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Remember The Wrestler: TJ Miller, Cedar Falls/Wartburg College/ HC At Loras College

In college, I wrestled at a D3 college named Loras College. My head coach was a man named Randy Steward who was originally from Dewitt-Central and coincidentally, he was in my dad’s bracket at HS state way back in the horse and buggy days of 1978. Steward did a great job as the HC of the Loras College wrestling program. He was fair and instilled positive, hard-working attitudes amongst the warriors on the team. When word got around that Steward was stepping down as HC at Loras, naturally I hoped for someone good to take his place despite not being there along with the fact that I was not necessarily a good influence to have on the team in my college days. When I heard the person to take the reins would be TJ, it made me happy, for I knew that it is likely that he picked some coaching philosophies and tactics up from his father, Jim Miller, who happens to be one of the best and most decorated coaches to ever coach any sport at any level in the state of Iowa. A full-fledged legend. 

Around the time I began wrestling at Loras, TJ Miller was placing at the Iowa HS state wrestling tournament… During my upperclassmen years at Loras, he was starting to make himself known on the D3 scene, wrestling for Wartburg. He was an impressive high school wrestler, no doubt about it, but man did he bring his game up a level at Wartburg…A 2008 graduate of Wartburg College, Miller wrestled for his father at that level, the legendary Jim Miller, for four seasons and compiled an overall record of 131-9, which included a national championship in 2007 at 197 pounds. His wrestling accomplishments include being honored as a three-time NCAA Division III All-American and a three-time Iowa Conference Champion. Miller was a part of three national championship teams in 2004, 2006 and 2008 as an athlete. His 131 wins rank eighth all-time at Wartburg.

After his competitive career concluded, TJ initially coached at Wartburg as an assistant before accepting the head coaching position at Loras.  2020-21 wrestling season marked the fifth year there. As the leader of the wrestling program, Miller and the Duhawks are coming off the top-two most successful seasons in program history in back to back seasons. In 2019, Loras captured the National Runner-Up trophy at the NCAA Division III Tournament in Roanoke, Va., the first top-four finish in program history. In 2020, Loras won its first ever American Rivers Conference Championship, snapping a 27 year streak held by Coach Miller’s alma mater, Wartburg College.

(Prior to the 2020-2021 season) In four years as a head coach, Miller has coached 17 All-Americans and 13 Scholar All-Americans. As a result, Miller has been named the Iowa Conference Coach of the Year once, the A-R-C Coach of the Year twice, the Regional Coach of the Year three times, NWCA Rookie Coach of the Year and NWCA National Coach of the Year.

I’d say it’s fair to assume that TJ DID in fact pick some valuable things up from his father… In fact, it appears the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree with Jim and TJ Miller. 

Who or what encouraged you to give wrestling a try?

I would have to say my father was probably the first person that encouraged me to try wrestling. I think my first competition was in the West Gym. I think I got second place. Won one and lost one.


Do you have any family who wrestled or wrestles currently? Parents, children, brothers, etc. ?

I have two older brothers. They wrestled a little in their youth and one wrestled a little in high school but they never took to the sport much. My parents put us in every youth sport and didn’t push one or the other on us. I grew up in a wrestling room and my first memories were watching my father coach at UNI and then onto Wartburg. He was a 2x National champion for UNI and coached 10 National Championship teams while he was coaching at Wartburg.


What were your youth results?

My youth results were not very good. I would get 2nd or 3rd in 4 man brackets a lot growing up. I think I might have won one tournament in 6th grade in New Hampton. I only made it to AAU state one time and don’t think I won a match there in 6th grade. I went to districts a few times which seemed to always be held at Wartburg. All the table workers were Wartburg wrestlers each year. It was kind of embarrassing.


Any rivals there?

I would say in high school our rivals were West Waterloo. I probably competed against Danny Dunning the most in high school. He got the best of me probably more than I did of him. We had a few crazy matches in 2002-03.


What was your record in HS?

