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Horse Tracks: A Tribute to Red Miller

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Here’s to the man who created the Orange Crush.

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Philadelphia Eagles v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

On May 4th, 2017 the Denver Broncos announced the sole addition to the club’s ring of fame for 2017: former head coach Red Miller. Unfortunately, coach Miller didn’t live to see his induction ceremony which will be held at halftime during the November 19th home game versus the Cincinnati Bengals. As first reported by 9 News’ Mike Klis, he passed away yesterday due to complications from a stroke.

It’s sad to see a Broncos great die so close to receiving some overdue love and recognition. And while the rest of this Horse Tracks will be focused on Red, I hope he wouldn’t mind me taking a moment to re-emphasize the fact that the NFL Hall of Fame selection committee needs to pull their heads out of their tuchus and induct beloved Broncos owner Pat Bowlen before this exact situation plays out again.

A lot of younger fans, like myself, aren’t very familiar with Red. So I want to dedicate a few moments to getting to know the coach that led the Broncos to their first AFC title and first Super Bowl appearance.

Robert “Red” Miller was born on October 31, 1927 in Macomb, Illinois. He attended Western Illinois University and joined their Leathernecks football team as first a player and then a coach. From there he followed another future Broncos head coach Lou Saban into the AFL coaching ranks when Saban became the inaugural head coach of the Boston Patriots in 1960.

Miller spent the next decade and a half going from one AFL/NFL team to another, mostly as an offensive line coach. His stops included a stint with the Broncos from 1963-1965, as well as time with the Bills, Cardinals, Colts, and then Patriots again.

Red returned to Denver as head coach on January 31, 1977 after previous head coach John Ralston was ousted after a 9-5 season that fell short of the playoffs. He took the reins of a talented roster, but also of a club that had only recently moved past a thirteen year stretch of being utterly dominated by the Kansas City Chiefs (1960-1973) and which still labored under a fourteen year run of also being completely dominated by the Oakland Raiders (1963-1976).

During his four-year tenure, Red’s Broncos went 4-5 versus the Raiders, but it was a significant upgrade from the previous decade and a half. And his team won the most important of those contests, a January 1st, 1978 playoff game that helped propel the formerly pathetic franchise to its first Super Bowl Appearance. Miller’s teams went 6-2 versus the Chiefs, though, and 5-3 versus the San Diego Chargers for a total divisional record of 15-10.

Red compiled an impressive run of seasons coaching the likes of Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright, Lyle Alzado, and others in what became immortalized in Broncos and NFL history as the Orange Crush Defense. 12-2, 10-6, 10-6, and 8-8 seasons combined for a 40-22 record and his .645 win percentage was the highest among all Broncos head coaches until it was surpassed by the Peyton Manning-assisted John Fox (.719) and Gary Kubiak (.656). His 40 wins are still 4th among all Broncos HCs, and that spectacular 1977 season netted him not one but four Coach of the Year awards.

Unfortunately, the end of Miller’s story in Denver isn’t a pleasant one. Gerald Phipps sold the team to Edgar Kaiser, who promptly canned the coach who was at the time by far the most successful in team history. Red Miller ended his time with the Broncos without a single losing season. But rather than move on to another team, Red stayed in Denver and closed the book on an NFL coaching career that was pretty special and might have been moreso if it weren’t for Kaiser.

Kaiser did at least hire Dan Reeves, who ably carried the torch of success that Red Miller lit. But one wonders what might have been if the careers of Red Miller and John Elway had overlapped by five or ten years.

Green Bay Packers v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Though they lost to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII, I’d like to think that the 1977 Broncos with their historic defense, their aging transplant QB, and the coach that taught the franchise how to win... well, maybe they had the last laugh. Maybe they got theirs when a 2015 Broncos squad with another aging transplant QB and another all-time great defense did the improbable: ride a 12 win season and historic dominance in the playoffs to Super Bowl glory.

In some important ways, 2015’s success was Red’s formula reborn. I hope he savored the redemption.

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