Former Broncos coach Red Miller will be inducted into the Ring of Fame Sunday at halftime of the Denver-Cincinnati game.
Unfortunately, the honor will be posthumous. Miller died on September 27 from complications of a stroke he suffered while watching the end of the Broncos-Chargers game on September 11.
He was a central figure in my book ’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age, and influential in the evolution of Denver as a sports market.
It’s hard to explain the importance of that Broncos’ AFC Championship season and first Super Bowl appearance — again, an importance that went far beyond football — for those who weren’t here or are unwilling to learn of a season of 40 years ago. It was about the Orange Crush of Randy Gradishar, Louis Wright and Tom Jackson; the M&M Connection of Craig Morton to Haven Moses; and the fiery first-year head coach.
It truly was transformative.
This is the second of two adapted ’77 excerpts featuring Miller as his Ring of Fame induction approaches. (Part One is here.)
Part Two shows Red being Red, letting his Broncos know what he thinks of the Oakland Raiders … and what he wants them to do about it.
(Colorful terms have been removed from many of the quotes here. Most of them are in the book.)
“About those $#%$#% Raiders …”
In meetings and the brief off-season camps, Red Miller hammered home his philosophy, and many of the players came away thinking this was a guy who would both pat on the back and praise, but also offer to take off the whistle, shed his role as coach, and settle it man-to-man. With disdain, he banished one sign of that togetherness of the John Ralston era that had been brought to the Broncos by linebacker Ray May. Looking back, Miller laughs about using an epithet in getting it across. “I told ‘em, ‘If you hold hands with anybody in the huddle, you’re out of this place and on your way, do you understand that?’”
Actually, that was fine with the Broncos.
“And in one of the first meetings,” he adds, “I told them, ‘You guys got a pretty good squad here, but you’re missing something and I’ll tell you what it is. You got beat by the Oakland Raiders, that’s what you’re missing! I’m telling you now, you’re going to beat the Oakland Raiders! I’ve beaten them more than they’ve ever beaten me with any team I’ve been with, and I know how to beat them!’”
Wright remembers Miller repeatedly driving his right fist into his left open palm, punctuating his points.
“Number one, you gotta beat the Raiders . . .”
“Whup their . . .”
“No fancy stuff . . .”
“The New England Patriots are a hard-nosed football team, and that’s what we want to be . . .”
“I don’t care what plays we draw up, what kind of meals you eat, if you don’t whup that guy across from you, we just can’t win!”
Wright’s fellow starting cornerback, Steve Foley, remembers the Miller speech along these lines: “So you guys haven’t been able to beat the Raiders. Oh, every now and then.”
Suddenly, Miller was yelling. “Let me tell you where I’m coming from! I’m coming from the New England Patriots and we kicked their . . . We’re gonna knock (them) in the dirt! . . . I don’t care if you have to get in fights with them or whatever.”
Foley says Miller “was dead serious. We took on an edge to our team that brought out an incredible confidence that we had that was waiting there, waiting to come out.”
Billy Thompson laughs as he says his initial impression of Miller was as “a wild man. Very, very emotional. And he hated the Raiders.”
The Broncos had gone 2-7-1 against the Raiders under Ralston, and had lost four in a row in the series when he was fired. In the Broncos’ history, they were 6-26-2 against Oakland.
That was obscene.
Several months later, both teams were 4-0 heading into their first meeting of the season, on Oct. 30 at Oakland.
On Monday, the Broncos gathered for their usual team meeting in the racquetball court at the team headquarters. The weekly protocol was that Red Miller would make a brief speech about the week and opponent ahead, and then the team would break into positional meetings.
Center Mike Montler, among others, vividly remembers this one as being different.
“Generally, the chairs were set up so they were facing the front and there was a podium there,” Montler says. “This time the seats were turned facing the side wall and there was a platform that had the projector on it. There was a reel of film and there couldn’t have been that much film on the reel.”
With two fingertips squeezed together, Montler shows how thin the film was on the reel.
“Red comes in with the entourage of assistant coaches and works his way up to where the projector was, and the rest of the guys lean against the wall. Red really never said anything. There’s stunned silence and we’re thinking, What’s going on here? Who died? This is different.”
Miller looked over at the assistant coaches and said, sharply, “Lights.”
The room went pitch black.
Miller turned on the projector and rolled the film.
It was maybe 30 plays, at the most.
He stopped some of the plays with the coach’s “clicker,” reversed the film, then showed them again. The sequence of plays were illegal hits, cheap shots, dirty play — all collected from games Miller had coached against the Raiders over a span of about eight years, most of them when he was with the Patriots. One of the clips showed Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano’s forearm to the face of Patriots tight end Russ Francis in the 1976 playoff game, which left Francis with a broken nose.
