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Miller named co-winner of Dan Gable Coach of the Year Award; saved best pitch for finale
By Mike Finn
When one coaches wrestling in the state of Iowa, one can’t help but be compared to Dan Gable, especially when that one also grew up in the same town of the legendary Hawkeye coach.
But the 59-year-old Jim Miller, who was born in Waterloo, Iowa, five years after Gable, knows he did something before Gable … on the baseball field.
“I was inducted into the Optimist Club’s Hall of Fame before Gable,” laughed Miller, speaking about the organization that sponsored little league baseball in this northeast Iowa community.
And baseball was actually Miller’s first love, but his dream of becoming a major league pitcher ended when wrestling grabbed a hold of him. He became an NCAA All-American from Northern Iowa and later a highly successful wrestling coach at Wartburg College in nearby Waverly, Iowa.
But thanks to a connection to a former Wartburg wrestler — Scott D’Agostino, who was part of Miller’s first Knight team in 1991 — Miller got a chance to show off his baseball prowess at a May 18 Chicago Cubs game, where Miller got a chance to throw out the first pitch.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t know (about the opportunity),” said Miller. He was surprised with a Chicago Cubs jersey adorned with his nickname Millboy and the No. 10 — signifying his ten NCAA Division III championships at Wartburg — by his former wrestler. “I didn’t have time to practice or worry.”
Miller found enough people at Wrigley to remind him he couldn’t let the pitch bounce to home plate. One of his Wartburg coaches reassured him, ‘Millboy you are going to kill it.”
And Miller threw a strike, typical of someone who recently retired from coaching after producing 33 individual national champions and 145 All-Americans. And in his final season, he has also been named the co-winner of the 2013 Dan Gable Coach of the Year honor with Penn State’s Cael Sanderson.
“For a coach to win as many national championships as Jim did during his career, it’s a no-brainer he should be honored as a Coach of the Year, said Gable. Miller also won the honor in 2004.
Miller’s ability to perform before thousands in Wrigley Field was no different than the attitude he and his wrestlers displayed during his 22 years at Wartburg.
“Our mantra here was ‘Do it any way,’ ” Miller recalled. “I don’t care if you don’t feel like working out at 6:30 in the morning or to go study, do it anyway. We talk about when the alarm clock goes off at 6 o’clock in the morning; don’t give yourself the option of sleeping in 10 more minutes. Get up and get it done.
“That came back to me so many times from the kids and how much that attitude helped them later in life.”
That included the story of D’Agostino, who considered immediately returning to his family home and pizza business in Chicago after the wrestling season was over.
“He wanted to go home before school was out. I told him, ‘You’re not going home. You’re going to graduate.’ And he was the first one in his family to graduate and his parents were crying. I don’t think there have ever been two parents more happy than they were.”
The number of wrestlers that Miller had an impact on are too many to mention … as well as the number of wrestlers whose mat skills we developed by Miller and his coaches after they may have been overlooked by other coaches.
“That’s happened so many times,” Miller said. “I love that. Shoot, that was my own son (T.J., who won an NCAA championship in 2008). Every year there were multiple guys that happened too. I like to believe there may have been a freshman who didn’t make the starting line-up but I felt good about.”
Miller’s teams finished among the top two in 18 of his 22 years as the head coach at Wartburg. His final crowning moment came at the 2013 NCAAs in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his team carried the coach on their shoulders to receive the team championship trophy. The other team titles came in 1996, 1999, 2003, ’04, ’06, ’08, ’09, ’11 and ’12.
“Beyond my first recruiting class, every one of those guys was on a team that won a national championship and a lot of them more than once,” said Miller. “You don’t get lucky enough to get that talent that you have to develop kids. You have to get them, and you have to keep them.”
Miller also credited his coaches over the past two decades.
“You have to have a staff that is on the same page,” Miller said. “If they are empowered to help your kids on and off the mat, it’s so much better. Not only did I want my kids to have a championship experience. I also wanted my coaches to feel that too.”
And Miller believes there have been at least 100 of those former wrestlers and assistant coaches later became successful head coaches elsewhere. That list includes Dave Malecek at Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Nick Mitchell at Grand View College and Eric Keller, who returned to Wartburg in 2006 and was later named co-head coach in 2010.
And next fall, Keller will become the Knights’ first new head coach in nearly a quarter of a century … with Miller nearby if needed.
“I feel comfortable to do whatever he asks me to do,” Miller said. “I think I can be a resource for sure but I want him to get off to a good start on his own. I want him to know I’ve got his back.”