Miller's Mentoring Spans Into 7th Decade

January 29, 2020

By Mike Spencer
Special for Second Half 

MAPLE CITY – With the dawn this winter of the 2020s, Don Miller is coaching high school basketball in a seventh decade.

That’s rarefied air in Michigan High School Athletic Association circles, but it’s an atmosphere the 73-year-old longtime Maple City Glen Lake basketball coach has enjoyed and plans to continue as long as his health, family and Laker nation lets him.

“I have a passion for the bouncing of balls in a gym,” said Miller, who made his coaching debut at Howell in 1969 but then spent five decades guiding the Lakers’ ship. “The worst headache I may have disappears with that sound as I walk into a gym. The blood pressure goes down and the pleasure goes up – practices or games.”

Miller, admittedly the last man on his varsity basketball team at Southfield High during his playing days, coached a lot of good teams and players at Glen Lake during his varsity tenure (1973-2004) when he posted a 523-210 record.

I didn’t have a lot of basketball skill, but I was a basketball junkie who got the bug to coach and I got better over the years,” Miller said. “I never scored a basket over the years, but I had a lot of players who made me look good. The kids loved the game and had the passion, and we had a spinning wheel of success breeding success.”

A Michigan State University grad, Miller enjoyed watching the Spartans practice after classes, although he never could have forecasted he’d become a Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan (BCAM) Hall of Famer in 1998 or enjoy decades of leading drills.

“Basketball is all about great chemistry, and being with young people sharing a game we love is just wonderful,” Miller said. “And to be able to do it this long is a gift, not a job. I am truly blessed to be in a gym for three hours a day.”

Today, there’s just a handful of active MHSAA coaches with Miller’s experience. Ironically, one of them is Beaverton’s Roy Johnston. Miller was an assistant of Johnston’s back in the early 1970s.

“I’m shocked to see Don still coaching,” said Cody Inglis, a former Suttons Bay athletic director/coach who worked Miller’s camps for a decade and went on to serve as athletic director at Traverse City Central and currently as an MHSAA assistant director. “But it shows that if there’s something you are good at, and something that you are passionate about, that you are never too old to do it.

“Don’s been a wonderful role model for coaching, perseverance and doing it the right way.”

Former player Todd Ciolek, who also has had a child play for Miller, concurred.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Ciolek said of Miller’s tenure. “But when you have a love for something, it makes it easy to do. For him, he’s got a love for this and I think it comes naturally.”

Miller guided the Lakers boys team to the Class D title in 1977 and runner-up finish in 1996. His teams also reached the MHSAA Semifinals twice. His teams won six Regionals, 16 Districts and 14 conference titles.

He stepped down as Glen Lake’s main man after the 2004 season due to health issues, needing a pacemaker and a stent. He continued running his summer basketball camps and became a volunteer assistant coach for former all-state player Todd Hazelton in 2007.

When Rich Ruelas became head coach in 2015, he asked Miller to be his junior varsity coach. Miller did that for three seasons and is now an assistant varsity coach.

“I was reborn!” Miller said. “I don’t eat and sleep basketball like I used to, but I love my three hours each day with these young men who share this common passion. It’s been a lifesaver.

“My role is advisor and listener,” he added. “But watching Rich, he’s me 30 years ago. I love feeding off his intensity.”

I truly enjoy having Coach Miller as part of the program that he helped build,” Ruelas said. “There is nothing he hasn't gone through as a coach, and I have relied on him for advice over the past five years. 

“He just knows the game so well and has made such an impact on the lives of his former players and campers with his ability to teach life lessons through basketball. We are lucky to have a Hall of Fame coach as part of our program, and I don't take it for granted.”

Ruelas and Miller, a retired educator, not only get together three hours in a gym daily, they routinely have “Mornings with Miller,” on the phone as Ruelas makes his 30-minute commute to school.

Ruelas said Miller has already given him some memorable moments – the unbeaten junior varsity team in 2018 that Miller coached, assistance with the Lakers’ 2018 Finals run (Glen Lake finished Class C runner-up) and an opportunity to meet MSU coach Tom Izzo.

“What sticks out to me most is that we cannot go anywhere in the state without Don running into a former camper or player,” Ruelas said. “He has made such a lasting impact on so many, and it is evident in his relationships with his former players over the past seven decades.

