Chris Miller looks ahead to life after West Linn football
The journey that is Chris Miller's coaching life is about to take another turn.
Miller, West Linn's football coach for the past six seasons, announced back in June that the 2019 campaign would be his last with the Lions.
And now, just two weeks removed from his team's 42-35 loss to Central Catholic in the Class 6A state quarterfinals, Miller is looking forward to what's next, and looking back on what he'll leave behind in West Linn.
Miller, 54, left his Eugene home on Friday to fly to Houston to oversee training camp with the Houston Roughnecks of the newly reformed XFL. Miller was hired as Houston's offensive coordinator by longtime friend and Houston head coach June Jones (Jones previously served as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats).
"I've got a great opportunity working with the XFL's Houston team and my friend June Jones," Miller said. "I'm blessed with this opportunity."
While the challenge of building a winner in the XFL lies ahead, Miller's mind is still filled with memories of his West Linn teams' many accomplishments and of the many friendships he built over his six years at the Lions' helm.
Miller's West Linn sojourn
Miller's tenure at West Linn began after the 2013 season with the Lions coming off back-to-back 4-7 campaigns and first-round playoff exits. Following his 10-year career in the National Football League, Miller had just completed a three-year stint as quarterbacks coach for the Arizona Cardinals, that after first joining Cardinals head coach (and Miller friend) Ken Whisenhunt in training camp for the team's 2008 Super Bowl season.
Following his stint with the Cardinals, Miller was ready to rest. Before his time in Arizona, he'd led Kidsports (a multi-sport provider in Lane County) for two years, served as head coach at South Eugene for five years, and assisted a year each at Marist and Churchill high schools.
But a couple of Miller's college buddies (and University of Oregon football teammates) — Johnny Coppedge and Bobby DeBisschop — had other ideas. Both lived in West Linn, both had sons in the football program and both thought Miller would be the perfect fit for the Lions.
"When the job came open … both Johnny and Bobby reached out to me and a tried to pique my interest in the opening to see if I would have any interest in it," Miller said. "I told them 'No' initially because I just gotten back from coaching with the Arizona Cardinals for four years — three full seasons and a training camp — so I was kind of looking forward to a down year when I could just relax and chill and enjoy life.
"But Bobby and Johnny were pretty persistent. They gave me about 10 days when they didn't reach out or contact me, and then they called me and said 'You sure you won't consider it? 'You're sure you won't reconsider and maybe please come up here and visit our principal and athletic director in a week?'"
Miller relented, met with West Linn's administration, visited West Linn with his wife Lori, then eventually interviewed and accepted the job.
Making it work
Making it all work, however, took some doing. When Miller accepted the position, his children (son Dillon, daughter Jessie) were in their late teens and his wife was gainfully employed by the City of Eugene.
So while his family stayed put in Eugene, Miller took an apartment in West Linn where he stayed each week during football season from his arrival on Monday through his departure on Saturday.
"Driving up and down I-5 … I logged a lot of miles," Miller said. "I had my own grooves in the I-5 pavement."
The other challenge was how to make the West Linn coaching job work for his family financially. Along with his wife's employment — which helped keep the Miller family insured — Miller got his coaching stipend from the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, coached some football camps, conducted private training and got additional financial support from the West Linn Booster Club.
"West Linn took care of me pretty good," he said. "The booster club and I did a lot of fundraising, so between the booster club and what I do and what I get from the school district and my wife's job, we managed to make it work. We had the resources to pay our bills and make it work so it was a win-win for both sides."
Chris Miller had some great players over his six-year tenure at West Linn. Here's who he named as his best:
• Tim Tawa: The record-setting quarterback led the Lions to their 2016 state championship. He now plays baseball at Stanford University.
• Elijah Molden: A running back and defensive back, Molden was another key piece of the title team. He now plays football at the University of Washington.
• Alex Forsyth: Forsyth was the linchpin to the line of the Lions' championship team. He now plays football at the University of Oregon.
• Qawi Ntsasa: A wide receiver who bridged the gap from the title team to the next, Ntsasa was one of the Lions' most explosive players. He now plays football at the Air Force Academy.
• Connor Berggren: A 2019 WLHS grad, Berggren is a wide receiver described by Miller as "one of the greatest competitors I ever coached." He now plays football at the University of Oregon.
Once on board for the 2014 season, Miller absolutely made it a win-win, winning more games more quickly than any West Linn coach before him.
While the Lions won the Three Rivers League just once in Miller's six seasons, they were uniformly excellent in that span, compiling a 29-9 record in TRL and Special District 5 play (a 76% winning percentage).
