Throughout most of the 20th century, Gainesville High School set the standard for football programs in Northeast Georgia. Iconic coaches Drane Watson, Graham Hixon and Bobby Gruhn led the Red Elephants regularly to the state playoffs and often into championship contention while turning out some of the state’s most celebrated athletes.
But after Gruhn retired in 1992, Gainesville’s football program took a step backward. While still competitive within its region, the team wasn’t a state title contender during that period.
Then Bruce Miller came on board in 2002 from North Forsyth. In the blink of a shotgun snap, he was able to restore the Red Elephants to state prominence, coming within a 2-point conversion of a state title in 2009 and winning the trophy three years later.
Miller, 65, announced his retirement this week after 16 seasons at Gainesville and a 157-46 record. His 225 career wins are among the top 40 coaches in Georgia history, and he’s one of only 56 with more than 200 victories. He led the Red Elephants to the state playoffs every season, even with losing records the last two.
He also guided several star players over the years, the best known being quarterback Deshaun Watson, who set state high school passing records while leading the Red Elephants to the 2012 state title. Watson went on to win a national championship at Clemson and was top draft pick of the NFL’s Houston Texans last year, a rookie of the year candidate before injuring his knee.
Under Miller, Red Elephant football again became a force in the area and in the state, and kept City Park full to capacity each Friday night. With stars like Watson, Blake Sims, Tai-ler Jones, Mikey Gonzalez and current quarterback Tre Luttrell, he brought Big Red into the modern era of fan-pleasing, wide-open offensive attacks that most successful high school teams now employ.
Through it all, he earned the respect of his opponents and admiration of his team by staying humble and human, a modern-day “players coach” who set high standards and demanded much of his players while still letting them enjoy the experience.
“Bruce would never give up on a kid,” said Wayne Vickery, the former GHS athletic director who brought Miller on board. “He’d give kids second and third chances when I would never even give them one chance. He thought he could save everybody.
“Bruce is such a good person; he’s saved a lot of young men. They would be on the streets today if it were not for Bruce Miller.”
Yet after 44 years of coaching, Miller has decided to power down for awhile and hand off a healthy Red Elephants program to a new leader.
“I had been battling with it for a couple months, ever since the season ended,” Miller said Tuesday. “I felt like it was time for a change at Gainesville High. I felt like the kids needed to hear from a different voice.
“I’m going to miss the kids, and I still love the game of football. I’m at a point where I could retire, or if something else happens down the road, I could take advantage of it.”
Miller made a substantial mark in Gainesville and the school and program are better off for it. Everyone in Gainesville — and we hope his Hall County rivals as well — wishes him well and salutes the excellence he brought to high school football in our town.
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