Walter Mitty, meet Phil Miller: former Demon walk-on headed to Omaha (again)

STEERING HITTERS: Former Northwestern State infielder and coach Phil Miller (center), going over scouting reports with Texas players, has helped the Longhorns to another College World Series berth.

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

If you don’t think it’s a long way from being a walk-on to coaching in the College World Series, Phil Miller would like to have a word.

When Texas opens play Friday in the CWS against Notre Dame, the former Northwestern State player and assistant coach will be in the first base coaching box for the Longhorns. It’s his third trip to Omaha with the Longhorns, on the heels of appearances in 2018 and last year.

And don’t think for a second that he doesn’t take a moment to appreciate where he is.

“There’s been a moment like that in almost every place I’ve been,” Miller says. “I remember when I first started coaching and I was making $5,000 a year and thinking, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I was on top of the world. As you move up and get to a better place, you just sort of take it all in. The job is the same, right? Working with players, developing relationships, that sort of thing never changes.

“I’m extremely blessed and fortunate,” Miller adds. “There’s a lot of timing involved. Yeah, I’m lucky to be where I’m at but at the same time, a lot of hard work has gone into it.”

When he finished his playing days at NSU in 2005, Miller wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.

“I had some undergraduate hours left and I wasn’t good enough to play at the next level,” he says. “Coach (Mitch Gaspard) allowed me to just stick around and bang some fungoes and throw some batting practice.”

After graduating, Miller did the whole business-world interview thing, but “it never really occurred to me that I was going to have to hang it up,” so he didn’t.

You can’t start any lower than volunteer coach, so that’s what Miller did at Northwestern in 2006, but then things started falling into place.

Three seasons at Sam Houston State, back to Northwestern for two, then a return to Sam Houston from 2012-14, where he worked with rookie head coach David Pierce. Miller went with Pierce to Tulane for the ’15 and ’16 seasons and when Pierce got one of college baseball’s plum head coaching jobs at Texas, Miller was invited along.

Ten years after not knowing what he was going to do after college and Phil Miller was now coaching at one of the most storied programs in all of college baseball.

All of this for a guy who wasn’t sure he’d even get the opportunity to play in college.

“His high school coach (University’s Burke Broussard) called and said he had a really tough kid who loved to play,” says Gaspard, now associate head coach at Louisiana Tech. “I told him that’s the kind of kid we were looking for. Phil was one of my favorites. He’s the ultimate grinder. Always trying to get better and a great teammate. A great guy to coach.”

Gaspard loves to tell a story about his former player. The Demons were playing Sam Houston State to win the Southland Conference title in 2005, Miller’s senior year. He got hit by a pitch late in the game but Gaspard had basically used up his bench.

Between innings, Miller, the Demons’ second baseman, told Gaspard “Coach, I’m pretty sure I broke my finger. I’m just telling you this just to let you know that if I have to make a throw to first, I’m not sure that I can. But I’ll do my best.’

“Well, there’s nobody else left,” Gaspard told him, “So good luck.”

With one out and a man on first in the ninth inning, naturally there was a ground ball to shortstop. “We’ve got to turn a double play to win the league,” Gaspard says. “It was a changeup, but he figured out a way to get that ball to first base. That shows what he meant to the team and the coaching staff.”

Miller and Gaspard got a chance to reunite when Tech played in the Austin Regional two weeks ago and there was a lot of pride for both.

“He’s one of my mentors,” Miller says of his former coach. “The way he does things, his personality, his relationship with players. Everybody who has played for him knows what a great guy he is. I made sure I got a picture with him when we played (at the Regional).”

“He’s just a worker,” Gaspard said of Miller. “You can give him anything whether it’s baseball-related or not and he is going to put forth a great effort. That’s just who he is as a person.”

Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics