Proverbs 15:3 begins by saying, “A happy heart makes the face cheerful.” If one did not know that Solomon lived three thousand years prior, they would think that he was referring to Bethel University Assistant Head Coach Jimmy Miller.
It is not often that one talks about a happy heart when referring to a football coach, but Coach Miller is the epitome of what makes the Bethel Royals program quite extraordinary, and that is not an exaggeration at all. This is a program built on the concept of love – love for God, love for family, and love for one another – and no one is more willing to wear his heart on his sleeve for his fellow coaches and for the men he is blessed to lead than Jimmy Miller.
The Roots Were Planted Early
Jimmy Miller is in his 16th season at Bethel University as an assistant coach, but this is actually his 18th at the school. He played football at Bethel in 1981-82, starring for the Royals. He was the leading tackler in the school’s history when he graduated, earning him induction into the Bethel Hall of Fame in 2003. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and health in 1983 and earned his master’s degree in education in 1990 from the University of Sioux Falls.
Education was the path that he had chosen, but Coach Miller truly wanted to be a coach, particularly a football coach. He was absolutely sure before he even stepped one foot onto a college campus that coaching was how he wanted to spend his life.
“I would say from the very beginning when I went off to college, I knew that I was going to coach because I had had some coaches who invested in me and I saw the passion that they had for it. They say that the average student will change his major three times; I didn’t change it at all. I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be a physical education teacher and a coach.”
After graduating in 1983, Coach Miller remained at Bethel University and became the team’s linebacker coach. It was the opportunity he was looking for to stay in the profession that he truly loved, but his stay at the school would be for just one year. Oddly, for the next four years he would be following a different career path.
“My first year out I was coaching here for a year and then I was going to look for a teaching job but my brother-in-law was working for the airlines, and so I wound up working at the airlines for four years.”
In 1987, the opportunity to return to coaching arose when he was offered the defensive coordinator position at Sioux Falls. After four successful seasons at the school, Coach Miller was offered the head coaching position at Northwestern University, just down the road from Bethel. For 10 years he would lead the Eagles, twice being named the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) Coach of the Year, and winning the NCCAA Victory Bowl in 2000.
After turning Northwestern into one of the powerhouses of the UMAC, finishing with the third most wins in the school’s history (46), Jimmy Miller was looking for a new challenge and so he opted to return to Bethel University. This was something that he truly wanted and, after consulting with his wife, he decided the was what he really wanted.
“There were several things. One is that it was at my alma mater so I wanted to kind of get back here. Both my wife and I felt like it was a good opportunity to come over here. So I took the chance.”
Since his return the results speak for themselves. The Royals have had one of the most dominating defenses in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) since he opted to return to the school, never finishing lower than fourth in the conference, including four instances where Bethel had the top defense in the MIAC. The offense has been no slouch either, as the team has ranked in the top two in scoring eight times since his arrival.
Great success means that there must be incredible individual play as well, and that has been the case for Bethel University. Kirby Carr was the 2006 MIAC MVP and Jon Foss led the NCAA in sacks in 2002. The team has also had a few All-Americans, including Brandon Carr (2007), JD Mehlhorn (2013), and Matt Mehlhorn (2014).
Molding into His Style
While Jimmy Miller has been an integral part in helping the Bethel Royals to become a powerhouse football program in the MIAC, he feels that the players are having a bigger impact on him than he is having on them. In fact, he feels that how they are changing him far exceeds what he is doing in their lives.
“At the end of each season I talk with the players about the season and I always tell them that they give a lot more to me than I give to them. I learn so much from these young men. They are so incredible and I am so blessed to be able to be around them. It is hard to be around them and not become a better man and that is part of what I love about coaching here.”
During his time in coaching he admits that he has had to change his coaching style a little. While once a fireball on the sidelines, maturity and his years in coaching have taught him that you simply cannot be a manic wild man on the sidelines for three hours each week and expect your team to listen to you.
“When I first started I felt like I had to be the motivator all the time. I had a lot of energy when I was on the field and, after a couple years, I thought that I can’t continue to do this. This isn’t my style. I’ve changed quite a bit. Rather than scream something out at the kid, I’ll take him aside and tell him this is what you need to do to be able to be successful. So, I would say that I’ve changed quite a bit from being a high intensity guy to more of a quiet guy and to a ‘I’m going to teach you by example and by words’ kind of person.”
