The Advance of a Legend
A musical clash of metal, thuds of leaping footsteps and the screech of buzzer tones echo from the fencing room, a small enclave tucked away in the basement of Fetzer Hall.
Amidst the ruckus, coach Ron Miller leads a small group lesson with six students. Eight others are rotating practice bouts in pairs, and four fencers are running speed and endurance drills, back and forth.
Miller’s voice, steady and measured, carries across the room.
“Please don’t stay back too long.”
“OK, I’m going to push you forward.”
“Not your arm.”
Almost half a century ago, UNC fencers heard the same voice.
Miller was UNC’s first head coach for varsity fencing, a pioneer who started Chapel Hill’s varsity program. Now, 47 years later, he’s still the only head coach UNC’s varsity fencing team has ever had.
Steady and measured.
The same thoughtful patience Miller expresses when coaching prevails during his everyday demeanor. He looks at people straight in the eyes. His face holds still as he weighs every next word in his head.
In the fencing room, Miller’s not afraid to coach with his hands. The slightest adjustment here, a firm push there. His hands are large, massive even, and chiseled wrinkles reveal years of experience. In his office he sits with his hands relaxed, though when appropriate, he gestures with purpose.
Every now and then he smiles as he coaches his students, and he smiles as he talks about the sport he loves.
For the longest time, fencers didn’t come to Carolina. But Miller took athletes and turned them into fencers, and then he took fencers and turned them into a team.
Until as late as 2007, Miller estimated that 95 percent of his team was walk-on students from the required P.E. classes he once taught, back in Carolina’s pre-LFIT days. Only one or two team members would be high school recruits. If a P.E. student displayed athletic prowess, Miller snatched him or her right up.
The more experience an athlete had in other sports, the easier it was to learn how to fence. Gymnasts, wrestlers and lacrosse players require similar needs of speed, intelligence and body control. Tennis and defensive basketball footwork are often transferable. Experience in any sport that teaches students to judge distances is invaluable.
Miller’s majority walk-on teams bonded over the desire to be a fencer, and not just any fencer, but a Carolina fencer.
Joe Pipkin, a UNC graduate from the class of 2008, was one of the few fencers with high school experience when he arrived in 2003. Throughout his time at Carolina, Pipkin saw the early waves of transformation into team now predominately made of high school recruits. Part of him misses the days when fencing was a largely walk-on sport.
“Instead of starting with fencers who may have had bad habits, you just started with people who were like, ‘We’re athletes. Give us an opportunity to represent Carolina,’” he said.
Miller could take an athlete’s enthusiasm and drive and, with his knowledge of the sport, transform him or her into a fencer. In three to four years, he could produce fencers successful at levels they absolutely shouldn’t have been, Pipkin said.
About 80 to 85 percent of the team is recruited today. The team size has shrunk from more than 60 members in the ’90s to about 40 on this year’s squad; Miller now focuses on quality over quantity. Back in the walk-on days, he couldn’t count on every fencer to live up to his or her potential or stick with the sport.
Instead of teaching beginners from scratch, he’s now refining experienced competitors. The last time UNC held open tryouts for walk-on fencers was three years ago. An average of 140 high school students, experienced in national competitions, annually write to Miller to declare interest in the program. As of last month, almost 80 prospective fencers have already applied.
“Before, I had to have my eye on every kid for every P.E. class and every kid that came to cold tryouts,” Miller said. “Now, I have to have my eye on every athlete that’s out there that’s competing in national circuit events.”
Like most teams, UNC fencers travel to competitions in charter buses equipped with Wi-Fi, satellite and electrical outlets. Sometimes, the team travels through airports. But just eight years ago, Miller and his assistant coaches would drive the team across the entire country themselves, in vans.
Miller would always know the best routes through Baltimore and Washington, DC. “It’s cool, it’s a shortcut!” he would say, although admittedly New Jersey would always be a lost cause. Through long nights of driving, designated “turtling,” or sitting in the passenger seat, was a rite of passage for every fencer.
The van was shaped like a shell. Some highways’ merge lanes were their left lanes. Navigation would then require the passenger to roll down the window and stick out a head, like a turtle, to watch for traffic.
Miller called his passenger turtle, along with everyone else in the front row of seats, his entertainment system.
“Keeping the coach awake and alert was an important aspect of getting home safely,” he said.
But for his students, turtling was their way of learning anything and everything about Miller — his favorite food, his taste in music, his advice for dating.
“Anything you wanted to know about Coach, you just sat there and you turtled,” said Pipkin, who had the honor of traveling in the last official van trip. “Eventually it’s just like, ‘So, Coach…’”
During Jennifer Kling’s first conversation with Miller as a turtle, he coached her on calling her parents and explaining the significance of being a student-athlete. After Kling walked onto the team as a freshman in 2002, her parents didn’t believe she was then a NCAA Division I varsity athlete as a fencer.
Miller’s hearing was impeccable during the van days. He would overhear every piece of his team’s gossip. He had spies, too, situated in the vans driven by other coaches. Miller always knew everything that went on with his team, from academics to romantic entanglements, his former students agreed.
Behind the wheel or behind the blade, what can’t Miller teach?
Pipkin and Kling, laughing between the memories, reminisced about Miller’s shag dancing lessons and racquet ball sessions, held in the fencing room during the off season. They’re now both coaches at Mid-South Fencers’ Club in Durham, founded by another UNC fencing alumni, Jennifer Oldham, who graduated in 1996. Pipkin, Kling and Oldham met in the break room at Mid-South to share their favorite stories.
Some Miller mannerisms all UNC fencers experience for themselves.
“You can’t talk about Coach without mentioning his hands,” Oldham said, spurring a fit of chuckles from Pipkin.
Pipkin explained how most people use tools to adjust a metal fencing mask or a steel blade. Miller would use his hands. At a tournament, a Carolina student could break a blade, and the proper tools wouldn’t be at hand. Pipkin acted out the scene: “Coach, I broke a blade. Coach, can you bend my blade?” Pipkin whirled his hands in a frenzy to demonstrate Miller’s technique, making corresponding sound effects.
Other stories have been passed through the generations, from older fencers to younger. A popular tale is from the 1970s, when racism prevailed in the South and certainly infiltrated the sport.
At one of the first official Atlantic Coast Conference championships for fencing, Clemson University was the favored team. Not only did Clemson lose the championship, but they lost because one of their star athletes, who was white, lost to a black fencer from UNC.
From what Pipkin heard, the livid Clemson coach visited the locker room, where everyone was showering after the meet, with a shotgun.
“Coach was like, ‘So I took his shotgun, and I grabbed him and put him against the locker, and we had a conversation about why this was never going to happen again, and then it was dealt with,” Pipkin said.
Miller is simultaneously superhuman and endearingly human to his former students. He forgot his keys too often. Students learned to make copies of every piece of paperwork they turned in, because things tended to disappear from Miller’s desk. Once, he had to turn the van around to retrieve a money folder.
“Oh Coach,” they would think in their heads.
Miller doesn’t need much help in keeping his legacy alive — he’s mum about any retirement plans. But at Mid-South, where fencers range from 7 years old to adults, Miller’s former students are sharing his teachings with even newer generations.
Oldham founded Mid-South in 2004, after attending an elite training program in Oregon, with Carolina spirit in mind. Fencing is an individual sport with individual wins; yet Miller always prioritized team success ahead of individual glory.
“This club is trying to mesh the two: how can we have some of the top fencers in the world and still maintain the team and camaraderie of Carolina?” Oldham said.
Pipkin is a prime example of Miller’s model for team success. Fencers can compete in one of three weapons, epee, sabre or foil, each with their own rules and strategies.
Miller gave Pipkin a choice his senior year: he could compete in his strongest weapon, sabre, but because there were too many strong sabre fencers that year, Pipkin would kick another senior off the sabre squad.
Or, Pipkin could fence in foil. From a personal standpoint, he admittedly had more to gain from competing in sabre. He would’ve had the chance to qualify for the Fencing World Cup in sabre but nevertheless, the team was better served if he fenced in foil.
“I was like, ‘Nah, the team needed me to fence foil,’” Pipkin said. “Fuck it, I’ll fence foil.”
He skipped his first U.S. Nationals after competing several years in a row. Even now, he doesn’t have any regrets about a missed opportunity.
Miller never pushed. He leads.
“I think that’s what’s lovely about Coach,” Kling said. “He always gives you a choice. I don’t know how he does it, but he somehow gets it into your own head that that’s what needs to happen.”
But not everyone always appreciated Miller’s coaching style. Joel Thompson, a UNC graduate who fenced for Miller from 2007 to 2011, came from a football background, where he thrived on a loud and boisterous environment.
