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December 20, 2012

Miller bridges past and present



This is the second part of a story that ran yesterday. You can read part one by clicking here.

Bart Miller faced an unenviable task in his first few hours on the job. Normally assistant coaches have month's worth of practices and meetings to gradually teach their scheme to their players, but Miller had no time to take it slow. With Wisconsin's next game just six days and only two full-scale practices away, Miller had to bend his own style to fit Mike Markuson's terminology, rather than hitting the panic button and starting from scratch.

"We're not using (Miller's) terminology, he hasn't had any time to install any of that, so he's working and trying to put his things in using an old system, and he's done a tremendous job of bridging that gap," center Travis Frederick said. "I don't know if the transition would have worked … if he hadn't been around for [Bob] Bostad's systems."

Miller's calm hand on the wheel certainly helped to stabilize the line during a hurricane of criticism, but the Badgers expected Miller to bridge more than the gap between Bostad and Markuson's contrasting styles of coaching. In moving from a graduate assistant to an assistant coach, Miller's relationship with the players had to transform as well. Being a graduate assistant is different than being a full-fledged coach, and the players needed to recognize that Miller suddenly had to be more of a mentor than the sober but kind friend they had gotten to know.

"I was the good cop at times, I was the guy they came to, to talk things through and go through some issues," Miller said. "Obviously that friendship had to change. There's a hierarchy that needed to be established, and that was something that I set forth the day of the promotion."

But in a way, the relative lack of an age gap between Miller and his players has helped them bond as a position group. Whereas Markuson and Bostad never played on the offensive line in college, Miller was in his players' shoes not long ago as a right guard for New Mexico, and also as a student.

"I think it's a great asset," left guard Ryan Groy said. "It really takes coaches a long time to get into the position he's in right now- he can relate really well to what we're doing and what we're going through individually."

But make no mistake, Miller isn't the type to go easy on his players, even if he's closer in age to them than to the rest of Wisconsin's staff. Bostad's dour face and harsh practices make Miller's relatively reserved demeanor seem almost chipper, but the players definitely see shadows of their former coach's influence on Miller during their daily practices.

"He'd be a little bit more towards the disciplinarian side. Not quite to the extreme of what coach Bostad was. I don't know if anyone could go to that extreme," Frederick said with a laugh.

So while Miller might not scream at his players in practice like his mentor, he knows what the offensive line is capable of. The Badgers finished fourth among major conference teams after they averaged 5.42 yards per carry last season, paving the way for running back Montee Ball's Heisman Trophy campaign.

"Bart has really high expectations," Groy said. "He's a pretty strict coach. He understands what you need to do and what you strive to do. He understands that it's not just him that has expectations for us- he knows that we have expectations for us too."

But that doesn't mean the players are complaining. In fact, Miller's influence has been easy to see in the games that followed his promotion. Whereas the Badgers rushed for just 2.54 yards per carry under Markuson, the offensive line has helped Wisconsin's running backs average 6.4 yards per carry since Miller took over the unit. The line play isn't quite what he'd like it to be, but Miller said he's trying to live up to the hefty burden Bielema placed on his shoulders in early September.

"I just didn't want to disappoint- didn't want to disappoint coach Bielema, didn't want to disappoint the guys, and of course the fans," Miller said. "They expect a lot from us, and hopefully we're starting to give them that."

But in college football, change is normal and stability is rare. The Badgers found that out first hand when Bielema announced he was leaving to become the head coach at Arkansas not even three days after the Badgers won the Big Ten Championship Game. Bielema's departure has forced many of his staff members to look for other jobs- several are headed down to Fayetteville with him, and a few others have accepted positions with the likes of Tennessee, California, and North Carolina State.

Miller is one of three assistant coaches whose future has yet to be determined. He and running backs coach Thomas Hammock and secondary coach Ben Strickland have yet to make their plans for next season public, but they could know a lot more about their fates in the next few days. Utah State head coach Gary Andersen is about to be hired as Wisconsin's next head coach, and he'll hold the key to whether Miller and the others stay or move on to other jobs.

Plenty of candidates with considerably longer resumes would jostle to take Miller's place in the McClain Center, where he stood staring around at his players as they gave their own interviews. The Badgers asked Miller to bridge many gaps for them this season, and he seems to have handled his new duties ably. But Miller knows better than most- coaching is a fickle profession.

"It's happened this year already- you're a day away or a play away (from leaving)," Miller said in late September, with an even more solemn look on his face than normal.

If Miller does return to the Badgers next season, it'll come at the cost of long hours spent in his Camp Randall office, and maybe even an extra wrinkle or a grey hair or two. Coaching tends to age people faster than normal, but it might help Miller blend in a little more with his fellow coaches.

Ultimately, that decision lies with Andersen. Reports have emerged that he's planning on bringing offensive line coach T.J. Woods with him to Wisconsin, which could mean Miller will be looking for work somewhere else next season. But Woods coached Miller for a year at New Mexico, and his success with the Badgers could force them to find a spot for him.

But if he's given the choice, Miller would like to stay. He didn't attend the University of Wisconsin during his playing days, but he's been here long enough to buy into what Barry Alvarez and Bielema started at Wisconsin, and what fans hope Andersen will continue.

"I believe in this place. I want to be here," Miller said a few days before news of Andersen's hiring leaked out. "That's kind of what I've told my guys the whole time- as long as they'll let me I'll stay and be the offensive line coach here."

But even if Andersen decides to go in a different direction, Miller earned the respect of his players in his short time as their position coach. More experienced coaches might have folded under the pressure, but Miller's calming influence helped the Badgers right their offensive ship in time to keep the whole team from running aground.

"To go through any transition is difficult, but it made it a lot easier knowing his system and knowing his style," Frederick said. "And when he jumped in he immediately took the reigns and took hold of everything. There was no room for goofing around or anything- he took control of the room, and we've moved forward and not looked back since."

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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