By Butch Weir, Editor, The Poplarville Democrat
The Picayune Item
While coaching a variety of sports Miller also was a devoted father and husband, and his Christian faith was a continual stream of activity.
Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., Miller was never very far from a sports venue. His father Bob Miller was a teacher, coach and principal during his career.
“I kind of followed in my dad’s footsteps,” he said. “I told him I’d never follow him in administration, but … never say never,” referring to eventually getting his administrative license and for a brief time being co-principal at the high school with Gary Wayne Malley.
“I just loved sports,” Miller said, especially basketball, remembering his dad rigging a make-shift goal from old cloth. “He had to whip me to put me to bed because I just loved it.”
He played all sports in school but basketball continued to be his first love, playing at Woodale High School in Memphis where he was All-state and received a scholarship to Northwest Jr. College in Senatobia from 1975-77 where he played basketball both years.
While there, on more of a dare, he tried out for tennis - and made the team.
They went on to make the finals in doubles being beaten by Gulf Coast Community College.
He then went on to William Carey College (now William Carey University) on a basketball scholarship. At William Carey, he played basketball and tennis while attending school.
While working on his Master’s degree at Carey, he said the school’s tennis coach left and the college said it would pay for his Master’s course work if he would coach tennis and teach some PE classes.
While sports clearly occupied a lot of his time during college he still found time to meet and eventually marry his wife of 33 years, Mary Strahan.
Then, like many graduates fresh out of college, the couple came up against the question of 'where do I go now.'
At that point in 1979 the Pearl River Central school system in Carriere needed a coach and physical education teacher. Miller interviewed and was hired to coach ninth grade boys’ basketball and high school girls’ track at a salary of $10,300, he said. “We thought we were in high cotton,” but in looking for a place to live and “found out $10,300 doesn’t go real far, you know!”
The following year in 1981-82 principal Joe Beech at Poplarville High School offered Miller the job of head basketball coach. Although Miller made the move he spent his first year in Poplarville as assistant boys’ basketball coach under Ricky Mills, he said.
The next year, 1982-83, Miller became head coach while Mary became an English teacher, a position she held the entire time at Poplarville.
Miller didn’t limit his coaching efforts solely to basketball. He developed and coached cross-country track, taking the team to state. He added his other college sport, tennis, to the school’s sport’s offerings and then added golf to his coaching repertoire. Miller laughingly said the only two sports he hasn’t either coached or participated in were softball and soccer.
Miller said tennis is one of those sports that can be built into a life-long sport. As evidence, Miller points to the tennis courts at the high school. The first courts were asphalt, a collaborative effort built with a lot of local effort and donated material and labor, spurred in part by the drive of Mary Miller’s grandmother, Mary Strahan. When new courts were needed, Miller said the community again pitched in behind the efforts of local business leaders such as Pam Applewhite LaHaye and others to build three nice concrete courts.
“Through the years there’s no telling how many scholarships were awarded kids at that time. It’s a great opportunity for kids that don’t play major sports.”
Still, Miller’s first focus in sports and in coaching was basketball, and his influence over the 30-plus years to so many area youth is immeasurable. He said he has gotten many letters from former students thanking him for his influence to their lives.
“You know, that meant more than any plaque or recognition … the feedback from former students, “I just want to tell you thank you for what you have meant for me in my life.”
He says, “that is so much more rewarding than any farewell or anything like that, when you get letters like that or go walking down the street and people say, “Hey, Coach Miller!”
That’s one thing that you never lose, that title, once you get into coaching. You’re always Coach.”
He likes to think he is following in his dad’s footsteps, the impact of his father on his life is readily evident.
“My dad was a good Christian role model. Growing up I never heard my dad say one single cuss word in his life. I know a lot of kids can’t say that. I’ve been very fortunate that my dad took me to church and taught me the correct ways to handle myself.”
Miller says he wanted to be a good role model to the kids he came in contact with, boys and girls. “That was my first priority. I always told my kids any time that you see me cuss, then you’re allowed to cuss.
“And they never saw that in me.” If he is proud of anything in his coaching career it was that his kids “always played hard and they played it the right way.”
“I was proud of the accomplishment … Poplarville really wasn’t a basketball city and that I was able to be successful I have been proud of the teams I’ve coached.”
He said during his career his teams won over 400 games while losing only about 200, with possibly only one season below.500, he said.
He also had the honor of coaching teams that won the Mississippi North-South All-Star game and the Mississippi-Alabama game as both an assistant and a head coach.
But his influence and respect didn’t end there.
Around 2001 the Poplarville School Board asked Miller to become the school’s athletic director, which at first Miller declined. Not satisfied, the board persisted. “I gave in; I’ll give it a shot,” he said. The result was a 12 year stint as AD.
In the meantime, then district superintendent Gylde Fitzpatrick had been, in Miller’s words, pushing him to get his school administrator’s license. Again, Miller didn’t consider himself worthy or qualified, and he was in his 50s. As he later said, ‘never say never. Never say that you’re too old to do something.’ Miller has his administrator’s license, as well as being in charge of discipline.
The discipline role was exciting in one sense, Miller said, noting that it was more reminiscent of coaching “and I could use my strategies in coaching the same way I handled discipline.”
“It was a challenge that I needed at that time…, he said. Miller says the school system has had good administrators and personnel
When Ilene Davis retired as high school principal, Miller and then assistant principal Gary Wayne Malley became co-principals to finish out the 2012-13 school year. Davis was another role model that Miller said he learned much from, both administratively and as a Christian.
In addition to Davis, Malley, current superintendent Carl Merritt, former principal Beach, Dr. Hutto all were good examples, Miller said.
Miller said. “I’ve been blessed to be at Poplarville for 32 years and teach and coach. This is a great city to raise kids.”
Since retiring at the end of June Miller appears to be settling in to a comfortable lifestyle centered on family and a strong Christian faith, with a nod to his personal pleasures of fishing for bass, bream and hunting deer - and a die-hard passion for Boston Red Sox baseball, proudly proclaiming his two outings to Fenway Park.
During much of his 32 years as a coach and educator the family were members of the First Baptist Church of Poplarville.
More recently he and Mary have joined Olive Baptist Church north of Poplarville where they had started married life together 33 years earlier.
He said getting back together with family is one of the other things that he wants to re-connect with especially since he has retired to his farm.
Miller remembers gathering together for family meals at Mary’s grandmother’s house.
“After church we would all go to her house and we’d spend the whole day there. She’d cook for 20, 30 – it didn’t matter – whoever wanted to show up. She’d cook for an army.
“It was just a good family time and our kids could see that. Growing up, family was so important to us.” He says now the same Sunday routine is replaying at Ilene Davis’ home.s
He says now that he has retired that he wants to get involved in that church and be active there. “That’s kind of my passion now.”
The Millers have the three girls Leslie, Whitney and Brittyn, and one grandchild, John Michael.
“The most important thing is to have a good Christian like, and I’ve been totally blessed …”
Longtime slow pitch and fast pitch softball head coach Jonathan Ray has taken over as Poplarville’s Athletic Director.
Ray was approved by the school board recently as the new AD.
He will continue in his role as head coach for both sports as well.