As he experienced all the festivities that went into Thursday night’s exhibition game at Value City Arena, Eldon Miller called the day a “magic moment” for a coach.
The 79-year-old former Ohio State coach was given the opportunity to reflect on his 10 years with the program as he returned as a volunteer assistant for UNC Pembroke, where his son, Ben, is the coach. Before he was recognized with a pregame announcement and ovation from the fans, Miller came to the arena for a midday interview session with a handful of reporters.
The building is just down the road and across the street from St. John Arena, where Miller patrolled the sidelines from 1977-86, but he had no interest in returning there.
“That wouldn’t be very meaningful to me, walking into the arena,” he said. “That’s a place. The reception before and after the game, that’s real. That’s love in the purest sense. That is very meaningful.”
Miller inherited a program that had fallen on hard times under a legendary coach. Fred Taylor led the Buckeyes to their only national championship, which came in 1960, but in his final season they posted a 6-20 overall record including a 2-16 mark in the Big Ten.
Taylor was one of the first people Miller said he went to see upon getting the job.
“He wasn’t real happy with the administration, I can say that to you, but he was not unhappy with me,” Miller said. “When he was managing The Golf Club he let me come out there and play quite often. No one did more for basketball in the state of Ohio than Fred Taylor. To say it was an honor to follow him, that’s an understatement, because you have probably the coach who transformed Ohio State basketball and transformed Big Ten basketball. Ohio State transformed Big Ten basketball under Fred Taylor throughout the 60s.”
Miller had ties to the football program, too. In an interview with The Dispatch last week, he described being a high school senior in 1957 when he was throwing the shot put at the state track meet and saw coach Woody Hayes on hand to watch. There, they both saw a thrower named Clark Kellogg compete.
He would eventually be Clark Kellogg Sr.
“Who would’ve known that 20 years later I’d be recruiting that guy’s son, who’s one of the all-time great players at Ohio State and great people I’ve ever been around?” Miller said. “I’ve got so many stories about things like that.”
Asked about some of favorite memories, Miller flipped the script and went a different route and tied it into football. It happened on Dec. 29, 1978, and it was among Miller’s best wins.
“I’ll give you the worst moment,” he said. “We beat Duke. They were No. 1 in the country. In Madison Square Garden. The day coach Hayes was fired. What’s really sad to me is people outside the state didn’t really know coach Hayes. People remember coach Hayes for that incident. I remember coach Hayes, following him to Children’s Hospital, going into the burn unit about once a week. That’s how I remember coach Hayes: not for his football wins, but what he stood for as a caring person. People remember him because he lost it for a second. That second doesn’t define coach Hayes. That’s a moment that I remember maybe as much as any.”
There was also a controversial loss to Indiana in 1980, a game the Hoosiers won 76-73 in overtime to decide the Big Ten championship. Asked about the questionable officiating that gave Herb Williams a crucial fifth foul, Miller chuckled.
“I’ve won and lost games because of officiating decisions,” he said. “Unfortunately, the people with the whistle are human so they’re going to make mistakes. My first boss said, ‘You have to be good enough that you can play over the officials.’ He was a football coach. You can’t always do that, but most of the time you do. Yeah, there was a charge call on Larry Huggins that turned a game against Minnesota that was not a good call. We probably got some going our way.
“The worst call of course was against Herb when he wasn’t in the action. It was the fifth foul on him and he wasn’t in the play. But, it happens. What are you going to do?”