“I'm not sure how long he will continue to be on the bench with me, but I know he still has a lot of fire in his belly. As long as he has permission from his wife and is able, I expect him to be there.” 

One of Miller’s trademarks is teaching life lessons first and basketball second.

“Don was a unique coach,” Ciolek said. “He wasn’t a coach of basketball first; he was a coach of ethics and morals and basketball came second.

“Most coaches start with some technique, but he started with the word respect and then engrained in us that there was more beyond basketball. He instilled a set of values in us that ultimately led to victories.”

While Miller has had decades of success, some of the losses were devastating.

“You remember the losses more than the wins, and three last-second losses are forever etched in my brain,” said Miller noting a 1978 loss to Mio and Jay Smith in the Regional Final at Gaylord, a buzzer-beating in 1988 by eventual Class D champ Northport and the 1996 Semifinal loss to Wyoming Tri-unity Christian. “The pain and tears and disappointment of these three were great memories. But losses are part of the game and the boys, now men on those teams, have made me very proud ever since.”

Miller said he’s seen a lot of things change for the better since he started coaching. Players are starting younger and getting better coaching earlier, and that has led to improved talent and team play. There are also nicer gyms and uniforms, and Miller loves the idea of boys sharing the spotlight with girls programs.

His disdains, however, are that larger schools today have kids who tend to specialize in one sport earlier, and the crowd of negative parents is growing.

“Our kids play several sports, and I feel it makes them better,” Miller said. “Playing for other coaches in other sports increases competitiveness and team play. You learn to be a different role player, and that carries over into life. “

Miller said credit for his decades of success goes to his supportive wife, Sandy, and the blind luck of having Paul Christiansen as his first junior varsity coach.

“Paul was my organizer, critic, conscience and cohort for three decades,” Miller said. “He is a Hall of Fame track coach but the real wind beneath my wings. None of this happens without Paul.”

Both Miller and Christiansen were honored by BCAM in 1998, with Miller going into the HOF and Christiansen going into the Hall of Honor.

Miller also credits a number of coaching mentors including the late Larry Glass, a former Big Ten men’s coach and girls basketball coach at Leland, and great players and coaches he recruited to help at his summer camps in Wolverine and Glen Lake.

While Miller savors the friendships with other coaches, he’ll forever cherish his former players, who reciprocated their love by building him a man cave and basketball museum after he retired in 2004 and show up for weekly games of basketball at the Glen Arbor Town Hall – a 40-year-old tradition – with fellowship afterward.

“They call, email and treat me to meals out which really is too bad for my figure but great for my ego and friendships,” Miller admitted. “I love my boys (now men) and for that, I am truly the luckiest.”

“I was fortunate enough to be coached by Don when he was just starting out at Howell,” said Tom Murray, former Bay City John Glenn and Standish-Sterling Central coach. “He changed my life and many of my classmate’s lives.

“Don’s touched so many lives, it’s incredible. He instilled a lifelong love of basketball in me. He is a fantastic coach and man.”

Mike Spencer is a former MHSAA referee and sportswriter for the Bay City Times, Midland Daily News and Leelanau Enterprise and freelancer for both the Enterprise and the Traverse City Record Eagle.

Seven Decades of Miller Highlights

1960s – Last man on the Southfield High team. Watching MSU practice after class without a clue that he would coach someday. Getting hired in 1969 as the freshman coach at Howell because no else wanted the job and coaching Morey Ray, his first great player.

1970s – Coaching the 1977 Class D championship season and the slow evolution over the years of the front line of seniors Dave Prentice, Geof Kotila and Rick Baillergeon, who started for three years. Being down three points, without the ball and 30 seconds to go, and winning the Final by two on a shot with one second left against the No. 1-ranked team in the state, Detroit East Catholic, 70-68.

1980s – Keeping the ball rolling and seeing four of those starters – from the 1977 and 1978 teams – become captains of a college team. Reaching the quarters in 1980, the semis in 1981, 1984 and 1985. Standouts included Bob Sutherland (’80), Bill Zolman and Kevin Crinion (’81), Ron Winowiecki and Dan Witkowski (’84), and Mike Crinion and Ross Hazelton (’85). Beating No. 1 Bear Lake at Traverse City Central in front of 2,800 fans – “Loudest gym. Teamwork over talent and Mike Crinion was amazing.”

