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Miller’s sure, steady hand nets a Massey award

Beth Miller
Beth Miller

Beth Miller grew up in Landis, a mill town north of Kannapolis with 2,000 people at most – nearly all of whom in some way knew her parents.

They owned and operated a service station when service actually meant service, Miller said. They pumped gas, washed windshields and checked oil and the air in your tires. They added an appliance store next door, creating one of the few places in the country where you could drop off a car for a repair and buy a refrigerator while you waited.

They succeeded, Miller said, because they put in long hours, worked hard and treated people right. Her father ended up working as the town manager, maybe because people knew that someone who ran an honest business would do the same for the town, she said.

Miller and her younger sister had a wonderful childhood, but still there was something missing: sports.

She remembers showing up early before the start of Little League games, itching to get out on the field. But all she could do was watch because Little League was only for boys back then. Some of the coaches let her take a few swings during batting practice, only to shoo her off the field once the game was about to start.

By the time she reached junior high, there were a few girls’ sports, but they had a different set of rules as if to suggest girls were not quite capable of playing the game the right way. When Miller was on the school’s basketball team, they played six-on-six, three forwards on one end of the court, three guards on the other, and they could not cross the centerline.

When she got to high school, there were still six players, but two were rovers and were free to play full court. “I was a rover,” Miller said.

There was also a rule that a player could only dribble three times before she had to pass or shoot. “I remember practicing so that I could go from half court to the basket in three dribbles,” Miller said.

She laughs about those rules now, but in retrospect sees them as a kind of metaphor for the separate and unequal way women’s athletics was treated. “At that time, you accepted it because that was just the way it was,” Miller said.

In her senior year at South Rowan High School, she averaged 20.6 points out of the school’s total 37.5-point average. After graduation in 1965, she left for Appalachian State to become a high school physical education teacher and coach.

She played women’s volleyball, basketball and tennis for the intramural program, and when she graduated in three years she was voted the most athletic girl in the 1968 class.

While student teaching did not live up to her expectations, the experience helped redirect her to consider teaching and coaching at the college level. With that new goal in mind, she stayed on at Appalachian to earn her master’s degree in health and physical education.

She became the first coach of the women’s varsity basketball and volleyball teams when those programs began in 1969. Three years later, she got a fellowship to pursue a doctorate of arts, a degree that focuses almost exclusively on teaching, at Middle Tennessee State.

Before Miller had finished her dissertation, the chair of Carolina’s physical education department recruited her. Her teaching contract specified that she would also be assistant coach on the women’s basketball and volleyball teams, so when the volleyball coach resigned the next year, Miller took her place.

It was a dramatic period of transition, Miller said, not only for herself, but for women’s sports as a whole. When she came to Carolina in 1974, Title IX (the groundbreaking federal law forbidding sex discrimination in all programs at schools that receive federal aid) had been in effect two years. Even so, women’s sports were still relegated to second-class status.

At Carolina, for instance, women’s sports were still part of the physical education department rather then the athletic department, Miller said. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Atlantic Coach Conference did not recognize women’s athletics until 1980, the year Miller led the Carolina women’s volleyball team to its first ACC title. She led her team to three more by 1983, the year her coaching career came to an end.

The switch from the coaching bench to the front office actually began in 1979 when Bill Coby, athletic director at the time, and John Swofford, then the business manager, asked Miller to take over for Swofford, who was about to leave his post to work more closely with the Educational Foundation. Swofford is now the ACC commissioner.

Although she had no background in business management, Coby and Swofford were impressed with Miller’s strong organizational skills and even stronger work ethic.

In 1987, she was promoted to assistant athletic director, then to associate athletic director in 1990, and finally in 1995 to senior associate athletic director, the position she has held for the past 13 years.

Miller said she does not know if she grew into the job or the job grew on her. Either way, she has never regretted the decision to leave coaching for the front office. Her job is to help the Olympic sports programs run smoothly and be successful while operating within athletic department guidelines and budgets.

Under her supervision, 26 such programs have thrived and are consistently ranked among the best in the nation. Combined, they have won 20 NCAA team championships and 126 ACC championships. Hundreds of these champion athletes are named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll, which is equally important to Miller.

“We don’t make any apologies for wanting to win, that is what we should do,” Miller said. But the coaches make it clear to students when they are recruited that they are students first and that earning their diplomas is more important than winning a championship.

Miller may not be a household name but the 19 coaches who lead Carolina’s Olympic sports teams know who she is and how crucial she has been to their success. Many, in fact, nominated her for a 2008 C. Knox Massey Award.

Miller said receiving such an honor was a thrill but it became even more meaningful when she learned that the coaches were so staunchly behind it. Their nominating letters used words like loyalty, dedication and integrity to describe Miller’s long service to Carolina sports.

She likes to think she conducts business with the same simple formula that worked so well for her parents back in Landis: hard work, long hours and a commitment to treat people right.

Miller credits her boss, Athletic Director Dick Baddour for his leadership and for creating a family atmosphere within the department that has made her job fun and rewarding.

After being around 30-plus years, she has fielded the inevitable question of when she will retire. But she is in no hurry to leave a place she still loves being around. Another reason may be a competitive fire that still burns within her as hot as ever. She can still be spotted at most home games, where win or lose, she is there afterward to offer congratulations or support.

In another way, she is still a small-town girl, happy to be in place where she is surrounded by people she admires and trusts. But over the years, Carolina turned into  her town.

“I know a lot of people get up in the morning and dread going to work,” Miller said. “I enjoy my job and I look forward to going to work every day. When I don’t, or when I just feel like I have other things I want to do, I’ll know it’s time to go.”

Originally published by University Gazette: Aug. 27, 2008

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