ONCE A COACH, RED MILLER IS. . . : WHEELING AND DEALING : The Man Who Led the Broncos Into Their First Super Bowl Runs Different Kinds of Options Now and Is Taking Stock of Himself
Though it says it right there on his business card-- Robert “Red” Miller, Account Executive, Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. --you don’t quite believe it. Not even the fancy office, the tastefully tailored suit, the monogrammed button-down shirt, nor the obligatory power tie can hide what Red Miller was . . . or still is, at least in his own mind: A football coach, and not a bad one, at that.
Oh, you’ll get the spiel, all right, about his 700 accounts in just two years, about the exciting new world of preferred stocks and Euro-bonds and bullion and easy-growth treasury receipts, about how a 59-year-old former National Football League and United States Football League head coach whipped the suspenders off some of Dean Witter’s young investment turks.
But then, just as he seems on the verge of convincing you and perhaps himself, the truth leaks out. It doesn’t come easily; Miller has spent nearly the last five years tightening his emotions, doing his best to purge football from his system. But occasionally, and against his better judgment, Miller can’t stop himself.
Sure he enjoys his new career, he says, but if the right job came along--say, even an assistant coaching position with the Raiders--Miller’s pinstripes would find themselves home on a hanger before Dean could spell Witter.
And, yeah, the business has its moments, like when Miller closes a lucrative deal or scores nicely on an over-achieving convertible bond. But pressure? Competition? C’mon. When was the last time 74,000 fans, network television and assorted media types crowded into Miller’s office wanting to know why he chose a Fannie Mae over a Ginnie Mae? Or got fired--twice--even though he had plenty more winners than losers?
“I miss a few parts of (football), you know, the camaraderie of the guys, the relationships, but that’s about it,” Miller says. “I spent 33 years coaching that . . . game, all the way from high school, college, the AFL, the NFL, the USFL.”
His voice is rising now. Gone is that sad, melancholy tone of a few moments ago. Miller is thinking about that blasted game again, the one that gently and persistently tugs at his heart, the one that couldn’t give a hoot about that national sales directors award he won as a first-year broker.
Miller brings it on himself. There, on one of his office walls, is a framed front page of the Jan. 12, 1978 issue of the Denver Post. Miller, wearing a baby-blue sweater, a white turtleneck, is reaching out from the Denver Broncos locker-room door, shaking hands with fans. Reads the headline:
Jan. 15: Dallas and, Yes, Denver
And, in smaller type:
On to Nawlins: A Time to Savor Sweet Success
This would be Super Bowl XII at New Orleans, when Miller, in his first season as the Bronco head coach, led the little-regarded team to the brink of a world championship. It was one of his proudest moments.
Over there, against another wall, is a football from the 1977 American Football Conference Championship game, when the Broncos beat the Oakland Raiders, 20-17. Coach of the Year awards from the NFL, the Associated Press, United Press International, The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly and the Washington Touchdown Club are easily seen. A plaque from the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame also owns a spot on the wall. Even Miller’s AFC Championship ring, the one the size of a walnut, is hard to miss. Inscribed on the side of it: “Togetherness.”
The mementos are here mostly to impress clients, which they do. But caught sometimes in the middle is Miller, who spent most of those 33 years in football waiting for a chance to be a head coach. When it came, Miller made the most of it. Forty-two wins in four seasons, one Super Bowl game, an AFC Championship, three playoff appearances. Not bad for a franchise that had never advanced to a postseason game.
And then he was fired, just like that, and replaced by Dan Reeves. Seems the first meeting between Miller and then-new owner Edgar F. Kaiser didn’t go too well. Not long afterward, on March 9, 1981, Miller was presented with his pink slip.
After that, came the USFL and the Denver Gold. Miller barely made it through training camp before he was dismissed on May 19, 1983, sort of a Black Thursday.
So here he is, sitting in an office with plants and brass lamps and a desk that cost some mahogany tree its life, and he’s overseeing those 700 accounts like some junior financial whiz kid. But is he happy?
Well, yes and no. The new career is going great. The old career is still gnawing at him a bit.
“He’s like all other coaches,” says Fred Gehrke, who was fired as Bronco general manager shortly after Miller left. “He wants to coach. I’m sure if something came up, he would jump at it again. The problem is, that if you’re out of the league for two years, you’re forgotten.”