Thompson described his college fencing self as alienated and grumpy, as well as someone with one of the highest numbers of suspensions from the team. He now appreciates Miller after the fact, since becoming a fencing coach himself.
“But for all of the success stories you would hear from (Miller), there’s at least one failure story,” he said.
Miller didn’t always know he wanted to be a coach. During his underclassman years at Florida State, Miller was convinced he wanted to be an architect or a designer. He thought sports were his outlet, something he loved — but ultimately recreation.
Sitting behind a drawing board for hours at a time wasn’t active enough for Miller. He decided he wanted to be like some of his high school coaches. He thought they had a tremendous impact on the growth and maturity of students, and he found the idea of influencing future generations appealing.
Sports were recreation no more.
“Switching was probably the biggest decision of my life, and I’ve never regretted it,” he said.
Miller is now approaching 1,400 wins as a UNC coach. He was named the Collegiate Coach of the Year in 1983 and 1986. Four of his students were members of the U.S. National Fencing Team; two were Olympians.
Fencing was a career Miller never saw coming.
He started fencing for a rather typical reason — because his best friend liked it. From sixth grade to high school, the two of them played sports together. Miller said his best friend was a good athlete but always had to be dragged outside and away from books.
Then the two watched a fencing demonstration. The demo piqued his friend’s interest, and Miller joined the local club with him. Miller spoke of his excitement to see his friend pursue something athletic. Their club soon won a state team event in Florida.
But after Miller graduated high school, he lost temporarily touch with the sport. He went to community college and then Florida State University, neither of which offered fencing clubs or official programs.
Miller then attended Eastern Kentucky University for graduate school, where he found himself bored in his free time. He put up signs in men’s and women’s restrooms calling for anyone interested in fencing, offering free lessons to anyone interested.
“Close to 100 people showed up, and none of them had experience or equipment,” he said.
About 40 students kept coming back. Led by Miller, they started a fencing club and competed in divisional championships.
Yet fencing still wasn’t on Miller’s mind as a career path. When he graduated in 1967 with a master’s in exercise and sports science, he was looking at coaching positions for track or wrestling. Then he ran into a former undergraduate professor at a convention in Richmond, Va., that spring. Based on the strength of a paper Miller wrote as an undergraduate, Miller’s former professor recommended him for UNC’s open position for a fencing coach.
Miller visited campus and loved Chapel Hill. He interviewed, accepted the job and is still coaching 47 years later.
“I could have retired at 30 years, so as long as I have health and as long as I can make a positive impact on the kids, I’ll still do it,” he said.
Miller’s former students call him the grandfather of American fencing.
He is one of the first great American coaches who is from and trained in the United States as opposed to abroad. Fencing has thrived in European cultures for generations, where the sport originated. Amateur fencing clubs sprung up in the U.S. alongside waves of European immigration to the northeastern United States. Club fencing offered an avenue for immigrants to preserve their heritage and family traditions.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, former Eastern European coaches saw overwhelming opportunities to continue their trade in the U.S. American club fencing underwent newfound expansion. Most formerly Soviet coaches lacked the credentials to teach in American universities, but their students, even in cities that never had fencing clubs before, immediately started succeeding.
Despite club fencing’s historic growth, Miller thinks the sport suffers from a lack of collegiate varsity programs, particularly in the South. Only 34 colleges and universities offer NCAA varsity men’s fencing programs today. Another 39 offer women’s programs, and Miller has rarely seen those numbers fluctuate during the last 25 years.
The largest region for both club and NCAA fencing is the Northeast, with 19 schools that offer varsity programs and an additional two looking to add varsity teams next year. As a testament to the region’s dominance, the majority of the many U.S. Olympic fencers in college, even those originally from renowned Western clubs, attend powerhouse programs in the Northeast.
“The sport is growing so fast, but there’s not enough colleges and universities for everyone to go to,” Miller said.
Almost all of UNC’s fencers are now from New Jersey or New York, unlike the team’s walk-on days. But even leading a team of mostly out-of-state students, Miller has seen his fencers find UNC the Southern part of heaven.
There isn’t any professional glory after graduation. There aren’t even enough fencing scholarships from UNC. Miller is starting with $4,000 to disperse among recruits for next year, though he’s in the process of negotiating the use of other existing funds for scholarships.
