When F. Don Miller, executive director of the United States Olympic Committee, was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, he won the welterweight division of the nowdefunct NCAA boxing tournament.
"I've always loved a good fight as long as I can remember," says Miller. "I've never shied away from a challenge in my life. Never."
Thirty-four years after that first major vitory, Miller again has proved his fighting prowess, this time in the boxing ring of amateur athletics. He has managed to unify the once fragmented United States Olympic movement, something many critics have long felt was an impossible task.
In the process, he has emerged as potentially the most powerful amateur athletic figure in the United States, rivaled only by Walter Byers of the NCAA. And he has put the USOC in the position to become the nation's dominant international amateur sports organization, filling a longstanding void in the amateur athletic world.
Yet, unlike Byers, the outspoken king of college sports, Miller's name is unfamiliar to the public and the extent of his influence is just now being recognized.
As the latest major reorganization of the Olympic committee begins to take shape, Miller's power will increase. Many of the important functions of the USOC are funneled, at least at the start, through his office. And the USOC's 11-man administrative committee will make it easier for him to assert his opinions, according to USOC sources.
Previously, the authority of the executive director was weakened by constant hassling between the Amateur Athletic Union and the NCAA. But under the USOC's new structure, such multisport organizations have lost much of the power, which now will be transferred to each of the governing bodies that will run the individual Olympic and Pan American sports.
In the future when these sports groups look for national leadership, the logical place to turn will be the USOC, not the AAU or NCAA. And Miller, better than any of the other USOC officers, will be able to expedite solutions to problems.
"I think most amateur sports people, especially those outside the NCAA, have been looking for someone to lead them out of the wilderness," said one NCAA official. "Miller is the guy who finally can do it for them."
What Miller has accomplished since becoming executive director in 1973 is remarkable in three ways:
He has brought about major, controversial reforms with a minimum fanfare and notoriety.
He has become one of the few major amateur sports figures in this country who is popular and respected by all the major amateur athletic organizations, including the NCAA and AAU.
He has revitalized the Olympic movement so thoroughly that previously discouraged amateur sports groups now are more optimistic about America's future in the games.
Historically, the USOC has been dominated by a power figure. But those men, such as Dan Ferris, the late longtime secretary of the AAU, and Avery Brundage, a former USOC president whose loyalties late in life belonged solely to the international Olympic movement, were identified more closely with USOC factions.
Miller's ascent to the top of the USOC has been unaccompanied by the problems associated with factional politics. He is considered a truly neutral figure in the amateur sports war, not a puppet of any particular group.
He has brought about changes, not through threats or infighting - former prime internal USOC political weapons, but through his ability to work for compromise and to impress various USOC members with his integrity and fairness.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for Don Miller," said Tom Hansen, assistant executive director of the NCAA. "He's a straight-shooter and that is all you ask for from anybody."
Another amateur official described him as being "terribly honest, a man who doesn't engage in overstatements. He has told us he thought he could deliver and he has. You have to keep pitching with a guy like that."
Miller has tackled head-on most of the major issues that long have divided the USOC. By the end of the USOC's biannual convention last month, almost every one's problem had been solved. Consider:
Athletes have long complained about lack of representation within the USOC. They now have or will have 20 per cent of the vote on every major USOC body.
Athletes have been hindered in the past by the overwhelming expenses associated with preparing for Olympic competition. The OSOC now pays athletes' expenses at the final Olympic and Pan American trials; it also has a job placement program in which more than 70 corporations have agreed to hire qualified athletes and not penalize them for time taken out for competition.
Another 70 companies currently employing qualified athletes have made the same agreement.And in cases where athletes are not paid for time away from jobs, the USOC will reimburse them for lost salary.
The NCAA pulled out of the Olympic movement in 1972 because of the AAU's domination of the USOC. Now that all multisport groups have been downgraded to a secondary position within the USOC, the NCAA is seriously considering rejoining, a move that finally would unify this nation's amateur sports.
There have been increasingly stronger complaints from all segments of the American sports structure about the lack of athletic development at the grass roots level. Now, two-year-round regional training centers costing $5 million are being established by the USOC (with a third in the planning stages). More than $9 million (compared to $2.1 million in the four years preceeding the 1976 Olympics) also has been budgeted by the USOC for individual sports development.
"I want to emphasize," said Miller, "that everything we are doing is for one purpose: to provide every opportunity possible for the athletes of this country. This should be the role of the USOC and we want to make sure it continues."
His words come slowly and methodically, as if he were talking military memo. His 27 years in the Army are also reflected in two other major characteristics: his commanding presence and an organizational ability which enables him to handle the incredible paperwork associated with his position.
Although he was a member of the USOC board of directors while in the Army (where he was head of the Army sports programs when he retired as a colonel) and coach of the Olympic boxing team in 1956, Miller seriously began the rise to his present spot in 1969, when he was brought into the USOC executive structure by William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury.
Simon then was USOC national fund-raising chairman, a voluntary position, while Miller was named director of fund-raising and assistant executive director. Miller became executive director in 1973 when Arthur G. Lentz was not rehired following the USOC's embarrassing organizational foulups at the Munich Olympics.Miller, 56, was just reelected to another four-year term.
