A LA GRANDE LEGENDS LOOKS BACK
By Pierre LaBossire
Observer Staff Writer
La Grande vice principal and athletic director Verl Miller is not a lonely man.
Miller had a lot of La Grande wrestlers under his tutelage for 24 years, and so he's often busy entertaining visitors returning to their hometown to see family and friends.
"If they come to town, they come to see me, usually," he said.
"Most (of his wrestlers) liked me. There were probably a few who didn't. I think I got better at that as the years went on," Miller said.
Miller is considered a legend in wrestling circles. He coached wrestling at La Grande High School from 1974 to 1997, winning state championships in 1978 and 1996 and sending close to a couple dozen of his wrestlers on to college programs. His teams finished fourth at state seven times. This was all at the 4A level, when La Grande was one of the smaller 4A teams in the state.
Miller is retiring at the end of the school year after 34 years in education. Thirty of those have been spent in La Grande.
A football player and wrestler in high school at Burns, he wrestled at Oregon Tech and Brigham Young before coming to La Grande.
After retiring as the wrestling coach in '97, Miller's duties have consisted of making transportation arrangements, hiring and evaluating coaches, enforcing the school's athletic codes, dealing with budgets and a myriad of other details that keep him hopping day and night.
Miller said it's time for him to step aside.
"I think it's time for me to get out and let some young folks have their hand in it," he said.
He won't be idle in his retirement. He plans to travel and spend as much time as possible with his grandchildren. He also has a business to run Â— MRC Strength Inc., which is a weightlifting collar he developed 12 years ago.
Miller, who is partners with one of his former wrestlers in this venture, sold 30,000 units of this collar last year.
The wall of Miller's office is adorned with dozens of photos of his wrestling teams from over the years. Miller was also a freshman football coach for some of his years in La Grande, and he's got some of his football photos on the wall, too.
Miller has plenty of memories from those years of coaching in La Grande. He said he was full of passion and firm ideas on how things had to be done when he first started. He said he was a "pretty gung-ho" coach in those days.
Miller also admitted he wasn't necessarily an easy coach to wrestle for, especially during those early years.
"When you first start out and you're young, you want to win a bunch of district championships. You want to have state championships. Those are all when you're younger," he said. "Sometimes I was right on the edge. When I was young, I never took Â‘no' for an answer."
Miller said he was once given advice by an instructor which served him well during those early years. He said he was told, "if your administration is a little ticked off at you, it probably means you're doing a good job."
Miller said he always had great support from his administrators. He said his secretary, Susan Youngblood, has been a huge help in the athletics office, and Monte Patterson's club wrestling program was a big part of his success Â—especially that 1996 state champion team.
Miller said countless parents and many businesses of La Grande have been huge supporters of the wrestling program over the years.
Miller can rattle off dozens of names of supporters from over the years, too many to list, really. Typically, Miller doesn't want to exclude or forget anyone. He especially wanted to thank the late Jay Loudermilk, who raised thousands of dollars for La Grande sports, and Judy Loudermilk, who ran the boosters club for many years.
Miller is obviously proud of the individual and team state champions, but those aren't the biggest source of his pride. (In fact, Miller is reluctant to name some of his best state champions or college-bound wrestlers, for fear that he's going to overlook a deserving athlete.)
Miller said he was most proud of working with the so-called "tough kids," the athletes Miller said were often also needy kids.
"The thing I'm proud of most of all are the kids that everybody else a lot of times didn't know how to work with Â— those are the guys I worked with the best. I look at all the kids I had that people said would never get through high school, and they've got college degrees," he said.
Miller said he mellowed as he got older, partly because as he raised his own family he began to understand kids better.
Miller said, "I think I was a lot more sensitive toward the kids the older I got. I would have liked to have had a couple of those early teams back. I think I worked them too hard. That cost me at the end. They didn't peak at the right time."
He said his later players changed, too. There was more for them to do, more distractions, and fewer of his wrestlers showed the kind of dedication he saw in the early days.
"When I started out, when you worked somebody really hard, they wouldn't quit as easily," he said.
While Miller's style might have altered with the passing of the years, his philosophies stayed the same.
Miller said wrestling is a great sport because it's individual competition. There's no teammates to bail out an athlete if he makes a mistake. He's out on the mat on an island by himself.
"Wrestling is a funny thing in that it's hard for some kids to come out and lose as an individual, but it's one of the best things that can happen to 'em.
"No matter what in life, you're going to have lots of losses and I think it (wrestling) prepares you for some of those tough times," said Miller.
Miller also appreciated that wrestling is such a difficult sport physically.
"Wrestling's tough. It's not for the weak of heart. You have to work hard, that's what I love about it," he said.
"My own saying, I made it up one time ... Â‘the easy way is usually the hard way in the end.' You see so many kids who have taken the easy route, and it costs them all their lives," he said.
"Sometimes if you hang in there and if you're tough and don't give up, you're going to get there."