Miller’s moment


Kent State fifth year senior wrestler Ian Miller fights for position against an Old Dominion University wrestler during a meet at the M.A.C. Center on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. The Flashes won the Meet 25-13.

Richie Muhall

Kent State fifth-year senior, two-time All-American and three-time MAC champion Ian Miller is a man on a mission. And that mission is to win.

It all happened so fast. Almost as fast as an Ian Miller takedown.

It was the 157-pound quarterfinal match that pitted Kent State wrestler Ian Miller against Cornell wrestler Brian Realbuto at the 2015 NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Missouri. Ian was the No. 7 seed and Realbuto was the No. 2 seed. The stage was set for a great match.

The whistle blew and the two bulls locked up.

Ian took Realbuto down four times and gained a significant riding time advantage to build a 9-4 lead. With the match well in control, Ian imposed his will. Only 50 seconds remained in the period. All Ian had to do was maintain.

Suddenly, Ian’s uncle Zeb watched Ian’s big lead disappear as Ian melted down; Realbuto stunned him with two takedowns in a row in the waning minutes of regulation.

“It was almost like watching someone who can’t swim,” Zeb said.

The match clock was winding down as Ian treaded water, just trying to survive. Ian expended almost every ounce of energy throughout the first six minutes of the match. The last minute belonged to Realbuto.

Ian let a five-point advantage slip away, as Realbuto rallied to a 9-9 tie to force the match into overtime. Just 16 seconds into the extra session, Realbuto scored a takedown for the 11-9 win.

There was only one problem. At the end of regulation, Realbuto struck for a pair of quick takedowns with an escape by Ian in between. The officials missed Ian’s escape point, which should have resulted in a 10-9 win for Ian.

Kent State head coach Jim Andrassy and assistant coaches Matt Hill and Josh Moore were adamant that the score was wrong, so they approached the officials’ table to request that they check the score, but the officials denied the request and told the coaches to return to their bench.

After regulation, Ian was completely spent. He felt gassed going into the overtime period, and it only took Realbuto about 12 seconds to take down Ian in overtime to seal his victory. The scoring error cost him the match and a shot at a national title.

The NCAA Division I wrestling committee, led by committee chairman Matthew Whisenant met to review the footage of the match and come to a conclusion. It took the Kent State coaching staff an hour and a half to hear the ruling derived from the committee’s deliberations. The committee admitted the score was wrong, but the result was left unchanged. The NCAA issued the following statement:

“The NCAA Division I Wrestling Committee met to discuss the scoring error in the match between Brian Realbuto and Ian Miller, and our determination was that there is a protocol in place for coaches to challenge errors in a match via the coaches challenge (Rule 3.21.2 b).  Kent State had challenges remaining and did not raise the challenge flag to declare an error in the match, therefore the resulting Cornell victory stands.”

The NCAA knew the officials got the score wrong, acknowledged that it was wrong, but did nothing to overturn says call. The ruling on the mat stood and Ian Miller was robbed of the victory.

Tweets poured in over social media and flooded Ian’s phone to offer overwhelming support. The hashtag “#freeMiller” trended on Twitter as people voiced what everyone was thinking. The consensus was unanimous: Miller should have won.

As Ian walked through the corridors of the St. Louis Convention Center, the strong, pungent aroma of garlic bread seeped into his nostrils, causing him to projectile vomit as he was heading through the tunnel on his way back to the locker room. Coach Hill followed Ian to the locker room, cleaning up the puke on Ian’s arm and shoe. The bad taste of loss, coupled with the scoring debacle, ultimately left Ian feeling defeated.

After a while, Ian grew quiet. Calm and collected, Ian handled the emotionally charged situation with a sense of grace other wrestlers might not have maintained if thrust into the same situation. “Ian stayed on a really even playing field,” Matt says.

Ian’s mother, Stacy, caught up with her son afterward and offered her support. It was Stacy that really snapped him out of it. “She told me, basically, you can quit and just not be an All-American this year or you can just grit your teeth, go out there and become an All-American again for the second time,” Miller said.

“You’re going to have this kind of stuff happen to you for the rest of your life,” Stacy says. “This is where you decide whether you lay down and let them win or you just keep going.”

Unfortunately, Ian has become too used to this kind of stuff.

Can’t catch a break

Over the course of his wrestling career, Ian has cultivated a reputation for himself as the kid who can’t seem to catch a break. His uncle Zeb put it bluntly.

“Weird shit always happens to him,” Zeb said.

