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Charlotte Observer: Belmont Abbey Crusaders Coach Is A Man Of Letters

Belmont Abbey basketball coach Stephen Miss was a fencer in college at North Carolina and spent a year at Oxford studying Irish

Belmont Abbey basketball coach Stephen Miss was a fencer in college at North Carolina and spent a year at Oxford studying Irish theatre. Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com BELMONT - The state of North Carolina is dotted with basketball coaches who attended UNC: Buzz Peterson (UNC Wilmington), Jason Capel (Appalachian State), Scott Cherry (High Point), Wes Miller (UNC Greensboro), Jeff Lebo (East Carolina) and, of course, ex-junior varsity player Roy Williams (North Carolina). Then there is Belmont Abbey's Stephen Miss. Miss, whose Crusaders open Conference Carolinas tournament play at 7 Tuesday night against Barton at the Wheeler Center, also attended North Carolina. But his road to the coaching profession was different. For starters, Miss was on the Tar Heels fencing team - not the basketball team. After graduating in 1992, he attended graduate school at Georgia and spent one year in Dublin, where he studied Irish theatre. He's run with the bulls at Pamplona and met with academic luminaries in France. "I guess how I got here is kind of a different story," said Miss. "Actually, it's kind of a convoluted deal." Miss, 44, is sitting inside his office one February afternoon, overlooking the Wheeler Center court, where the Crusaders soon will be practicing. "Yeah, we know about a lot of his background," said guard Ryan Conrad. "But he's a really good coach. He's a student of the game." Heels letter jacket Miss is 5-foot-11, which explains as much as anything why his organized basketball career ended in middle school. Growing up in Chapel Hill, Miss idolized the Tar Heels and former coach Dean Smith. Miss loved to play basketball and was good at it. The Miss family moved to the New York City area when he was in high school. By that time, it was apparent he'd reached his height ceiling of 5-11, so he played soccer, tennis and wrestled in high school. He was a good enough tennis player that he went to Hartford to play collegiately. But after that didn't work out, he transferred to North Carolina after his freshman year. Miss's love for Tar Heels basketball had never waned. He camped out with other students for tickets to every home game. And while Miss often played pickup basketball around campus, he found he needed a competitive outlet. After taking a fencing class, he tried out for the Tar Heels varsity team and made it. "It wasn't really for much more than the status of it, of being able to wear a letter jacket on Franklin Street on Friday nights," said Miss, who fenced for the Tar Heels for two seasons, making the ACC's all-academic team as a senior. Georgia assistant When his senior season of 1992 season ended, Miss would never pick up a fencing foil again. After graduating with degrees in English and Economics and taking some time off, he decided to attend graduate school at Georgia and pursue a Masters in English. Miss studied Southern literature, particularly author Walker Percy. One day, he received an offer to study Irish theatre at Ireland's Trinity College Dublin. The subject was unfamiliar, but it didn't matter. "We'd read a play in the morning; discuss it with a group in the afternoon; then see the play at night," he said. "Then we'd have a Guinness and discuss it some more. It was a great life." Something else beckoned Miss at Trinity: basketball. The school had two teams, an "A" team (varsity) and "B" team (junior varsity). Miss was good enough to play on Trinity's A team. He was also asked to coach the B team. "I didn't know anything about coaching, but they didn't know that," said Miss. "I loved it. In fact, I thought, maybe I like this better than this English thing I'm doing." When Miss returned to Athens in 1998 (he would earn Masters degrees in English from Georgia and Irish Theatre from Trinity), he went to work for the Georgia basketball program as a graduate assistant and administrative assistant. He filmed practices and did "a lot of grunt work," Miss said. He also soaked up every bit of basketball knowledge he could. When Bulldogs coach Ron Jersa was fired in 1999, new coach Jim Harrick kept Miss on the staff. Harrick resigned in 2003 in the wake of an academic scandal and this time Miss was also without a job. He went to Towson as an assistant for the 2003-04 season before landing at Belmont Abbey. After three seasons as a Crusaders assistant, he replaced Dale Kuhl as head coach in 2007. In four-plus seasons at a school whose most famous basketball name is former coach Al McGuire, Miss has an 80-60 record. 