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Wrestling: End Of An Era: Miller Leads Wartburg For Final Event

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - It resembled any other day for Wartburg wrestling coach Jim Miller.

He was conducting practice, preparing the Knights for their next competition, but then the magnitude of the moment hit him. He felt the impact of more than two decades, 413 dual wins, including 165 straight against the Iowa Conference, nine national titles, 34 NCAA individual champions and 138 All-Americans, during his final practice leading Wartburg's program.

Eric Keller, the Knights' co-head coach, was smacked by the same realization about the same moment, and the two colleagues didn't need to exchange a single word.

"I think it hit us when we both came out of there," said Keller, who made the walk with Miller from the practice room to their wrestling office. "We gave each other a bit of a look. We didn't say a word, but we knew."

The pair will stand shoulder-to-shoulder one final time as Wartburg attempts to win a third straight team title at the NCAA Division III Championships on Friday and Saturday at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Miller will retire from coaching at the end of this season, passing the reins of one of the country's top wrestling programs to Keller.

Even though this moment has been in the horizon, Miller, 59, had not let this be the focus for a team attempting to claim the program's 10th national.

"I'm pretty good about keeping it in it's own compartment," said Miller, who announced before the season this would be his last. "No doubt about it (it was emotional). For me, it's been the last 22 years."

It will remained locked away once the first whistle blows Friday. The Knights have business to finish, helping Miller leave on top. Wartburg has 10 qualifiers, who are projected to earn all-America status which would match the feat of the 2003 Wartburg squad.

The Knights are led by top-seeded Kenny Anderson (133), Kodie Silvestri (149) and 165-pounder Landon Williams (26-1). Cole Welter (16-3) is seeded third at 157. Anderson (21-0) won the 125-pound title last year, while Silvestri (17-1) claimed the 141-pound championship in 2012. Williams is attempting to defend his NCAA crown.

Miller joked about fairy tale endings. His perfect finish would be for this group to enjoy the feeling of hoisting the team title one more time.

"My wish is that these kids get their wish," said Miller, noting is single most enjoyable moment was coaching his son, T.J., to an NCAA title. "That will be my personal wish."

The plan is to stay involved in wrestling, assisting the NCAA, NWCA and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He said he likes helping young people and plans to contribute to Wartburg's success in all areas of the college.

"I'm looking forward to challenges, too," Miller said. "I'm looking to be involved with wrestlers, nationally

Miller was a fierce competitor for Waterloo East and University of Northern Iowa, where he won two NCAA Division II titles and placed second and fourth in Division I. He coached at Riceville and Charles City high schools, coaching on the UNI staff from 1983-91. He did not imagine the success his teams would achieve when he took over the Wartburg program. He was busy stacking brick upon brick to envision the final product.

"We didn't allow ourselves to look ahead," Miller said. "We were so immersed in the next event."

Wartburg is always considered a contender, winning four of the last five national crowns and placing in the top two at nationals 17 times in the last 21 years. Miller said if he were a better coach in the early years the Knights would have a greater title haul. The first crown came in 1996, but he recalled missing the 1993 title by a point and having two champions leading by seven points with a minute left in their matches. One more point for each would have resulted in two teams and a team title.

"It took five years just to get one," Miller said. "It was torture."

Keller faces a different challenge than his predecessor. While Miller had to prove himself as a college head coach and a program that hadn't won an IIAC title in 15 years when he arrived, Keller inherits the pressure of maintaining the dominance and high standards of the program. He knows what to expect, serving as an assistant from 2000-05 before a stint as North Central (Ill.) head coach and a return to the Wartburg staff for the 2006-07 season.

"If you let pressure bother you it will," said Keller, named co-head coach in 2010. "It has never been a factor to me."

Miller recognized the potential in Keller, which became very apparent when he left and was named National Wrestling Coaches Association Rookie Coach of the Year at North Central in 2006. While others seem to shy away from wanting to fill his shoes, Miller said Keller was willing to follow in his footsteps.

"He totally embraced it. He knows the challenges," Miller said. "There was no doubt in my mind he is the guy for the job."

Keller praised Miller for his ability to relate to athletes and convince them to believe in themselves. Keller said he pushed wrestlers to achieve more than they thought was possible.

"He's always thought outside the box," Keller said. "He thinks what is possible and never puts limits on kids."

Keller, who wrestled for UNI like Miller, received the same tutelage as an assistant. Miller helped him progress his craft, challenging him while providing him the chance to succeed.

"He constantly built you up for success," Keller said. "A lot of that was mental. ... just being coached to be a coach."

Many young men carried that into coaching. A number of his Knight wrestlers and assistants have moved on to be head coaches at various levels, including current University of Wisconsin-La Crosse head coach Dave Malecek, Nick Mitchell, who coached Grand View to a second straight NAIA national title, Independence High School Coach Michael Doyle and Cedar Rapids Prairie's Blake Williams.

"I ahve a big coaching staff and a lot of good assistants, and a lot of those guys are Wartburg guys," said Mitchell, who wrestled for Miller and was his assistant for eight years. "He's still coaching me. I still talk to him before the season. Even though he's retiring that'll stay that way for a long time. As long as he'll let me, I'll still be picking his brain for sure."

Williams said he has incorporated a lot of Miller's lessons that he learned as an All-American in the 1990's. They keep in regualr contact and ready to give advice or a congratulatory message.

"He takes pride in all the coaches from under him," Williams said. "We're proud of him and what he has done for us."

Miller takes the most pride in the culture he has developed in the program. The Knights held a 20-year reunion during the offseason, celebrating 20 straight IIAC titles. Miller said alumni from 20 years ago feel like a current teammate because of the mutual respect and camaraderie. The current wrestlers are schooled in the program's tradition, understanding the efforts are bigger than just the current team.

"We didn't just build a wrestling program," Miller said. "It's a wrestling family."

A family that Keller will be leading after the NCAA tournament concludes Saturday night.

"I knew it was coming," Keller said. "I'm not going to call it a job, because it't not a job. It's a passion. Here's a guy I absolutely love, taking this journey with me. It's a great journey."

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