Al Miller: Pioneer's soccer path from a one-room schoolhouse near Hershey to coach of NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms

The original NASL -- the league that brought Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff  to America -- lasted from 1968 to 1984. Of the 17 NASL champions, only one was led by a USA-born coach -- Al Miller, who guided the Philadelphia Atoms to the 1973 title. Miller’s team was also unique in that it was comprised largely of American-based players, including goalkeeper Bob Rigby, the first American soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Before embarking on his pro coaching career, which included stints with the Dallas Tornado and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Miller coached college ball at New Paltz State and Hartwick College, where his players included Timo Liekoski, Francisco Marcos, Alec Papadakis and Terry Fisher, who all went on to influential careers in American soccer.

The 82-year-old Miller, who in 1970 was in the inaugural class of U.S. Soccer Federation A license coaches, is the recipient of this year’s Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award.

Al Miller’s introduction to soccer.

MILLER: I grew up in the small town of Ono, Pennsylvania, which back then had a population of about 50. I attended a one-room schoolhouse and they had a rubber Voit soccer ball. We played five- or six-a-side soccer at recess. I enjoyed it so much, my father bought me a leather T-model soccer ball. The kind that had T-shaped panels instead of hexagons and pentagons. I was probably the first and only kid in town to have one. I wore it out kicking against the wall.

When Miller graduated from the fourth- to eight-grade schoolhouse, he bussed 14 miles to Hershey High School because the local high school was overcrowded. But Miller, an avid baseball player, missed sports and his hometown friends. After his sophomore year, he transferred to Jonestown High School and tried out for the soccer team.

MILLER: Jonestown High School, a small central Pennsylvania high school, was pretty prominent in soccer. I tried out for the team and the first game I played in was on a Friday night with a pretty big crowd.

The first soccer game I ever saw was that game -- a game I played in.

My junior year I was an average right winger, getting better every game, getting more confident. My senior year, over the summer, I went from 5-foot-5 to 5-10, from about 120 pounds to 170.

The big moment came in my last game as a senior, when I scored the winning goal in the regional championship.

The referee in that game was Werner Kraheck, who coached the Reading Americans, the soccer team of the German Liederkranz Singing and Sport Society outside of Philadelphia.

MILLER: That was a very important changing moment in my life. After the game, the referee asked me to play for his team in the Philadelphia league. For the next few years, I fought through the ethnic wars of the soccer field.

It was a German club, but Kraheck’s idea was to bring Americans in and Americanize it. I played with much better players than me but became one of the best they had.

We played in the Philadelphia amateur league, which is where [former U.S. Soccer president] Werner Fricker played for the German-Hungarians. There was a Swiss team, a Jangar team, which was Mongolia, quite a few European clubs. There were some British clubs. A lot of German clubs. Walt Bahr played in that league. It was a really good league.

There was a lot of hostility, which we as Americans didn’t understand, but we lived through it.

Ethnic league soccer led Miller to college ball.

MILLER: When I was growing up, my father owned the town grocery store. I worked there. I grew up in it. I filled shelves and waited on people, and learned the business. While I was playing in the Philadelphia league, I was working in the grocery business.

Kraheck asked me, “How come you haven’t gone to college.” I said I never thought about it. Not a very good student. I didn’t care about academics. My parents didn’t think that was important. Hard work was much more important.

He called John Eiler, who was a prominent guy in the NSCAA [now United Soccer Coaches] who had just come to East Stroudsburg and apparently put out some feelers about any players available. This German guy recommended me.

The way Eiler recruited me was, he sent me an application. Never talked to me.

Despite his poor high school transcripts, Miller was admitted into East Stroudsburg.

MILLER: I had an interview with the college president who was in charge of admissions. He threw my papers down and said, “What the hell are you doing here with this record?” I jumped up and pleaded for a chance.

I would be serious about academics. I wasn’t in high school because all I ever thought about was work. I was going to be the first guy from my family ever to go to college. Somehow I sold him. He said, "This is going against everything I believe in, but somehow I believe you."

I was on the Dean’s list my last semester. And he was the first guy to congratulate when I walked across the stage to get my degree.

Miller started for East Stroudsburg’s soccer and baseball teams all four years and captained both. Upon graduating -- soccer coaching jobs being rare at the time -- Miller coached baseball at an Upstate New York high school and golf at Albright College. He was offered a position to start a soccer program at Morehead State in Kentucky. Which sounded great until they told he’d have to live in the dorms and as serve as RA. Not viable for a married father. Miller eventually landed a soccer coaching position at New Paltz State University in 1961.

MILLER: They offered me the jobs of head baseball and head soccer coach, and instead of teaching in the physical education program, I was going to be half-time in admissions.

As soon as the season was over -- and during the season, they trained me because I didn’t know a lot about admissions and testing -- and as soon as the season was over I visited every high school in Long Island, New York, Westchester County, and a lot schools in Upstate New York.