Then Miller is forgotten. Or is he? How do you simply not remember the guy who placed Broncomania on your NFL Rand McNally?
THE GOOD YEARS Back when Denver still thought The Duke was John Wayne, or The Three Amigos was some spaghetti Western, or The Drive was taking I-25 South to Colorado Springs, there was Miller and the Broncos and this quaint hometown phenomenon called Orange Crush.
Who knows how it started. But it was there and everyone wore orange and Mile High Stadium rarely had an empty seat. One problem: The Broncos usually stunk up the place.
Gehrke went to work. He remembered a New England Patriots assistant named Miller who had put together a boffo offense. So he offered him a job as the Bronco offensive coordinator. Miller said no.
With the threat of a player rebellion lingering nearby, Gehrke then decided to fire John Ralston and call Miller again. This time, Miller couldn’t say yes fast enough.
“We are delighted to land a man of Red Miller’s ability to lead our football team,” Gehrke said to reporters.
Privately, Gehrke told friends that the Broncos were at least several seasons away from contention. They had aging quarterback Craig Morton, wide receiver Haven Moses, running back Otis Armstrong on offense, linebacker Randy Gradishar, cornerback Louis Wright and end Lyle Alzado on defense. Joe Collier was the defensive coordinator. Jim Turner was the kicker.
“We had a new coach, a new quarterback, a revamped line, draft choices and we had to do some trading,” said Rick Upchurch, a Bronco wide receiver from 1975-83. “It was like a comedy show, really.”
Said Glenn Hyde, a backup offensive lineman at the time: “That was a special time, a special team. It was the most incredible sports team ever assembled. It really is unbelievable. Craig had a few throws in him, Haven had a few catches in him, and that was about it. In my opinion, we couldn’t have done it without Red.”
They won their first four games and then faced the hated Raiders. Until then, the Broncos had beaten the Raiders only 6 times in 34 tries.
Final score that day: 30-7. “That was the pivotal game in that season,” Miller says.
The Broncos finished the regular season 12-2 and then beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Raiders in the playoffs to advance to Super Bowl XII.
Fans learned where the Millers lived and decorated his house with toilet paper. They honked car horns and yelled their thanks. Miller was this charismatic hero who had brought Denver attention and, in an odd way, respect. And so what if the Dallas Cowboys knocked the bejabbers out of the Broncos? It happens.
“Well, if I could do anything over again, I’d have (offensive lineman) Tom Glassic healthy and have him weigh more than 220,” says Miller. “We found out later that he was allergic to grass all year and that he had lost about 30 pounds during the course of the year. He was overmatched, because of the weight, to (Cowboy defensive tackle) Randy White. And if we had recovered that first fumble on the punt . . . I think we would have won the game. Third thing, I would have passed when we were scheduled to run, and I would have run when we were scheduled to pass. Period.”
The next year, the Broncos were 10-6, and again in 1979. In 1980, they finished 8-8. Kaiser arrived soon afterward and, in one of his first acts as principal owner, requested a meeting with Miller.
“I would like to meet the head coach,” Kaiser told Gehrke one day. “I would like to meet Red.”
As they made the block-long walk from the Bronco administrative offices to the Bronco coaches building, Kaiser stopped.
“I heard that Red was pretty tough,” Kaiser said to Gehrke. ‘I heard that he has a short boiling point.”
“Well,” Gehrke said, “he does when it comes to football.”
“Do you think I’m going to get both barrels?” Kaiser said.
“I don’t understand,” Gehrke said.
“Tell you what,” Kaiser said, “I’ll go on from here. Thanks.”
Later, Gehrke saw Kaiser. He asked how he enjoyed meeting Miller.
“I got both barrels,” Kaiser said.
Turns out that after handshakes and whatnot, Miller asked Kaiser point-blank if his job was secure.
“I don’t know that right now,” Kaiser said.
“Then I won’t answer any of your questions.”
A day later, Miller was fired.
“Nobody really knows that,” Hyde says. “There’s speculation on 20 million things. It was almost too much success too quick. I think that’s what got him more than anything. I mean, where do you go after you go to the Super Bowl the first year?”
Miller isn’t much of a conversationalist when it comes to firings. “You’d have to ask Edgar Kaiser,” he says. "(Kaiser) said I was too old. He wanted a younger coach.”
