponson. Who’s next on their radar? Eric Milton? Brandon Claussen? Jimmy Haynes?