MU guard said no to football

Miller’s tale: MU guard said no to football

DARRYL O. LEDBETTER

The Journal staff

Instead of Tommie Frazier leading Nebraska to the national championship, that could have been Tony Miller.

Instead of Colorado’s Kordell Stewart lofting that game-winning pass to beat Michigan, that could have been Tony Miller.

As a junior at Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School, Miller, a crafty option quarterback with a strong arm, led the Vikings to the Division II state championship.

“The things that I could do in football, it seemed like I could do whatever I wanted,” he said.

But Miller shocked his college football suitors Nebraska, Colorado, Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame by announcing before his senior season that he was giving up football to concentrate on basketball.

An uproar, in football-crazy Ohio, ensued.

“I started getting more and more phone calls,” said Shelba Miller-Jenkins, Miller’s mother. “The young people started to call the house and some parents were calling. The coaches were trying to get me to talk to him to see if I could get him to change his decision.”

Miller went on to direct the Vikings to the Division I state title in basketball while averaging 9.5 points and 7.8 assists per game.

So college football’s loss has been Marquette University’s gain. Miller, with his ball-handling skills, court vision and fine passing touch, helped return the once-storied program back to respectability.

Miller, MU’s all-time assists leader, is set to close out his career and will make his last regular-season home start against the University of Memphis at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Bradley Center.

It will be Miller’s 115th consecutive start. He’s averaged more than 35 minutes playing time per game over his career.

“The guy is consistently there for you every minute of every game, and he has been for four years,” Marquette coach Mike Deane said. “I’ve watched film, I wasn’t involved in the three previous years, but I think that he’s been the guy that has orchestrated the resurgence of the program.”

Miller does not regret his decision to forgo football and not follow in the footsteps of his high school teammates Desmond Howard and Elvis Grbac, both of whom went to Michigan and currently play in the National Football League.

“I don’t think about it that much anymore,” Miller said.

Miller is currently 11th all- time in National Collegiate Athletic Association history with 884 assists. He is one of just 18 Division I players to record more than 800 assists.

His career average of 7.68 assists per game ranks 12th on the NCAA Division I all-time list.

How Miller ended up at Marquette is also quite a tale.

All of the previous basketball stars at St. Joseph High, a football and basketball powerhouse in Ohio, flocked to Ohio State. Clark Kellogg and Treg Lee started that tradition and Miller wanted to uphold it.

But Ohio State coach Randy Ayers had given his last scholarship to Doug Etzler, a point guard, during the early signing period.

Miller selected Marquette over Richmond, Xavier, Dayton and Eastern Michigan.

The slight which may have been real or perceived from Ohio State has stayed with him.

“I wanted to go to Ohio State, definitely,” Miller said. ” . . . Until this day, I feel like I have to go out and prove something every day.”

Miller has directed two victories over Ohio State, while Etzler has put together a rather pedestrian career for the Buckeyes.

Marquette will honor Miller and fellow senior Will Gates after the Memphis game.

There is a movement on campus to get Miller’s number retired, but athletic director Bill Cords has said the school will wait until Miller graduates and see how he fares in the community after school.

If there is a case to waive such subjective requirements, it’s Miller.

Miller grew up in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Projects on E. 55th and Central and later E. 22nd and Cedar.

He had to negotiate one of Cleveland’s toughest neighborhoods.

“There were a lot of fights and there were gangs, but not like today,” Miller-Jenkins said. “But a lot of the young guys had respect for him. They would look up to him. Even his friends that were a little older also had that respect for him.”

Miller is so respected in his old neighborhood that his neighborhood school, East Technical High, has an award named in his honor. He didn’t even attend the school, but Miller-Jenkins was invited to a ceremony last Saturday and presented the first Tony Miller Award.

Even if Miller’s number is never retired, he will have left MU basketball fans with lots of memories.

Like the one of Miller streaking coast-to-coast against Kentucky’s full-court pressure to score a layup and drive a stake into the Wildcats. The play propelled MU to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last year.

Or this season, when Miller posted a triple-double in a victory over Wisconsin.

“It was just a great win for me, for Will and even believe it or not a big win for Kevin {O’Neill},” Miller said. “Me and him are real close. It was a win for Kevin, as much as he always put it down, he used to always want to win that game.”

Capturing the Great Midwest Conference regular-season title last season also was a highlight for Miller.

“That solidified that we were a team that would be back in the hunt,” Miller said.

Miller has aspirations to play in the National Basketball Association or in Europe.

“I think Tony has had a great career and is having a good season,” said Lee Rose, the Milwaukee Bucks’ vice president of player personnel. “He needs to go to one of the NBA camps and demonstrate there that he’s a player that would be draftable.”

Along with Miller, the top point guards are Arizona’s Damon Stoudamire, Georgia Tech’s Travis Best, Wake Forest’s Randolph Childress, Michigan State’s Eric Snow, Arizona’s Corey Beck, Pennsylvania’s Jerome Allen and Virginia’s Corey Alexander.

“There is no Anfernee Hardaway in that group,” Rose said. “Most of these point guards have some area of their game that they really need to improve on.”

Miller has shown that he can shoot the ball, but the pros want to see him be a little more consistent. He will need to have a good showing at the post-season all-star game in Portsmouth, Va., and then get invited to the NBA tryout camp in Arizona or the one in Chicago.

Miller will cross that bridge when he gets to it. He wants the Golden Eagles to finish in style.

“We are coming together now at the end of the season,” Miller said. “It was like my freshman year when we had a lot of guys that were good and talented, but not having played together yet, it took us some time to come together. This team seems to be coming together quicker than that team. So we have a chance to get to the post-season and do some things.”

Miller doesn’t regret his decision to give up football.

“I’ve had a lot of fun and gained a lot of friends,” Miller said. “Will Gates, that’s a friendship that may stop on the court, but will not stop off the court. We’ve already made plans to somehow be at the NBA All-Star game together. That’s the time when we’ll meet.”

Copyright 1995

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