When Indiana State graduate Charles Miller left Terre Haute in 1954 to take a job coaching basketball and teaching at Hungerford High School in Eatonville, Fla., he found a different world.
Walt Disney had not yet arrived in central Florida, and segregation was fully entrenched. Nobody would have blamed Miller if he had packed his bags and returned to his home in Louisville. Instead, he chose to stay and help fight the inequities of the Deep South.
“Getting equal opportunities in almost every area that you had to deal with was a challenge,” Miller said. “Equal facilities, equal equipment, that type of thing. Our principal was F.M. Otey — the one who hired me — and he challenged the school board and eventually got everything he asked for.”
Otey’s wife was from Terre Haute, which is how Miller first met him. “He came to Terre Haute and was looking for a basketball coach to come to Florida, so I accepted the job,” Miller said.
From this chance meeting, Otey chose a winner. Miller coached two basketball state championship teams at Hungerford (later called Wymore Tech) — one in 1958 (when basketball was segregated in Florida) and one in 1970 (when black and white students played together).
Miller had his second brush with athletic greatness when he was at Hungerford High. When he arrived in 1954, David D. “Deacon” Jones was an 11th grader. Jones later went on to become one of the best defensive lineman to ever play in the NFL and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
Miller’s first brush with athletic greatness, however, occurred growing up in Louisville. He lived about three blocks from the home of Muhammad Ali, who went on to become the greatest boxer of all time, as well as a leader in the Civil Rights movement.
Later, after retiring from coaching, Miller was asked if he would help with the Florida Citrus Bowl’s basketball tournament.
“I basically kept the scorebooks,” Miller said. “That was the first thing helping with the basketball tournament. At the time it was sponsored by Red Lobster, which has its corporate offices in Orlando.”
After a few years, Miller was put in charge of the tournament, and he travelled around the country, including to the NCAA Basketball Tournament to persuade teams to travel to Orlando and play in the Citrus Bowl.
Red Lobster eventually dropped its sponsorship, and the Citrus Bowl also discontinued the event. But the Citrus Bowl manager was Chuck Rohe, and he asked if Miller would continue working for them.
“He asked if I would be the stadium manager for the Citrus Bowl,” Miller said. “I would make sure we had security, ushers, ticket takers and take care of any facility problems that occurred during the game.”
While holding that position as the Citrus Bowl’s stadium manager, Miller is given credit for bringing the Florida Classic to Orlando — a football game between two traditionally African-American schools, Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M. The game had been held in Tampa, but the teams were having some problems with housing.
“It was played in Tampa, but they were having problems in the 1970s finding motel rooms for blacks,” Miller said. “So a friend of mine, who was a graduate of Florida A&M, had a school official call me and he asked if we could play the game in Orlando. So we did. Florida Citrus Sports sponsored the game, and the teams took care of their expenses. Basically, after expenses we had, the rest went to the teams.
“The last year in Tampa, they had made $500,000. The first year in Orlando, the teams made $1 million.”
The Florida Classic is still played in the Citrus Bowl each year the week before Thanksgiving, and usually it’s played in front of a packed stadium.
One other lasting legacy for Miller is his role helping start the Florida Citrus Sports Foundation Summer Camp in 1994.
“The committee that helped run the Citrus Bowl, which was made up of businessmen from Orlando, wanted to sponsor a program for needy kids,” Miller said. “So we started the Florida Citrus Sports Foundation Summer Camp, done right there at the Citrus Bowl. That camp really helped a lot of poorer kids. Why? Most of those kids didn’t know how to swim.”
For his efforts in sports and helping the central Florida community, Miller was awarded the 2013 Howard Palmer Award, a tribute to the Florida Citrus Sports member who continually strives to make significant contributions to the organization and its efforts without regard for personal recognition.
“A true gentleman, Charlie’s contributions to this community are substantial and date back nearly 60 years,” said Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan in 2013 at the award’s presentation. “Whether coaching, establishing a summer camp for kids, attracting the Florida Classic to Orlando or shaping young lives, Charlie has always put the needs of others first.
“He is a humble man who has lived a life teaching and leading young and old throughout Central Florida and recognizing his contributions with our most prestigious individual honor, is long overdue.”