College Sports

‘He is the program.’ UNC’s first and only fencing coach retires after 52 years.

After teaching a lesson one evening in early June, Ron Miller and two fencers lingered in UNC’s fencing room.

The two fencers, each in their mid-60s and who still compete, were taking off their sports garb: masks that protect their faces and necks and off-white athletic suits, each with a thin layer of metal that covers their torsos. Mobile fans blew the humid, stagnant air of Fetzer Room 07 — the practice facility of the UNC varsity fencing team, which is hidden at the end of one of the several narrow hallways in Fetzer Gym on campus.

The three were sitting and conversing casually as they often have in their 15 years of training together, when one of the fencers asked Miller a question.

“Why do you still work with us?”

The long-time UNC fencing coach, who’d retire at the end of the month, thought it over for a moment. The question touched on a reality he’d been trying to make peace with as the end of his station moved closer — the reality that, for the first time in over half a century, Miller wouldn’t be the head fencing coach at UNC.

Until late June, Miller, 74, had been at the helm of the Tar Heels’ fencing program for 52 years. He was the school’s only fencing coach since it started in 1967. He’d coached 14 collegiate All-Americans, five U.S. National Fencing Team selections and two Olympians, and he’d sent at least one UNC fencer to the NCAA Championships in each season of his career.

In his more than half-century tenure as UNC’s head men’s and women’s fencing head coach, Miller had built an elite program in a sport virtually unknown to the Bible Belt prior to his arrival. He retired from his UNC coaching position on June 30, a little more than a year after announcing his retirement in April 2018.

“He’d never say it,” said Larry Gallo, UNC’s executive associate athletic director. “But he is the program.”

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UNC-CH Fencing Head Coach Ron Miller gives a lesson at the Apex Fencing Academy in Apex, NC on June 27, 2019. Miller will be retiring after 52 years of coaching the UNC fencing team but will still stay active in the sport. Bryan Cereijo

To Miller, this university, this town, this sport, this job — this was home. And with his departure from this job, part of him was leaving.

He turned to his 60-year-old fencers and replied: “You’re just as important as the people on my varsity team. You’re the same. I still take fulfillment in your success.”

Surprised by Miller’s answer, the two fencers renewed their focus and set goals for themselves that evening, Miller said. And he will see those plans through.

Because he’s not done being Coach Miller.

He’s not ready, that is, to leave home entirely.

‘In a hurry’

Miller had walked through the job convention for over an hour without any luck.

It was 1967, and the 21-year-old graduate student, who’d always charged in and out of his phases of life with an unrelenting hustle, didn’t have a job.

A few years earlier, Miller thought he’d be someplace completely different. He’d grown up in a modest home in St. Petersburg, Fla., the son of a stay-at-home mother and a father who’d come from wealth but rebelled to be an outdoor landscaper. By his final year in high school, in 1962, Miller planned to become an architect. But that year’s winter changed Miller’s life trajectory: Miller’s father lost 20 years of work and almost 60,000 plants due to a freeze, and Miller had to delay his university aspirations and work his way through a local two-year community college before attending Florida State.

For work, he designed pools and other small home additions.

“I worked 20 to 40 hours a week plus going to school, and discovered that 12 hours behind the drawing board was not who I was,” he said.

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UNC-CH Fencing Head Coach Ron Miller gives a lesson at the Apex Fencing Academy in Apex, NC on June 27, 2019. Miller will be retiring after 52 years of coaching the UNC fencing team but will still stay active in the sport. Bryan Cereijo

Miller was an only child and spent a lot of his free time in childhood on his friends’ front steps, talking them into playing any and every sport. In 1961, as a high school junior, he was introduced to fencing, a sport his best friend took a keen interest in and one that seemed to follow Miller throughout the rest of his life. By graduate school at Eastern Kentucky, Miller had written a thesis paper on kinesiology and fencing, and he’d kickstarted the club fencing program there with nothing but two sets of fencing equipment and a flier he put up in the gym one afternoon.

“The thing I enjoyed most was athletics or teaching, so when I finished with the community college, I transferred to Florida State, did a three-year physical education major in two years and a two-year Masters degree in one,” he said. “I told you I was in a hurry, right?”

After grad school graduation, Miller was at a higher education job convention, where he ran into one of his former professors — one who’d read Miller’s thesis that involved fencing. The professor took him to meet UNC’s chairperson of the Department of Physical Education, Richard Jamerson, who was looking for someone to teach an assortment of sports, including fencing.

From that encounter, Miller became UNC’s first fencing coach in 1967.

‘There’s only one’

Miller quickly planted roots in Chapel Hill.

