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Death stirs memories of unique college series


http://www.mysanantonio.com/

San Antonio Express-News (02/22/2006)

by David Flores

They were the Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles of small-college football, fierce coaching rivals on the field and good friends off it.

Bill Miller and Gil Steinke are both deceased, but they always will be linked in the hearts of those who looked forward to the annual Southwest Texas-Texas A&I game when both schools were in the Lone Star Conference.

"That was the game," said Freddy Jonas, who was Steinke's defensive coordinator at A&I for 10 seasons before succeeding him in 1977.

Miller, who died Monday at age 74 after battling heart problems in recent years, was the face of SWT football for 15 seasons before resigning in 1978.

He remained as the Bobcats' athletic director until 1992 and spearheaded the school's moves from the NAIA to NCAA Division II and then Division I-AA.

Steinke made Texas A&I — now Texas A&M-Kingsville — synonymous with football excellence during a 23-year career that included six NAIA Division I national titles. Steinke died in 1995 at age 76.

Facing each other 13 times from 1964-76, Miller and Steinke defined one of the most intense rivalries in the country with their mutual respect and admiration.

The rivalry lost its luster when SWT left the LSC and moved up to Division I-AA in 1984, but memories of the Bobcats and Javelinas feuding for bragging rights in these parts endure.

Gordon McCullough, who worked closely with Miller for 16 years as sports information director and then associate athletic director, choked back tears as he recalled that era.

"I've thought a lot about that respect we had for each other," he said. "It's hard to explain. We knew what business we were in, but we also knew it was a game.

"Friendships will always trump whatever competition you might have with somebody. It's hard for me to talk about it without getting emotional."

Miller went 5-8 against Steinke but still enjoyed an outstanding career at SWT, going 94-53-3. No other football coach in school history has more victories than Miller.

As heated as the action could get on the field, Miller and Steinke never let things get personal.

"It was a most unusual situation," LaRue Miller, Miller's widow, said. "Billy and Gil were rivals, yes, but they also were good friends. They came from an era in which respect and admiration were not easily won but earned.

"I know Billy respected Gil and admired him as a coach and man, and I thought it was reciprocated."

Mary Steinke, Steinke's widow, said she enjoyed listening to her husband and Miller visit.

"I think they related to each other and just enjoyed being around each other," she said. "They would fight each other on the football field, but they had a good trust in each other. I think they were both very fair and honest."

Fred Nuesch, who was the Javelinas' sports information director for more than 35 years, said the strong bond Miller and Steinke shared made the rivalry unique.

"The two schools and their fans didn't like each other when it came to athletics, but the personnel who worked at each school were big buddies," Nuesch said. "I considered Gordon one of my best friends, and I know Billy Miller was as good a friend as coach Steinke had in the coaching ranks."

Besides leaving a legacy as an outstanding coach and administrator, Miller was a good man who never hesitated to reach out to people.

"Billy was not only a professional friend but a personal friend," said former Javelinas coach Ron Harms, who was offered the SWT job twice by Miller in the 1980s. "I know it was the same with Gil. He and Billy talked to each other for more than just business stuff."

Nuesch and others said Steinke always took time to visit Miller if he was traveling near San Marcos.

Nuesch chuckled when he recalled how Miller usually got stuck with the tab if he and Steinke went out for a meal.

"Billy would say, 'Gil beats me on the football field and invites me to eat and makes me buy his lunch,'" Nuesch said. "It was all in fun."

And we were fortunate enough to be along for the ride.