Further, West Linn went 60-16 overall under Miller (a 79% winning percentage) and reached at least the Class 6A state quarterfinals every year. The Lions also advanced to the state semifinals and championship in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, winning the only football state championship in school history under Miller's leadership in 2016.
The '16 Lions followed the lead of record-setting quarterback Tim Tawa to a perfect 7-0 mark in league, a perfect 14-0 record for the season and the largest margin of victory in an Oregon big-school state championship game by routing Central Catholic 62-7 at Providence Park.
In total, Miller's six teams put together a combined playoff record of 17-5, good for a winning percentage of 77%.
"At West Linn, they just had back-to-back 4-7 seasons (in 2012-13) so the program was struggling somewhat," Miller said. "In our first year, we went 9-3 and made the quarterfinals, and the next two years we made the state championship."
Miller said that his success with the Lions was built on the strength of his coaching staff (which eventually included his son Dillon), the incredible talent in the high school program (highlighted by a couple huge senior classes in his first few years) and a tenure that lasted long enough for him to really become part of the West Linn program and community.
"I really didn't have a specific goal in mind (for how long he'd stay at West Linn)," Miller said. "But I kind of like doing things in five-year increments. I feel like if you can give somebody five years, you have a chance to really sink your roots into a program and develop a program from the foundation and accomplish great things.
"I think we did a good job as coaching staff of creating a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and energy for the West Linn Youth Football program and at the high school."
Beyond his pride in West Linn's on-field accomplishments, Miller is perhaps most gratified by the number of Lions who have gone on to play college football, including 33 thus far on scholarship.
"We catered our schemes to our kids and we've had 33 kids get scholarship offers the last five years," he said. "And I think we'll get six or seven more (this year) so I think we'll have about 40 kids in my six years get scholarship offers, which at the end of the day is what it's really about. Paying it forward, putting them in positions to be successful and helping them move on to the next level both in academics and football."
In addition to his team's consistency and long playoff runs, Miller said that West Linn's brand of football under his direction was fun for his players and attractive to college recruiters.
"I think we went about it the right way and played an exciting brand of football," he said. "We got a lot of kids a lot of recognition, we were very prolific on offense and had a good defense so I think our (style) of football was enjoyable and fun to watch. I'm proud of what we accomplished these past six years. I think what we did was build a system around our kids and their skill sets."
With on-field success and a style that set his players up for success at the next level, Miller also made himself an active player in the Lions' recruiting prospects.
"I think I've got 150 college coaches, coordinators and head coaches on my cell phone and I think one of the things that was an advantage for me was I had a lot of time to build up those relationships with coaches, and they'd come in the office or I'd text them or call them on behalf of our kids," Miller said. "I was very proactive in helping the moms and dads with recruiting. I really enjoyed that, and there's nothing more rewarding seeing a young man sign his college scholarship with his mom and dad standing right there. Their eyes water up and you've saved them a tremendous amount of money in the process and helped (the players) be successful in their next phase."
Miller's next phase
While Miller is now honing his craft as an offensive coordinator in the XFL, his long-term goal is to coach at the college level. He made that a more likely part of his future by completing his college degree over the past couple years — a prerequisite for coaching at the college level.
Miller graduated from Northwest Christian University in December of 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in interdisciplinary studies, a three-pronged program focused on business, communications and psychology.
"I feel like I was a lot more prepared at this stage of my life to concentrate on school and do well," he said. "I graduated Magna Cum Laude which would have been a bit of a shocker for those who had known me in my earlier college days."
As much as Miller loves football, the real draw of college coaching is the opportunity to continue influencing young men in a positive direction.
"I think one of my callings the good Lord blessed me with is to ... be a good role model and a good mentor for kids," Miller said. "I've had some really good mentors and role models in my life and I've been able to pass along a lot of good life skills to these young guys."
The football side of the equation, meanwhile, is just exciting and fun.
"I'd love to take over a program that may have been struggling," he said. "I (see) myself as a guy who would go in and reignite, reinvigorate, build a program, create excitement, get some enthusiasm and energy behind a program. I'd love that challenge."
A look back
While high school football is slowly receding into the past for Miller, his most recent coaching stint has left an indelible impression on him.
"The greatest thing about high school football is that it's the purest thing in sports," he said. "There's absolutely nothing like Friday Night Lights, big rivalry games … assemblies and it culminates the end of a good hard work week.
"It's kids going out and playing ball on Friday night with their buddies. That's what I loved about it the most — it's enjoyable, it's fun, it's genuine and the kids gave me everything they had for six years."
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