ROCKDALE FINAL MM 08

FOR SPORTS - Rockdale head coach Jeff Miller celebrates with his players after the Class 3A Division I state final against Brock at AT&T Stadium in Arlington on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Rockdale won, 45-29. Michael Miller/Telegram

Like so many head coaches in smaller towns, Jeff Miller didn’t necessarily take the Rockdale head football job in 2006 thinking it would be his final career destination. And it still may not be.

But Miller now has become so identified with Rockdale, and Rockdale with the veteran coach, that he would find it difficult to leave, if he so desired.

That’s good news for Rockdale, which has taken its economic lumps in recent years with the closure of Alcoa and Luminant smelter plant, the largest industrial employer in Milam County, as well as a regional medical clinic. The football team, especially the Class 3A Division I state championship team of 2017, has been an emotional boost for a town still trying to regain its stride.

“(The championship team) brought the town together at a time that the economy was at its lowest,” said John King, mayor of Rockdale. “The team working together brought hope and pride that was missing at the time.”

Rockdale’s 44-36 victory Friday night over old rival Caldwell was Miller’s 100th as the Tigers’ coach. King issued a proclamation honoring Miller shortly after the game to commemorate the accomplishment. The milestone puts Miller in rarified air among the area’s elite coaches.

Miller is just the sixth coach to reach the 100-win mark all at an area school. Only Rogers’ Donald Godwin (243), Temple’s Bob McQueen (242), Copperas Cove’s Jack Welch (192), Academy’s John Glover (131) and Killeen’s Leo Buckley (118) crossed the 100-win threshold at their programs. Miller is the first to do so entirely in the 21st century.

Miller, in his 14th season, is the dean of active head coaches by a sizeable advantage. The next closest length of service is Holland’s Brad Talbert, now in his eighth season leading the Hornets. On the all-time list only Godwin (31), McQueen (28), Welch (24), Buckley (24), Glover (18) and Killeen Ellison’s Jon Beseda (17) spent more seasons on their team’s sideline than Miller has in Rockdale.

“Because of Coach Miller’s leadership, more of our student-athletes have received college scholarships than ever before,” King said. “It has been great to have this consistent leadership in our school to mold our students and provide an example that you can be successful.”

After building a stretch of success — coming into this season the Tigers won 61 games in the last six years — it would have been natural to believe Miller would have used that magical 2017 season to find a more plumb position at a larger school district and thank the Rockdale community for its support. The opportunities have been there.

He’s still in Rockdale.

Miller’s father, Ed, was a successful head coach in the 1970s at Olton. After Jeff Miller became Rockdale’s winningest coach a few seasons ago, Jeff’s wife, Angel, informed Ed of what his son accomplished. Ed nodded that he was aware and wryly reminded them that Jeff also is the all-time losingest coach in Rockdale history. There have been 54 of those along the way.

While you might take the elder Miller’s comment as a light-hearted jab, it’s also a testament to Jeff Miller’s stability. Longevity at one place also often gets you on the all-time loss list, too.

Miller had already been in the head coaching ranks prior to arriving in Rockdale, winning 35 games between stints at Forth Worth North Side and Jacksboro — ironically the home town of Ed Miller and mayor King, and a team that whitewashed Rockdale in the 1962 Class 2A state title game. But it was Rockdale where he established a hometown for his children Gunner and Payton.

Gunner, a quarterback and track athlete, was diagnosed with cancer during his sophomore year of 2015, costing him part of his shin and his team sports career. Gunner, now a student at Texas Tech, took the final victorious snap for the Tigers in the state title game against Brock and brought an emotional end to an unforgettable season. Jeff Miller has since worked year-round with other schools to raise funds to cure childhood cancer. Payton is currently a senior athlete for the Lady Tigers.

The Millers have much invested in Rockdale. Rockdale has invested much in Miller’s athletic program. The Tigers are now playing in a refurbished $5 million stadium that is featured on the home page of the City of Rockdale’s website. You might call it the house that Jeff built.

Meanwhile, the moribund Rockdale economy has reasons to hope for a rebound. King said any one of several business inquiries coming into the city could have a major economic impact if they come through. The statewide attention to Brett’s Backyard BBQ has brought a significant tourism element to town.

While the city scratches its way back, Miller’s team has its sights set on another boom season. Miller, the team and the city are inextricably and happily bound together.

“We are so entrenched in this community,” Miller said. “This community is very important to us.”

No more so than Miller is to it.