As dominant as Ian has been as a wrestler, this is an underdog story that began in the 24-year-old’s senior year of high school when he suffered his only loss in his last match of the year, which coincidentally was the championship match at 152 pounds.

Then it was the concussion he suffered his junior year at Kent State. After that it was the knee injury he succumbed to in the same season. Later, it was the knee injury that cost him again in the NCAA Tournament. The list goes on.

Ian’s most recent bout with bad luck came at this year’s Mid-American Conference Tournament held at Eastern Michigan University in March. The Flashes’ top-seeded, No. 3 fifth-year senior was wrestling Missouri No. 5 seed and redshirt senior Le’Roy Barnes and built a 2-1 lead in the first period. While Ian was ducking under in the sprawl position, he slammed his head on the mat, leading to a 10-minute delay.

Ian made a scene, which led to the Eastern Michigan doctor and trainers being called over to examine him. When Ian wouldn’t cooperate with the Eastern Michigan doctor, she said he wasn’t capable of wrestling anymore. The Kent State and Eastern Michigan trainers consulted one another, and talked to Miller again, which led to a concussion test. Although Ian passed the concussion protocol and told the Kent State training staff he was fine, the Eastern Michigan staff declared Ian ineligible to continue the match until he got an x-ray on his neck, giving Barnes the victory.

Ian Miller

Weight Class: 157

Academic Class: Fifth Year

Hometown: Oak Harbor,

High School: Oak Harbor


• Two-time All-American

• Three-time Mid-American Conference champion

• Fifth among KSU career leaders in wins

• Fourth among KSU career leaders in pins

Prior to Kent State

• Rated the No. 2 recruit in the nation at 152 pounds by The Open Mat, InterMat and USA


• Won 145-pound Division II Ohio state title as a junior

• Was a state runner-up as a senior

• Placed third at state tournament as a sophomore

• Won 2010 Walsh Iron Man Tournament and finished runner-up in 2009

“It was apparent that Ian wanted to wrestle,” Andrassy said. “At that point, he left it in their hands, and they made the decision. You make your own breaks and you catch your own breaks.”

After further tests were done on Monday, it was determined that Ian was fine. The injury was nothing more than a pinched nerve, but that didn’t change the fact that Ian was robbed. Again.

“I was pissed,” Ian said. “They took something from me that I wanted, and they had no right to. Those trainers knew nothing about wrestling. It pisses me off, and it’s going to fuel me.”

Ian lost the opportunity to become a four-time MAC champion, but still has a chance to redeem himself, as he received an at-large bid to enter the NCAA Tournament and keep his quest for a national title alive.

He will make his fourth career trip to the NCAA Championships, looking to become a three-time All-American and a first-time NCAA champion. 

“If [Ian] goes out there and does what we all know … he’s capable of and gets his mind right, I think the sky’s the limit for him,” Andrassy said.

More fuel for the fire

Hill was still dumbfounded when he drove Ian back to Drury Inn just a half a mile down the street from the St. Louis Convention Center.

“To take an opportunity and not capture it is tough, especially if they capture it and it gets taken away,” Hill said. “We were all real bitter for the rest of the national tournament.”

Ian sat in his hotel room processing what had just happened. With his chin resting on the palm of his hand and his feet crossed and elevated up on the couch, Ian swiftly scrolled through his phone to try to take his mind off the disappointment. The Miller family motto of gritting your teeth resonated with him. Ian’s heeded his mom’s advice, as his reaction to the scoring error reflects his early childhood rearing. Instead of complaining or wallowing in self-pity, Ian used the controversy as motivation to fuel a comeback.

He couldn’t do anything to change the scoring. It was a setback beyond his control, so he shrugged off the loss and moved forward from the mishap. Refusing to dwell on the event and taking the tournament in stride, Ian didn’t allow his emotions to get the best of him.

“Ian seemed like it didn’t faze him,” Jim says. “I think he moved forward better than we did as a coaching staff.”

The scoring error lit a fire under Ian and motivated him to finish the tournament strong. He couldn’t let the NCAA win. He didn’t just enter the consolation round fired up. He entered it pissed off. Ian didn’t purposefully take all his aggression out on his opponent, but it was the blood round—the round of 12 that determines All-American status—and Ian was poised to make an emphatic statement. “I was mad that match, and guess I had to wrestle with a chip on my shoulder,” Ian said.

Whether it was rage, frustration or just pure aggression, Ian came out and dominated Oregon State’s Alex Elder, a fifth-year senior, Pac 12 champion and no slouch by any means. He executed nine takedowns and turned two back-to-back near-fall sequences. The match ended early in the third period when Miller piled up his ninth takedown of the match with an inside trip. 

