If I ask a person on the street to name a team from the state of Iowa that has excelled at wrestling, I would most likely hear “the Iowa Hawkeyes”. If I asked a wrestling fan, I may hear “Iowa State”, “Wartburg”, or “Grand View” as well. If I ask a true fan of wrestling to dig deeper I might even hear “Iowa State Teachers College”. In a state with three different Universities that have won Division I championships, it makes sense that other powerhouses are sometimes overlooked. Wartburg College is hard to miss though, they have won 13 Division III titles since 1996. We also cannot overlook the monsters of the NAIA Grand View University, the team that has won six straight championships at that level. Upper Iowa University, the lone Division II wrestling college in Iowa has had 43 wrestlers earn All-American wrestling honors since 2000. Could it be possible wrestling fans are still missing another program from the state ready to break through and enter that conversation?
Welcome to Dubuque, Iowa. A small Iowa city of fewer than 60,000 people that supports not one, but two NCAA Division III wrestling programs. The University of Dubuque Spartans share the city with the Loras College DuHawks, with their campuses separated by less than a mile. Theirs is a rivalry akin to the Hatfields and the McCoys with fewer gunshots and moonshine. The DuHawks are the team to beat in town this season and no one has been able to accomplish that yet. Loras is off to the best start in program history at 16-0 and is currently ranked fifth. A program record-tying 16 dual wins are already in their back pocket and they are taking aim at their best ever finish at nationals if they can surpass their sixth-place finish from a year ago. This is a program on the rise under the leadership of head coach TJ Miller and the leadership of sophomore returning All-American Guy Patron Jr.
Now a savvy veteran coach entering his second season at the head of this program, Coach Miller has a wrestling pedigree. His father, Jim Miller, was a two-time national champion at UNI in the mid-1970s. He also went on to coach Wartburg, building them into the powerhouse they are today. TJ wrestled for his father and won his own national championship in 2007. He was also a member of three national championship teams. He was coached by a winner to be a winner and now he is building his own team to be the same.
Miller has returned to Iowa from a very successful time in Louisiana leading Holy Cross School to two state championships and a runner-up finish. Now he is building his own legacy in the same NCAA division his father did. We caught up with Coach Miller and asked him some questions about his program to bring it out from under the radar.
What was your philosophy last year as you began your first year as a college head coach and had the highest team placement in program history sixth-place place finish at NCAA Division III nationals?
It has been a whirlwind. From coming in and qualifying four wrestlers for nationals and placing sixth with three All-Americans it was crazy. We are not looking at history right now or the bigger picture going forward though. It is a one day at a time approach. I emphasize making a deposit on that day. Do one thing that day to be better. Make a deposit. If we make deposits every day and do not make a withdrawal you will have a full savings account when you need it. That means in the classroom or on the mat you are doing the right thing. If we do that when we reach nationals this year we can be a top-four team and get a trophy.
You are back from Louisiana and you have brought some serious talent with you. Is the South under-recruited by teams here in the midwest?
Absolutely. There is some great wrestling talent in Louisiana. While I was coaching down there it seemed like there were no coaches coming to the state tournament. I think last year I saw four or five coaches. It is not nearly as big a secret, but people are still missing out. It can be difficult to sign kids because of the free tuition program they have for in state universities. If they maintain a certain GPA and take courses they can go to college for free. A lot of kids go to the LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette or Louisiana Tech to take advantage of that, but there is a lot of great athletic talent there. When you look at Guy (Patron Jr) he was a perfect fit for our program.
Your father, Jim Miller, built a legacy at Wartburg creating a Division III powerhouse. You have a similar opportunity to forge your own history at Loras College. Is that something you are looking towards?
I am not thinking about matching the success of my father. What he did at Wartburg was incredible. I knew I wanted to be a head coach. I am working on building a team here that is its own thing. People will want to draw parallels.
What brought you back to Iowa? What was it about Loras College that drew you back from Louisiana? It was not the weather.
Haha. No. I wanted to be a head coach, but I needed to get some distance from here. I was young and it was New Orleans. What a great opportunity and time to take it. It was a great place to be and Holy Cross was a perfect place to start my coaching career. Then I got married and had kids. Allison is from this area. I am from this area. When you have a family you want to be around family. The opportunity was also going to be great. To be an assistant under Randy Steward. He was here for I think 23 years and it was a situation where I would be his assistant for two seasons before he retired. Then he was offered a great opportunity. He used to talk about the area all of the time and they gave him pretty much everything he wanted. He was treated here like a professor of twenty plus years and they are doing the same down there (Randy Seward is now the head coach of Sonoraville High School in Georgia and a physical educator). I ended up taking over in June and having to jump right into it. I have a great group of wrestlers who are developing now.
