Sept. 18, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- As a corporate sponsorship account executive with the Chicago Blackhawks -- largely responsible for selling signage on the dasher boards at the United Center -- Bart Miller was living a good life, if not living his dream. There were a lot of perks to working for a team in the National Hockey League.
“I was out of school, making good money and enjoying what I was doing,’’ he said.
Only a few years earlier, Miller had considered going into coaching and/or sports administration, but he was unsure what direction he wanted to take when he enrolled in graduate school at New Mexico. Miller majored in business and communications and lettered twice in football for the Lobos.
“I wanted to coach but I wasn’t quite sure what angle I wanted to get into athletics,’’ he said.
During the first semester, Miller returned home to see his parents -- who lived in Elk Grove Village, 20 miles outside of Chicago -- and he went to a Blackhawks game where he had a chance meeting with team president John McDonough, previously the CEO of the Chicago Cubs.
“I had met him a few times when I was an undergrad to discuss career options,’’ Miller said. “He asked what I was doing and he told me that he was putting together a new staff and he said, ‘Why don’t you give me a call in a couple of weeks.’ I did, I interviewed and I was hired a month later.’’
Miller couldn’t have been happier with his choice. Even though he hadn’t been a big pro hockey fan, he quickly gained an appreciation for the sport and the speed and energy of the game. He liked everything about what he was doing, and the people that he was working with. Plus, he was in Chicago.
Almost two years into the job, he got the call that would change his career path, and life.
The caller was Jason Lenzmeier, the offensive line coach at New Mexico State. Miller knew Lenzmeier from New Mexico, where the 26-year-old Lenzmeier, a four-year starter for the Lobos, had been promoted from graduate assistant to full-time assistant during Miller’s senior year.
“He (Lenzmeier) called me and said, ‘Hey, I need a GA (graduate assistant); I need a guy that I can trust, if you’re still interested in coaching,’’’ Miller recounted. “I had expressed my interest in coaching while I was there with him and I just said, ‘I don’t know, I might be.’’’
Miller weighed everything that he had with the Blackhawks in Chicago versus starting on the ground floor in the coaching profession with the New Mexico State Aggies in Las Cruces. There was plenty to think about, and plenty to talk about with his girlfriend, Amy, who’s now his wife.
“I explained the situation -- the hours and the demands -- and I told her if you can’t do that, I’ll say no (to Lenzmeier),’’ Miller related. “She said, ‘You have to do it; you have to pursue your dream.’ She knew there were going to be some sacrifices, and there certainly have been, but she pushed it.
“The more and more I thought about it, hockey wasn’t my sport. It was a good business job (in Chicago). But, at the end of the day, football was where my passion was. I had worked awhile for the Blackhawks and saved money, so I could afford to take some risks at the time.
“If it didn’t work out, I could always go back. But to me, it wasn’t a matter whether it was going to work out. It was full-speed ahead. I was committed to coaching and I fell in love with it right away.’’
* * *
On Sunday afternoon, Bart Miller, 27, was bringing context to what had transpired the night before -- his first game on the Camp Randall Stadium sidelines as Wisconsin’s offensive line coach. A week earlier, he had been promoted from GA to a full-time position following Mike Markuson’s dismissal.
“It was exciting,’’ he said of the week that was. “I felt I had a lot to do and not much time to do it in. It was stressful at times. At the same time, I was very confident because I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I knew exactly what we needed to do to get better at the things that we needed to get better at.
“Once the overwhelming news kind of sunk in, and we could get to work, I was fine and off and running. Obviously, it’s a tough transition. No one wants to get the job this way. But everyone has been great. We have a great staff and we work really well together.’’
There were more than a few hiccups during the game itself, a 16-14 win over Utah State. The offensive line drew a handful of pre-snap procedure penalties and holding flags. Maybe even more frustrating from Miller’s standpoint was the inability to convert in numerous short -yardage situations.
“The number one glaring issue was the pre-snap penalties and holding penalties,’’ he said. “As a coach, that’s on me. We didn’t prepare to face some of those things like we should have. We thought we fixed a lot of the technique things, but the penalties were unacceptable. So we have to fix those.
“That was the number one thing that was disappointing -- and then not getting the third downs. The guys were on it, but we have to make some changes and do some things technically different to ensure we stay on the blocks and play the way we are certainly capable of playing.’’
But there were many positives to build on; many things that encouraged Miller.
“Absolutely,’’ Miller said. “The biggest thing is that I really thought they came out and tried to be physical and move the line of scrimmage. For the most part we did that. We have to get to the second level a little bit more and we have to eliminate the penalties that put us in first-and-15.
