Thirteen years into his retirement from coaching prep football — a retirement that may soon end — Ken Miller received a "nice surprise" as December of 2012 was ending.
A notification letter informed Miller that he was being inducted into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Miller, who remains an administrator at Coal City High School, where he last coached the football team in 1999, did not even know he had been nominated.
Miller later found out that Wilmington High School assistant principal and football coach Jeff Reents had nominated him.
"I hadn't really thought about it. I had been away for a while, so I thought I had no reason to," Miller said of the possibility of induction.
Reents, who says CCHS Athletic Director and former assistant football coach Dan Hutchings helped with the process, did not delay the nomination purposefully.
"I nominated Ken after realizing that he was not in yet. I, as many other coaches, thought he was already in," Reents said in an email.
"I think Coach Miller is a great definition of what a Hall of Fame coach is, which is he cared about his players and coaches, was a good role model for the school and community and had a tremendous amount of success on the field. He helped myself out when I first started my career, as he did other young coaches. In watching and learning from Coach Miller, everything was always first class."
A three-sport athlete at VIT High School in Table Grove, Ill., Miller played baseball at Illinois College. His first teaching and coaching job was in Carthage, where he taught fifth grade and coached three sports, including the high school football team. His football teams went 38-13 and advanced to a 1A state championship game in six seasons.
In 1986, Miller moved on to Coal City, where he inherited a football team that had never made the playoffs in seven seasons.
"When I got the opportunity to interview with Mr. (Jerry) Arthur, I saw a community that I felt was going to grow because of its location. They had great facilities, and I could see great leadership, from the board of education on down to the administration and to the A.D., Mr. (John) Cullick — his first year was my first year," Miller said.
"They wanted someone to try and turn things around. I was told by Mr. Arthur that it felt like we were a sleeping giant for football, and that someone to take up that sleeping giant was what he was looking for. It was a great opportunity for me.
"I went from a program that was 75 years old and joined a program that was seven years old."
In Miller's first season at the helm, the Coalers went 1-8.
We knew we had to work hard to be able to compete, but I would be lying if I say there wasn't some doubt there," Miller said. "During a 1-8 season, there's going to be some difficult times, but hopefully you learn from them."
By the following season, the Coalers were in the playoffs, as they would be for each of Miller's last 14 seasons as their coach. Some of his most vivid memories from his tenure came from that 1987 season, including a season-opening win over Minooka that he says surprised many observers and a regular season-ending win over Reed-Custer that clinched the school's first playoff berth.
Miller says that the groundwork laid by his first few Coaler playoff teams "culminated" in the 1993 season, during which the Coalers went 14-0 and won their only football state championship to date.
As the winning grew, so to did the passion for prep football in Coal City.
"That's a big part of it in small towns," Miller said. "The enthusiasm and excitement that builds as you're winning and getting towards the playoffs, and then of course when you're in the playoffs, is huge."
Miller stepped down following the 1999 season having gone 146-54 overall and 108-41 at the helm of the Coalers. Exclusing his first season, his Coal City teams were 77-14 in Interstate Eight Conference play.
"To lose 14 games in 13 years in what was always a tough conference, we always prided ourselves in our ability to be successful in a tougher conference, and that shows that we were," Miller said.
In addition to the credit he gives his assistants and players for his success, Miller says his family made it possible.
"A coach's family makes a lot of sacrifices if they're going to do it right, and my family played a large role in that regard," Miller said.
"My father and grandfather were great role models in instilling a love of athletics. My father coached me in youth leagues from the first time I picked up a ball. My grandfather was a coach in the early 1900s at Vermont High School. He coached football, basketball, track and field, tennis — he was the only coach, so he did it all."
Since stepping down as coach, Miller says he has attended nearly every game the Coalers have played. The Coalers have gone 102-42 in the 13 years since under Miller's former defensive coordinator, Lenny Onsen.
"I was very proud when our board of education allowed coach Onsen the opportunity to follow me," Miller said. "The assistants he has brought in and the kids have kept the traditon going. I love watching Coaler football on Friday nights."
But Miller, who has spent some of the past several years on IHSA advisory committees and as president of the Interstate Eight Conference, admits that he still has the desire to do more than just watch football. He will retire from his CCHS administrative duties in June.
"Coaching will always be where my passion was. The best part of my day was going out for football practice and doing what needed to be done to be successful on Friday night," Miller said.
"I truly believe we all have things that we're blessed with the talents to be able to do, and with that in mind, I do hope to be able to get back into coaching someday. When that happens, and where the right place and right time will be, I think I'll know when it comes."
WHO: Steve Ebner, Don Flowers, Mark Gould, Jamie Harrington, Mike Hearn, Kerry Martin, Ken Miller, Gene Muzzarelli, Ted Phelps, Rigo Schmelzer, Jack Schomig, Tom Shallenberger, Willie Simpson and Scott Steward
WHAT: 2013 Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame induction luncheon
WHEN: Saturday, April 6 at 12 p.m.
WHERE: Hilton Garden Inn, Champaign
TICKETS: $25 apiece; call (309) 251-4868