Like a man possessed, Ian executed takedown after takedown, racking up two points after two points, dominating Elder en route to an impressive 24-6 technical fall victory. “I just had to bear down and go wrestle,” Ian said.

Ask Ferd what his favorite memory of Ian’s wrestling career is, and he’ll refer to the match after the Oregon State match. It was during this match Ian showed his true colors – colors even his father hadn’t seen before.

Ian faced No. 11 seed Brian Murphy of Michigan and tweaked his knee in the first period. He limped throughout the match, but fought through the injury and grinded out an 8-4 victory. A key inside trip beat the first period buzzer gave him a commanding 5-2 lead he refused to relinquish.

“I really thought he was just going to say screw it,” Ferd said. “I never knew he was that mentally tough.”

Hampered by the knee injury, Ian lost 13-4 to Nebraska’s James Green in his next match. He concluded the tournament with a forfeit victory over Minnesota’s Dylan Ness to seal fifth place, but the Michigan match is the one Ian’s family and team remember most.

“In June they all says it at the banquet last year,” Ferd said. “‘We never knew Ian was this mentally tough until what happened to him in St. Louis,’ and I’d say the same thing.”

Following his family’s footsteps

Growing up with a family history rooted in collegiate wrestling, Ian learned to be tough and wrestle through controversy—whether it be pain, personal setbacks or bad officiating. He had to find a way to gut it out and persevere for the sake of the overall goal.

In Ian’s case, that goal was to become an All-American again—an accolade he would have failed to reach had he chosen to quit after the NCAA quarterfinal match. His gruff and tough upbringing mentally prepared him to not sweat the small stuff and to flourish in the face of adversity.

Ian started wrestling competitively when he was in first grade. He started traveling around the country to wrestle in fifth and sixth grade, and his career took off in junior high when he won the Ohio Junior High State Wrestling Championship his eighth-grade year.

Growing up a Miller exposed him to wrestling at an early age. His grandfather wrestled, his father wrestled and all three of his uncles wrestled. Wrestling runs deep in the Miller family bloodline and, given his father’s wrestling background, Ian would be no different.

His father Ferd was a two-time state champion at Oak Harbor High School in 1986 and ’87.

His two uncles, Chad and Tait, were also state champs from Oak Harbor in 1989 and 1995, respectively. Zeb qualified for the state tournament in 1998 at 171 pounds and placed fifth.

With all this wrestling knowledge at his disposal, Ian learned the family trade rather quickly. Wrestling was in Ian’s blood, and toughness runs in the family when it comes to the Millers.

“Growing up, you had to be tough to be a Miller,” Ian said.

Ferd—the surly bear with the grizzly beard—is the reason Ian is the way he is. A tough kid who never felt sorry for himself.

“Ever since I was little I was always taught that if something doesn’t go your way, you can’t just sit there and sulk,” Ian says. “My dad’s saying is ‘you gotta grit your teeth and get through it.’”

Wrestling is the one common denominator that binds the Miller family lineage together. “They’re crazy in their own right,” Hill says of the Millers. “They have some outlandish ways.”

Outlandish but effective, nonetheless. And to think, if Ian’s uncle Tait hadn’t stopped by the house one day to wail on him, he might not have had the killer instinct to be the dominant wrestler he is today.

Killer Instinct

Ian has got that same killer instinct former Kent State wrestler Dustin Kilgore had. He’s as intense on the mat as he is quiet off the mat, but he wasn’t always so fierce in the wrestling room. One particular moment in his life flipped the switch and made him realize his ruthless potential.

When Ian was 11 or 12 years old, he was mowing the ditch bank by his family’s house in Graytown. His uncle Tait, who lives two miles down the road from Ferd, pulled his truck over, switched the emergency brake on, got out of the truck and jumped Ian.

He mauled Ian, taking him down and cross-facing him to the point of submission. Tess to the rescue. To get Tait off of him and keep him at bay, Ian sicked the family dog Tess on Tait to get him off of him. Tess tore at Tait’s pants and ripped them down until the waistline sunk to his ankles. Tait got in his truck and sped off, calling Ferd later to tell him what happened.

The torture and mental anguish Ian’s uncles put him through as a child toughened him up and only made him stronger. “You guys are what made him [mentally] ruthless,” Stacy said.

