Editor’s note – this is the first story in a four-part series chronicling the coaching legacy in boys basketball at Warsaw Community High School.

Warsaw Community High School is embedded in the roots of Indiana basketball greatness.

Legendary head coach Al Rhodes, who was at the helm for the Tigers from 1980-2002, had many assistants become head coaches.

Eight of them served under him at Warsaw, and have emulated his success within their own programs.

How much success? Five of Rhodes’ Warsaw assistants – Pete Smith, Doug Ogle, Shaun Busick, John Wysong and Aaron Wolfe – combine for 25 sectional titles, six regional championships, three semi-state titles, and two state championships.

Yet, the lineage of Warsaw’s almost-mythical prowess does not begin with Rhodes. Within the far-reaching coach’s tree of Warsaw Community High School, Rhodes serves as the trunk from which so many coaches have branched off to fully bloom.

Kentucky-born basketball guru Jim Miller, however, remains the root of it all.

Son Of A Coal Miner

Jim Miller may have never ended up in Warsaw if it wasn’t for a fatal accident.

He spent his early years in Kodak, K.Y., where his father, Tensil Miller, mined coal. The course of his life changed when a slab of coal fell on and killed one of his father’s friends.

The tragedy convinced Tensil Miller it was time for a move, and he built a house for his family in Hendricks County, Ind.

Jim Miller attended Avon High School before going on to be a blanket letter winner at Franklin College. He earned a combined eight letters competing in cross country, track and field, football, and basketball. 

It was the latter sport he took to most, and after graduating he began his career as a high school basketball coach.

Miller had success at New Winchester, and took Cloverdale all the way to the state final before landing a gig at Penn in 1967.

It was there he met a young Al Rhodes, who was a sophomore on Penn’s basketball team. His first impression of the teenage Rhodes was overwhelmingly positive.

“He listened to everything,” Miller said. “The nice thing about Al was, if you told him something in a basketball camp, the next day he went home and probably spent four or five hours on it and had it mastered.”

Like any basketball player, Rhodes needed some coaching. One day, he was so gun-shy on the court that Miller interceded with wisdom and wit.

“He would dribble, then pass, and get the ball, and dribble, then pass,” Miller said.

“Now, he’s a young man. He’s a sophomore. He’s gonna be very, very good. At that point in time I said, ‘Al, why don’t you learn to play the harmonica or piccolo or something?’ He looked at me strange and I said, ‘Yeah, in basketball, we’ve got to score and improve the other people on the floor.’”

Another player may have folded under the weight of biting criticism. Rhodes was no ordinary player.

“He took it the right way,” Miller said. “He knew exactly what I was saying, and of course became a great team player and a great leader for us.”

Rhodes credits Miller as a heavy influence on his playing career.

“I learned to pursue excellence and be a good part of the team,” Rhodes said. “To learn about what your role is, and then to perform your role to the best of your ability.”

These lessons were learned with some grit and grind.

“Jim is very, very hard on his players,” Rhodes said. “Jim teaches toughness, so by going through and playing for him, when it was all over I was a much tougher person than I was when I started with him.”

Rhodes graduated in 1970, and found himself at a crossroads.

To the left was UCLA, led by the great John Wooden, and where Rhodes pondered becoming a basketball manager.

To the right was Tri-State University in Angola, where a playing career awaited him.

Much speculation can be given as to what would have happened had Rhodes went west. Maybe he would have become a college basketball coach. Maybe he would have coached under John Wooden.

It will never be known. Rhodes chose Tri-State, setting the course to become one of the most impactful coaches in the history of Indiana high school basketball.

One of his Tri-State teammates was John Wysong, who would one day serve as an assistant for him at Warsaw. Rhodes graduated in 1974 with a degree in mathematics, but stayed as a graduate assistant and coach while he earned a degree in mechanical engineering.