Miller hadn’t said a word.
Finally, he was through.
“Lights!” he barked.
The lights came on.
Starting slowly, Miller said, “I want to tell you what I like about the Oakland Raiders.” He began picking up steam. “I don’t like a thing about them!” Now, he was snarling and spitting it out. “I don’t like their colors. I don’t like their stadium. I don’t like their fans. I don’t like a thing about them.”
“Now, go to your meetings,” he said, and walked out of the room.
Montler laughs. “Right at that point,” he says, “we could have gotten on a Greyhound with our own money and gone out and kicked (them). I think we probably were higher then than we were for the game.”
Asked about the scene, Miller says he wanted “to get my team to know that, hey, when you play the Oakland Raiders, you have to beat them at their style. That doesn’t mean dirty hitting, but hitting all day long, and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and as many as 11, if you can get them all in, on a tackle.”
A couple of hours before the game in Oakland, anxious linebacker Bob Swenson decided to take a walk.
What he came across astounded him.
Red Miller, who had bitter memories of referee Ben Dreith’s crucial and perhaps history-changing roughing-the-passer penalty against the Patriots in the playoff game against the Raiders in the same stadium the previous season, was confronting the men in striped shirts.
“The Raiders were this incredibly talented team and it really did seem like the referees gave them a lot of leeway,” Swenson says. “They just got away with stuff. They had a couple of guys back there like (Jack) Tatum and George Atkinson who did some things, and there was some holding, and it always seemed that the referees kind of looked the other way or just kind of had the attitude of ‘they’re the champs.’
“So I come around the corner and there’s Red, he’s just lighting into, chewing out the referees. He’s saying, ‘You guys call this game straight and if you don’t, I will be in your face!” He’s dressing these guys down before the game! And I was like, ‘Wow!’ Red knew there was something at stake, big time, and he wanted a fair, even field. That was classic Red right there. He knew something was up, something was special.”
Says Miller: “I was up for that game. Once in a while, you have to get their attention, you know. I guess that was my way of doing it.”
The Broncos got everyone’s attention that day.
They beat the Raiders 30-7, largely because Ken Stabler threw seven interceptions, three to Joe Rizzo.
Plus, there was the bizarre-looking, backbreaking touchdown pass from holder Norris Weese to Jim Turner.
The Broncos were leading 14-7 late in the first half when they lined up for what would have been a Turner 42-yard attempt on a fourth down from the Oakland 25. Weese, the scrambling backup quarterback, admitted he had been “startled” by the call. It was the play they had practiced a couple of weeks earlier — a fake with tight end Riley Odoms as the first option, which was fairly conventional; but with Turner, the old man in black high-tops, as the secondary receiver along the sideline.
“It was one of those trick things you put in your bag, and never would I have thought they’d call it,” Turner says.
Weese took the snap, rolled right, looked at Odoms, and then looked back to the left, where Turner was running along. Alone. The pass hit Turner in stride at about the Raiders” 15 and he trotted into the end zone.
Within seconds, the Broncos” lead was 21-7.
The rout was on.
Although the myth was popularized that Turner was the primary receiver on the play, he wasn’t. Odoms was.
Years later, Billy Thompson smiles when he thinks about that play. “It took Jim Turner forever to get in the end zone,” he says. “Ol” Hightops!”
Recalls Turner: “They followed Riley Odoms, they followed Norris, they followed Randy Gradishar. They all went to our right. I went to the left and thank God there was nobody near me. I had scored so many times in high school. I think I was the second-leading scorer in the state of California my junior and senior year, so the scoring didn’t bother me. It was the catching and running. . . God bless Norris, he threw it right on the money.” He laughs. “It was a big play and sometimes it aggravates me that I kicked 304 field goals in my career and that’s all they want to talk about, that play.”
Tom Jackson, in addition to covering backs out of the backfield and making tackles, devoted his energy to unleashing disdainful broadsides in the direction of the Oakland bench, including coach John Madden. After recovering a fumble late in the game near the sideline, Jackson got up, waved the ball, and spotted Madden a few feet away. “It’s all over, fat man!” he yelled.
On the NBC broadcast, sage play-by-play man Curt Gowdy, the voice of American sports and ‘The American Sportsman,’ mused that Sunday “has to be the greatest day in the history of the Denver franchise.”
Up to that point, it was.
Years later, Miller calls that game “the turning point of the whole year,” and says his postgame speech emphasized the clearing of a mental hurdle.
“We beat the Super Bowl winner in their house!” he recalls telling his team. “And now, gentlemen, if we can play like that and hold together, we’re going to be fine.”
* * *
Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes commentaries about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
E-mail: [email protected]