WESTVILLE — A coaching career that almost didn’t get started will conclude with retiring Westville boys’ basketball coach Jeff Millis gaining enshrinement in the state Hall of Fame next month.
The recognition comes for a person who was a head coach for 32 years, was on the sidelines for 844 varsity basketball games and who guided the Tigers into the Vermilion County tournament championship game in 14 of his 27 years at the school.
Millis graduated from Illinois State University in 1982 and immediately sought a teaching position. He had majored in physical education and minored in history.
Gaining interviews wasn’t a problem, but Millis was deficient in one area.
"Most of the (teaching) jobs were tied with head coaching jobs and I didn’t have experience," he said.
Millis was working in Champaign, at the Eisner Grocery Warehouse, and was contemplating a change.
"I decided I’d go back to ISU as a grad student in January (of 1983)," he said.
Before he submitted paperwork, however, an opportunity developed at his high school alma mater.
"Potomac opened up the day after school started," Millis said.
Both he and John Harshbarger interviewed for a physical education position. Harshbarger, who later coached and taught at Monticello, got the P.E. job. Millis was offered a social studies position.
"The superintendent made us take a personal day for the day we missed," Millis recalled.
He was hired as basketball and track coach. Harshbarger coached cross-country and baseball.
"(School administrators) didn’t really ask, they pretty much told us we would coach," Millis said.
For his first year on the job, Millis earned:
—$11,700 to teach;
—$1,350 to coach basketball, both varsity and junior varsity;
—$200 to coach track;
—$100 to serve as the student council sponsor.
"By the time the bills were paid, I might have $100 left at the end of the month," said Millis, who spent the summer months in Danville teaching driver’s education.
‘It’s a humbling experience’
As a novice, he immersed himself in coaching, starting a work ethic that would remain his trademark for three-plus decades.
"Early on, I scouted JV games," Millis said. "I wanted to win the JV games, I treated JV games as important as the varsity."
In Millis’ first year at Potomac, the school matched its win total from the previous season.
As he reflects, Millis said a veteran coach might have had marks in the win column during the 1982-83 season.
"Those kids caught a young guy out of college who, frankly, didn’t know a whole lot," Millis said. "They were good, hard-working kids and they are part of the reason I was able to move on to Westville (after five years)."
Millis was a regular at ISU home basketball games (a season ticket cost him $13 as a sophomore), and he thought he was prepared to lead a team.
"Out of college, you think you know basketball," he said. "It’s a humbling experience to find you don’t know a lot. You have to learn how to run a practice, how to scout, what offense to use, what defense. I was smart enough to watch coaches and programs that were good."
A teaching acquaintance at Potomac introduced him to John Spezia, who was starting his Hall of Fame coaching career at Danville Area Community College.
"John taught me a lot about how to organize a practice," Millis said.
When the Westville basketball position became available, Millis was reluctant to interview. He figured his career record at Potomac (21 wins, 89 losses) would hurt his cause.
Westville’s superintendent (Larry Huber) was also a high school basketball referee. "He had seen how hard our kids played at Potomac," Millis said.
When he was interviewed by the seven-member school board, Millis left the session with a parting comment.
"I said, ‘I may not be the best basketball coach, but you won’t find anyone who will work any harder,’" he said.
When the 26-year-old Millis was hired at Westville, prior to the 1987-88 school year, he didn’t view the job as a stepping stone.
"To me, that was a destination," he said. "Westville had great facilities, great faculty members and was a great place to be.
"My goal was to win a state championship and I thought that was a place it could be done at."
Millis fell short in that quest, but retires as the winningest coach in school history (414-320 at Westville), and with six 20-win teams, five County championship teams and three regional championships.
As the head coach, Millis was often credited with the success. He said that is a short-sighted view.
"I was in charge of the ship, but there were a lot of people who drove the ship," he said. "There are a lot of people to thank. The players are Number 1 and I was fortunate to have them.
"I had some of the best assistants a person could have."
When Millis resigned at season’s end, it concluded one of the area’s most stable staffs. Guy Goodlove served as an assistant for 22 years. Former Tiger Joe Brazas has devoted the last 13 years to coaching the school’s freshman team. Allen Greenlee, who stepped aside two years ago, had 16 years with the Westville program.
"I helped Guy for five years in football, but he was far better in basketball than I was in football," Millis said. "Allen taught me there were other ways to do things to win ball games. Had I not listened to him, some of the games we won, we wouldn’t have won."
Brazas’ role couldn’t be downplayed, Millis said.
"He sacrificed wins to produce fundamental players who could win when they became varsity players," Millis said. "He was instrumental in our success."
Besides Spezia — who coached with Millis for two seasons — Millis shared credit with a Hall of Fame coach who was never on staff: "I made many calls over the years to Gene Gourley, and he was kind enough to talk a lot of basketball with me and provide a lot of insight."
Millis borrowed concepts from many coaches, including a defensive philosophy used by Dick Bennett when he was at Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
"He doesn’t know who I am, but he sure helped me a lot," Millis said.
Millis’ final team compiled an 18-13 record and left him with a good feeling.
"There’s not any question I’m a better coach than I’ve ever been," he said. "I see the game so much better. I mellowed quite a bit and I’m a lot calmer now (no technical fouls called on him in his farewell season). We didn’t practice near as long the last eight or nine years. It took time to learn that more wasn’t always better.
"I retired two years ago (as a teacher and athletic director), and all I had to worry about was coaching. By the same token, I had all day to sit around and get my stomach in knots. When you’re working, you don’t think about it as much because you have other things on your mind."
The decision to resign wasn’t a spur-of-the moment choice.
"The last 10 years, after every year, I’d think, ‘Do I want to do this again?’ Something in me said this seemed to be the right time.
"I didn’t want to leave the program where it couldn’t be competitive. Three starters are back and there will be five or six seniors to work with. Seniors are what you win with."
As for his future, Millis is only ruling out one possibility.
"I don’t see myself ever being a head coach again," he said. "Maybe down the road if someone needs an assistant, I could be a good one."
Or, he might just return to the court in a different capacity.
"I wouldn’t mind maybe going into officiating," Millis said.
His coaching career was dotted by run-ins with officials. For some, the most memorable occurred in January 2000, when he received two technical fouls and was ejected 36 seconds into the championship game of the Vermilion County tournament against Armstrong-Potomac.
Millis said there were not long-term hard feelings with the referee who whistled the two technicals, Kerry Frerichs.
"He’s one of the best officials we’ve had in Central Illinois," Millis said. "Kerry and I are good friends to this day."
As a teenager, Millis said he considered two professions. One was what he chose, teaching and coaching.
Those who saw Millis, whose overall career record was 435-409, arguing with referees won’t be surprised by his other possibility. "Being a lawyer," Millis said.
He is grateful, he added, for supportive administrators.
"I had very solid administrators all the way through," Millis said. "When I messed up, they disciplined me and then were very forgiving."
On May 6, at Illinois State University, Millis will be the third person ever from Westville inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Though the other two (Barney Vilk in 1988 and Jack Hardy in 1999) both coached basketball at the school, they were selected as "Friends of Basketball."
Until he received the induction selection letter from the IBCA, Millis said, it "never, ever crossed my mind."