North Shore Conference baseball coaches Ernie Millard, Jeff Wolf and Jay Wojcinski are old pals, and they like to beat each other's brains out each summer as the leaders of the Homestead, Germantown and Whitefish Bay squads, respectively.
But they also like to celebrate each other's grand accomplishments (occasionally sticking each other with the bill), like the time a couple of years ago when Wolf and Millard took Wojcinski out to congratulate him on the Blue Dukes' first North Shore title in many years.
Recently Wolf and Wojcinski took Millard out to celebrate a grand and entirely well-deserved honor for this relentlessly optimistic, hard-working, well-respected and honest-to-a-fault paragon of coaching excellence.
They're going to stick Millard in the Wisconsin Baseball Coaches' Association (WBCA) Hall of Fame on Saturday, Feb. 13, at the Marriott Middleton Hotel because as Menomonee Falls baseball coach Pat Hansen said:
'He's just a great role model.'
His five-minute speech will be long on 'thank you's' and short on self-congratulation. It will embrace everyone who has ever lent him a hand, be it in building up the youth programs or in helping renovate Rennicke Field. It will also include anyone who simply said 'thank you' to him for helping their son be a better player and person.
Because, all joking aside, his friends think the world of him.
'He always has one of the best teams out there and they're always well-disciplined,' said Wojcinski. 'He'll always have something unpredictable ready for you, too. You never know what he's going to do. You just hope your kids are ready for it.
'And Ernie will be one of the first people to tell you, no matter how good a friend he is (and he's a good one), he always wants his kids to play well and fundamentally sound. His record indicates that.'
Millard enters his 24th summer at the helm with 483 career wins, third on the career summer coaches' list. He's won two North Shore titles, a WIAA state crown in 1994 (with his brother Ethan as one of the star pitchers). The Highlanders were also state runners-up in 2003 and 2014 and there have been a total of six trips to the WIAA state summer tournament.
And to no surprise he's been North Shore Conference coach of the year four times and also the Now Newspapers Coach of the Year in 1998.
Things have not always been easy for Millard, who is also the Highlanders' long-time wrestling coach. There have been difficult years where people have wanted his head, but he has persevered because of his honesty and dedication and his genuine caring for his kids.
That attitude earned him the unstinting support of valuable people like the late Homestead baseball legend Don Rennicke.
And in this day and age, where everyone wants to sugarcoat things to kids and tell them how brilliant they are right from the start and not hurt their feelings, a refreshing and candid person like Millard is a rare and valued thing.
'One thing that stands out about Ernie is that he is pretty transparent,' said Wojcinski. 'He'll tell you if he likes something that you did or if you or one of your kids did something he didn't like. He's pretty truthful about those things and I'd rather have that than anything else.'
Wolf concurs with that thought.
'I tell you, a couple of things,' he said. 'First, I've never met a person more passionate about the game of baseball. He's passionate about the game and his players.
'He is the genuine article. It is rare with some coaches to tell players what they need to hear, but not Ernie. He's honest to a fault.'
And make no mistake, Millard is a great 'X's and O's' guy.
'Another thing that's impressed me,' said Wolf, 'is that you know the idea is that every team should get better from day one. And with Ernie's teams, you never wanted to see them in the (WIAA) playoffs because his teams are almost always playing their best ball late. He always gets them to peak at the right time.'
That much is true, as Millard's Highlanders have wrecked the state dreams of extremely talented teams like that of Menomonee Falls in 2007 and Nicolet in 2009.
Hansen, coach of the 2015 WIAA state champion Falls team, who led that Indian squad in 2007, echoes Wolf's thoughts and notes that Millard's force of personality helps his team overcome bad things.
'In that sectional two years ago (a 2014 semifinal loss) to them, we two different five-run leads,' said Hansen, 'and with (all-stater) Ty (Weber) on the mound. But I could hear him from coaches' box. He was always reminding his kids to stay upbeat and positive even with a deficit like that.
'It could have been easy for them to let down a bit, but he kept them positive.'
Homestead eventually won that game and then beat Wojcinski's North Shore champs in the sectional final to earn a berth in the state tournament.
Hansen then also added his own personal take on Millard.
'One other thing I admire about him off the field, is his integrity,' said Hansen. 'He's part of the selection committee for the all-state summer team and if he's speaking highly of a kid, you know the kid is really good.
'He always wants to do right by his kids and the sport. I try to model myself after him.'
Millard, is of course, torn about this all. The WIAA regional wrestling tournament is on the same day as the ceremonies. He has no doubt that his assistants will, in his words, 'do a better job with the kids than I would have,' but he said he would just love to be out there to support the team.
Little brother Ethan apparently verbally bonked Ernie over the head about his attitude and told him to enjoy the day.
And he will.
'Somebody put this on Facebook the other day, and it has just been blowing up (with hits and messages of congratulation),' he said. 'I know I've had some successful teams but a lot of that has been because of all the people who have supported the program.
'It is still a tremendous honor and I'm very excited and humbled by it.'