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Woody Paige: Broncos first Super Bowl coach 'Red' Miller was a tough son of a gun

September 27, 2017 Updated: September 28, 2017 at 9:33 am
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In this Jan. 15, 1978, file photo, Red Miller, head coach of the Denver Broncos, yells to his team from the sidelines during NFL football's Super Bowl XII against the Dallas Cowboys in New Orleans. Miller, the fiery head coach who led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl, has died after complications from a stroke. He was 89. (AP Photo/File)

The toughest man in Colorado, a Leatherneck and a Broncos believer until the very end, died Wednesday morning.

One morning in the Broncos' 1977 training camp new coach Red Miller abruptly stopped practice and bellowed at his offensive linemen: "You think you're tough?'' The 49-year-old Miller got down in a three-point stance and bull-rushed and head-butted 6-foot-4, 285-pound tackle Claudie Minor, whose helmet gashed the coach across the bridge of his nose.

Miller stood up, spread the streaming blood across his face and said: "My grandfather and father were tougher than all you guys. Now, get back to work.''

Miller's grandfather was a mule-skinner in McComb, Ill., at the turn of the 20th century. He guided mules hauling coal in and out of the mines. Miller's father was taken out of school at 7 to toil as a miner. He never learned to read and write while digging deep in the dark most of a lifetime.

Robert Miller, born on Oct. 31, 1927, was the youngest of 10 kids, and the last to get the food.

Early on, the strapping boy with flaming red hair dreamed of evading the coal mines and being first in the dinner lines.

Football was his way out. He would be named all-state in high school during World War II and became a four-year letterman, captain and three-season most valuable player with the Western Illinois State Leathernecks, who won nine games and the Corn Bowl Red's senior season in 1949. The only member of the large Miller family to earn a college degree, then a master's, Red determined he would be the "best damn coach around.''

Red Miller set off on his goal by coaching in high school and as an assistant at his alma mater, which went undefeated in 1959 and won the conference championship. He and friend and fellow assistant Joe Collier joined their head coach Lou Saban with the Boston Patriots of the fledging American Football League.

Their first professional game was the first game of the AFL on Friday night Sept. 7, 1960 - against the Denver Broncos.

In this Jan. 15, 1978, file photo, Red Miller, coach of the Denver Broncos, shakes hands with his quarterback, Craig Morton, during the team's warm-ups before NFL football's Super Bowl XII against the Dallas Cowboys in New Orleans. Miller, the fiery head coach who led the Broncos to their first Super Bowl, has died after complications from a stroke. He was 89. (AP Photo/File) 

He spent 16 seasons in the trenches, not the mines, as an offensive line coach with the Patriots, the Bills, the Broncos (1963-65), the Colts and the Patriots again. Red, in the tradition of the men in his background, turned to alcohol. He had a reputation as a hard-driving, hard-drinking man, and nobody would offer him a job as a head coach.

So, one day in the mid-1970s, he totally gave up the booze, and considered giving up the game.

In January 1977, Broncos head coach/general manager John Ralston was confronted with upheaval from the players, particularly 12 veterans (I named them in print "The Dirty Dozen'') who signed a letter to owners Gerald and Alan Phipps demanding the firing of Ralston. The enraged owners did decide to relieve Ralston of his GM duties. Assistant general manager Fred Gehrke called Miller and offered him the offensive coordinator's job. Miller declined, saying he was tired of not getting a head coaching opportunity.

Two weeks later, Ralston was fired, and Gehrke telephoned Miller again with the opportunity.

On Jan. 31, 1977, Red accepted.

On Jan. 1, 1978, Miller was carried off the Mile High Stadium field by the former mutinous players. The Broncos had beaten the hated Raiders in the AFC championship 20-17 and would be playing in the franchise's first Super Bowl.

That afternoon Miller had achieved his goal of being the best damn coach around.

And his long-time friend, Collier, was the architect of what I originally had called the "Orange Crush'' defense. Miller and Collier had come a long and winding way from Western Illinois.

Miller would coach the Broncos to three consecutive postseasons. But the team dipped to 8-8 and last place in the AFC West in 1980, and the Phipps Brothers sold the Broncos to Canadian Edgar Kaiser Jr.

On his first trip to the decrepit team headquarters, Kaiser met with the time-and-true-toughened Miller, who spoke first.

"You just do your job as owner and stay out of my way, and I'll take care of coaching,'' Miller told Kaiser.

A startled Kaiser fired Miller a few days after, and hired Dan Reeves.

Miller was heartbroken, but didn't let it show.

Almost immediately he received a proposal from enemy Al Davis to become Raiders special teams coach.

Miller said no. "I wouldn't become a Raider and a traitor,'' he told me.

Instead, Miller was selected as coach of the new Denver USFL team.

Red went from Orange to Gold.

But he hated the owner's tightfisted, tacky operation, and would split from the team before season's conclusion.

Miller never coached again.

Years later, when the Broncos Ring of Fame committee voted against honoring Miller and Reeves, I resigned. Reeves ultimately was picked in 2014, and this, finally, was Red's year for inclusion in November - on the 40th anniversary of the Broncos' inaugural Super Bowl team.

I saw Red regularly in the neighborhood, and he was always smiling and friendly to everyone - and wearing his worn Broncos' coaching jacket. He was so upbeat about the upcoming event.

On the night of Sept. 11, as the Chargers missed a field goal that would tie the Broncos, Red slumped near the TV at home. Rushed to Swedish Hospital, Miller was diagnosed with the second stroke he had suffered. Doctors recommended a complicated brain procedure. Red declined and promised he would make it to Mile High for the celebration.

For more than two weeks, as always, Miller, a month from turning 90, battled bravely.

You think you're tough?

The ol' Broncos coach, Robert "Red'' Miller, was tougher than us all.

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