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|Q and A with Wartburg coach Jim Miller
Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
Coach Jim Miller is the architect of a wrestling dynasty at Wartburg College.
Miller has orchestrated a remarkable transformation since taking over the reins at the NCAA Division III school in 1991.
His teams have captured nine NCAA titles and 20 Iowa Conference titles during his time in Waverly, Iowa. He has coached 34 individual national champions and 138 All-Americans. He is a member of six Hall of Fames.
Miller’s program has produced 70 Academic All-Americans in 21 seasons. Every wrestler that has competed all four years of college for Miller at Wartburg has completed their degree.
Nearly 100 of his former wrestlers are coaching at the high school and college level.
The 59-year-old Miller will retire as Wartburg’s head coach following this season.
His final Knights team is on track to win their 10th NCAA title. Wartburg is ranked No. 1 and won the National Duals championship last month.
The Knights have nine wrestlers who are nationally ranked this season. They include Gilbert Camacho (No. 7 at 125 pounds), Kenny Anderson (No. 1 at 133), Kodie Silvestri (No. 1 at 149), Cole Welter (No. 3 at 157), Landon Williams (No. 1 at 165), Dylan Azinger (No. 5 at 174), Sam Upah (No. 5 at 184), Puna Soriano (No. 7 at 197) and Ryan Fank (No. 6 at 285).
Miller will coach in his final NCAA Division III tournament for the Knights next month in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Miller took time out of his busy schedule to talk with USA Wrestling communications manager Craig Sesker about how his team is progressing this season.
What has it been like knowing that this is your final season as a head coach?
I try not to think about it. It’s business as usual for me. Obviously, a lot of people are talking about it and asking me about it. It does come up a lot. The season’s been good and I’m just trying to focus on that. I am a lot better at going one day at a time and one event at a time. That’s the way we’ve always done it here.
How is your team progressing this season?
We’ve had good results. I still don’t think we’ve wrestled to our potential. We’ve had great performances, but we haven’t had everybody wrestle their best all at the same time. That’s what we are striving for. Last year, I didn’t think we did that until the very end. I’m proud of the results we’ve had, but we’re still trying to get to another level.
What led to your decision to decide to retire after this season?
I had been thinking about it for a long time. How do you determine when the right time is? It’s never going to be easy. You’re never going to want to leave the kids you recruited who are still in the program. What I do feel good about is I feel like everything is in place for things to continue the way they are with Eric Keller taking over. I don’t want to be a guy that stays too long. I feel that the program will be in good hands with Eric.
What qualities do you feel Eric Keller has to lead the Wartburg program?
Eric Keller has been with me for 12 years. I got him right out of college, right out of Northern Iowa. I recognized early on he was really talented and had a passion for coaching kids. He’s been real good to work with. Eric has embraced our traditions and what we’ve got going on here. It’s a win-win situation. He loves this place and he will do a great job.
What comes to mind when you reflect back on how far this program has come?
We had a 20-year reunion last September, and that is a time where you can look up and marvel at what has taken place here. They put all the trophies up there during the reunion. It took 10 tables side-by-side to put all the conference and national championship trophies on. It was the first time I had seen all the trophies together. It took my breath away. It was really cool. Having the guys back was the biggest deal and seeing the trophies showed us how much we had accomplished. I’m really proud of what has taken place and I’m really happy for the success our athletes have had at Wartburg.
How were you able to attract recruits in the early days when you were building the Wartburg program?
I sold the program on faith and hope. I talked about what we hoped to accomplish. You have a certain amount of time to establish that dream and fortunately for us it did come together very soon after we got here. The guys that first came on board just came on the faith of what I had hoped to get done here.
How do you convince young athletes to commit to the Division III level, where athletic scholarships aren’t offered?
We talk about having a championship experience and how we can offer that here. One of the questions we ask is, would you want to compete for an individual national championship and a team national championship? You can do that here at Wartburg. Every kid that’s wrestled here since 1994 has been on a national championship team. It’s a unique opportunity.
How proud are you about your team’s amazing record of success in the classroom?
I’m very proud of it. That is what being a student-athlete is all about – achieving greatness in your sport and excelling in the classroom. It’s such a big high for me when I see one of our guys walking across the stage to get their degree. I feel like we’ve done it the right way. Every kid that has stayed here their whole career has graduated. That means a lot to me.
How involved will you be in wrestling after this season?
I want to stay involved in wrestling to some degree. I want to be involved on a national level to some extent. I am going to be involved in some capacity. I want to help the sport. I’m going to stay on at Wartburg in some capacity as well, probably as an administrator.
What is the key for your team during the rest of this season?
The key for these kids is to keep grinding. For us, we’ve still got a lot of work to do. It’s not easy for us. Some people may think that Wartburg is No. 1 and it’s in the bag. It’s never easy to win an NCAA championship, no matter what year it is. We know it’s going to be hard and we’re preparing for it to be hard. It won’t happen if you are not ready.
Is there a signature moment in your coaching career?
Yes, there is. The signature moment was when my son, T.J., won a national title for Wartburg. I was a wreck – I was a total wreck during that tournament. It’s a good thing T.J. wasn’t a wreck and held it together and won it. T.J. wasn’t a blue-chip recruit. He placed sixth at state his senior year in high school. He came a long way in college. I didn’t know if he would even survive his first year at Wartburg. We had some really good kids around his weight class and he got the crap beat out of him in practice. But T.J. stuck with it. To see how he progressed was phenomenal. I have sat in thousands of kids’ corners and I didn’t think it would be that much different with my son. It was the toughest thing, but the greatest thing. I was relieved and ecstatic when he won the national title. I jumped into T.J.’s arms. It wasn’t planned. I just did it. I will never forget that moment.
What other memorable moments stand out from your time at Wartburg?
There have been so many. There have been a lot of big, big highs. Walking out to get the trophy, that is the best feeling to see how happy those kids are when they win a national title. It’s so cool to be there when they call your name as the team that wins it. There is nothing like it. To have experienced that as many times as we have at Wartburg, I feel so blessed.