Since he was first hired to start the Wisconsin Lutheran College football program in 1998, Head Coach Dennis Miller has turned the Warriors into one of the more successful program in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference but, more importantly, he has built a program that is dedicated to giving the young men in the program a bright future that is destined for greatness.
Introducing Dennis Miller
There is a verse in the Bible where Jesus is speaking of His death and He explains, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). The meaning is that if there was to be life for the countless billions throughout the ages, He had to die to provide that pathway. It is a powerful verse that foretells of his agonizing death and the salvation that it would bring for the world.
While the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was a one-time offering that has freed humankind from the punishment of sin that we all so richly deserve, the expectation that Jesus had was that those who followed behind Him would not only preach the Gospel message, but that they would help to make disciplines of those they came in contact with, so that the Gospel would be spread with love and grace across the planet.
Many have taken this calling and have traveled to places like China, Somalia, Venezuela, and Iraq to bring this message of hope and love to people in desperate need of the grace and mercy of our Lord. However, the Father calls people to different mission fields. Some are to minister to their co-workers at the bank or to be a light on a hill for other stay at home moms and dads in their neighborhood.
The mission can also be on a football field. A place where the influence goes way beyond wins and losses, but is in the ability to mold and shape young men, as well as their families and friends, and the students at the college they attend. This is the calling for Dennis Miller, who is proving that his name is not only a prophetic calling to shape a program and its players for greater success on the field, but to provide a bright future for those players once they head out into the real world.
A Name Meant to Mold
The name Miller means “grinder of grain,” and relates to the occupation where a person would grind the kernels or grains of corn or wheat so that it could be used in baking or in producing other kinds of foods. Later, this occupation became related to several other kinds of industries, including cloth and steel among others, and is where we now have terms such as a steel mill or cotton mill.
That may not seem like it relates well to a head football coach, but Dennis Miller is living up to his name. Each year, dozens of freshman enter the Wisconsin Lutheran College football program, looking to not only become a better player on the field and a better student in the classroom, but also looking to become part of something truly special and unique – a team built on faith, future, and family.
This is the mantra of the Warriors football program. A program built on the love and devotion to one another, devoid of motivation focused on hate or contempt for the opposing team. It truly is a brotherhood at the school, and has been shaped by the programs most ardent believer in the idea.
A Resume Built on Rebirth
It was 20 years ago when Dennis Miller was afforded a rather unique opportunity. Wisconsin Lutheran College didn’t have a football program in 1997 and hired the Coach to start a program that was completely nonexistent. In essence, to take a grain and bring it to life.
Coach Miller had already established an impressive resume. After graduating from St. Cloud State (MN) in 1977, the Coach served as an assistant for three seasons at Cathedral High School in St. Cloud, before returning to his alma mater where he served as the defensive coordinator over the next four seasons.
In 1984, Dennis Miller moved on to spend a year coaching the receivers and then a year coaching the linebackers at Brigham Young University. In his first season with the team, BYU won the National Championship, and the Coach served alongside such legendary NFL coaches as Mike Holmgren as well as college football great LaVell Edwards.
Coach Miller had proven that he had the requisite skills to be a successful head coach, and in 1986 he was offered the position at Northern State University, where he served for 12 seasons. The football team went 77-55 during his tenure, including being nationally ranked six times during his time with the program. When the coach arrived at NSU, the program was in complete disarray, but he turned it around immediately, leading the program to a 9-2 record in his first season, earning the school its first Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title in school history and he was named Coach of the Year in the conference.
A Grain Must Truly Rise from Death
After 12 very successful seasons at Northern State University, Dennis Miller was looking for a new opportunity and that arose when Wisconsin Lutheran College opted to start a college football program. The Coach jumped at the opportunity to bring the program to life, knowing it would be a challenge, but really not taking into account how big that challenge would be.
“It was far more of a challenge than I had anticipated that it would be. I was young and dumb at the time and thought this was going to be an easy thing to do. Maybe I didn’t think it would be easy, but I certainly didn’t think it was going to be as challenging as it wound up being. It has been incredibly rewarding to watch it go from literally no program to a group of guys running around on the field every Saturday.”
In 1998, Coach Miller was named as the Warriors head football coach. He spent the season recruiting, then had one year to practice and prepare. In 2000, the lights came on at Raabe Stadium, and football was officially born at Wisconsin Lutheran.
The team went 3-7 and its inaugural season but, within four seasons they would reach the .500 mark, finishing 5-5 in 2003. For the next five seasons, the Warriors struggled a bit but, starting in 2009, they would finish 5-5 once again, starting a run of eight seasons where the school finished at or above .500 in seven of those years. That included finishes of 7-3 in both 2012 and 2014.
Fertile Soil for the Grain to Grow
While there has been a great deal of success on the football field, that success has been built on a foundation dedicated to a commitment outside of the gridiron. Dennis Miller wants outstanding athletes, but he is more interested in finding and developing outstanding young men. This has been his focus since he came to Wisconsin Lutheran.
“Our mantra here, and I’m looking at a sign in my office that’s also in our locker room, is faith, family, future. I’m looking for kids that will understand the faith component of who we are and what that’s all about, I’m looking for players that will buy into a family concept and realize that it’s team, team, team. Then, thirdly, we are very clear about the fact that we are producing successful husbands and fathers and professionals, so it’s about the future. It’s about graduating, it’s about getting a good job and all of those sorts of things. I think when you talk to kids, and certainly we talk to parents, if they know that this is the core belief of your program then you’ve got a good shot at having some interest. Frankly, when kids hear those things if that doesn’t trip their trigger it’s probably a good thing that they’re not coming this direction.”
This is not just a nice saying that is found around the program, but is the foundation upon which he established the football program. When heading out to recruit potential athletes to the school, Coach Miller makes it clear to players and their parents that the three principles are what the program is built upon, and why it is had so much success.
