Rock Chalk Weekly: Breaking the Mold
Written by Brad Gilbert, Kansas Athletic Communications Assistant
What makes a great artist? Creativity? Skill? Passion? All of the above? These words have all been used to describe Kansas associate head coach Kelly Miller by his pupils and colleagues, which is fitting, given his upbringing as an artist.
He admits he has taken the road less travelled when it comes to his development as a soccer coach. The Lawrence native spent four years at one of the most prestigious art schools in the country looking to develop his talent as a sculptor, a path that obviously does not generally produce many great soccer coaches. But Miller has taken those skill sets he perfected as an aspiring artist and continues to use them today as he works to craft a different type of masterpiece: a soccer team.
It will be hard to find a collegiate soccer coach with a more-differing educational background than Miller. While the majority of today’s top coaches played or were student assistants for their alma maters, Miller went on a decisively different path. After his senior year at Lawrence High School, he was presented an opportunity he could not pass up when he was accepted to The Cooper Union, a private art and science college in the heart of New York City. The fact that Miller could not turn down the scholarship offer from the prestigious college is obvious once you know more about The Cooper Union. The school has an enrollment of less than 1,000, accepts only eight percent of its applicants, was home to such alumni as Thomas Edison, and, perhaps most importantly, gives full-tuition scholarships to all of the students it admits.
“The art side was a whole separate portion of my life,” explained Miller. “It was definitely a different lifestyle than playing soccer. So it was really two different worlds I was living in (during high school) but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up when I got accepted. It was a great environment. It was definitely the right decision for me.”
After four years of feeding his artistic abilities in New York, Miller made his way back to Kansas City to work on various sculptures for the then-recently-completed Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. It was during that time when Miller delved back into soccer, this time as a coach, training goalkeepers for various men’s club teams around the Kansas City area. That is where he began to grow a reputation, not only as a great artist, but a great coach as well.
Miller’s reputation on the soccer field quickly spread back to his hometown of Lawrence and the ears of the first-year head coach of the Kansas women’s soccer team, Mark Francis, who was in need of a coach for his goalkeepers. After spending the spring semester as a volunteer assistant, Francis quickly realized the he needed Miller on board in a more permanent roll.
“I was immediately impressed with his knowledge and how he broke things down for the players,” said Francis. “He has the ability to break things down technically and almost instantly to help them improve what they were doing.”
Miller had not intended to move into coaching full-time though, simply thinking a few months volunteering for the KU soccer team would be a good way to bridge the period between the time his work was finished at the museum to the time he would eventually move back to New York and further his career as a sculptor. Francis saw his potential as a coach though, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I’m not sure how, but he talked me into staying on full-time that summer,” Miller recalled. “And 17 years later, here I am.”
Given his background as an artist, it is no surprise that Miller focuses on the technical side of a players’ skill set, the finite details that can turn anything — whether it’s an athlete or a piece of art — from something ordinary into something extraordinary. This attention to the small, fundamental details is hammered into his players from the moment they first step on campus and is steadily developed over time.
“I first trying to shore up their fundamental base because that sets the tone for everything that they will develop as they move through their careers,” said Miller. “If I’m building a house, and I’m off a few inches when I’m setting the foundation, obviously that mistake will get exaggerated the further along I go.”
The technical aspects, though Miller admits are enormously important, is not the only part of the equation that equates into a great goalkeeper. A player’s mentality can just as easily make or break a great keeper.
“The mental side of the game is definitely important,” Miller explained. “That’s something you have to develop. Having a good presence and a good mental state is very important, not just in performances in games but in your training environment, too, which sets you up for how you perform in those games.”
Miller admits the mental side of goalkeeping is what originally drew him to the position as a teenager. He settled on three main sports — baseball, golf and soccer — mainly due to the areas of those sports that highlight an individual’s performance.