'It's always something to make us think' Miss's love of literature comes from his days in high school in New Jersey. A friend of his father's -- a Jesuit priest and Faulknerian scholar - sparked an especially keen interest in southern literature. Miss met famed literary critic Cleanth Brooks and novelist and Chapel Hill-resident Elizabeth Spencer. He spent hours in the Princeton library reading authors such as Percy and Flannery O'Connor. Miss isn't the first basketball coach in the Carolinas to bring a love of literature to his profession. The late Skip Prosser of Wake Forest was known for dropping quotes from the classics into post-game news conferences or timeout huddles. That is not Miss's style. "It probably would be better if I could be like Skip Prosser: 'Into the breach!' But I don't think I can be that way," said Miss. "I don't direct-quote very often. I might have said 'To thine ownself be true,' a couple of times. But I don't think these kids have heard of Walker Percy or (playwright) Brian Friel. Even my movie references are out of date." Miss does offer an inspirational quote or phrase to his team during each practice. "I'm not sure if it's ever from any thesis he wrote," said Crusaders guard Justin Kuhlman. "But it's always something to make us think." Words are important to Miss. Luke Day, a former high school basketball coach and friend of Miss's at Georgia, said Miss hates cliches - written or spoken. "He told me once how he never tells a recruit's parents that he will 'treat him like he was his own son,' " said Day. "That phrase bothered him. He just thinks it's false. It doesn't mean he doesn't care or won't care for (the recruit). It just bothered him that that's what coaches automatically say." When Miss was studying in Ireland, he took a trip to Spain to run with the bulls. When asked to confirm this via text message, he responded with a Bob Dylan verse: "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." 'Open arms for him' Miss, who graduated in 1992 from North Carolina, said he doesn't consider himself part of the Tar Heels basketball program. One of the highlights of Miss's career came in 2009, when the Crusaders played the Tar Heels in a preseason exhibition in the Smith Center. He wasn't sure if anybody that day in Chapel Hill knew he was an alumnus. "I wouldn't say I'm dialed in or wired into it," Miss said. "In fact, some people kind of give me a blank stare when I tell them I went to UNC. I wouldn't even begin to presume I could call upon or benefit from any of them." That might not be quite true. UNC Wilmington's Peterson said he knows Miss from the days when Peterson was director of scouting for the Charlotte Bobcats. "I asked him where he went to school, and he said he went to North Carolina," said Peterson. "No way! I thought he was probably a manager." And it seems there might be a place in the North Carolina basketball family for a former Tar Heels fencer who has a taste for Percy novels. "He's part of it," said Peterson. "If he came around to see us, there would be open arms for him." Conference Carolinas Tournament The Favorite Queens: The Royals (18-9, 13-3) open on a two-game losing streak. But with at least two guaranteed home games, the East Division winners are motivated not to repeat last year's first-round exit. Contenders King: The Tornado (22-6, 14-2) finished with the best record in league games in its first season of Conference Carolinas play. Lost to Queens 70-56 in Charlotte on Feb. 11 in the only head-to-head meeting. Mount Olive: The Trojans (19-7, 12-4) are tough to defend, with the ability to score inside and outside. They've won 11 of their past 12. Dark Horse Coker: The Cobras (14-12, 8-8) always are a tough out, and they reached the tournament final from a low seed in 2010. They've won their past six games. Five players to watch Dan Bailey, Queens, G/F, 6-4, Sr.: Athletic and versatile, he led the Royals in scoring (17.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.3 rpg) in the regular season. Tyshawn Good, Belmont Abbey, G, 6-1, Jr.: Sharpshooting New Yorker hit 42 percent of his 3-point attempts. Averaged 21 points per game. Craig Hayes, Mount Olive, G/F, 6-4, Sr.: Topped 30 points in two of his past three games. Led Trojans in rebounding (7 rpg) and 3-point shooting percentage (41 percent). Gerald Boston, Barton, G, 5-10, Jr.: Good all-around player for the Bulldogs, led team in scoring (17.3 ppg) and assists (5 apg). Brian Hewitt, King, G, 6-3, Sr.: Scored more than 1,000 points in just three seasons at King. A 43 percent 3-point shooter. Did you know? - All tournament games are played at the home court of the higher seed. Queens has home-court advantage throughout unless the Royals meet King in the final Sunday. - With 1,733 points, Daniel Bailey is second in career scoring at Queens. He needs 78 points to pass former teammate Reggie Hopkins (1,810 between 2007 and 2011). - Barton's Ron Lievense got his 300th victory as coach of the Bulldogs on Feb. 18 at Belmont Abbey. His 2007 team won the NCAA Division II championship. Today's schedule North Greenville at Queens, 7; Barton at Belmont Abbey, 7; Lees-McRae at Mount Olive, 7; Coker at King, 7. - Keith Cannon