“I believe it’s truly significant in the recruiting process in making sure that parents know that my kid is going to get taken care of, he’s going to be treated respectfully, he’s going to be coached respectfully, hard and respectfully, and that you want him to get a degree. Any college that you go to is a very expensive hotel if you’re just hanging out and not getting a degree. You need to go there and accomplish what you’re going there for which is to graduate. If you can get that across to parents, that makes it a tight family atmosphere.”
Growing and Changing with the Players
If you asked the vast majority of coaches who have been in the business for at least a couple of decades, they will tell you that the biggest challenge that they have faced has been the change in the young men they coach. Twenty years ago, a coach could bark out orders at his players and they would obediently follow that directive to the letter. Those were the “good ole days” to many coaches, but have never been viewed as such by Dennis Miller.
“I think there were a lot of bad things done in in the ‘good ole days’ of coaching, where I’m the boss and you’re not, and do what I say or get out of here was the mentality. That’s not the way it should have been back then, but it was. I like the way that it’s kind of evolved. What I like the most about coaching college athletes is that you can treat them like adults and you can work with them, reasoning things and explaining things. I appreciate that. I think at younger ages you don’t have that ability because they’re not reasoning quite as well at that point in time.”
While always being a leader who was interested in cultivating and building relationships with players, Coach Miller has had to grow and change in his style as well. He never was one to be commanding like some form of dictator, but has understood that as these young men have evolved over time that he needed to grow as well. This has meant that the Coach has had to redefine his role on the team.
“There’s been a lot of change over the years. I’ve been coaching a very long time so I know things have changed, things have evolved. Probably the biggest thing that you see today is the impatience with athletes or kids in general. They want everything now so I think that’s one of the bigger ones. Just working with them and letting them see the big picture and how things work, that everyone has a role. This year your role might be to do this, but next year your role might be to do something different.”
A Life Dedicated to Cultivation
There is honestly nothing like Saturdays in college football. The culmination of six days of practice and preparation all comes down to a three hour block of time where a coach hopes that his players perform to their optimal level so that victory can be achieved. There may be nothing else in the sports world quite like it.
For some coaches, this is what it is all about. The preparation is nothing more than a grind, and they measure their success on what occurs on Saturday. This is not the case for Dennis Miller, however. While loving each and every Saturday, it is the time that he gets to spend with his players in practice and in preparing for games that truly means the most to him. It is an opportunity to see the hard work and dedication that these young men put into their performance and in knowing that he is playing a small part in their success in games that truly inspires him to continue coaching.
“I really truly love working with kids, and I love practice. I remember as a player that I loved to practice. It wasn’t like it was something I had to do until I could get to a Saturday. I enjoy being on the field. I’m inspired by being on the field. As a coach you take gratification in looking at a kid who comes in and really has no direction in terms of what they want to do with their life, and then watch them kind of blossom and mature as a man. Those are things to get me pretty excited.”
The Wisconsin Lutheran Way
Dennis Miller has built something special at Wisconsin Lutheran College. It is a golden opportunity for players to not only succeed on the field, but to grow as young men who will be successful husbands, fathers, employees and managers, neighbors, and maybe even community leaders. It’s a program that truly does believe in its mantra – faith, family, future – but the Coach understands that this is not the atmosphere for everyone. He truly wants to see young men succeed, even if that means that their success is going to be on another campus.
“I think the coaches make a real mistake when they don’t look at recruiting as a two way street. The kids are looking for a school that fits them, and you’re looking for a kid that fits your school. I think that a lot of mistakes are made when you sacrifice whether it’s a good fit or not because the kid can perform some great athletic skill or something. I think that fit is really important and I think at some schools it’s a bigger deal than at others.”
If Wisconsin Lutheran is the right fit, then Coach Miller wants to see his players have the greatest opportunity for success once they leave the school. While many coaches are measuring their success on wins and losses, he is measuring his on the success his players have after they leave the school. He wants them to look back on their experience as a Warrior and see how it benefited them in their future success.
“What I hope that they take away is that they just really had a fun time being a part of this football experience. That they learned perseverance, they learned dedication, they learned dedication, they learned being great teammates, and they learned that you can do things ethically and with integrity and it’s a very positive thing. I say to kids all the time through the recruiting process and I’ll say it throughout the time that they’re here is that when they look back on their college football experience, I hope that it numbers in the top three or four things that they’ve ever done in their life. That’s kind of our goal that they leave here and that they think that this was absolutely awesome.”
The Greatest Warrior of Them All
When a person has faith it is easy to see the bigger picture of things. In the grand scheme of life, football is really nothing more than a game. For Dennis Miller, that became an even more prevalent reality in 2015 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Nine years earlier the Coach had open heart surgery, and it is situations like this that have helped him to see what really matters.
“I look back on the recovery during that time as the most peaceful time I’ve ever had in my life because it just made me see, even though I was doing things the right way, it made me see — what were the priorities?” Coach Miller explained to Fox6’s Tom Pipines in 2016. “What’s the most important thing? Where should you put your energies? I think that’s what this has done for me as well.”
Despite feeling fatigued at times, Dennis Miller is putting his energies into something truly special. Something that goes way beyond football. It is a commitment to helping young men to become successful in whatever pathway they decide to follow, to living up to his surname.
For 2000 years, Christians have taken comfort in the fact that our Savior died so that we might have life and might have it more abundantly. Thanks to Dennis Miller, the players and students at Wisconsin Lutheran College, as well as their parents, have been molded so that these grains have truly become something special. There is no doubt that the Father looks down upon Coach Miller from Heaven smiling as He says, “Well done good and faithful Miller.”
By Robert Pannier