The busy Jimmy Mills

Posted on September 4, 2012 12:05 am

This post is about a man who was born in Scotland, came to the United States in his 20s, coached college soccer in Pennsylvania and coached a U.S. national team on a trip to a major tournament in the Southern Hemisphere in the 1950s.

Certainly sounds like a description of Bill Jeffrey, the coach of the U.S. team at the 1950 World Cup, doesn’t it? But while Jeffrey does fit this, it is intended as a description of Jimmy Mills, a contemporary of Jeffrey who has to rank as one of the greatest soccer coaches ever in the United States. So here is a bit about a man who can be called legendary, if it is possible for a person to be legendary when their legend is know only to a small and shrinking group of people:

For many years, Mills coached college teams, American Soccer League teams and youth teams simultaneously. It was with the ASL clubs that he gained his greatest fame. In one stretch, Mills’ teams won six ASL championships in eight seasons, the first four of those with the Philadelphia Nationals, whom he coached from that team’s founding in 1942 until its end in 1953.

The Philadelphia Nationals got their start when the ASL franchise of the Philadelphia Passon team, which had been owned by a sporting goods store, was bought in 1942 by Fairhill, an amateur club that Mills coached (the Fairhill neighborhood is part of a now-blighted section of Philadelphia that is known today as the Badlands). After a slow start, the Philadelphia Nationals became a powerhouse in the late 1940s with the emergence of Walter Bahr and Benny McLaughlin as stars and the addition to the lineup of several players from the disbanded Baltimore Americans. They won ASL championships in 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1953 (the year they folded). Mills later added two more ASL titles in 1955 and 1956 as coach of the Philadelphia Uhrik Truckers. In the late 1950s, Mills became an advisor to the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals, who had bought the ASL franchise once owned by the Philadelphia Nationals. Mills had never won a U.S. Open Cup title as coach of the Philadelphia Nationals, although they reached the final in 1949 and 1952, but he finally got his hands on that trophy for the first time in 1960 thanks to the Uke Nats.

Mills’ teams also won the Lewis Cup, the ASL’s league cup tournament, in 1949 and 1951, and he narrowly missed ASL titles in 1952 with the Philadelphia Nationals and 1954 with Brookhattan of New York. If he had won those two titles, he would have had eight ASL championships in a row.

Mills, who had been a first-division player in Scotland, emigrated to the United States via Canada in 1922, when he was 27 years old, and spent the American portion of his playing career with Philadelphia teams. He coached various college and secondary-school teams in the Philadelphia area from the 1930s to the 1980s. The largest part of that time, from 1949 to 1971, was at Haverford College, where he won three Middle Atlantic Conference titles and had only two losing seasons. He took one season off from his Haverford duties to coach the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, which made a long Asian tour as well as playing in the Olympic Games in Australia.

Like many people in American soccer in the middle of the 20th century, Mills did not earn a full-time living from soccer, but rather combined soccer with another job, as a weaver in a carpet mill. As if the ASL, college coaching and carpet weaving were not enough, Mills also spent some time coaching the Lighthouse Boys Club, a traditional fixture in Philadelphia youth soccer.

Before becoming the Haverford coach, Mills had coached at Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia from 1939 to 1948. After retiring from Haverford when he was well into his 70s, he coached another dozen years at Girard College, a private secondary school in Philadelphia.

Mills retired to Florida in his early 90s. It seems unlikely that he spent his time there taking it easy. That would have been too much out of character.

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