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Miller's life spanned the game

I think I know how he would have reacted to his own death. A wave of a hand, so as to suggest indifference. A look in his eyes indicating he knows something we don't, partnered with a smirk.

Then a few last words, his catch phrase:

"That's the way the pickle squirts."

After which, he'd lumber off. Slowly. Ralph Miller moved at his pace, no one else's.

It was not shocking to learn of his death this week. He was 82, had immersed himself in the stressful profession of coaching college basketball for 38 years and was never far from a cigarette or a drink. He lived his life the way he wanted, not the way others expected.

And, boy, it was some life.

That's why my first reaction upon reading the story in the paper was, how could it be so cursory? This was a man who was linked to the invention of the game. Consider that for a moment. Dr. James Naismith gave birth to basketball in 1891 as a physical outlet to span the football and baseball seasons. Ralph Miller later sat in his classroom at the University of Kansas, played there for Phog Allen, then would match wits on the sidelines with Hank Iba, Dean Smith and John Wooden.

Miller was a walking history book for the 19 years he coached Oregon State, and I was fortunate enough to get a lesson or two over a decade of covering the Beavers, both as a student there and while working for the Albany Democrat-Herald.

I never really realized how many keys I'd pressed, how many notes I'd scribbled or how much time I'd devoted to this man and his program until I dug out clippings and other mementos from the den closet.

Everything seemed a milestone.

There was a story on how Miller arrived at Oregon State. He came here in 1970 after leading Iowa to the Big Ten title because there was an opening and he wanted away from the nasty Midwest weather.

He and his family realized this upon returning to Iowa after a winter vacation in Hawaii, but the OSU job nearly fell through. Miller pulled out of consideration when the selection board dragged its feet.

Nevertheless, a late-night call resolved the matter and he was hired.

Freddie Boyd, the star of his first team, remembered Miller being introduced at a spring track meet, his arms outstretched, palms up, like, "I'm here ... like he was the savior or something."

"He was very confident then," said Boyd, later an assistant to Miller, "and he's very confident now in what he knows about basketball."

There was a story on the eve of his 500th win.

"For me, winning my 100th game was more personally thrilling," Miller said in typically understated fashion. "Frankly, when you spend 30 years in the profession, it's not a particularly outstanding milestone from my point of view."

He then acknowledged that only 14 others had done so and it was an elite group so, "sure ... it's a mark."

There was a story on the day of his 1,000th game.

Miller hadn't planned to become an educator like his father. As a child, he'd run up a $2.45 bill on soda pop and candy at his dad's country club and spent a laborious summer finding lost golf balls and doing odd jobs to pay it off.

He did not want to want for money.

"Money was hard to come by," he said in the article. "Coaching and teaching was not something you wanted with a college degree."

He intended to be a lawyer, but began coaching Wichita (Kan.) East High School only because he had to support his wife, Jean, and their young family.

A career had begun.

There was a special section hailing the 1980-81 team that was ranked No. — and won its first 26 games.

There was a story of him sharing Pac-10 Conference coach-of-the-year honors with Lute Olson in his final season.

Several stories were about his last game, the first-round loss to Evansville in the 1989 NCAA West Regional at Tucson, Ariz.

Some stories didn't make it to print.

I knew he occasionally zinged young reporters. My initiation came at the Far West Classic in Portland.

It was in the early 1980s, and Danny Evans had injured an ankle in the first half of a Beaver win. Charlie Sitton was already hobbled, having undergone arthroscopic knee surgery.

A couple of dozen reporters squeezed into a tiny interview room. I was near the table at which Miller sat. He seemed grumpy, but I was quick to ask a question about the status of Evans.

"How the hell do I know," he snapped, confirming my suspicion about his mood. "Do I look like a damn doctor to you!"

I was crimson with blush the moment he opened his mouth.

I don't recall asking another question.

The sports info guy for OSU, Mike Corwin, poked me with his finger, made a hissing sound, then snapped it back as if burned.

When I left the coliseum, a delayed radio broadcast of the game was on. It was halftime, and Miller was giving a thoughtful, detailed prognosis of Evans' injury.

