Nyla Milleson was hired as Drury University’s vice-president/director of athletics on Feb. 21. Despite being just one year removed from her 36th season as a basketball coach, Milleson says she’s ready to move into a new phase as an administrator. (Photo by Drury University Athletics)

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During her introductory news conference as Drury University’s new vice-president/director of athletics, Nyla Milleson looked around the O’Reilly Family Events Center and smiled.

Fifteen years have passed since Milleson wrapped up a highly successful tenure as Drury’s women’s basketball coach. Since that time, she moved about a mile and a half to lead Missouri State’s women’s basketball program, then about 900 miles to coach at George Mason University near the nation’s capital.

Milleson never imagined, let alone planned, a return to Drury. But here she was and it felt perfect.

“I’ve clicked my shoes and made the wish ‘there’s no place like home.’ Just like Dorothy, I’m home. I’m where I belong,” Milleson said.

After returning to the Ozarks a year ago, to become athletic director at Hollister High School, figuring it was her final job, Drury called and Milleson said it was an opportunity she could not resist.

Of all her stops in a 36-year coaching career, Milleson’s time at Drury is most memorable. She started the Lady Panthers’ program in 2000 and took it to the highest levels of NCAA Division II, reaching the national tournament five times in seven seasons, including a runner-up finish in 2004.

So it was no wonder that Milleson was a natural option for Drury as it sought a replacement for Corey Bray, who announced last month he was leaving after less than three years to become athletic director at Oklahoma City University.

“She is the right person for the job,” said Dr. Edsel Matthews, a Missouri Sports Hall of Famer and former Drury men’s basketball coach and athletics director. Matthews hired Milleson as head coach at Glendale High School in 1993 when he was AD for Springfield R-12 schools and later while at Drury.

“I’m really excited about it,” Matthews added. “She understands the Drury community. She’s coached at every level and she will be a welcome addition. I just couldn’t be happier about it.”

Milleson mentioned multiple times about the “Drury Way” and how being a part of that in a leadership role appealed to her when Drury President Tim Cloyd reached out to talk about the position.

Back to the Drury Way

What is the Drury Way? Milleson said it begins with the small, family atmosphere that is prevalent at the private, liberal arts school that had an enrollment of 2,462 in the fall semester.

“There are so many people as I’ve tried to get keys, get an ID, get set up on the telephones … all of those things, there are so many people that work on those things that are still here from 20 years ago,” Milleson said. “That’s been fun. There’s a lot of consistency here.

“The academic piece of the puzzle is certainly a big part of what we do at Drury, with the emphasis on the quality education and graduating student-athletes and giving them a positive experience. What we do in our athletic department in terms of services and support and those sorts of things is crucial to us. The Division II experience is special to what we do.”

Drury certainly seems a natural fit when compared to Milleson’s time at George Mason, a totally different culture than she experienced previously in Springfield and, before that, growing up in small-town western Kansas where rodeo and basketball were passions.

Located in Fairfax, Virginia, in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area, simply commuting to work each day was an experience.

“I loved my eight years out there and got to do a lot of things I never would have experienced in the Midwest,” Milleson said. “I met some incredible people competing in the Atlantic 10 Conference, which was amazing.

“I will say, it prepared me for my commute because I’m staying in Branson and commuting back and forth to Springfield,” she added, with a laugh. “Eight years ago I absolutely would not have driven in from Branson, but compared to going back and forth every day to Fairfax, this commute is nothing.”

She said that in a “perfect world” the commute was 30 minutes but there was no such thing as a perfect world with heavy traffic and road construction.

“Some days it would take me an hour and a half or two hours,” she said. “You have to deal with it in a big-city atmosphere.”

In seven seasons as Drury Lady Panthers basketball head coach, Nyla Milleson’s team posted a record of 185-36 with five NCAA Division II Tournament appearances. (Photo by Drury University Athletics)

Hanging up the whistle

The biggest challenge at Drury could be watching games from the view of an administrator and not a coach. Matthews made that transition many years ago and said it wasn’t easy.

“But I think the challenge is bigger for somebody who has not coached than who has coached,” Matthews said. “Once you coach, you know what it’s like. To have the opportunity to go and be a servant and help them be successful, that’s what I enjoyed doing and that’s what Nyla will enjoy doing.”

Milleson said she’s enjoyed watching Drury Lady Panthers weekend games this season as Amy Eagan has guided the team to a No. 8 national ranking and 28-4 record headed into postseason play, beginning on Thursday at the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament in Edwardsville, Illinois.

“I think the year at Hollister allowed me — and not that there weren’t days that I watched games or stuck my head in at practice that it wasn’t hard — but I was ready,” she said of becoming an administrator. “I was ready for a new challenge.

“I’m gonna be the Panthers’ and the Lady Panthers’ biggest cheerleader and do all I can to support them. Watching from a former coach’s eyes, but also from an administrator’s standpoint I want to do all I can to help our athletic program get better.”

Eagan said Milleson elevates the entire department in ways that cannot be measured.

“You can tell the energy on campus and the energy in the community,” Eagan said. “To have Nyla come back, somebody who eats, drinks, sleeps and breathes Drury, it’s really special.”

Historic hire for Springfield

Milleson’s hiring carries significance beyond the boundaries of the Drury campus because she is the first female athletic director for a Springfield college or university. She said that fact didn’t hit home until after the news conference, when her thoughts turned to trailblazers such as the late Dr. Mary Jo Wynn, the longtime senior women’s athletics administrator at Missouri State.

“I thought about Dr. Wynn and the impact she had on female athletics in general and certainly on the Springfield community, Milleson said. “Her trailblazing is a big reason I have this opportunity, along with a lot of people before me back to the pre-Title IX days who fought for women to be able to participate in athletics.

“It is pretty amazing what I have been able to do in Springfield over the last 30 years. Hopefully I can continue to make a difference at Drury and continue to blaze a trail for females in the future.”

The Nyla Milleson File

  • A native of Goodland, Kansas, Milleson earned degrees in Psychology and Education and a Master’s in Education Administration from Kansas State University.
  • After three seasons as girls’ basketball coach at Junction City (Kansas) High School, Milleson came to Glendale High School in Springfield in 1992. In seven seasons, she guided the Lady Falcons to a 157-39 record and Class 4 state championship in 1995.
  • Hired to lead the new Drury women’s basketball program in 1999, her teams earned five NCAA Division II tournament appearances and went to the Elite Eight three times in seven seasons. The Lady Panthers were DII runners-up in 2004.
  • Moving to Missouri State, she spent six seasons as Lady Bears head coach and her teams were 105-87 in six seasons including an MVC regular-season title in 2012.
  • Led George Mason to a 98-140 record in eight seasons, highlighted by a program-record 24 wins and first national postseason appearance in 2018.
  • Resigned at George Mason and became athletics director at Hollister High School in 2021.
  • Drury Athletics Hall of Fame inductee (2016) and Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer (2018). 
  • She and husband Brent have two sons, Barrett and Caylor.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton