A man of honor

At the start of his 50th season coaching the Carolina fencing team, Ron Miller remains the coaching legend most people never heard of.

Ron Miller
Fencing coach Ron Miller. (Photo by Jon Gardiner)

Fencing Coach Ron Miller traces the beginnings of his sport to medieval Europe – back when men of high position and character defended their honor by exacting a penalty at the point of a blade.

If carried out by a true gentleman, that penalty was almost always swift – and final. A duel amounted to trial by combat, a form of justice in which the party who lost – and died – was assumed to be the guilty one.

“If someone insulted you or your wife, you had to defend your honor in a duel,” Miller said. “And for men of honor, duels were fought to the death.”

As Adam Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations: “A coward, a man incapable either of defending or of revenging himself, wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man.”

The history of fencing as a collegiate sport at Carolina begins in 1967, when Miller arrived as a physical education instructor, bringing with him his knowledge of a sport virtually unknown to a campus bred on basketball and football.

Miller was on the basketball, football, wrestling and track teams at his high school in Gulfport, Florida. His foray into his fifth sport – fencing – was something he did with his best buddy from high school at a private club that met at the local Y.

The buddy ended up at Georgia Tech and became an aerospace engineer, but not before competing in the NCAA as a fencer. Miller stopped fencing when he went to community college and did not pick up the sport again until graduate school at Eastern Kentucky, where he received his master’s in physical education.

“I put up a sign in the gym asking anybody who wanted to fence to show up,” Miller said. “One hundred people showed up, and 40 of them bought equipment and stuck with it.”

That spring, Miller and others competed in the United States Fencing Association’s tournament for the division championship in Kentucky. He did well, as did several of the students he had taught.

Before that, the two sports he had considered coaching were track and wrestling. Afterward, the idea of becoming a fencing coach emerged as a backup plan.

Weeks later, during the final minutes of a convention he attended to look for a job, he ran into one of his professors at Florida State who remembered the kinesiology paper he had written on fencing. “On the strength of that paper, he recommended me for the job at Carolina,” Miller said.

A tryout year

Fencing had been a club sport at Carolina since before the Civil War, but Richard Jameson, the chair of the physical education department, hired Miller with the idea of growing it into a varsity-level sport certified by the NCAA.

That first season was a sort of tryout year for the team itself, Miller said. “Dick Jameson said, ‘If you do well, I’ll find a way to help you go varsity.’”

Miller had his doubts after his first meeting with members of the fencing club.

“I had about 25 people show up, and I said, ‘OK, guys, this is the way it is going to be:

We are going to earn varsity status, so you are going to act like a varsity team. We are going to practice. We are going to work hard. We are going to do everything we have to do to make this happen. How many of you want to stay?’

“Three people put up their hands. The rest left.”

After that meeting, Miller began to recruit athletes from his fencing class and at pickup basketball games at Woollen Gym. The team he built would go on to amass an 8-1 record and win what was then called the Southeast Collegiate Fencing Conference.

“We beat N.C. State in the final. It was 13-13 going into the last bout and the last bout decided it. Yeah, it was sweet,” Miller said.

The biggest victory for the program came during the 1970-71 season when Carolina began sponsoring fencing teams to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Over the next decade, Carolina’s fencing team became the dominant force of the ACC, winning eight of the 10 ACC championships when the fencing teams were men only.

That dominance may well have continued, but the men-only ACC tournament was discontinued in 1980 after many ACC schools, including Carolina, stopped sponsoring fencing as an ACC championship sport. The sport’s demise within the ACC was an unintended consequence of Title IX – a 1972 federal civil rights law that requires the proportion of women athletes competing on the sports teams at a university to mirror the proportion of women within its student body.

Even without sponsorship or a formal conference tournament, fencing at Carolina endured. Year after year, Miller’s teams kept competing against – and beating – some of the most elite fencing teams in the country. Then, in 2015, the ACC tournament was reinstated – with a women’s division – after Notre Dame joined the ACC in most sports.

An enduring legacy

As the start of Miller’s 50th season nears, the fencing room at Fetzer Gym again rings with the same booming voice that once echoed in the basement of Bynum Hall and the old “tin can” gymnasium where Miller’s fencing classes were first held.

Some have compared his influence on his fencing squads to that of legendary basketball coach Dean Smith. After Smith’s retirement in 1997, Miller became the longest tenured coach at Carolina.

While Smith became a household name throughout the country, Miller can still walk across campus without being recognized. And that’s just the way he likes it. Still, recognition inevitably comes, as it did last January when Miller his 1,400th victory.

For Miller, winning is a result of not only thrusts and ripostes, but also hard work and dedication – habits of mind that can be honed into qualities of character needed to face the real challenges of life.

Those habits of mind have also allowed his fencers to set high marks in the classroom. The team’s grade point average has never been lower than a 3.0, and has averaged 3.3, Miller said.

In medieval times, dueling was a means to defend honor.

In Miller’s time, fencing is a means to mold character.

“What makes this job special to me is the fact that the University allows me to do what I want to do, which is to help other people learn how to become more self-sufficient,” he said.

As for himself, Miller considers the opportunity to serve as Carolina’s fencing coach as “the gift” that he cherishes as much as he ever has. What keeps him going after all these years?

“It is still fun,” he said.