You have done very well recruiting in this region. With so many good wrestling programs in the area, what helps bring kids to your program?
It is an easy sell. We are unique. We are in a larger city when you compare us to other Division III locations. Dubuque is what, 60,000? Loras was the first college in the state of Iowa. There is history here that is not just wrestling. It is a beautiful campus. We are very centrally located, Dubuque is across the river from Wisconsin and Illinois. It lets us offer something to kids from three different states. From the second floor of the library, you can actually look out over the city and see Wisconsin. We are up on a hill overlooking the river and the city. It is just a great atmosphere.
Speaking of Dubuque, you are less than a mile from another Division III wrestling school. In a town of less than 60,000 how important is it to be the best show in town? It is a built-in rivalry, is it weird?
I honestly thought when I took the job here I would run into McGovern (John McGovern head coach of Dubuque College) at the gas station, but that hasn’t happened. They are obviously our rivals and we want to be the best. They give us their best. Last season it was closer than I wanted it to be. I am sure this year it will be as well. They want to win just like we want to win. I am hoping that it will not be close this year, but they have some good guys and we will need to be at our best.
Congratulations on your 4-0 showing at the IIAC Duals last weekend. Coe was an absolute nailbiter. You won on what, criteria c to make it to 15 wins on the year?
Yeah, it was I think third criteria. We were down six going into 197 and I knew it could be close. I was hoping for bonus from Guy there, but Coe did a good job slowing us down there and keeping it to a decision. Then Quin (Gilliam) went out at heavyweight and I had our guys looking at the criteria. We knew where we were sitting. What Quin needed to win by. They even had it down to what we needed for total match points to make sure. We were actually in this position last year with I think Coe. It went to criteria.
You should have that criteria downloaded on someone’s smartphone.
We had the rulebook right there.
Did you give your father a bunch of Loras gear when you took the job? Has he been supportive or does he still bleed Wartburg?
Haha. Yeah, I have given him a few things. Like a hat and a polo from golf outings, but yeah he doesn’t really wear it. I mean I think he still works for Wartburg (Jim Miller is head coach emeritus). Now my mom, on the other hand, she wears it out. She is proud to wear purple. I mean she still wears Wartburg for events, but she reps Loras. Maybe when dad really retires from the program.
What type of kids do you want and need for the program? Why a Division III program like yours for kids who are academically strong and want to keep working on the mat?
We want students. If a kid wants to be a student and works hard that is what I want. I want kids who are strong academically and work hard. If you give me a kid who is focused on school work and works hard I can do a lot with him. I want kids I do not have to be on to go to class, make study table, get things turned. I talk to coaches and I ask about are they a good student? Do they work hard? If the answers are yes I want them. A kid that works hard is coachable. In Division III, you can be successful with kids that are good students and work hard. The rest is easy. They are kids who understand about making those small deposits.
You have already made history last year. History aside this year as you are on pace to break the all-time dual wins in a season record, what are your post-season aspirations and goals?
I don’t like to focus on those long-term goals. I like to look at the daily steps to get there. The small deposits. But I want to place top four and get a team trophy. That is what it takes to get one of those and if guys continue to work we can do that.
Coach Miller, New York has the NYSAC and Pennsylvania has the PSAC for a college state championships. What do you think about Iowa having a college state championship?
I will have to look at those a little more, I did not realize they had things like that. I mean there are what like 24 college teams in Iowa? (Editor’s Note: He is exactly right.) I mean it would be tough to make that work from a scheduling standpoint, but wow. You could hold it at Wells Fargo. Even with the Division I programs sending backups and the top DII and DIII programs. Yeah, you could have a lot of fans there. It would probably need to be early in the season to work from a scheduling standpoint. Yeah, we would be game.
Thank you, coach TJ Miller for taking the time to talk with us. As your success grows it will be impossible to keep Loras College Wrestling under the radar. Good luck as your program will look to break the program record for most dual wins in a season on February 2nd against Dubuque College. For those wondering, Loras will match-up against Wartburg College on February 9th. It will be on the recently christened Jim Miller Wartburg wrestling mat that is set to be dedicated in the “Battle of the Burgs” on February 1st. Last season, Loras fell to Wartburg 32-0 and we know that this year you want to reverse that.