June 30, 2016

Partly sunny

Soccer has been constant in life of hall of fame inductee

Soccer has been good to Bruce Miller. From getting a chance to play for the Canadian National Team to playing and coaching at the professional level, the Brunswick resident has experienced more than most can dream about.

The lifetime of stories makes all the bumps and bruises worth it.

“I had a good run, but I was kind of a reckless player,” Miller said. “I have an artificial knee, an artificial hip, I broke my nose three times and I broke a rib that punctured my lung.

Former Cleveland Crunch and Brunswick boys soccer coach Bruce Miller is a 2013 Medina County Hall of Fame inductee. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY RON SCHWANE)

“But the good thing to come of it was it put me on the path to coaching and indirectly brought me (to Brunswick).”

The former Cleveland Crunch and Brunswick High boys coach will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during June 13 ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth.

If it wasn’t for the sport, Miller wouldn’t have won an NAIA national championship at Simon Frasier University, wouldn’t have traveled internationally while representing his country, wouldn’t have played professionally and wouldn’t have coached the Crunch to a pair of National Professional Soccer League titles.

More importantly, he wouldn’t have met his wife of 18 years, Wendy, while directing the National Sports Center in Minnesota, and he wouldn’t have had a chance to coach his son, Justin, at Brunswick over the last four seasons.

“It’s kind of responsible for everything,” Miller said of soccer. “I started playing when I was 5. My dad was a referee, so I would go to all the games he did in the men’s league and watch.”

The wide-eyed kid who watched his father officiate developed a passion for the sport that lasts to this day.

In early 1974, the Vancouver native began playing for the Canada National Youth Team, which led to a trip to Cologne, Germany. The 17-year-old represented Vancouver in an event in May and earned an invitation to play with the Canadian National Team.

“We were playing at the old Empire Stadium and I went out and had like six or seven goals (over the three games),” Miller said. “Afterwards, the national team coach came over and talked to me. It all just took off from there.”

Miller accepted the invitation, making him the youngest player to play for Canada at the time. He was 17 years, 6 months when he took the pitch in early January 1975 against Cuba. In total, Miller played for the national team from 1975-84.

A year after joining the team, Miller sustained his first major injury when he tore cartilage in his knee. It eventually was the reason he missed a shot to play in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

“I tried to hurry and get back because the Pan-Am Games were 10 weeks away, but my knee wasn’t good,” he said. “I went to the coach and told him the knee was good and he said, ‘We were about to tell you the same thing.”’

From there, Miller played two seasons for Simon Frasier, leading the Burnaby, British Columbia school to the NAIA national championship game in 1975, when it lost to Quincy (Ill.) 1-0.

Miller and his teammates got revenge against Quincy a year later, as the teams played one of the longest games in soccer history — a 14-overtime thriller in the NAIA semifinals that propelled Simon Frasier into the final, where it defeated Rockhurst (Mo.) 1-0.

Miller’s professional career started in 1975 with stints with the outdoor Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders and the indoor Cleveland Force from 1979-80.

The hard-nosed forward-midfielder sat out the 1981 season due to a groin pull before deciding to give it a go again in ’82 by trying out for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Out of 60 players to try out, Miller was the only one to sign, but it was a frustrating run with the NASL team.

“I was the 20th player on a 20-player roster,” he said. “With 10 games left, the coach asked me if I would play defender and I told him, ‘I’ll do anything you want. Just get me on the field.’”

The move paid off, as Miller was named league player of the month and appeared in 29 out of the team’s 30 games in 1983.

Following the ’83 season, Strikers owner Joe Robbie moved the team to Minneapolis, where Miller played 13 games in 1984. When the franchise made the move to the Major Indoor Soccer League, Miller played two more seasons.

A staph infection ultimately forced him to take off the cleats and shin guards and take up coaching.

“At the end of the 84-85 season, my knee was sore, so I went to a doctor to see if there was any damage,” Miller said. “He went and looked at the ligaments and the knee and said it looked good.

“That was a Friday. Then on Monday, I couldn’t put any weight on the knee, and I went in and he said he would put me back in a cast. That Thursday, he took the cast off and just barely touched it and I screamed.”

It was then Miller found out he had a career-ending staph infection, which withered his weight from 172 to 140 pounds.

“It just about killed me,” Miller said. “If someone would have come in and said I was going to die, I would’ve said, ‘That’s fine.’ I was so sick.”

Miller recovered and was asked by Minnesota to stay on as the director of community relations, which eventually led to him being promoted to assistant coach by the playoffs.

He wasn’t sure, however, what he wanted to do. He sold real estate for six months before becoming the director of soccer of the newly built Nationals Sports Center and eventually became director of soccer programming.

Miller wanted more, and after applying for a handful of college jobs, he got a call out of the blue in 1995 from Crunch general manager Al Miller, who offered him the head coaching job.

“It shocked me a bit,” the 55-year-old said. “I took a pay cut, but I thought I would give it a try.”

Miller spent the next 5½ seasons leading the Crunch, which won a pair of National Professional Soccer League championships for a city that hadn’t seen a professional team win a title since 1964. He went 152-92, leading the franchise to four championship games in a five-year span.

It almost ended two years in, when Miller said he was fired for 10 minutes.

“The other day they said (current Cavaliers coach) Mike Brown was the first coach to be fired and rehired in Cleveland, and that’s not true,” he said. “In 1997, we had a game where we blew a big lead and, as I walked off the floor of the Convocation Center, the owner said he wanted to talk to me.

“He wanted know why we lost and that he was sick of it and was fed up,” Miller continued. “He looked at me and said, ‘I asked the GM (Al Miller) to take over for you, but he declined.’”

Miller then left the room, grabbed his jacket and told the team good luck before walking out the doors of the Convocation Center.

He was stopped by three media members who wanted to talk to him. Miller announced he had been released.

“As I was talking to them, the owner opens the back door of the Convo and says, ‘I didn’t fire you. Did you hear me say those words?’” Miller recalled. “I told him that since he told me he asked the GM to take over that I assumed that it was the end of my time.”

New ownership took over at the start of the 2000s, resulting in the end of Miller’s tenure.

For the last 10 years, Miller has been the director of sports programming at UXL Sports and Fitness in Brunswick. He was asked several times to take over the Brunswick boys program by athletic director Pete Demonte before eventually agreeing in 2009.

“I had known Pete from soccer and he came to me a couple of times about taking it over,” he said. “I finally thought, ‘I haven’t coached my own kid,’ so when he came to me again, I agreed.”

Miller went 27-34-12 in four seasons with the Blue Devils, which included back-to-back district appearances. He also had a heavy involvement in the city’s youth program before resigning after this season.

Miller is still teaching kids at his fitness center, but says the true teacher is the sport itself.

“I think the greatest thing about sports is that it’s a microcosm of life,” Miller said. “It teaches you how to solve problems and adjust. In that way, soccer is great. Every other sport is a coach’s game, but soccer is a game where kids have to solve problems.”

It’s a game that also has given Miller everything he has.

Contact Dan Brown at sports@medina-gazette.com.