1990s – Keeping ball rolling as elementary kids became high school stars. Reaching the quarters in 1991 and 1995 and semis in 1996. Standouts included Micah Deegan and Bryan Fosmore (’91), Todd Ciolek and Max Miller (’95), and Jamie Mazurek and Greg Aylsworth (‘96). Semifinal upset of reigning Class D champ Detroit Holy Redeemer, 81-66.

2000s – Retired in 2004, but with recent adoring memories of 2002 league and District championship team led by Chris Milliron and Steve Walker. Team showed great improvement in ability and attitude, avenging losses to Suttons Bay and Traverse City St. Francis with 24-point victories.

2010s – Returned in 2015 as assistant coach to Rich Ruelas and coached the boys junior varsity to 55-5 record over his first two seasons with three sophomores and a freshman on the varsity. Posted two 20-0 seasons.

2020 – Still coaching as an assistant.

PHOTOS: (Top) Glen Lake assistant boys basketball coach Don Miller, with captains Ben Kroll (left) and Reece Hazelton, point to the plaque declaring his legendary status in the program. (2) Miller confers with a pair of players during the 1977 Class D championship season. (3) Miller and his wife Sandy. (4) Miller stands among the many mementos decorating his basketball museum built by former players. (5) Miller stands with longtime assistant Paul Christiansen, holding a ball commemorating Miller’s 400th coaching win in 1994. (Photos courtesy of Don Miller and the Leelanau Enterprise.)

Longtime Coach Researches Photos to Tell Story of Grand Rapids Sports' Past

By Steve Vedder
Special for

September 16, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS – Bob Schichtel always pauses when he comes across the ancient black and white photo long enough to ponder whatever became of the two youngsters adorned in Grand Rapids Union basketball uniforms.

The posed shot shows two players facing each other in a local gymnasium in a photo apparently taken four days after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that launched the country into World War II. Only a handful of fans today would recognize the players' striped, ultra-short shots and simple sleeveless shirts with "Union" emblazed across the front as recognizable basketball uniforms. One holds a battered-looking basketball, while the other looks on. The two players, whose uniform numbers are "4" and "9," aren't really smiling, but still seem as close as any teammates, whether 81 years ago or today.

In fact, it's the look the youngsters share that intrigues Schichtel, whose thankless, pro bono job it is to identify the two players.

"Once you start," said Schichtel, a former longtime Grand Rapids basketball coach, "it's like looking down a deep rabbit hole."

Longtime area coach Bob Schichtel researches hundreds of photos that are part of the Grand Rapids Public Library archive. Schichtel works as a volunteer for the Grand Rapids Public Library trying to identify mostly former Grand Rapids City League basketball players from approximately 1938 through the early fifties. The online photos are mostly from the Robinson Photo Studio Collection taken in conjunction with the Grand Rapids Herald newspaper. The library says the unique collection spans some 950 basketball negatives from the entire Robinson/Herald collection that totals well over 900,000 Grand Rapids photos.

While the work – which amounts to a ton of patience combined with a detective ability – can be exhausting, it's still what Schichtel describes as a labor of love. For example, there's the shot of the two still-unidentified Union players. Schichtel looks at the photo and can't help but wonder whatever happened to the kids. Were they exceptional athletes? Did they leave their marks on Grand Rapids history, whether it was in education, politics, business, industry, the arts or another field? He doesn't even know, as in many photos from this era, whether the two entered the military and thus even survived World War II.

Schichtel has searched everywhere for the answers, but has come up short. Too many times, in fact.

Which isn't to say he'll quit looking or chalk up his research as inconsequential. Schichtel said the foremost reason he spends hours on the project is that many of the athletes he identifies deserve the recognition for achievements far beyond basketball. In many cases former City League basketball, football, baseball, track and tennis athletes became the foundation on which Grand Rapids was built. If Schichtel can uncover an old photo which depicts these youngsters during their high school careers, so much the better, he said.

"It's important to recognize Grand Rapids sports history, and I don't know if we've given enough attention to their past," Schichtel said. "They are what got us here, and I'm a firm believer they need to be recognized for it."