So in Miller’s experience, students fence for UNC because it’s something they want to do, and they want to do it with their teammates and for their teammates. He himself hasn’t found anywhere else he’d rather be. Miller has been courted by other programs and even interviewed at other schools. But nowhere else could offer him the administrators or the philosophy that would give him the same autonomy to lead.
“If you were to step into any of the coaches’ offices here, they would tell you the exact same thing,” Miller said.
“This is a special place.”
When Miller arrived at UNC in 1967, the school only offered fencing as a club sport. UNC’s athletic department made Miller an upfront promise: Have a good season competing as a club team, and fencing would be added and funded as an official varsity sport.
“So we went 8-1 and won the conference championship, which was unofficial at that time,” Miller said. “We’ve been varsity ever since.”
The ACC held its first official conference championship for fencing in 1971. At the time, UNC, Duke University, Clemson University, the University of Maryland and North Carolina State University all offered varsity programs.
Collegiate fencing in the ACC thrived, and the Research Triangle was a hotbed for the South and the Southeast — only Clemson was located closer to the equator. But landmark federal legislation was passed in 1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any educational program that receives federal funds.
Schools in the ACC began adding women’s only sports teams to their varsity programs after 1972 to meet Title IX compliance. When budgets constricted in the 1980s, co-ed teams such as fencing found themselves on the chopping block, in some cases replaced by the new women’s teams. Clemson, Maryland and Virginia immediately dropped fencing as a varsity sport. N.C. State soon followed, and 1980 was the last year the ACC had enough schools with varsity programs to host a fencing championship.
The first ACC fencing championships in over three decades will be held at UNC’s Carmichael Arena this February. The University of Notre Dame’s entry into the ACC has made the reinstating of the fencing championships possible; the conference needed at least four competitors with varsity programs.
Participants will include UNC and Duke, which preserved its varsity programs through the years, and Boston College and Notre Dame, which joined the ACC in 2005 and 2013, respectively.
Miller is particularly excited for the opportunity to fence against Notre Dame at the championships. Its men’s team is the only team UNC has never beaten.
Miller has seen UNC athletic directors come and go; out of the seven in UNC’s history, he has worked under six.
But no matter UNC’s state of affairs, Miller has always experienced cooperation and friendship among all staff and athletes, something he doesn’t think people always see or understand.
He said one of his first encounters with basketball, UNC’s flagship sport, was at the end of one of Dean Smith’s practices.
It was the first competition UNC fencing ever sponsored, in Carmichael Arena, and fencing had to set up immediately when basketball finished. Stars or not, UNC’s basketball players weren’t above helping the new fencing coach set up for his first home meet.
History lives in Miller’s mind and in his office.
Framed photographs of his earliest teams line Miller’s bookshelf. They’re faded relics from the days of film photography and early color technology.
Later teams’ pictures, the size of posters, sit in stacks behind his desk. He reveals one after another, and the teams increase in size — especially once women’s fencing was added to the program. Believe it or not, he explains, UNC didn’t have a sizeable female population until at least the 1970s.
Miller points to students’ faces, recalling their names and accomplishments. He recalls each year and how far the team advanced in national competition. Some photographs bear yellowed corners; others, dozens of perfectly circular holes from push pins, marking the times each poster has been hung.
Miller keeps entire boxes of photographs at home. After all, road trips aren’t only about fencing. They’re about the memories, in and out of the arena. He has no shortage of proud moments as coach.
In the early 1990s, Pennsylvania State University dominated women’s fencing. Olga Kalinovskaya, Penn State’s top female fencer, went undefeated in the NCAA national championships for her weapon four years in a row — the first woman to do so.
Every time Miller runs into Kalinovskaya today, he receives a top-notch glare. Because at the end of Kalinovskaya’s senior year, at her last dual meet representing Penn State, a home competition for Penn State, the UNC women’s team triumphed.
“The good thing about that for us is all of our girls were walk-ons. Every single one had never fenced before,” Miller said. “That was a special moment.”
But of his many memories, Miller can’t pick just one to describe what, to him, makes UNC special.
At the beginning of Miller’s second year at UNC, the team traveled to a competition at Cornell University. They drove all night and arrived at 8 a.m. Sitting in Cornell’s student union eating breakfast, the team heard “Carolina In My Mind” come on the jukebox.
“This is just really trite, but it hit home in a very special way,” he said.
Everyone immediately burst out singing, as any Tar Heel would today.
Carolina has been in Miller’s mind for 47 years and counting.