In our rush to publicize the retirements of four great college coaches last week, we managed to release our article just as the legendary Ron Miller, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also announced his retirement.
The recipient of multiple honors throughout his epic career with UNC, Ron started the school’s first-ever fencing program back in the season of 1967-68. However, far from limping into retirement, he was only recently named the 2018 Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year, for both his men’s and women’s teams.
In February, his Division I women’s squad pulled a huge upset at this year’s ACC Championships in Greensboro, beating eventual NCAA Champions Notre Dame in the final.
“This is one of the finest teams I’ve coached,” Miller said in the wake of that already famous victory.
“I don’t know that it was improbable,” he continued, “I think it was not expected, and there’s a difference. We felt comfortable that we would come out with a minimum of third place, possibly second, and maybe, maybe first.”
It was the ninth ACC title overall for Miller and broke a long drought of conference victories. His first eight had all come for his men’s teams between 1971 and 1980, when not even some of the parents of his current charges were born.
“It’s difficult to sum up the quality of Ron’s character and impact on the program in just a few words,” said Sydney Persing, a junior on the UNC women’s foil squad.
“I think I speak for the entire team when I say he’s put more heart into this program in 51 years than most people could have in 150. That’s why, even though it will be a difficult adjustment next season without him, our team spirit, work ethic, and culture will continue on just as strong as they’ve always been.”
Only last year Miller was honoured by USA Fencing with the Jack Baker Award for Service to US Fencing at the USA Fencing Hall of Fame Awards in Salt Lake City. Other accolades had preceded it, including the USFCA’s Award of Merit in 2016, and the highly esteemed Collegiate Coach of the Year Award in 1983 and 1986.
As mentioned, Miller’s association with Carolina Fencing is the story of Carolina Fencing. He has been there from the start.
However, the seeds of his career were born slightly before that, during his time at a graduate school in Eastern Kentucky, where he was obtaining his masters in physical education.
“I put up a sign in the gym asking anybody who wanted to fence to show up,” Miller said.
Before this, Miller had only fenced with a friend (who ended up competing at the NCAA finals for Georgia Tech), at a private club that met at the local Y in Florida. At high school he’d been on the basketball, track, wrestling and football teams.
“One hundred people showed up,” he said, “and 40 of them bought equipment and stuck with it.”
Prior to this result, Miller had expected to coach wrestling or track, but fencing soon became more than just a backup plan.
However, it may not have happened at all had he not run into an old professor at a job fair. It was he who recommended him for the job at Carolina, based entirely on a kinesiology paper he had written about the sport.
Richard Jamieson, the chair of the physical education department, was the man who hired him, with the aim of growing fencing into a varsity-level sport certified by the NCAA.
The first year was somewhat of a pilot, with ‘Dick’ telling Miller; ‘if you do well, I’ll find a way to hep you go varsity.’
It did go well. Between 1970-1980, UNC was the dominant force in the Atlantic Coast Conference, winning eight out of ten ACC Championship’s, when fencing teams were men only.
However, these tournaments were discontinued after 1980, when many schools stopped sponsoring fencing as an ACC championship sport. It was an unfortunate consequence of Title IX – a 1972 federal civil rights ruling that required the proportion of female athletes competing on sports teams to be equal to that of the proportion of women in its student body.
The ACC tournament was not reinstated until 2015, but that hadn’t stopped Miller’s teams from competing against, and beating some of the sports elite programs. Once it returned, he was named 2015 ACC Women’s Coach of the Year.
Since he began as Head Coach, Miller has sent at least one fencer to the NCAA finals in every year of his tenure, including 1983 NCAA Saber Champion and 1992 Olympian, John Friedberg. At a celebration of Miller’s 50th year at the school in April 2017, Friedberg called the Carolina program a ‘unique, special environment to learn in.’
His other Olympic alumni is Nhi Lan Le, a Vietnamese arrival who fenced for the USA at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
In addition to his ‘Tar Heel’ hero status, Miller was a coach on the US Junior World Team in 1981, the senior World Championship team in 1983, and on the 1987 Junior Pan Pac American team. From 1985 to 1995 he was a director of the USFA’s National Coaches College and between 1983 and 1991, served as director of the USFA’s National Junior Elite Summer Programs.
Much like anyone who has come across Miller throughout his career, UNC Director of Athletics ‘Bubba’ Cunningham was full of praise.
“Ron’s dedication to Carolina and the sport of fencing is just incredible,” he said.
“The fact that he’s been here for more than half a century is amazing on its own, but it’s even more impressive when you know the impact he’s had on Tar Heel students over that time.
“On behalf of everyone in Carolina Athletics and the entire UNC family, we salute him for his success and thank him for his service.”
Miller steps down with a combined career win/loss record of 1553-868, but an impact that can’t be valued in numbers alone.
“There are so many things we want our student-athletes to take away, far beyond whether they win or lose a match,” Miller said.
“I’ve always wanted them to focus on hard work, self-belief, selflessness with teammates, strength of character and personal responsibility, and hopefully they’ve taken all of that with them after they graduate.”
Fencing.net would also like to thank Ron for all of his hard work and dedication to the amazing sport of fencing and wishes he and his family all the best in retirement.
April 27 Editor’s Note: Coach Miller won the ‘Jack Baker Award’; updated the previously incorrect award name.