End of an era.
Well, not yet exactly, but the final stage has been set.
Wartburg wrestling co-head coach Jim Miller officially announced Tuesday during a press conference at the school in Waverly that he will step down after more than two decades as leader of the Knights’ program. Miller will continue his role through the 2012-13 season, handing it over to Wartburg’s co-head coach Eric Keller, who has held that distinction since March 2010.
Miller, 59, made his decision in mid-August, but determined staying on for the season allowed for a smoother transition and adequate time to find a replacement. He also didn’t want to field the regular questions about his status from other coaches, supporters, alumni and media.
“Sometimes in life you know without having specific reasons,” said Miller, noting he has been considering resigning for five years, especially after his son, T.J., graduated in 2008. “I loved every minute of it. I’m healthy. Everything is going good. I just really feel it’s the right time to do it.”
The plan has been in place for a few years. After 36 seasons of coaching high school and college, he didn’t experience last-second reservations making the announcement.
“We had a 20-year reunion two weeks ago. It was awesome and so cool to see everybody back,” said Miller, estimating the wrestling banquet drew 270 people, including 130 former Wartburg wrestlers. “I still felt the same way after that, so I knew it was the right thing.”
Miller has coached 34 NCAA champions and 138 All-Americans. Seventy Knights wrestlers have earned National Wrestling Coaches Association honors under Miller, who has led Wartburg to a 394-34-2 dual record in 21 seasons. The Knights have won nine NCAA team titles since 1996 and six National Wrestling Coaches Association national duals championships during Miller’s tenure.
The accomplishments alone could define Miller’s legacy, but not for the coach. All the trophies, which awed Miller at the wrestling reunion, paled to the culture that surrounds the program. Miller watched current wrestlers share a bond with team members from the early 1990’s, despite not being born when they competed for the Knights. Former parents and boosters share the inclusion in the tradition.
“We didn’t just have a team we had a family,” Miller said. “It’s the thing I enjoy the most.”
Between the old dogs when he took over in 1991 to the young bucks who have challenged his 20-year Iowa Conference championship streak, Miller has tamed them all. The Knights have been atop Division III’s premiere wrestling conference, posting a 157-dual meet win streak that started in 1994.
“Part of the Iowa Conference’s Vision Statement speaks to academic and athletic success nationally, and that’s exactly what Jim Miller has done during his time at Wartburg,” IIAC Commissioner Chuck Yrigoyen said in a news release. “Our league, overall, has been strengthened by Wartburg’s remarkable success in wrestling. It’s been an honor and pleasure to get to know one of the coaching giants in our league.”
Wartburg was one of the first D-III programs that proved it could compete at any level, facing numerous NCAA Division I foes in duals or various tournaments. Three-time NCAA champion Byron Tate was a D-III wrestler to compete in the NWCA All-Star meet last year. Kodie Silvestri is expected to represent the Knights in the dual, featuring top NCAA wrestlers.
“We had not set any limits on ourselves,” Miller said. “The whole premise we don’t set a limit on what we can accomplish.”
Six Halls of Fames have inducted the Waterloo native, including the University of Northern Iowa and Waterloo East Athletics Halls of Fame. Miller was a two-time NCAA Division II champion (1974 and 1975) for the UNI, posting a 128-22 record. He was a Panthers assistant from 1983-1991 before taking the Wartburg post. Miller expects to remain active in the NWCA and wrestling, while playing an undetermined leadership role at Wartburg.
“Jim is hearing a new call, and we’ll support his process of discernment,” Wartburg President Darrel Colson said. “I’m delighted that he’s called to stay here at Wartburg.”
He will be close to offer advice, if needed. Keller, a former UNI wrestler who has been on the Knights staff for a total of 12 years, said it would be illogical not to use Miller as a resource.
Keller, 37, a former UNI wrestler who has served on the Knights staff for a total of 12 years, learned about the decision in August. He was excited, but wanted Miller to be certain he was ready to relinquish the reins.
“I just wanted him to make sure, more than anything, he was 100 percent confident and ready,” Keller said. “I wanted it was on his terms and the time was right for him.’
The progression has seen Keller promoted to associate head coach to co-head coach. He has also assumed more of the day-to-day operations. Keller said Miller had groomed him for this moment, delegating addition responsibilities to him in previous seasons.
“He does such a good job of letting young coaches take on more and more,” Keller said. “That’s a great thing about him and why I feel so prepared because he has given me more to do each year. I think it’s a great way to do it.
“I’m thankful for that.”
Keller, who earned Rookie Coach of the Year honors as head coach at North Central (Ill.), said Miller’s role as mentor isn’t going to end at the conclusion of the season. He will use Miller as a resource.
“I’d be crazy not to,” Keller said. “I want him to feel as welcome and part of the program as much as he wants to.”
When it comes to coaching, many say you don’t want to be the one to replace a legend. Keller doesn’t view it that way. Instead of replacing a significant part of the Knights wrestling tradition, he sees an opportunity to continue Miller’s winning ways.
“I see it more as an expectation than pressure,” Keller said. “For me, I’m not all that concerned with making it my stamp or my legacy. I just want to keep this thing going.”
For one more season, he’ll have Miller along for the ride.