The sign at the edge of Gainesville High School’s football practice field reads, “Bruce Miller Field. A Field of Champions.”
The man it’s named after can be found there most afternoons in the fall, making good on those words, teaching football players how to be champions — on and off the field.
“I stand around every day thinking, ‘This is what I was made to do,’” Miller said.
“These are my kids. I’ve got 114 kids out here that I just think the world of. Hopefully they’ll be better people when they leave this program than they were when they entered it.”
Miller earned his 200th victory as a head coach Friday night in Gainesville’s 48-7 win over Apalachee in Bethlehem, the latest milestone in a career that seems to be hitting peaks at a time when many of his peers are wrapping up their own days on the sidelines. He’s racked up 132 of his victories with the Red Elephants over the past 13 years, along with eight of his nine region titles and a state championship.
“I think when you win 200 football games it puts you in pretty elite company,” Gainesville athletic director Wayne Vickery said. “And I don’t think Bruce has got any slowing down in him.”
It’s been less than two years since Miller washed away the bitter taste of state title game disappointments — he lost one as a player, another as a coach — by leading Gainesville to its first state championship in the Georgia High School Association in 2012.
He guided the Red Elephants back to state semifinals last season and has them off to a 2-1 start this year, including a pair of blowout region wins over the past two weeks.
Although Miller is in his 41st season of involvement with high school football and his 27th as a head coach, he talks like a man who intends to be on the sidelines long enough to record a few more memorable achievements.
“I see so many of my friends that get out of it at Year 30 and two years later they’re miserable,” Miller said. “They’re trying to get back into it and they can’t find a place to get back into it.
“I still enjoy it day and day out. Right now my plans to get out of coaching are not there.”
But even after more than four decades on the sidelines, Miller still struggles to pinpoint exactly what it is about football that has such a hold on him.
He imagined himself in this type of role even as a 7-year-old boy growing up in a middle class family in Albemarle, N.C., a small town 40 miles east of Charlotte. He fully embraced the idea during his college days at Mars Hill University.
Up to that point, Miller struggled to choose whether he wanted to spend his life preparing a game plan for Friday night, or a sermon for Sunday morning.
“There was always something about football, and I’ve thought about this a lot over the last three or four years, something that just kept drawing me back,” Miller said.
“I was really fighting between being a preacher or being a football coach. God just really spoke to me one day and said, ‘You’d be a lot better use to me on the sidelines than you would in the pulpit.’”
Miller got his first head coaching job at Cass High in Cartersville, then had a stint at North Forsyth High in Cumming before heading to Gainesville in 2002.
The Red Elephants have won 10 or more games in nine of the 12 full seasons since he took over the program, but Miller also experienced a low point in his career during that time, when the team lost the 2009 state championship to Peach County, 13-12.
The defeat brought a heartbreaking end to Gainesville’s otherwise perfect season and left Miller wondering if he’d ever get another shot at winning it all.
He completed a three-year road to redemption in 2012, when Gainesville returned to the Georgia Dome and crushed Ware County, 49-13, for the Class AAAAA state championship. That journey reminded the coach of the major life lessons he’s learned from the game.
“Life is never easy, it’s never supposed to be easy, but when you get slapped down, you’ve got to get back up,” Miller said.
“That 2009 state championship game took so much wind out of me. To get back there in 2012 and win it was such a thrill. After the game I was still waiting, thinking that someone’s going to wake me up from this dream.”
For all the milestone wins he’s enjoyed, Miller said he relishes some of the everyday interactions with coaches and players as much as anything else.
He doles out good-natured nicknames to players almost as routinely as jerseys and helmets. On Miller’s teams, players are just as likely to be known as “Cornbread” or “Peach Pie” as they are their given names.
“I think his people skills are off the charts,” Vickery said. “Some people get this football mentality that, ‘I’m just a football coach.’ I think it’s very important that the kids see him at other (sporting) events to say, ‘He thinks enough of me to come watch me play,’ and I think that’s what makes him special.”
Miller believes the time he spends with his players and assistant coaches helps him feel closer to 35 than a man in his 60’s.
“There’s no way you can feel 60 years old being around these kids. You just laugh and carry on with them, and it’s the same way with the coaches,” he said.
“One of my best moments (of the day) is after practice sitting down with the coaching staff and shooting the bull. There’s nothing on our plate we’ve got to discuss, we’re just sitting there talking and having a good laugh.”
The players eventually graduate and move on to other things. Miller relishes the chance to continue watching those rare athletes who go on to play college or pro football on TV each Saturday and Sunday.
As for the coach himself, he knows where he wants to be, and how he’d like to be thought of by the many athletes he’s coached over the years.
“I heard (legendary Alabama head coach) Bear Bryant say this (about coaching) one time, ‘If you can do without it, do without it. But if you can’t do without it, you better get in it, because you’re not going to be happy.’ I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t coaching.
“To me, there’s no greater joy than for someone who I coached 20 years ago to see me and still call me ‘Coach.”