This was a lesson that he admits was hard to learn because, as a player, he was a fireball. He even was encouraged to coach as he played, but the lessons of life taught him that this is not the way to be a successful coach, at least it was not for him.
“of our coaches on my staff, we played here together, one day he came up to me and asked me, ‘Jimmy, why don’t you coach the way you played?’ I tried doing that but it didn’t work for me. It wasn’t my personality. I had to become who I was instead of being something I thought I had to be. I enjoy a lot more the way a coach now.”
Embracing the Bethel Way
It takes a special kind of person to coach at Bethel Univesity because swearing at players and tossing chairs is not going to keep you employed at the university for very long. This is a team that is built on love and pushing oneself for the betterment of your brothers. Anything short of that is simply not going to cut it there.
This is where Jimmy Miller fits in as well as any coach you will find. He gets that they play religious football at Bethel – that is better to give than receive – and preaches the message of giving even when you feel that you have nothing left.
“We talk a lot about giving your gifts away and giving them away for free, and that’s not true in a lot of places in America. There’s a string attached in a lot of places when you give your gifts away and what am I going to get in return, while our kids, we have seniors who are scout guys and they do that with a smile on their face. I know that they want to compete on Saturdays but they know what their role is on the team and they’re willing to do that. If we didn’t have those guys we would be in a lot of trouble, because the body is made of many parts and the eye can’t say that it’s more important than the ear. Our success on any Saturday is attributed to our team and not to one individual. It’s a team deal and we talk a lot about that. That’s very rare in today’s culture. It’s hard to get people to buy into that kind of concept.”
To further drive home this message, the Coach has implemented a weekly theme for his team which is meant to drive home that message. He uses it not only to teach, but to (as the kids would say) put himself out there so that they can see that even their coach has his struggles in life that need guidance from God and the love of his brothers for him to overcome.
“Every Friday we have a deal that we call ‘Friday fruits,’ and I try to come up with the theme. One year I came up with a Band of Brothers, those guys from World War II. I would do a 15-minute clip on leadership, on sacrifice, on how to serve. So, each year I just try to come up with the theme and I share with the kids the things that I’m even struggling with in my own personal life. I know that if I am then an 18 to 22-year-old kid is probably going through the same thing. So, I just try to share my heart with them and let them know that these are the kinds of things that I’m wrestling with. Here’s what I’m trying to do to overcome those obstacles in my life.”
Coach Miller understands the impact of such a message. He also understands that this is not just a message for the players, but the coaches need to embrace it maybe even more than anyone else.
“We have a lot of different gifts within our coaching staff. We have a lot of different personnel and everyone is giving their gifts. It’s like 2+2 = 100 now instead of 2+2 = 4.”
Coach Miller recognizes that he has the potential to really impact the lives of the 100-plus players on the Bethel Royals football team, as well as change those that they are connected to, including family members. He knows when he provides “good juice” as they say at Bethel (a positive spirit that others feed off of) then he can be a man of great importance and influence to these 18-22-years-olds. It is a lesson that he learned because of the influence that coaches had on him.
“My head coach back in college was the guy who led me to the Lord and he had a huge impact on my life. He was very close to his players, he shared his life and his faith and it changed who I was. There were a lot of coaches and players who were also investing into me. Kurt Anderson, who was my roommate at the time, was also investing into me and loved me enough to make sure that I was in the kingdom. My life was transformed from that. I say that everything that I’m using is plagiarized; I got it from somewhere else. There’s nothing new under the sun’ it’s just what’s been given to me. So hopefully it’s good stuff that I’m giving up each day.”
It has not been a typical season at Bethel University this year. The team must win their last two games of the season to keep alive a 22-year string of seasons without a losing record. A truly remarkable achievement, but one that may come to an end.
That would be a shame, but don’t expect any Royals football player to be hanging his head or feeling like a failure. This is a team that finds the blessing and joy in all circumstances, and they do so because they love one another and know that they have made lifelong friends who will be a part of their lives for decades. They will take the lessons of this season and leave college prepared to win in life because they have a spirit of a true overcomer, thanks to the lessons that Coach Jimmy Miller and the rest of the Bethel University Royals football coaching staff have provided.
They will also be quite aware that should they fail, struggle mightily, or make really terrible choices one day Jimmy Miller will be there to let them know that they are loved and will always be a part of his family. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving.
By Robert Pannier