Kaiser got one in Reeves and things have been hunky-dory since, but that doesn’t help Miller, who had his team taken away for no apparent reason other than a new owner’s whim, and maybe some poor manners.
“One, he felt that he had performed in his role as a head coach,” says Lana Ritzel, Miller’s daughter. “To be ousted when other coaches in the league didn’t have his record . . . “
THE NOT-SO-GOOD-YEARS The offers poured in: Would he come to Green Bay or Los Angeles or Seattle as an assistant? How about the Canadian Football League? Or does a college coaching job sound better?
Raider owner Al Davis even called, asking if Miller would like to become the team’s Director of Research and Development and figure out ways of beating division opponents year after year. But rather than relocate, Miller accepted an offer from owner Ron Blanding and the Denver Gold.
The Gold sold more than 30,000 season tickets that first year, thanks partly to Miller and his reputation. “You can see why (Blanding) hired me,” Miller says. “I ain’t bragging. When it’s fact, it ain’t bragging.”
Miller and Blanding didn’t get along. Miller wanted the semblance of an organization. Blanding wanted a profit. The constant penny-pinching drove Miller up a wall.
At training camp, the Gold coaching staff shared a car from Rent-A-Wreck. The team bus was from the Salvation Army.
Hyde, who also played for Miller during the Gold days, remembers.
“We definitely had the lowest budget in the USFL,” he says. “On the road, we stayed at what might have been the original Holiday Inns. Once, in Michigan, the beds were so loose, you could barely sleep in them. We’d have to throw the mattresses on the floor just to get a night’s sleep.
“In Philadelphia, we’re getting on the hotel elevator and this lady’s in there, all shaken up. Told us she’d just been robbed at gunpoint. We’re thinking, ‘Oh, great.’
“That was a strange year.”
Too strange for Miller, who says he almost felt relieved when Blanding showed him the door. Even today, Miller has a hard time remembering Blanding’s name, as if it’s the capital of North Dakota, or something. “That’s how much of an impact he had on me,” Miller says, laughing.
In the end, Gehrke says, “Miller got in the same trouble there with his temper as he did with Kaiser.”
So Miller, unemployed once more, decided, at his children’s urging, to become an investment broker. After passing his brokerage test, completing a training program in New York, Miller returned to Denver and a job at Dean Witter.
He began in “The Pit,” where the majority of the company’s brokers conduct their business. It’s an open area, where the desks are clumped together and chest-high partitions are your only source of privacy.
“What does it take to get one of those private offices?” Miller asked his boss, Jim Foley.
Foley jotted down some sales figures and handed the paper to Miller.
“Three months later, I had a private office,” he says.
Miller’s accounts range from big-time investors to budding portfolios. On his desk is a clipboard, where he records the 100 or so calls he’ll make a day to clients and potential clients.
“I build business,” he says. “I’m a hustler, but in a positive way. I come to work early and I stay late. I always say, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’ Here, nobody gives you nothing.”
THE 10-YEAR REMINDER Less than two weeks ago, they had a 10-year reunion for that 1977 Bronco team. Gehrke was there. So was Morton. So was Upchurch and Hyde and 14 other former Broncos. They traded stories. They lied about their weight. They watched a highlight film and basked in the attention.
“You’d wonder if anybody would remember the old ’77 team,” Gehrke says. “Ten years. I’m telling you, if the next 10 years go that fast, I’m going to move to Cleveland so it seems longer.”
Miller showed up, too. He wore a tux and as usual, received the loudest applause, this time from an audience of about 200 fans. Miller cracked a few lines, gave a little speech and then introduced the members of that wonderful team. He even found himself watching the highlight film. “I just look back at it as a fond memory and a good experience,” he says.
Still, Miller has never gone to a Bronco game since his dismissal. Can see it better on TV, he says.
Gehrke offers another theory.
“I think he still feels some pain there,” he says. “When you’re fired for no reason at all . . . that’s quite tough. I don’t think he’s ever gotten over that. I don’t think he wants to go to a game and relive that.”
Is that so? Just try him, Raiders.
‘I miss a few parts of (football), you know, the camaraderie of the guys, the relationships, but that’s about it. I spent 33 years coaching that . . . game, all the way from high school, college, the AFL, the NFL, the USFL.’