I don’t know my exact record. I never came close to winning 100 matches or anything. I was jv my freshman year at 119 and don’t think I lost that year on junior varsity. I believe I won around 60-70 varsity matches in high school. I had a couple injuries my junior and senior year. One year at state I think I was 15-3 going into the tournament.


How did you place at state every year?

In 2002 I was 4th at 160lbs
In 2003 I was 6th at 171lbs.


What were some of the most notable adverse challenges or moments you experienced in wrestling and how did it turn out?

I would say the biggest challenges I had to overcome was in youth wrestling. I always thought I was supposed to be good just because of who my father was. It got better the older I got, but that hurdle probably was a battle even into my first couple of years of college.


How would you describe your wrestling style?

I was kind of all over the place growing up. Somewhere around 8th grade I really started to like legging on top. Top was probably my best position. I liked rolling around on bottom and getting reversals. 90% of my offensive takedowns were probably one of three things in college. 1. Slide by. 2. Low single. 3. Go behind. It really was about all I had and the ability to a little.


Who was your most influential coach?

In youth, I would say it was Doug Jensen. I became friends with Brock Jensen in elementary school. He would take us to most of the youth tournaments I have ever been to. When Nick Beuter moved to Cedar Falls, his father Jon (All-American at BVU) would take us a lot of places on the weekend in Junior High.

In high school I had a bunch of good coaches but the one that really made an impact when I really needed it was Brian Roberts. He made me fall in love with lifting weights my junior year of high school. I had a knee surgery my junior year and coming back I was petrified with shooting on it. I think he made me hit a slide by 10,000 times that second semester.

In College I was 184 (for a year) and 197lbs. I would have to say Chris Ortner had the biggest impact on my wrestling in those years. My father made a huge impact on every athlete he had in the room but for me it was Coach Ortner.

What was the most upset you ever felt after a loss?

My last college match I took 2nd. That was really tough for me. Honestly, I still think about that one from time to time. For about 5 years it was daily and now it’s something I think about here and there. Probably something I will never get over completely but I think it’s something that has honestly helped me the most in coaching moving forward.


Was your team competitive in HS / college?

Cedar Falls was pretty good when I was there. We won quite a few duals and made state duals my junior year. I would say we hung around or near the top 10-15 during the state tournament in 3A.


Who was your most influential wrestler that you looked up to growing up?

I had a lot of them but I will name a few. Zane Braggs is the first guy that I remember being my favorite wrestler to watch. He was 118lb explosive wrestler for Wartburg. Tom Smith, Jamal Fox, Ben Shane and Zac Weglein. I had a lot of heroes that wrestled for my father. Obviously who didn’t like the Gable era growing up in the state of Iowa? When I got to high school I really became a huge Joe Heskett and Cael Sanderson fan. Those two were a lot of fun to watch.


Who are your favorite current wrestlers?

Anyone wearing a Loras singlet. I really like watching Spencer Lee. I’m always in disbelief by the strength that guy must have every time I watch him.


Are people real excited about wrestling at Loras these days?

People are really excited about Loras. I have a lot of communication with alumni from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s calling and emailing with enthusiasm. We have had a couple banner seasons the last couple of years. The people and community has really got onboard with what we are doing at Loras. It’s been incredible and a lot of fun to watch it grow into what it is today the last 4 seasons.


Are you able to detect “Dubuquian” accents?

I haven’t detected any of those yet. I came from New Orleans before arriving in Dubuque, so I have heard every accent in the book.


If so, isn’t it funny that there is an accent that seems like a combination of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota?

Dubuque is interesting because we are literally on 3 borders here. Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. A lot of those states have residents in Dubuque, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there was an accent.


Are you as blown away by the city of Dubuque as I was? I feel it’s one of the most underrated cities in Iowa.

I have always loved Dubuque. My fondest memories are in this city. The ambience of the city is unmatched in Iowa. I won a National Title here in 2007. I got married here in 2012. It’s hands down one of my favorite places in Iowa. There isn’t another city in Iowa like it.


What brings you more joy? Coaching or wrestling yourself?

