Four schools, two levels, both genders, and one big setback later, John Miller belongs to basketball's Monumental Victory Club.
Saturday, before a full house of appreciative supporters, Miller earned his 500th career win as a head coach as Mount Saint Joseph Academy, of Flourtown, rolled past visiting Pennridge, 62-29, in a non-league game.
Nine seasons (1977-85) with the boys at Archbishop Ryan, then one more ('86) at Monsignor Bonner. Eighteen (1987-2004) with the women at La Salle University and now a second season with the girls at the Mount.
Many ups, some downs. In that latter category, none was more distressing than resigning from La Salle after an alleged rape involving men's players that never did produce convictions for those allegedly involved.
Twice in a conversation yesterday, speaking of the events that led to his departure from La Salle, Miller used the phrase "the whole mess." He also talked of "having the rug pulled out."
"But you know that saying you always hear, that when God closes a door, He opens a window?" Miller asked. "Well, I'm a firm believer in that.
"Last year at Mount St. Joe's [28-3, Catholic Academies league title, trip to a PIAA Class AAA state semifinal] was the happiest of my coaching life and how I was treated [Saturday] could not have been better. The place was packed like I've never seen it. They had signs. Gave me a cake and a plaque. Sister Kathleen, the school president, made a speech. A bunch of us went out afterward. Just so, so nice."
Miller got his coaching start in January 1972 as an assistant at Roman Catholic to William "Speedy" Morris.
Laughing heartily, Miller recalled, "He introduced me to the kids as a former All-American from Creighton University."
Hardly. Miller freely admits he never made the team at Reading Central Catholic, and he remains amazed to this day that in coaching, "I'm always telling kids to do things that I could never do myself."
From Reading, Miller enrolled at St. Charles Seminary. His vision began to change in '71 when he attended a Catholic League playoff doubleheader at the request of Roman's then-athletic director Father Joseph Denny, who'd gotten to know Miller through St. Charles and knew how nuts-for-hoops he was.
A postgame party was held at the home of one of Morris' assistants. A great time was had by all. So great, in fact, that Miller had to sneak back into the seminary at 4 a.m.
By the time Miller took his final exams in January '72, he knew he was leaving. He was three semesters shy of becoming a priest. Denny convinced Morris to give him a coaching chance and another priest friend arranged for him to become a religion teacher at Archbishop Prendergast. He started both jobs immediately.
Miller was told he was Prendie's first male teacher.
"Then later, when I taught at Hallahan, I was the first male teacher there," he said.
Miller remained with Roman through '76 and was the freshman team's coach for the final 3 seasons. When he applied for the Ryan job, another strong candidate was Bud Gardler, coming off 1 year as an assistant at American University (and before that the coach at Bishop Kenrick.)
"Buddy also went for the Cardinal O'Hara job and that offer came first," Miller said, "so I got the Ryan job."
Gardler remains O'Hara's coach. Morris, now at St. Joseph's Prep, was La Salle's women's coach before switching to the men and he encouraged Miller to go for that job. He has never regretted it.
"I love coaching the girls," Miller said. "When I walk in the gym at the Mount, just the way they all say, 'Hey, coach,' if you've had a rough day, it makes you feel so good."
Miller, a long-time Roxborough resident and a first-year guidance counselor at Bonner, was 130-138 at Ryan. His other records: 20-10 at Bonner, 317-203 at La Salle and 33-3 at Mount St. Joe.
Miller said he greatly appreciates the folks at SaintBasil Academy, in Jenkintown, who made a "courageous decision" to ask him to serve as an assistant for the '05 season (he remained through '06). Really, he has a fond spot for pretty much everyone he has met on the coaching trail.
"When I was coaching at La Salle and we'd travel around, everybody considered me a Philly guy," he said. "I considered that an extreme compliment.
"The basketball people you meet around here are incredible. There's such a unique camaraderie. Sure, the games are fun. But it's the people you meet. You develop endless friendships." *