I spoke at assemblies. I spoke to students in guidance counselor offices. And my job was to bring in men, because the numbers were slanted because prior to that year New Paltz State was mainly art and elementary school education. So a high volume of women. Not a lot of male athletes.

What the athletic director hadn't told Miller was that as a varsity program for two years, New Paltz State had never won a game. But Miller's work as an admissions officer served him will.

MILLER: Every place I went, I always asked, "Hey, have any good soccer players?" And I told them we were going to win a championship. That was my dream. And when they were seniors they did. [They won the title of the NCAA Atlantic Coast, which spanned from Maine to Florida.]

That Miller continued to play in the ethnic leagues, now captaining the Kingston German club in New York, also served him well. One day at practice he noticed a young Italian-American watching from the sidelines and invited him to join in. It was Gino Ventriglia, who went on to play for the U.S. Pan-American Games and 1968 Olympic qualifying teams after he scored all seven goals in the semis and final of New Paltz State's championship run.

MILLER: After he practiced with us that day, I put my arm around him and told him he needed to come to our college. He kind of freaked out, because he had limited English, and he lived with his mother, and was a pots and pans washer at a nice little Italian restaurant in Poughkeepsie, New York. He didn’t need room and board, just help with books and tuition. We figured out how to get that. I assigned the smartest kid on my team, who was also a freshman, to work with him, and he kind of mentored him. Gino ended up qualifying for the Fulbright Scholarship.

(Ventriglia coached four decades of high school and college ball, including 24 years as Army West Point's women's team, and finished his career as New Paltz's men's head coach.)

Al Miller (Photo courtesy Hartwick SID)

When Miller paired up with Coach Bob Guelker of St. Louis soccer fame at a coaching clinic, afterward Guelker told him, "You’re way too good for New Paltz. You need to find yourself a big program. You wowed me and you're a winner." Miller read in the New York Times that Hartwick College coach David Haase was leaving the upstate Division I program to work for the Atlanta Chiefs.

MILLER: I called the Hartwick athletic director Jim Konstanty. A famous guy. He was the 1950 National League MVP for the Phillies and started against the Yankees in the opening game of the World Series. I called him at 8 in the morning, and he kind blew me off, said they already had a bunch of applicants and had already narrowed it down.

But that very day, Konstanty had lunch at Mama's Italian restaurant in Oneonta and ran into Oneonta State AD Hal Chase. Konstanty asked Chase if he ever heard of a guy named Al Miller. Chase said Miller was the No. 1 soccer coach in the New York State university system: "If you have a chance, hire him immediately!"

MILLER: Konstanty called me back at 1 o'clock and invited me to his office at 8 the next morning. We had chemistry right away. I loved him. I told him I wanted to make Hartwick the best soccer program in the country, and he liked that. But first I had to meet the president. I met him in his office while he was being served steak dinner at his desk. He had been PT boat commander in Navy and said, "If we hire you, can you promise me we’ll beat Army?" I said, “We'll beat the shit out of them.” He reached over the desk, said, “I’m going to hold you to that,” shook my hand, and squeezed so hard I thought he was going to crush it.

Miller did some research and found out had Hartwick had gotten hammered by Army a number of seasons in succession. His team, undefeated so far, faced Army late in his first season.

MILLER: The Army game was such a big deal. There were 1,500 students. Helicopters landing in the parking lot. Generals and cadets are marching in. Konstanty comes up to me before the game and says, "I've got the car running in case you lose. You and I will get the hell out of here." ... Anyway, we won. That was it. I was cemented there.

Hartwick had been a strong program before Miller arrived, but he turned it into a powerhouse during his six seasons, which included a final four appearance in 1970 when it fell to St. Louis in the semis.

MILLER: I pretty much Americanized the program. The previous coach used to advertise in foreign-language newspapers for players. We were a United Nations team when I got there. No. 2, we really started promoting the program. We did things that weren’t being done back then. Made game programs, had a national anthem singer, we fenced the field off, we had a refreshment booth. It was like a small college football program.

I spoke at every freshman orientation, introduced the players and made them sound like big-timers. They would juggle and do some mesmerizing stuff with the ball the students hadn’t seen before. We started the indoor tournaments in the winter. I got Thom Meredith, who wrote for the local newspaper, to run those for us. That’s where he cut his teeth on game management. We were outdrawing basketball.

We traveled to Europe after my first year and brought a sports reporter with us, who wrote fantastic stories about us. It really got the community behind us. And all of a sudden we had people tailgating before our games, buying tickets in advance.

Oneonta became known as "Soccer City USA." Miller's Hartwick teams included players such as Timo Liekoski, Francisco Marcos and Alec Papadakis. In 1973, the NASL expansion team Philadelphia Atoms hired Miller as head coach.

