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When Pat Miller pledged to support the Utah Sports Hall of Fame's upcoming golf tournament, the foundation's president asked him how the accompanying sign should read.
The sponsor's wish: "Pat Miller, Skiing Legend."
He must have known he was dying. Otherwise, the former University of Utah coach who was known for deflecting credit never would have ordered anything that trumpeted his own achievements.
In a Ute context, Miller was the skiing equivalent of Rick Majerus and they were intertwined in ways that make their deaths in the past seven months, each of heart-related issues at age 64, seem rather eerie.
Let's just say Miller's Ute career did not end well. Yet his legacy will always be framed by those eight NCAA titles in a sport that combines men's and women's scores to determine the champion. In a glorious six-year run in the 1980s, the Utes recorded five victories and a second-place finish at nationals.
His own coach, Fort Lewis College's Dolph Kuss, likes to describe Miller as "better than John Wooden," figuring all those combined titles should be doubled.
Much of Miller's success could be traced to international athletes, but his coaching methods involved much more than merely recruiting talented skiers and sending them onto the slopes.
"His personality, his love of people … he wanted to make them better in any way he could," said his brother, Jim.
Skiing was the thread throughout Miller's existence, from his childhood in Maine to college in Colorado to his nearly 40 years as a Utahn. "His only love in life was skiing, as far as I know," said Jim Gaddis, a friend in the Utah skiing community.
That's true, in a broad sense but only when the people Miller influenced are included. Former Ute track coach Mike Jones remembers the good times during their quarter-century together in the athletic department, designing running trails for their athletes' workouts. "His laugh was so infectious, you just couldn't help but love the guy," Jones said. "He was so genuine in his friendship. There will never be another one like him."
Except maybe for Jim Miller, who lives on as the closest thing to a twin brother. They were born 10 months apart and attended school in the same grade from kindergarten through college. "That's basically the relationship we had all the way through," Jim Miller said. "We worked with each other, pushed each other, loved each other. We didn't do much without each other."
So it was that Pat Miller died last weekend while visiting his brother in Casper, Wyo. They were together, all those years after the sons of a paper mill worker became immersed in the sport with the Chisolm Ski Club in Maine. They grew into All-Americans at Fort Lewis and a U.S. Olympian, in Jim's case. And then Pat Miller joined the Ute staff as a graduate assistant coach directing the Nordic program in 1974.
He became the head coach two years later and modeled the Fort Lewis program that had enabled Kuss to challenge Utah, Colorado and other big schools. "He never called me for advice," Kuss said this week, chuckling. Yet they remained close friends, and the power of Kuss' influence was undeniable. So is Miller's legacy.
It's true that he went down swinging after being fired for an NCAA rules violation that he strongly disputed, accusing Majerus and other Utah coaches of their own misdeeds and he was partly vindicated by sanctions against the basketball program and the athletic department.
But this is what you really should know about him: During his suspension, Utah staged the 2000 NCAA Championships. The coach who'd won all those titles pitched in by grooming the slalom course at Park City Mountain Resort and timing the cross-country skiers at Soldier Hollow.
To me, that's why he's Pat Miller, Skiing Legend.