Figuring out that history, however, ranges from, at the least, extremely time consuming to – in too many frustrating cases – virtually impossible. The City League was formed in the late 1920s and featured original schools Grand Rapids Central, Creston, South, Union, Ottawa Hills, Catholic Central and Davis Tech. The league was eventually folded into the Ottawa-Kent Conference in 2008. 

"It was a long, evolving league," Schichtel said.

Schichtel has identified these 1941 Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills basketball players as James Horn (left) and Chuch Reynier. The identification tools available to Schichtel are actually more numerous than most would suspect. For starters, he's formed an impressive database of information by pouring through old City League yearbooks and programs, photos from other collections and microfilm of old newspapers, And then there's also the knowledge gathered by Schichtel himself, a 1968 Grand Rapids Catholic Central graduate. After playing in many old City League gymnasiums, Schichtel went on to compile a 389-197 record in 27 years as the Cougars girls basketball coach. He uses countless City League contacts as both a player and coach to identify athletes. In all, Schichtel taught in the Grand Rapids school system for 34 years.

He also uses the game itself to identify the photos. For instance, he can pinpoint some photos simply by the styles of the uniforms worn by players. He also figures out who is who by other clues such as what the players are doing in the photo. If a player is taking a set shot in the photo, it's likely pre-World War II. The beginnings of the jump shot, or what Schichtel calls "elevation while shooting," is probably mid-1940s. In addition, Schichtel can identify photos through pure basketball athleticism. Players can look a bit awkward in shots from the thirties as compared to players from the late 1940s who were beginning to play with a more obvious flare.

Put all the information together and Schichtel, who has uncovered more than two dozen personal connections to subjects in the photos, believes he has a reasonable shot at identifying them.

Since he signed on with the project, Schichtel figures he's identified about 10 percent of the photos he's viewed. Among the City League athletes he's found shots of Central's John Lavan, who was born in 1890 and played Major League Baseball during the Babe Ruth era and became a military hero who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; Creston basketball player Roger Wilkins, an assistant United States attorney general during the Watergate hearings; Art Spoelstra of Godwin, a former NBA player and member of the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame; and Grand Rapids native Bill Cutler, who turned a chance post-World War II meeting with then-American League president Will Harridge into a position as commissioner of the Pacific Coast League,

Schichtel said gaining information through photos on the people who became the bedrock of Grand Rapids should be celebrated.

"I think it's a great approach for the community; they shouldn't be forgotten," Schichtel said. "Who else is going to do this? Why do I do it? I see a certain, for lack of a better word, a nobility. These kids played for the love of game, and they became the “Greatest Generation.” These kids did great things. It's not just, 'Well, there's No. 58,’ in a photo.

"You want to know more about them. That's the real intrigue for me."

Schichtel identified Grand Rapids South High’s “Fireman Five” of, from left, Fred Esslair, Lee Morrow, Jack Carroll, Bob Youngberg and Bruce Bigford. Tim Gloege of the Grand Rapids Public Library said the collection of photos – and their identification – is continually growing. As more people log onto the library's website, more people want to either add to the collection or have information that leads to an identification. The library estimates about 1,200 photos are searched monthly. But as time grows, many of the original photos are disintegrating. The library is in a constant state of preservation, Gloege said.

"It's a massive project, and we're working to get as many photos online as possible," he said. "The numbers (of photos) we have are rising pretty significantly as people post them on social media.

"When you think of the past and now, you need to realize these are people, kids who used to play basketball and did other things. The work is hard and very time-intensive, but it brings a whole new dimension to history."

Schichtel said he's "kind of picked the low-hanging fruit" on many of the easy photos to identify. But the work will continue.

"Yes, it can be frustrating," he said. "There are limitations if you want it to be accurate. Sometimes you look at a photo and you know it's not going to happen, and you move on. But this a chance to learn about people who made Grand Rapids what it is. That's important to me."

PHOTOS (Top) Two Grand Rapids Union basketball players stand for a photo taken Dec. 12, 1941. (2) Longtime area coach Bob Schichtel researches hundreds of photos that are part of the Grand Rapids Public Library archive. (3) Schichtel has identified these 1941 Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills basketball players as James Horn (left) and Chuch Reynier. (4) Schichtel identified Grand Rapids South High’s “Fireman Five” of, from left, Fred Esslair, Lee Morrow, Jack Carroll, Bob Youngberg and Bruce Bigford. (Historic photos courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Library.)