By Kyle Daubs
Aislinn Parish has a point.
“Honestly, ” she said, “who isn’t entertained when Miller gets lit up?”
Charleston’s Jeff Miller, who appears to be coaching his final few high school girls basketball games. He’s always been animated and engaged on the sidelines.
His players call him passionate, competitive and supportive – traits that have helped him make them better players through the past 14 years.
Miller, who started his high school career coaching boys at Windsor, took over Charleston’s boys basketball for five seasons, beginning in 1997. After a five-year hiatus, he started coaching the CHS girls, going 20-8 that initial season. Miller hasn’t skipped a beat since then, winning 20 games seven more times for 246 total victories and a .672 winning percentage with the program.
But a coach is more than wins, losses and statistics. Who better to reveal that than former players? Here are their stories.
Becoming a winning program
The year before Miller took over as coach at Charleston, the team went 11-16 – the most wins in a season since 2000-01. The team had averaged fewer than five wins a seasons in the five seasons prior to 2006-07, when Sam Root left and Miller took over,
Junior Stephanie Harper and a sophomore pack of future all-conference-worthy players helped turn CHS into a true contender in the Apollo, finishing with a 20-8 season, in 2007-08.
Harper, now married with the last name Mpianing, helped lead Charleston to a school-record 24 wins the following season. She credits the culture shift to Miller’s style of coaching.
“Having Coach Miller as a coach was fun and interesting,” said Mpianing. “He was very passionate about the game and it shined through his coaching style. He was always so supportive, goal-oriented and knowledgeable about the game.”
Mpianing started as a freshman and sophomore, scoring 35 points in the game during her freshman season. However, the success never followed. By her senior year, the Trojans were playing in the highly-competitive Charleston Holiday Tournament Championship against state-ranked Edwardsville.
“And, if anyone remembers, they were a powerhouse,” said Mpianing. “Needless to say, we were losing by a lot. Despite that, I still played hard and tried to keep everyone’s head up. I remember Coach took me out he said, ‘Wow, I never seen you play like that.’ And, at the moment, I knew he was proud of me.”
A surprise season
Haley Sparks remembers the doubts.
The 2009-2010 girls basketball season was getting ready to start and the team had lost the school’s all-time leader in points and rebounds after a school-record 24-4 season. Despite returning a strong trio that included Sparks, Holly Wholtman and Brittany O’Dell as seniors, the team decided to make a bet with their coach.
“He promised us if we won 25, he was going to get a tattoo,” said Sparks. “He didn’t think it was possible, since we had lost Stephanie Harper to graduation. But we did it. He ended up getting a tattoo on his little chicken arms. We all always had more muscle than he did.”
There’s even a picture (above) to prove it.
“There is a picture of Coach Miller, Holly Wholtman, and I flexing at our IBCA All-Star Game after he got his tattoo,” said Sparks. “His arms were definitely smaller than ours.”
Sparks enjoyed exchanging friendly barbs with Miller. Even during her days coaching as an assistant coach, the two had what, she said, felt like a father-daughter bond. In essence, their competitive drive virtually made them identical at times on the sideline.
“Coach Miller & I had 100 percent a love/hate relationship,” said Sparks. “The both of us would go to war for one another, But as soon as one of us can make fun of the other, it’s game over. Coach Miller was my biggest critic playing and was hard on me, but he’s gotten soft in his old age.”
While many see an animated coach on the sidelines, Sparks saw the soft side that few people viewed.
“We were his first group when he started coaching at Charleston,” said Sparks. “So we all had a bond. Senior night, the seniors all got grey shoelaces, strictly for all the grey hair we had given him throughout our years. He cried, even though he says he didn’t.”
Maintaining high expectations
After three losing seasons, a 12-12 year in 2013-2014 seemed to be the turnaround season to bring Charleston back to its winning ways.
Freshmen Morgan Sherwood, Dakota Crowder, and Kyler Rennels had started the previous two seasons. That experience was key.
“He was passionate, for sure,” said Sherwood. “He was fun, though. He had this friendship with all of us that made us closer as a team. He wanted us to be together but also knew how to push our buttons. That’s for damn sure.”
ALL-DECADE GIRLS BASKETBALL TEAM: Sherwood, Littleford pace impressive squad. Read full report here.
That included having the right mentality. If you weren’t ready to help the team win, then you weren’t going to be playing very often.
“It was pretty nerve-racking having him as a coach because I was so used to having Coach Jackson and Coach Brinker when I was a freshman and on JV,” said Parish. “I would just see the varsity girls getting yelled at a lot more than we would. But once I began starting varsity my sophomore year I saw the level that he expected us to play at, and I understood why he wanted so much from us.”
Keeping the team mentally sharp
The 2014-2015 team won a regional championship for the first time in 22 years. That team had some great pieces in juniors Parish, and Ally O’Dell, as well as talented freshmen Paige Swango and Hope Griffin. Sherwood calls Parish and O’Dell the toughest players on that team.
Miller had a way of poking the bear to gain the competitive edge.