MILLER: I was the only American of the three guys there were interviewing. Fortunately, the owner and his sidekick wanted an American. So I became the guinea pig for the league.

It was like a super challenge. I was an A-type personality, and had been exposed to some really good coaching with Dettmar Cramer, going around doing the national coaching school with him, and he kept telling, you got to be in the pros. I got my chance in Philadelphia.

Miller’s quest was to get the best Americans he could find.

MILLER: I had really studied the league. I was really keen to get in it. Because I thought, this bullshit that they’re bringing broken down players from the lower divisions in England. And I knew a lot about English soccer because I spent time over there studying it.

I thought, I can do better than this. When I interviewed for the Philadelphia Atoms job, I said it’s really important that you back me on this. It’ll be a risk, but I thought it was a calculated risk.

Miller had previously applied for a couple other NASL head coaching jobs.

MILLER: The reason I got turned down was they thought I was a really good college coach and a good guy, but I had no connections in England. But they didn’t know I had Francisco Marcos in my back pocket. He was running international tours for high school and college players and I got over there as a coach a few times, and Francisco had a network that he built up over there.

He helped me get a few and I got a couple of my own. So we had a few foreign guys -- including Roy Evans, a legitimate first division player from Liverpool, who I begged Bill Shankley to lend me – and complemented them with Americans.

Miller collected American talent spawned in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

MILLER: The key guys were Bob Rigby, Bobby Smith and Barry Barto. They were good pros right away. We also had Stan Startzell, a very skillful player, and Bill Straub. My backup goalkeeper was Norman Wingert, who'd played a game for me at Hartwick. Rigby twisted his knee at one of the many clinics we did for kids around town when he landed on a ball a kid kicked under him when Rigby was demonstrating catching crosses. Norman played seven games while Rigby was recovering and was terrific.

We lost our first game, 1-0, to the St. Louis Stars, which were runner-up to the Cosmos the year before. A couple of the guys said, if that’s one of the best, we’re going to win this thing. I said, yeah. And we just kept getting better.

In his first season as a pro coach, Miller’s Atoms won the Eastern Division and beat Toronto, 3-0, in the semifinals. With six Americans in the starting lineup, the Atoms faced the Dallas Tornado, which fielded one American, at Texas Stadium in the final. Miller's team lifted the crown with a 2-0 win.

7 comments about "Al Miller: Pioneer's soccer path from a one-room schoolhouse near Hershey to coach of NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms".
  1. John Polis, January 4, 2019 at 9:19 a.m.

    What a terrific story, Mike. So many gems you uncovered in this interview. Congratulations to AlMiller, one of the brightest of the early American pioneer soccer coaches. I feel fortunate to have met and gotten to know him through the years. 

  2. frank schoon, January 4, 2019 at 10:30 a.m.

    Love reading about personalities who contributed to the history of American soccer. I had no idea who the coach was of Hartwick college when I played for Univ. of Maryland in '68 against them in the quarterfinals... Now I know...small world...
    I also remembered he was the color man for ESPN during the game Brazil-Argentina, WC'82, of which I still have the video. He did a decent job compared to the announcers of today.

  3. Ric Fonseca, January 4, 2019 at 1:50 p.m.

    Mike muchas gracias, Happy New Year, and heck of a way to begin the new year with an excellent bio on everyone's friend, Sl Senor Al Miller.  Got to know him very well, during the early '70s and and US Soccer Coaching Schools with Dettmar Kramer and his - Asl's - "merry band" of Coaches.  And BTW, If memory serves correct, it was during onf ot he trips out to the far-far and wild-wild west coast, when Terry Fisher made his presence in West Los angeles/Santa Monica/UCLA around 1973.  

  4. Wooden Ships, January 4, 2019 at 2:06 p.m.

    I agree with the three amigos above, good, good article and the history of the game here needs monthly, if not more, coverage. Just hope the youngins will decide to pay attention. 

  5. Ric Fonseca replied, January 5, 2019 at 6:01 p.m.

    WS:  I agree with you, however, and very sadly I might add, "the younins" are now usually wont not to do much reading, only and unless the article is posted in their social medium collection of ipads, smart phones, etc. etc. but even then, it is not a given they will "read..."  (Ironically, my use of the word, "read" brought to mind my teacher's union newsletter titled "Read-On," which sadly went out of print but appears now and then electronically in our Union's website!)

  6. Randy Vogt, January 4, 2019 at 8:46 p.m.

    I agree, great article, and I would also like to point out that GK Norman Wingert, mentioned toward the end of the article, is the father of former MLS player Chris Wingert. I refereed the Army women a few times in the 1990's and did not realize that their coach, Gino (Gene) Ventriglia, had been a top player in his day until reading this article.

  7. Bob Ashpole, January 5, 2019 at 6:14 p.m.

    Great interview, Mike.

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