UNC-Chapel Hill students who over the past five decades have wielded sabres, foils and epees, yelled “en guarde” and felt the rush of adrenaline as their tips reached the white suit of an opponent have all had the same voice guiding their parries and thrusts.
That voice belongs to Coach Ron Miller, who developed the UNC-CH fencing program and for the past 50 years has served as its only head coach. He’s the longest-serving coach at a university where long tenures are not unusual, eclipsing Dean Smith’s 37 years coaching the men’s basketball team.
Granted, the batches of students who crowd into a practice space in the basement of Fetzer Hall aren’t as well known as athletes in higher profile sports. But over the years the program has grown into its own kind of powerhouse, launching All-American and Olympic fencers, and making the Triangle a hub of fencing activity unusual in the Southeast.
Jennifer Oldham joined the UNC-CH fencing team in the early 1990s, when Miller was still recruiting mainly from his physical education classes; as the sport has grown, he now chooses from a larger pool of high school talent.
Oldham had never fenced before, but went on to compete nationally and now owns the Mid-South Fencers Club in Durham, where she is also a coach.
She notes that Miller was well known for his ability to turn students who had played other sports into nationally competitive fencers.
Perhaps more importantly, he’s also inspired generations of fencers who would go on to promote the growth of the sport.
“His greatest contribution is introducing fencing to probably thousands of students, and many of them were people who incorporated fencing into their lives after they left Carolina,” says Oldham. “I think of Coach Miller as the grandfather of fencing here, and I see him as planting these seeds all over the state and so many of them took root.”
She considers her program one of those seeds.
Miller says fencing is complex, requiring concentration, coordination and endurance. But its appeal, for many, is simple.
“Most people like to hit things,” he says, “and you get to hit people legally. For a lot of people it’s a great release.”
An unexpected career
Like many of the athletes he’s coached, Miller started fencing after playing other sports. He grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he played baseball starting as a child and later added football, basketball, track and wrestling.
He joined a YMCA fencing team with his best friend, who wasn’t as interested in other sports as Miller.
“I didn’t consider it my most serious athletic endeavor,” he says.
He also loved to draw, and had plans to study architecture in college. Those plans were derailed when the tropical nursery and landscaping business his parents owned was devastated by a major freeze.
Without money to attend college, Miller took classes at his local community college while he worked designing swimming pools and home improvements. By the time he got to Florida State University to finish his degree, he had decided architecture wasn’t for him.
“Sitting behind a drawing board all day was not what I wanted to do,” he says. “I needed to do something more active.”
He earned his bachelor’s in exercise and physical education, and went on to earn his master’s as well.
He picked up fencing again while working on his master’s, but coaching the sport wasn’t on his radar until a former professor he ran into at a convention recommended him for the UNC-CH job.
He was hired as a physical education teacher, and was tasked with developing a small club fencing program into a varsity sport.
When he started, he says, there were only a few thousand junior fencers competing nationwide compared to several hundred thousand now.
His teams have varied from 20 to 75 fencers; he now has about 45. He also helped develop the N.C. Fencing Development Program, a series of clubs statewide that allow younger students learn the sport.
Former students often return as volunteer coaches. In some cases, he’s coached the children of former students.
“The team is really like a family in itself,” he says.
Larger than life
Fencers who have trained under Miller inevitably mention his enormous hands, the most prominent feature of a large frame that goes with a larger-than-life personality.
“He’s a big guy, and he’s got a huge presence,” Oldham says. “He is mindful of his ability to intimidate, but he’d prefer you to be internally motivated. He just guides your desire to compete and train.”
Early in his career, he built the program into a dominant ACC team. When the ACC dropped fencing as a collegiate sport in 1980, he built a strong club program that has competed nationally. The ACC reinstated fencing as a varsity sport last year.
Without ACC competition, his team has traveled extensively as part of the North Atlantic region of USA Fencing organization, competing in dozens of events every year across the Northeast and Midwest in states as far away as Wisconsin.
For years, Miller and his coaching team would drive the students themselves in vans; Miller would recruit one student to sit up front with him and keep him awake, one-on-one time with the coach that was treasured by many fencers
Now they have chartered buses with Wi-Fi.
During the season, just shy of half the year, Miller does 42 individual lessons a week with his fencers, on top of two and a half hours of team practice four days a week.
Miller has coached several national teams and served in leadership roles in the national fencing community. He once served an auxiliary coach at the Olympics, a privilege that he admits brought little glory.
“You don’t get to march in the parade, but you get to do all the work,” he says.
Some of the sport’s popularity has been driven by adults who want to continue to fence years after their college competition ends.
“Once you’re a fencer, it’s kind of like having malaria,” Miller jokes. “It stays in your blood and comes back to haunt you.”
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Born: October 1944, Kentucky
Residence: Alamance County
Career: Fencing Coach, UNC-Chapel Hill
Awards: Award of Merit, U.S. Fencing Coaches Association; ACC Women’s Fencing Coach of the Year, 2015; Collegiate Coach of the Year, 1983 and 1986
Education: B.S. Exercise Science and Psychology, Florida State University; M.A. Exercise Science, Eastern Kentucky University; Doctorate in Exercise Science, Higher Education, Guidance and Psychology, UNC-CH
Family: Wife Susun; Five children (two of them stepchildren); Six grandchildren
Fun fact: Three of Miller’s children, and some of his grandchildren, have trained in fencing over the years. At family get-togethers, including Thanksgiving last week, they practice using weapons made of foam. “We call them ‘wacky weapons’ and they’ll always go at it for a bit,” he says.