“He picked on Ally O’Dell and Aislinn (Parish) a lot,” said Sherwood. “He would scream, ‘You’re fired’ to them. For me, nine times out of ten, I knew somebody on the other team. He would always use that against me.”
Sherwood played travel ball with many players in the area. Miller used that to light a fuse in his star player.
“He would say, ‘You going to let Sierra Thompson walk all over you tonight?” said Sherwood. “I was best friends with pretty much the entire Effingham team at the time. He’d always say something about how they were going to play better than me. It’d get me so fired up, but, at the same time, that’s what made it fun. It made it more competitive.”
Parish might be the only girl in history to receive the bulk of the yelling and return it with a smile. She said that response also helped her at Lake Land College.
“Having him as a coach and being yelled at a good amount also prepared me pretty well for having Dave Johnson as a future coach,” said Parish. “I thought Miller stomped his foot a lot until I went to go watch my first Lakers basketball game and saw Coach Johnson on the sideline.”
Discipline and pride
Sherwood and Parish say that Miller’s coaching revitalized Charleston into a yearly contender in the area.
After winning a regional, Sherwood’s senior year came to a close despite a last-second shot bouncing the wrong way for Charleston against Rochester. Sherwood finished her career with school-record 1,876 points, recently broken by Shae Littleford, and later played collegiately at Southern Indiana University.
Sherwood says finishing the top three all-time at CHS in rebounds, assists, and steals did not mean as much as an aspect that could not be quantified: Trust.
“He had a lot of trust in me,” said Sherwood. “I pretty much played position one through five. I wanted the ball in my hands and he knew I was hungry for it. He put a lot of trust in me and I knew I had the trust of my teammates at the time too, which is what led to a really good time.”
Parish said Miller taught her discipline.
“Having Coach Miller as a coach means a lot more to me now I think than it did when I was one of his players,” said Parish. “It was important for me to learn discipline and leadership and Coach Miller helped me develop both. I thank him for that.”
There was a reason Parish smiled every time she heard her coach yell. She knew he cared.
“He was tough on me, and I think it mostly intimidated me my sophomore year because I was still getting used to the rhythm of the varsity girls and I didn’t want to mess up,” said Parish. “But anytime I got yelled at or pushed, I would just remember every summer basketball camp when our coaches would remind us that if you’re being yelled at, it means the coach is wanting you to succeed and what you really should be worried about is if the coach stops yelling at you because it means they aren’t paying attention to you.”
Looking to continually evolve
In 14 seasons, Miller owns eight 20-win seasons. The team this year would have likely won more than 20 games and could have made a run at the school-record 29-1 team in 2018-2019.
UT-Martin bound guard Shae Littleford had contributed to 75 wins leading into this final week. She will leave the school as the all-time leader in points and as a multi-All-State selection. She said that her college choice was influenced by some of the qualifies she sees in her high school coach.
“He was a great coach,” said Littleford. “He is one of the toughest coaches I have played for, and I looked for those same qualities that he has in a college coach.”
When coaches are in the game for as long as Miller, they tend to be stuck in their old ways. However, Miller’s blend of old and new school helped keep his squads fresh. Littleford said Miller has some of the best lines, such as yelling that his guards were “slower than pond water.”
Even in the most intense practices, he could follow it up with something fun, such as losing a game of H-O-R-S-E.
“My sophomore year season we had a few girls sick so coach decided to have a horse tournament,” said Littleford. He kept bragging how he’s never lost a game of horse. Well, he and Baley Myerscough met in the tournament and they played for so, so long. The game lasted like 35 minutes, and Baley beat him. He then tried to tell all of us that he is still undefeated because it wasn’t an “official game of horse;” therefore, he still hadn’t lost. We all know, though, that he was in denial that he lost.”
Going out as a winner
Mpianing finished her career with 1,767 points and 268 steals, school records at the time, and remains the all-time leading rebounder with 1,000. The 2009 JG-TC Player of the Year eventually played her career at Kentucky State.
Getting to that point, Mpianing remembers how much Miller put into player development.
“He always stressed how important the fundamentals are in both basketball and life,” said Mpianing. “ Square up, box out, don’t be afraid to take a charge and defense. Coach Miller was a great coach because he loved the game, he loved his players, and, most importantly, he loved winning the most.”
Sometimes, winning came at a cost. With high expectations, there came criticism. With criticism, there were sometimes hurt feelings.
However, it was all love at the end of the day.
“I would always take every criticism as a lesson I could learn to make myself a better player for my coach and my teammates,” said Parish.
Miller has a chance to finish his career with 248 career victories on Thursday. He is the all-time leader in wins for the girls side, joining the ranks of Hall of Famer Merv Baker as the all-time winningest basketball coach on the boys side.
When most think of Merv Baker, they think of some of the similar traits that have been described as Miller.
A desire to win.
With that said, Baker’s best quality came from wanting better his player to grow into a better person. . A tradition that appears to have been kept alive over the last 14 seasons.
“He pushed me and the teams he coached to be the best we could be,” said Littleford . “He held us accountable and that pushed me and my teammates to become the best players, teammates, and people we can be.”