“But we were getting four and five yards a pop when we were running some of the zones and powers. The effort was certainly there. Obviously, we have to clean up the details.’’
On his way to work -- on his first day on the job after replacing Markuson -- Miller spoke on his cell phone with his mentor, Bob Bostad, the former UW offensive line coach who is now coaching the same position group in the National Football League with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“He just said, ‘Coach them hard. Do what you know is right. Do what you know you can do. Get them where they need to be,’’ he said. “It was typical ‘Bo’ -- pretty short and sweet and to the point.’’
* * *
Bostad didn’t recruit Miller to New Mexico, Osia Lewis did. Both were on Rocky Long’s staff. Lewis had first made contact with Miller while he was coaching with Ron Turner at Illinois. Early in the recruiting process, Miller heard from Wisconsin and John Palermo, then the defensive line assistant.
But the Badgers filled up with O-line commits and so did Illinois. Neither followed up on Miller, who was a team captain and honorable mention all-state his senior year at Elk Grove Village High School. Lewis, though, stayed in touch and invited him to take a look at the New Mexico program.
Miller liked what he saw and committed to the Lobos. That’s when he first came under the influence of Bostad, the offensive line coach for Long. There was one playing issue: Miller couldn’t stay healthy. He dislocated his knee cap as a redshirt freshman and broke his ankle the following season.
By the time Miller finally got on the field for the Lobos as a junior in 2006, Bostad was coaching the tight ends and coordinating the run game at Wisconsin. But he had already left his mark on Miller during their three years together in Albuquerque.
“I learned from the way he coached and the way he made practice harder than anything else,’’ Miller said. “He was very strict and very precise in what he expected and demanded from you -- both in your techniques and in the weight room.
“Every aspect of the O-line play was influenced by him; what he wanted and what he got and the demands that he put on each of his players so that when Saturday came it was easy. That was his philosophy. He was very hard on his players, but he really cared for them, too.
“There was a touchy balance. He was hard to play for, but you knew that you could trust him and he was always there for you if something happened. I worked hard and I think he appreciated that. I wasn’t a star player. I was a role guy, a back-up when he was there.’’
But Miller applied what Bostad had taught him -- “He emphasized that hard-nosed demeanor and playing physical’’ -- and started at guard his senior year, beating out sophomore Erik Cook, who ended up starting at tackle. Cook was a seventh-round draft choice of the Washington Redskins in 2010.
“When Bo left New Mexico, another coach came in for a year -- which was actually a similar situation to here -- before his GA was promoted to O-line coach,’’ Miller said of Lenzmeier, who became New Mexico’s youngest full-time assistant in 23 years. “He’s a Bo guy, a Bo disciple.’’
That’s why he really couldn’t say ‘no’ to Lenzmeier in 2010 when he offered him the opportunity to be his graduate assistant at New Mexico State. “He’s a rising star in my opinion,’’ Miller said.
To his thinking, Bostad was already the best in the business, so Miller didn’t hesitate to join the UW staff as a quality control coach on offense, which allowed him to work closely with Bostad. That was his role last season. (Lenzmeier has since returned to New Mexico as the O-line coach for Bob Davie.)
“It was completely different,’’ Miller said of his budding relationship with Bostad as a colleague. “He was much more composed and calm. He still held me to the same standards. But there was much more of a co-worker relationship.
“He was obviously my mentor. But we could have dinner together and we’d talk about schemes. Or we’d go for a run and talk. There was a little bit more of a personal interaction than there ever was as a coach to a player.’’
That accounts for the comfort level the Wisconsin offensive linemen have around Miller, who can relate to players on many different layers. While he was selling for the Chicago Blackhawks, he said, “I learned about being yourself. People can spot a fake from a long way off.’’
He also learned, “It’s a lot harder to say no to a person when there’s a level of trust. That was the biggest thing -- the human interaction of selling, and how influential that can be.’’
Persistence as a salesperson can translate to perseverance as a player.
Miller’s communication skills extend beyond football.
His mom, Tammy, was a teacher and his dad, Clark, was an architect with an international company. In the early ’90s, the family relocated to France -- just outside of Paris -- for about 18 months. That exposed Bart to multiple cultures at a young, impressionable age.
“We’d go for weekend trips all over Europe,’’ said Miller. “I remember most of the experiences and seeing the tourist attractions. I enjoyed traveling and going to different places.’’
In his New Mexico player bio, it estimated that Miller and his family had visited 17 countries.
Sunday, he amended that to 19, including Greece, where he and Amy honeymooned in 2011.
He doesn’t expect to get a honeymoon now as the Badgers’ offensive line coach.
But it’s still full-speed ahead. Bostad taught him well.