He inherited the fencing program that, prior to his arrival, was just a club team. Back when he started, in 1967, his job was a bit different. His first year, which was the first year the fencing athletes earned varsity letters, Miller didn’t have a women’s team, as UNC’s campus was comprised mostly of men. The fencing facility was housed in a repurposed archery range building behind Fetzer Gym called “The Tin Can.”

He couldn’t recruit the way he could in the early-2000s and later, like at tournaments and national meets. He had to get creative finding players from UNC’s student pool by posting fliers on light posts and bulletins about open tryouts; going to pick-up basketball games at Woollen Gymnasium, finding the players that had smooth footwork and quick hands and pulling them aside to give his sales pitch, like he used to as a kid.

“‘Obviously you’re a great athlete. Do you want to represent Carolina?’”

Matt Jednak, Miller’s successor at UNC, said he was first introduced to the sport by a flier he saw on campus in 2003. Jednak had gone to UNC to swim, but an injury that caused him to lose flexibility in his ankle made his varsity athletic aspirations seem impossible.

“I’d just finished up a long slew of rehab, and I was walking around campus,” Jednak said. “And I saw a flier that said, ‘No experience necessary. Come try out.’”

So he did. And now, Jednak, the second coach in UNC’s history, is intent on carrying on Miller’s legacy.

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UNC-CH Fencing Head Coach Ron Miller poses for a portrait on June 27, 2019. Miller will be retiring after 52 years of coaching the UNC fencing team. Bryan Cereijo

“I walked on to the program 16 years ago and learned the sport from Coach,” he said. “And when I say ‘Coach,’ by the way, there’s only one. If it’s ‘Coach,’ it’s Ron Miller.”

Soon enough, the years started blending together. Home was home, and Miller wasn’t racing against the clock, jumping to and from different stages of life. Chapel Hill, UNC, fencing, “coach” were parts of him that he never wanted to leave.

At the end of his career, Miller had notched over 1,600 wins. He’d won Collegiate Coach of the Year twice and ACC Fencing Coach of the Year three times. But numbers were never as important to him: He more so cared about setting his players up for success in every phase of life, including off the fencing strip.

“We learn from the sport more than just the athletic part of it,” Jednak said. “Emulating that part of the program is something meaningful to me.”

Sydney Persing, a varsity fencer who graduated this year, said that Miller’s impact on the team won’t go away because he’s retired, and the impact the team had on him won’t go away, either.

“He’s not done,” Persing said. “I don’t know anyone who after 52 years finally reaches retirement, and basically doesn’t retire. I think that’s a good way to sum up his legacy.”

‘It’s time’

On the last day of camp in his last week as coach at UNC, Miller sat on a red and black stepping stool in the Apex Fencing Academy, the club where he often gives lessons on weekday afternoons during the summer.

He was fiddling with a remote that controlled a scoreboard, officiating a scrimmage epee bout between two boys. When the time on the scoreboard ran out, he lifted himself from his seat, limped a few steps favoring a braced right leg and called out to the rest of the gym: “When you finish the bout you’re in, it’s a day!”

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UNC-CH Fencing Head Coach Ron Miller poses for a portrait on June 27, 2019. Miller will be retiring after 52 years of coaching the UNC fencing team. Bryan Cereijo

A lot of what Miller has done over the years has changed. As a leader on campus, he’s witnessed more change in Chapel Hill than maybe anyone in the athletic department. He said his coaching style has had to adapt to a generation of students that now come in with different skill levels, as opposed to groups of novice walk-ons he could teach together.

But his reasons for coaching haven’t changed. He’s retired, but he’s still Coach Miller. He plans to be at the gym three days a week, giving lessons and running camps. He hasn’t completely left home, not from the sport or the role as coach. He probably never will.

In fact, the very reason he’s retiring from UNC aligns with the values of the mentor and coach he’s always tried to be. He’s doing it, he said, to make room for his former players to blossom — so they have more room for success themselves.

“The fulfillment that any coaching job has is seeing the success of the athletes — not only in the sport, but also in every aspect of their lives,” Miller said. “In fairness to the people that have worked with me to help develop the program, they need an opportunity to have that same responsibility that I had ...

“It’s time for someone else to take it.”

After all of the kids cleared out of Apex Fencing Academy a little after 4 p.m., Miller zipped up his equipment bag. He traversed the facility’s small parking lot and loaded his gear into the trunk of his car.

He then smiled, as if he was taking a moment to reflect on the peace he’s made with relinquishing his helm — a moment to acknowledge that this will be the last time he’ll be here as head coach of the Tar Heel fencing program.

And then, quickly, he snapped back into focus and drove to his next lesson, showing no sign of slowing down.

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Alex interned at The News and Observer from May 2019 to August 2019, covering sports and however it intersected with life in the Triangle. Before that, Alex graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May and was a three-year staffer on UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. He now writes for The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C.