Riders' Miller reveals previous cancer battle
He has two Grey Cup rings and is on the cusp of earning another, was a finalist for the CFL's coach of the year honour and this season guided the Saskatchewan Roughriders to their first West Division regular-season title in 36 years.
But all those accomplishments pale in comparison to the bigger battle Ken Miller won seven years ago.
Miller raised eyebrows Wednesday at the Grey Cup coaches news conference when he revealed that in 2002 he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent experimental treatment at the time in southern California.
Miller started his CFL coaching career that year as the Toronto Argonauts quarterbacks coach, but a teaching commitment combined with his cancer treatments forced him to join the Double Blue later than originally anticipated.
"At that time, it was a kind of treatment that they considered almost as being experimental. It was proton beam radiation," Miller said. "I was involved in treatment for a number of weeks, eight weeks during the latter part of June, so that's really what prevented me from coming at that point in time."
Proton beam radiation is a form of therapy in which radiation is delivered by a machine pointed at the area to be treated. It's thought to be a more effective treatment because it delivers less radiation to surrounding areas of the tumour, which in turn helps preserve other tissues and causes fewer side effects.
Miller, 68, said he is currently healthy.
"It was a very successful treatment, and I really haven't had anything related to that [cancer] for a number of years," he said.
Miller leads the Roughriders into the Grey Cup game Sunday (6 p.m. ET) against the Montreal Alouettes. The appearance will be Miller's first as Saskatchewan's head coach but his second with the club in three years. He was the team's offensive co-ordinator when the Riders beat Winnipeg to win the 2007 CFL championship. Miller earned his first Grey Cup ring as an assistant coach with the Argos in 2004.
Miller's surprising revelation quickly put into perspective just how insignificant the game of football becomes when mentioned in the same breath as person's health and mortality. When caught in time, prostate cancer is a very treatable disease, but it's one of the most prevalent types of cancer and can be fatal.
As Miller and Montreal's Marc Trestman posed with the Grey Cup before the start of the news conference, Miller said he began reflecting upon just how much being in Calgary this week means to him.
"First of all, to be there with Marc, who I consider to be the top coach in the CFL, it's such an honour to be there with him," Miller said. "And to be there with the Grey Cup itself, that stands for so much … and think about the opportunity to compete for that Sunday. It's a great feeling."
Saskatchewan's football fans are certainly among the most loyal in the CFL but also the most rabid. And for many, anything short of a fourth Grey Cup championship will be a disappointment, which puts immense pressure on the club and its head coach. That consideration prompted the question of whether Miller would fear returning to Regina if the Riders lost to Montreal.
"Not this week, I don't think," Miller said to a chorus of chuckles. "But there are times."
There's no denying the strain pro football coaches must endure given the long hours and heavy expectations for success placed upon them. So, it's no surprise that speculation has mounted that this could be Miller's swan song with the Roughriders. But Miller wasted no time quashing that talk.
"Certainly, when you get through a season, you have to step back and evaluate," Miller said. "There might be a time when I say, 'It's enough,' but at this point in time, I have no intention of retiring."
'This team is unwavering at this time'
There is also speculation that Trestman might move from the CFL to the NFL. He was mentioned last week as a potential candidate for the Buffalo Bills head coaching position and could also be in the mix should the Oakland Raiders make a change. After all, Trestman served as the Raiders' offensive co-ordinator in 2002, when quarterback Rich Gannon was named the league's MVP.
Trestman, 53, came to Montreal with no previous CFL coaching experience but has proven to be a quick study. In two seasons, he has amassed a 27-9 regular-season record, been named the league's coach of the year and has guided the Alouettes to consecutive Grey Cup appearances.
Predictably, though, Trestman said the NFL isn't on his radar, at least for now.
"Well, right now, I have no interest in anything but focusing on this week," Trestman said. "I think that's the answer you expect me to say, it's the one I truly believe.
"When your teams have success and a coach is a part of that team, things are going to be said that are generally positive. I think that's a credit to our entire organization — from [owner] Bob Wetenhall down.
"It has not been a distraction. It hasn't been a part of my thinking or a part of what we're trying to get accomplished. My focus and my commitment and love for this team is unwavering at this time."
The two men took vastly different paths en route to becoming CFL head coaches.
Miller began coaching in 1966 as a student assistant at Dickinson State and coached both football and baseball at the high school and college ranks before heading to the CFL in 2002 with Toronto. He served as the club's offensive line coach from 2003 to 2005 before becoming the defensive line coach in 2006.
He was hired by former Argos assistant Kent Austin to become the Riders offensive co-ordinator in 2007. That season, with quarterback Kerry Joseph, the CFL's outstanding player that year, leading the way, the Riders captured the Grey Cup. Miller was promoted to head coach in the off-season when Austin left to become the offensive co-ordinator at the University of Mississippi, his alma mater.
The Riders haven't skipped a beat under Miller, who has amassed a 23-13-1 overall record as the club's head coach.
'Eager to participate in this game'
Montreal raised eyebrows when it hired Trestman after the '07 season because he had no previous CFL coaching experience. But Trestman came with a long history in the NFL, having served as offensive co-ordinator in Cleveland, San Francisco, Arizona and Oakland and as a consultant with the New Orleans Saints.
Trestman swiftly put any doubts to rest, leading Montreal to an 11-7 record last year and a Grey Cup appearance. This has been even better for the club, which posted a CFL-best 15-3 record and set a club record for most wins in a season.
Montreal heads into the game as the heavy favourite, based upon its record and coming off a one-sided 56-18 dismantling of B.C. in the East final. The Alouettes also swept the season series with Saskatchewan 2-0.
Miller, for one, says his team is comfortable with its underdog status.
"There would be a lot of fun in being the team that was the favourite," he said. "But we're going to accept the role we have.
"With the character of the men in our locker room, and the leadership we have there, they're eager to participate in this game, and they're eager to accept the responsibility and the challenges of being the underdog."