Coaching. I have never felt anything like seeing one of your athletes accomplish their goals. It’s truly an amazing feeling like no other. It’s an all-time adrenaline rush. I loved competing but helping kids accomplish their goals on the mat, getting them their degree and helping them after graduation is what I like the most about coaching. It’s not just for 4 years, it’s for life.


How did the influence of your wrestling coaches prepare you for coaching?

I have been around some good ones. Obviously, like most of Jim Miller’s ex-wrestlers that are in coaching have taken a lot from him. I would say the foundation of my coaching style comes from my father. A lot of times, I feel like I’m impersonating my old man (which I’m good at). I think any of his ex-wrestlers would probably say they use a lot of my father’s style.

Nick Mitchell once told me to steal as much I can and make it your own. So I steal some of his stuff from time to time. He’s got a lot of good stuff he preaches.


When you began coaching, were you able to relate to all different kinds of kids and the coaching methods they respond to or was it a learning process?

When I began coaching, I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t even think I could make that big of impact. Then you really start investing into some guys and sure enough you realize you are making an impact.

I think a lot of young coaches will make mistakes and it’s just a process like anything. You learn from them and keep moving forward with enthusiasm.


How would you compare and contrast you and your dad’s coaching styles?

I’m guessing there are some similarities. I don’t know if I got it down to where he simplified things so well that they would make sense to everyone. Nothing was too complicated and it all made perfect sense when he said it. I got to see him a lot of his coaching towards the tail end of his career. I wish I could have seen him in the younger days to be able to give a fair comparison. He had a lot of fire. Like a lot of fire.


What are some of your proudest moments in coaching?

To be honest, it’s always during graduation. There is something about it that really makes me reflect when each that walks across the stage. It brings a flood of memories from when it’s move in weekend to graduation. I would say graduation is my proudest moments in coaching that I have had.


If you could go back and change one thing about your wrestling career, what would it be?

Listen to my father earlier. Other than that I wouldn’t change a thing.


What was your best wrestling memory / accomplishment?

Winning a National Title with my father in my corner. Not many Father-Sons have done that in college.


How hard did you work?

In youth and high school i didn’t work very hard. I really didn’t figure it out until college on how hard I needed to work.


Did you wrestle all year or was it seasonal for you?

I didn’t start wrestling year round until about my sophomore year of high school. I was actually better at freestyle then I was folkstyle in high school.


Did you wrestle after high school?

I wrestled for my father at Wartburg.


What other sports did you play?

Soccer was probably my best sport until 8th grade. I also played baseball through 8th grade. I played football through 9th grade. Wrestling only from 10th grade on.


What are your favorite sports teams?

Die hard Minnesota Vikings fan.


What are your hobbies?

I watch a lot of movies.


How has wrestling shaped you as a person to this day?

Wrestling has done wonders for me. Its helped me the best at dealing with adversity. Anyone who knows wrestling knows it comes at any given time in our sport. I think the same is in life as well. Being able to confront adversity and overcome it.


What do you do now?

Head Coach at Loras College


Are you still involved with wrestling?

Big Time.


Any advice for upcoming wrestlers?

Have fun. Do your best. Take it one day at a time.


Any chance we see you wrestle again at an Old Timer’s tournament?

Who else is entering? There are a few old timers’ I wouldn’t mind wrestling.

Would you like to give a shout out to anyone you wrestled with, against, coached, etc.?

You did one of these on one of my best friends/best man in my wedding (Nick Beuter). That dude raised my level big time in high school. The other would be Blake Gillis. That’s another guys that raised my level big time in college for wrestling. Those are two teammates that made a profound impact on my wrestling life. I should probably give my Wife (Allison) a shout out. I wouldn’t be where I am without her support and love for wrestling.

Last thing I would add… If you are a coach, don’t ever give up on any of your athletes. You never know how they can help you down the road and when it’s going to all going click for them.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Pat Flanagan April 29, 2021, 10:28 pm

    Credit for the great questions and learning much about TJ.

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