Herb Miller has always told himself that his priorities in life are God, family and baseball, in that order.
Life has a way of challenging those priorities though. But Miller, who was hired as head coach for the Elizabethtown Area High School baseball team in January of last year, is remaining true to his, even through hardship.
And so, after just one season at the helm for the Bears, he is stepping down as head coach. Miller’s parents, both in their eighties, have seen their healths decline over the past year. As a result, he’s elected to devote more time to help take care of them. Time that won’t allow him to commit to regularly coach baseball.
“I fought it for a while, but in October, I felt that I had to make a decision,” Miller said. “I just can’t put the effort into it that’s necessary. I need to put more and more time into helping my parents, and it’s not gonna get any easier. It’s a major commitment. When I’m standing at first and the phone rings in my pocket, I’m cringing. Mentally, it’s just draining, but it’s the way it is.”
Miller submitted his resignation to EASD athletic director Bill Templin on Sunday, Oct. 20, and the school board approved it on Tuesday, Oct. 22. For now, his tenure with the Bears is over. He and Templin joined the coaching staff as assistants in 2005, and when the latter was hired as head coach in 2016, he immediately made Miller the junior varsity coach. In the wake of Templin becoming the AD earlier this year after Linda Ahern retired, it was a natural move to select Miller as his replacement.
“To be honest, it’s really hard,” Templin said. “I’ve developed a great working relationship and an even better personal relationship with Herb over the last 15 years. I know this is something he’s always wanted to do and to see that only work out for him for one year makes me sad.”
“Family’s above baseball,” Miller said, noting that informing Templin was just as difficult as the rest of the team. “I started coaching right when I got out of college. It’ll feel weird, but I know I have something I have to take care of. It’s not like I’m gonna be sitting on the couch doing nothing. And I’m not hanging it up for good. It’s in my blood. At this moment though, I have to step away.”
Miller’s lone year as head coach wasn’t fruitful in terms of victories for the Bears. They finished 5-15 overall, though four of those wins came against Conestoga Valley and Lebanon, which kept them at fourth in Section Two of the Lancaster-Lebanon League. Six of the losses were by three runs or less.
Elizabethtown’s pitching was there for the most part, not surprising considering Miller’s background; he threw for four years at Elizabethtown College from 1982 to 1985. The Bears’ main struggles were at the plate; they had a batting average of just .238, scoring 61 runs.
The 2020 team will have a chance to rebound. The rest of Section Two lost several high-caliber seniors to graduation, so the race for first will be wide open. But the Bears lost eight seniors of their own and are set to have just two returning from last year’s team. On the other hand, they’ll also have a giant group of juniors to work with; there were 11 of last year’s roster. Alas, Elizabethtown has to move forward without Miller.
“I’m gonna miss the personalities on this team,” he said. “Baseball is what it is, but this group is fun. They’re loose, and sometimes they’re crazy and you have to reel them back in, but no matter what kind of day I’ve had, when I go to the ball field, they’re uplifting. I’d like to think I helped them in baseball and in life, but they gave me energy right back.”
“Herb has made the last 15 years incredible,” Templin said. “I’ve learned so much about baseball, managing people, dealing with issues from him. I’ll never be able to thank him for those lessons. He’s always had advice, a different perspective, a new idea and the patience to apply all of those when I needed him to. When I got the job as the head baseball coach, the first person I called was Herb. I wanted to make sure he was ready to go as the head JV coach. I wanted to make sure we would continue growing the baseball program at E-Town. I think the reason Herb and I worked so well together was that we trusted each other. We were honest with each other, we’d seek advice from each other, and we’d listen to each other, even if it was something we didn’t want to hear. Over the last 15 years, I’ve spent hours, literally sometimes hours at a time talking to Herb on the phone about baseball or just life in general. I’m honored to call Herb a friend.”
Though 2019 wasn’t exactly a memorable season for the program, Elizabethtown had its share of success with Miller on the coaching staff, having won section titles in 2008, 2011 and 2017. The Bears made the district playoffs in those three years, as well as 2016. He counts those seasons as among the best in terms of memories made, particularly 2011; his son, Nate, was a senior on the team that year. He also enjoyed coaching in the New Era Tournament, now the LNP Tournament, during the summer.
But Miller continually stressed that most of his enjoyment came from the day-to-day interactions with all the players he helped coach. He noted a handful of players whose improved development across four years in high school gave him the most gratification, including Dalton Adams and Eli Morgan from the 2011 team, and Kyle Welch, who was the team’s lone All-Star this past season.
“The kids keep you young and hustling,” Miller said. “It’s just fun. I enjoy the strategy of the game and the relationships you make. It was never about me. I didn’t need to be the head coach to achieve what I wanted to achieve. Working with a kid on his curveball in the gymnasium and seeing his eyes light up when it snapped was enough for me. Seeing that progress is satisfying. Winning championships was great, but it’s the ride to get there that’s the most fun.”
“The thing I’ll miss most about Herb is his approach to building relationships with our players,” Templin said. “Herb and I both agree that you’re not coaching baseball, you’re coaching kids. If you can’t connect with the kids and get them to buy into what you’re doing, you won’t be successful as a coach. The thing I’m most proud of is when kids that Herb and I coached come back as 18, 20 (and) 24-year-old men, and they talk about the memories we made, not the games we played. They talk about eating together after games, about building snowmen at practice (and) about Herb’s crazy stories from his college days. They don’t remember the final score to most games, but what they do remember is that Herb cared about them, that he wanted them to succeed as a person, to build work ethic, to improve their ability to communicate … all those life skills that Herb teaches on a baseball field that really make his players better young men.”
While Miller won’t be on the coaching staff for the upcoming season, he plans to try and attend as many Elizabethtown games as he can. He also doesn’t plan on giving up coaching for good, expressing a desire to join a staff alongside his son, Nate, a teacher in the Lancaster school district, be it in Elizabethtown or elsewhere. He joked that coaching at the youth level in the Rheems Athletic Association would be fitting since that’s where he started in the Elizabethtown area.
“No matter where you’re at, if you surround yourself with good people, coaching’s easy,” Miller said. “It’s not like I don’t know baseball people. In 30 years of coaching, you get to know people who know what they’re talking about. So I firmly believe I will be back coaching somewhere along the way. Even it’s back at Rheems, I’ll enjoy that. The challenge is handling the personalities on your team and figuring out how to put everything together. But that’s the fun of it for me too.”
Templin admitted that replacing a coach with Miller’s experience is “never easy.” He hopes to have the position filled as soon as possible. Whoever gets the job will have much to live up to, however. Miller’s advice to them?
“Be yourself,” he said. “Don’t change who you are for anybody. I could always go home, lay my head on my pillow and know that I did the best I could for the team. You got to live with yourself. These guys coming back have a ton of ability, but they have to understand that they’re good enough to win. It’s just getting over the hump. They’re the type of kids you don’t have to force to work hard.”