“I liked being put in the high-pressure moments,” said Miller. “The success is mostly based on you and there’s a lot of that with being a goalkeeper. That’s the one role on the soccer field that has the most pressure on a specific individual, and I think I liked that challenge mentally so that’s probably why I really started leaning toward goalkeeping full-time.”
This characteristic, to not fear but to relish the “high-pressure moments”, is a trait Miller looks to pass on to his pupils on a daily basis. Like any great point guard or quarterback, memories must be short when it comes to the mind game.
“With the mentality of goalkeepers, you need to be very positive with them because it’s such a difficult position,” Miller explained. “You need to have a very short-term memory and I think that’s why you need to mentally challenge players. Mistakes are going to happen in games, but you want to make sure they can quickly forget about it and move on.”
Using this two-step approach of technical and mental development has turned Miller into one of the most successful goalkeeper trainers in the nation. Over the last 17 years, the Kansas defense has not been easy to crack, posting 89 shutouts as well as eight seasons of allowing 25 or fewer opponent goals. Miller has also helped develop some highly-regarded keepers and defenders for the KU program. Sixteen Jayhawk defenders and keepers have been selected by the league’s coaches to All-Big 12 teams. Meghan Miller started in goal for the Jayhawks from 2001-04 and was named an All-American second team selection after posting a goals-against average of just 0.57 and a program record 11 shutouts.
More recently, Miller helped the Jayhawk defense to a banner year in 2014, allowing just 17 goals, the program’s fewest since 2004, seeing defender Caroline Van Slambrouck named to the All-Big 12 first team and goalkeeper Kaitlyn Stroud post the second-lowest goals-against average in school history at 0.73.
The list is vast of great players Miller has helped mold, but maybe none can top one goalkeeper he has recently been coaching. With the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) placing a team in Kansas City in 2013, the opportunity arose for Miller to join the FC Kansas City staff on a part-time basis and bring his wealth of knowledge to train players at the next level.
This brought him in contact with the Blues’ star goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, who in three seasons in the NWSL has led the league in shutouts each year, was named Goalkeeper of the Year in 2013 and has been a finalist for the award the other two seasons. Barnhart, who was named a first team All-American twice during her tenure at Stanford – including the year KU’s Meghan Miller was named to the second team – recognizes Miller’s contributions to her level of play over the last three seasons.
“I’ve been working with him for three years and I feel I’ve improved tremendously,” Barnhart explained. “He tends to break things down a lot, which has really helped me. He’s a very technical coach, so I’ve developed a lot technically, overcame some bad habits and built my game up a lot over the last three years.”
Miller has no doubt enjoyed the opportunity of helping Barnhart put together her stellar professional career, especially since the two share a very unique characteristic, as Barnhart also studied art during her undergraduate days in Palo Alto.
“Our relationship is great in the sense that it’s constant in her wanting my feedback,” described Miller of his relationship with Barnhart. “Off the field, it’s pretty interesting in that she was an artist in college as well. It’s just interesting that our personalities have kind of gravitated toward one another in that way.”
While Miller has relished his chance to coach some of the top professional soccer players in the world, he admits that mentoring women in the college game is where his true passion lies. He brings them in as 18-year-olds and helps their maturity level grow both on the field and off. He is no doubt succeeding in this, just ask the Jayhawks’ current starting keeper, redshirt sophomore Maddie Dobyns.
“I’m a completely different player now as opposed to when I stepped on campus three years ago,” Dobyns said. “He obviously knows what he’s doing. I am a much more confident goalkeeper since I’ve been with him and that’s made all the difference.”
This is music to Miller’s ears, who works everyday not only to try and turn out the next great All-American goalkeeper, but also develop great people off the pitch.
“That’s been something in the collegiate world that I’ve really enjoyed,” Miller concluded. “Being involved in players’ lives during a really pivotal point in their lives.”
He may no longer be creating sculptures out of clay, marble or granite, but he is still using those key attributes every artist needs — creativity, skill and passion — to mold young student-athletes on-and-off the soccer field.
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