I had to laugh.

Though he groused in public and was openly tough on his players during games, there was a side of him that few saw. He would chat endlessly in the relative peace of his office, telling stories as few could.

More than one reporter ceased taking notes for sheer exhaustion.

I experienced it midway through the magical 1981 season in the interview for his 500th win. He walked in as I was staring at old photos on his office wall, my eyes as wide as some of the frames.

"That's my 1965 Iowa team," he said, pointing to a photo of him being hoisted off the court on his players' shoulders. "We had just defeated UCLA in Chicago Stadium to break their undefeated skein."

Another oversized collage of seven photos was nearby.

"That's when we broke the streak of 37 consecutive wins at Cincinnati," Miller said as he left the room for a cup of coffee. "I think it was '61 or '62."

It was around lunchtime, and he told tale after tale of his life.

At one point, thinking he was done, I closed my notebook and started to rise, but he kept on going. I stayed another half hour.

It was history, after all.

The story of his 1,000th game, in late January 1988, was similar in tone.

In it, Miller credited Gene Johnson, another of his cronies, with inventing the 2-2-1 full-court press in 1932 after seeing Mexico do it in international play.

Miller enhanced it in 1948 by adding full-court offense to defense. He figured you could wipe out 10 minutes of idle time on the court - based on 60 possessions by each team and five seconds to bring the ball upcourt - if you pressed and ran constantly.

In that '88 story, Harry Corbin, the former president of Wichita State University, where Miller first coached collegiately, said:

"He had five people just going full-press and he'd have five more ready to go when the first squad slowed down. It was incredible at that time ... Games were won or lost in a span of three minutes. His teams would score 10 or 12 points in a flurry and break the other team down."

Fans at Oregon State saw the same things, especially with the early '80s teams.

Mike Kennedy, the radio announcer for the Shockers in the '80s and an authority on their history, recounted a story of when Miller took Wichita State to North Texas State in the early 1960s.

Miller's team had a comfortable lead and the reserves were in. Home fans started throwing debris at the visitors' bench, so Miller went to the opposing coach and asked him to ask the fans to stop.

"(Blank) you!" came the reply.

Miller stormed back to his bench, waved his five starters in and blew the home team out by 40 points. Afterward, the North Texas State coach approached Miller and said, "Ralph, you didn't have to pour it on."

Miller's reply: "(Blank) you!"

His final season was memorable. Gifts and praise were presented at each stop of his Farewell Tour, and he complained that he shouldn't have told people early because the telephone didn't stop ringing all season.

For his final home game at Ralph Miller Court, which sits in Gill Coliseum, which sits on S.W. Ralph Miller Drive, the media and game staff wore tuxedos in a show of respect. It looked like a penguin break at the zoo.

The end of his career came less than two weeks later.

Few thought Evansville would beat the Beavers in the West Regional, but it actually made perfect sense, given OSU's history of first-round troubles.

A couple of moments stand out from that day:

In the pressroom following the 94-90 overtime loss, Miller's voice quivered when he said, "I was pleased with this team and the results this year and sincerely hoped they could get one more win."

Not for his sake, for theirs.

After the last question, the moderator said to the media:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I just wonder if you might give ... we don't customarily do this ... 38 years, Coach Miller ..."

He was drowned out by swift and loud applause, then Miller stood and walked out.

Players talked about how he'd be missed, his teaching, his discipline, his fairness.

Gary Payton, the star, said he'd tell his kids he played for Miller.

"Yeah," said the current star of the Seattle SuperSonics, smiling for the first time in the emotional locker room, "he's going to be in books and everything. People will see that, and he's a Hall of Famer.

"I'm going to be proud to say I played for him."

He wasn't alone.

Moments later, a reporter walked through double doors into a corridor, only to be followed by the legendary coach, who, surprisingly, was by himself.

The reporter, having never before sought an autograph, this time did so, to his and the coach's surprise.

The old coach then signed a program, gave a wave of indifference, partnered with a smirk, and lumbered off.

Reach sports editor at 776-4479, or e-mail