Eldon Miller doesn’t describe himself as a “yesterday person” save for a specific, vital exception.
“I am not a yesterday person, other than people,” Miller said this week. “The only thing that’s important in my past is people and lessons you can learn. I’m a today person. I’m living with these guys, the (UNC) Pembroke Braves, and I’m loving it.”
Those worlds of yesterday and the present, as well as dozens of people important to his life, will all collide in an emotional way this week. When Ohio State opens the 2018-19 season with an exhibition Thursday night against the Division II Braves, the former Buckeyes coach will be on the bench for the start of his 11th season in his role as a volunteer assistant coach for a program led by his son, Ben.
The matchup initially was the brainchild of Ron Stokes, one of Miller’s former players and now the analyst for the team’s radio broadcasts. Stokes approached director of basketball operations David Egelhoff and coach Chris Holtmann, who gave the green light to the suggestion of playing the Braves.
Miller said he learned of the game when his son delivered the news as a present for his 79th birthday last summer.
“I was very excited,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. My son is kind of a sneaky guy. It’s a great opportunity for (the Braves), but most of all, and I can’t emphasize this enough, I have a chance to see some people that I haven’t seen in a long time.”
During his 10 seasons with the Buckeyes from 1977 to ’86, Miller compiled a record of 174-120 and went 96-84 in Big Ten play, including three runner-up regular-season finishes, and twice reached the Sweet 16. In 1980, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 10 nationally but were knocked off by UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I was (usually) hired to try to build programs that were not competitive,” he said. “We certainly did that. Three years later we might have had the best team in the country and we got upset in the regional by UCLA.”
Midway through his 10th season at Ohio State, Miller and athletic director Rick Bay reached what was described as a mutual decision to make a coaching change. The decision allowed both parties to move on without Miller technically having been fired or quitting, and he ultimately accepted a job at Northern Iowa as the Buckeyes eventually hired Gary Williams as his replacement.
Miller said he doesn’t look back much, but that his contract situation — he had 10 one-year contracts, as was customary at the time — was certainly a challenge.
“I’m not disgruntled,” he said. “I had a great time there, but it was time for them to change and sometimes it means changing the head coach.”
A native of Gnadenhutten, Miller said he has frequently been back to Columbus over the years, both to visit his hometown and visit friends who remain in the area.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to bring a guy back that loves Ohio State and cares about the players that he coached,” Holtmann said. “We always want our guys to have an appreciation for what came before them and this is another way for them to acknowledge it, and it’s a way for us to acknowledge our former players.”
More than a dozen former players, coaches and managers — including the likes of Jim Cleamons, Keith Wesson and Larry Huggins — will enjoy the game together, as well as attend both a pre- and postgame reception for Miller. Holtmann said he plans to visit, as well. It’s exactly the reason why, in addition to being thrilled for the opportunity for the Braves to play the Buckeyes, Miller said he is touched by the gesture.
When asked how he thought the fans might greet him when his name is announced before the game, Miller chuckled.
“Don’t know,” he said. “Wouldn’t venture a guess. When you’re in coaching you get a lot of praise and a lot of criticism, and neither one of those things can impact you very much. Seeing some people and looking them in the eye and shaking hands with them, saying thanks, is basically what it’s all about.”