Rhodes coached under Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame coach Basil Mawbey at Angola in 1975. His tenure as the junior varsity head coach would last only a year before a familiar voice came calling.

A Teacher & His Pupil

While Rhodes was enjoying higher education, Miller continued his tenure at Penn. He left the Kingsmen in 1975, and spent just one year at Kokomo Haworth before landing in Warsaw.

He took one of his favorite pupils with him, and Rhodes was glad to be back with his mentor.

Rhodes credits several coaching influences, including Mawbey and coaches he competed against, such as Marion legend Bill Green, Muncie Central great Bill Harrell, and the famous Jim Hammel, of Lafayette Jefferson.

Miller’s impact tops them all, though, and Rhodes went as far as comparing him to all-time NCAA behemoths.

“Dean Smith,” he said. “Who do you want to talk about? Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, anybody. Jim is on that kind of basketball level.”

To be sure, the Tigers had experienced success before Miller. Warsaw coach Boag Johnson went 161-88 and won five sectionals from 1961-71.

His successor, Ike Tallman, coached at Warsaw from 1972-76 and captured two sectional titles and a regional crown.

However, Miller’s influence extended past the lines of Kosciusko County.

Rhodes called his mentor “ahead of his time” in creating schemes that have become commonplace across the state.

One such play was “Push Down,” which Rhodes went on to use frequently during Warsaw’s 1984 state championship season, and which current Warsaw coach Doug Ogle still employs today.

“Push Down” is a multi-option, backdoor play that is difficult to defend and requires precise execution.

Miller, who is 5-foot-5 himself, often coached smaller players. He said “Push Down” came out of a necessity to compensate for a lack of height.

“We needed to do something that was different than what everybody else was doing, so I threw in the clear-outs, the back-doors,” Miller said. “It made it very easy for us. I never worried about the fact that when we walked on the court (the other team was) too big.”

He also crafted what he calls the “Cloverdale Defense,” which is a switching, man-to-man defense that requires frequent communication.

“When we’re talking about mismatches, big on little, we didn’t have any bigs,” Miller said. “So we had to create. Our best rebounder was gonna stay inside, and our guards were gonna cause havoc outside, and that became our defense.”

As brilliant as Miller was with Xs and Os, it was his ability to influence his players that impacted Warsaw the most. Never were the Tigers to be intimidated because of a lack of size.

Miller had a rule that his players were not to look at the other end of the court during warm-ups. That way, they would not be afraid of the foreboding stature of the opposition.

“Over 600 wins later, we must have got the job done,” said Miller, referring to his all-time coaching record of 607-251.

Miller’s approach was tangibly successful: The Tigers captured sectional and regional hardware in the 1979-80 season with their “Iron Five” lineup: Ron Brandenburg, Mike Petro, Eric Sebo, Mark Sumpter, and Randy Heisler.

Miller said the “Iron Five” was so named because of its performance  at the 1979 South Bend Holiday Tournament. The lineup went 3-0, without a single substitution made, to claim the tournament title.

All the while, Rhodes was taking notes, and Miller could see how much promise his assistant had. Rhodes had studied at Tri-State during the dawn of the computer age, and Miller knew his pupil’s exceptional intelligence would take him far.

“The young man is a savant in science and math,” Miller said. “Instead of going (another way), like many of his friends did who became very, very, very wealthy, he went the silly route of coaching in high school and teaching math like the rest of us. And so, you knew he had it in him, and his knowledge of the game was fantastic.”

Despite the 1979-80 season being Miller’s most successful one yet with the Tigers, he left for Huntington North the next year.

“I thought I’d done about as much as I could at Warsaw, although I probably didn’t because they’ve had great teams since then,” Miller said.

Miller continued his success, first at Huntington North, and then at New Albany, before calling it a career in 1995.

He won 18 sectionals, five regionals, and two semistate championships throughout his career. He also had six assistants go on to become head coaches.

With Miller gone, it was time for Rhodes to take the mantle of Warsaw basketball.