"The reason Miller has been so much more successful than any of his predecessors is because he isn't afraid to tackle the problems head-on," said Larry Hough, a leading figure in the powerful Athletes Advisory CounciL. "He's managed to satisfy all sides while still accomplishing the reforms we need."
Miller also has been able to back up his authority with an ability to raise unprecedented sums of money for the Olympic movement.
In the four years leading up to the 1972 Olympic Games, the USOC spent $8 million. That amount was increased to $12 million for the 1976 quadrennial, Miller's first as USOC executive director. For the 1980 quadrennial, the USOC has a budget of almost $26 million, and that does not include some $6 million needed for the regional development centers.
"The Olympic finances aren't what you'd expect for an organization that big," said Hough. "They aren't as sophisticated as they should be. But Miller and his financial man, Ed Mos ler, have helped to straighten things out. They are tapping the right people."
Miller and USOC President Robert Kane have gaudy ambitions for the USOC: the training centers, a massive sports medicine program, better regional coordination among sports groups. In Kane, Miller has the ideal man to turn to for support.
Kane is a former long time athletic director at Cornell. He also has been a major force within the national college ranks, serving at various times as vice president of the NCAA and president of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).
With these college ties, he is considered pro-NCAA by AAU types within the Olympic movement. Ironically, however, the NCAA's departure from the USOC in 1972 cost Kane te presidency of the USOC that year, something which left him bitter for a time.
"I had a stranded felling," he said. "But I decided the only way to work for change was to stay within the USOC. So I continued." He was elected vice president, while Philip O. Krumm, an unpopular figure with many athletes because they felt his grating personality did little to create a better public relations image for the USOC, became USOC president.
"If Kane had been president for the last four years," said one athlete closely associated with USOC politics, "we'd be a heck a lot further on. Krumm did little but irritate people."
Kane's relationship with the NCAA has helped smooth some of the college group's ruffled feelings. The NCAA likes him and they like Miller. College people say they can speak intelligently with both men, which they said has not always been the case with past USOC officers.
In the shuffling of power within the USOC, another major winner - other than Miller - has been the athletes from an outside voice in the wilderness eight years ago, athletes now have formal, entrenched power within the USOC.
The USOC constitution and bylaws guarantee that "recent athletes" (athletes who have competed in the Olympics or Pan American Games or other major international meets in the last 10 years) will have 20 per cent representation on the 70-man USOC executive board and on each of the governing bodies of the various Olympic sports. They also will have two seats on the new 11-member USOC administrative committee, which controls daily USOC affairs.
In addition, a strengthened USOC athletes bill of rights allows athletes to file formal grievances against USOC organizations they feel have denied them the right to compete internationally. And the USOC now is bound to support any athele, financially and legally in a grievance against an organization outside the USOC (such as the NCAA).
Much of the credit for this improved athletic voice goes to a well-organized Athletes Advisory Council and to what Hough called "enlightened thinking, for a change, on the part of USOC people."
Another aid was the report by the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, which backed up athletes' demands. Hough said the inclusion of a section on athletes rights in the report "gave us even more credibility than before."
Now the athletes have a formidable task. Enough of them must decide to participate within the USOC, said Hough, "or what we've gained will be worthless.
"Someone at the Olympic House in New York told me that we've been asking for it, now can we diliver? It was a good question. We've had 20 or 30 people who have been active participants who are spreading the word, but we need more.
"It comes down to this, is our power now greater than our resources? We're going to be on all the USOC standing committees too, and all in all, you are talking about needing a lot athletes. We've got to get more people involved."
To what extent the AAU will be involved within the Olympic movement from now on is another major question surrounding the USOC.
With its once-dominant position eliminated by USOC constitutional changes, the AAU's influence has diminished, a fact that delights many athletes who long have been disgusted by what they consider the AAU's inefficiency.
Former AAU president Jack Kelly, the Olympic rower and brother of Pricess Grace, is currently the USOC first vice president and logical successor to Kane as USOC president in 1981.
But sources within the USOC believe Kelly will be bypassed for someone else, possibly Simon, who has re-entered Olympic politics as the new USOC treasurer.
The chief AAu spokesman is its current president, Joel Ferrell, one of the few AAU types to gain at least the limited respect of the NCAA. Ferrell is credited by USOC people for helping to bring about some of the major USOC reforms.
"Most of the AAU people are just plain dumb," said one NCAA official, "but at least Ferrell is of the 20th Century. He seems like a decent person, someone you can reason with."
AAU executive director Olan Cassell, a former Olympic gold medal winner in the 1600-meter relay, has been involved so closely in the NCAA-AAu feuds that his influence has suffered. Cassell could bot have any major future role in the USOC if the Olympic movement expects to regain the active participant of the NCAA.
Miller, however, tends to play down any continuing friction between the AAU and the NCAA. He sees nothing but blue skies in the USOC's future - and a lot less political hassling.
"We are in the midst of a very exciting era for the USOC," he said. "We have made progress and the way people are pulling together, we will make a lot more in years to come. We are going to surprise some people."
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