Tait attacked Ian to toughen him. Although Ian cried about it at the time, the experience made him stronger. Not to mention his brothers and uncles don’t mess with him much these days—especially Tait.

Miller’s time

When Ian first arrived at Kent State five years ago, Jim had to tweak Ian’s style a bit to ensure he didn’t get injured. Ian’s dynamic moveset and throwing style put him in a lot of precarious positions when he was younger, and they still sometimes have the same effect.

“It wasn’t as much teaching as it was putting Ian into the best position to win,” Andrassy said.

Ian wasn’t good at managing his weight, staying disciplined and developing mental toughness, but after he redshirted and matured over time, he acquired all the tools he needed to win.

When it comes to working with Ian, Hill focuses more on strategy than technique. It’s all about planning before a match for the end of a match.

“He’s got to get uncomfortable and win that last period,” Hill said.

Andrassy says Ian has the potential to become an All-American again and even run the table at the tournament, but only if he does things the right way. In his sophomore season at the NCAA tournament, he warmed up too early, wasn’t in the best shape and ran out of gas in his semifinal bout. Last year he had some anxiety and dropped seven points to Realbuto in the last 45 seconds of the match.

“To be the best at 149, 157, 165, you have to be the best for three days in a row,” Andrassy said. “You can’t have a bad moment. Ian had a bad 20 seconds. He’s got to figure out a way to win these [close] matches.”

Those three weight classes mentioned above are consistently the top three weight classes every year in terms of depth and competition and this year is no exception.

Ian hasn’t been tested by any elite competition yet this season but once the NCAA Tournament rolls around, he will face some good names out there: Penn State’s Jason Nolf and Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez, currently ranked No. 1 and 2 respectively in the nation right now, according to InterMat. “Those are the most athletic, dynamic wrestlers,” Andrassy said of Ian’s weight class.

Man on a Mission

Athletes can be consumed by one earth-shattering moment that goes on to define them. One crushing blow or one demoralizing defeat can destroy an athlete. Look at Ronda Rousey, for example. She lost her first fight in her undefeated mixed-martial arts career and went as far as to contemplate suicide.

“People as good as Ian live and die wrestling, and everything that happens is almost life-threatening or life-changing,” Andrassy said.

Despite the narrations newspapers recite and stories news stations tell, Ian Miller is not some athlete hell-bent on seeking redemption for the tournament that wronged him and cheated him out of a national title. There’s no unfinished business. There is only business.

Last season’s scoring debacle motivates him, but it doesn’t drive him. Only one thing fuels him now: winning.

The bitter end of last year’s NCAA Tournament was not a career-defining moment. The robbery did not define him because he’s fighting for so much more than revenge. He’s fighting for a title.“It’s not going to define the kid’s life – that’s the beautiful thing about it,” Zeb said. “Ian Miller’s not going to be ruined by a wrongly scored match.”

Ian Miller, a two-time All-American and three-time MAC champion, is 20-1 this season, albeit the competition hasn’t been up to par by his standards. He has only wrestled in certain matches, duals and tournaments to save himself for the NCAA Tournament this weekend. He missed a few matches this season due to knee soreness and wasn’t cleared to compete in Kent State’s final home matches against Central Michigan and Edinboro due to a bout of ringworm, a condition he’s dealt with since he was 11 years old.

Whether or not Ian is “sandbagging,” as his dad calls it, he’s definitely saving his best performance for last. “I think the way he’s wrestling is to get through the season undefeated, get the highest seed he can and just let it rip from there,” Zeb said.

Winning an NCAA title is a goal, but that goal is not the end-all, be-all moment. The moment Ian didn’t quit during last year’s tournament when a lot of people expected him to, the moment he finished his 2004 middle school tournament match even though he was getting the snot beat out of him—these are the moments that define Ian Miller. The moments when no matter how much the deck was stacked against him, he found a way to overcome.

Although Ian is no longer undefeated, he promises nothing has changed. He’s been chasing the dream of becoming a national champion since biddy (youth wrestling), and he will not be denied. When Ian lost in the middle school wrestling tournament in 2004, he came back in high school and won the state championship in 2010. When Ian lost the 2011 OHSAA State Championship match in high school, he bounced back and placed fourth at the 2014 NCAA Tournament in college.

Nothing will deter Ian’s drive to win a national title. Not scoring errors. Not knee injuries. Not concussions. Not ringworm. Not even the smell of garlic bread.

“I think anything less than a national title is going to be a bummer, so I gotta win that national title,” Ian said. “I’m going to throw everything I got out there. It’s my last go-round.”