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Jim Miller would be the first to tell you that his well-plotted path from boy journalist of Shelby County to adult author took a few side trips, the last of which ultimately if unwittingly landing him at his destination.
Miller, who grew up in the Clark Station area of Shelby, became Author James W. Miller as the result of a devastating hurricane that swept away his life and blew him forward and into the pages of his first book, Where The Water Kept Rising.
In essence this is a book about how a phenomenon of nature’s power ravaged one of its great cities and took among its collateral damage the athletic department of its largest university and the man who ran that department, Miller. But it’s so much more than that.
This story unfolds in sensitive detail how Miller, 61, evolved from a farm boy to journalist to an executive with NFL teams, to the role as athletic director at the University of New Orleans. Through Miller’s voice you grasp not only a tragedy for a city and a major university but also of life transition for one of Shelby’s own.
“I had never intended to write this book, because I never intended things to go so wrong at the university after Katrina,” Miller wrote in an E-mail interview. “We were on a path where the chancellor (my boss) and the athletic department were on the same path to restoration. But somewhere along the way, which I target in the book as the national economic crisis in 2008, where our goals changed. Mine was still the same, to bring back an athletic program and his was to stop spending, period.
“Just when I thought all was lost, we learned that one of our long-time supporters passed away and put the athletic department in his will, in the seven-to-eight figure range, and that’s when I thought we might have a happy ending, and it would make a great book.”
No, Miller’s ending wasn’t quite as he had hoped, but that doesn’t diminish the power and value of this cautionary tale that informs and inspires and through whose threads we see the emergence of a man’s faith in his family and in God making inspiring growth when many of us simply would have sat down and cried.
You may know Miller from his days at Shelby County High School, when he launched into his foundational career by covering sports teams at SCHS for The Shelby News or maybe at the University of Kentucky, where he served as editor of The Kentucky Kernel.
He grew up best friends with basketball legend Mike Casey – whose passing is recounted in these pages – and he landed reporting gigs at The Courier-Journal and The Evening Sun in Baltimore, where his expertise at covering the Baltimore Colts caught the attention of folks at the National Football League.
He was hired at the NFL Management Council, which led to a new life as an NFL executive in the front offices of the New Orleans Saints, Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears.
Tired of the ego-driven world of professional sports and wanting to move his family “home,” he landed at UNO in 2003, which educated 17,000-plus on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain in the town that Miller had adopted and where he had met his soulful wife, Jean.
You know what happened in 2005. Hurricane Katrina came sweeping across Florida and gobbled up through the strengthening diet of balmy gulf waters as it swept northwest and laid its deadly and powerful aim on the coasts of Mississippi and New Orleans, with thousands of homeless fleeing rising waters and broken levees laying waste to homes, property and dreams, including Miller’s.
“It definitely was cathartic, reliving what we had been through,” he said. “It was a painful time for all of us, losing so much ‘stuff,’ but when you have survived it intact, healthy and together, you realize that what you lost was for the most part, replaceable ‘stuff’ that had no bearing at all on what was important.
“I believe the individual stories that occurred during this restoration period all reveal that we weren’t just going through recovery but also dealing with other challenges that life throws at you – my father’s death, Mike Casey’s death, the tornado that hit our house while we were rebuilding it, the psychological strain on my staff members and student-athletes, etc. – all enrich the tale.”
There are no great morals in this story, no ultimate heroes. The university’s president, under pressure from all sides and showing occasional bouts of myopia, simply didn’t make ultimately the decisions that could have kept the school’s athletic program operating in the level that it had. Miller, caught in this conundrum, resigned.
“I was estranged only until the old chancellor with whom I disagreed was fired, which I later learned from a lot of professors and staff members who were friends was like a dark cloud clearing away for the entire university,” he said. “I’ve gradually gotten involved again. Some of the head coaches were my hires, and I still see them casually and root for them.”
Miller said the writing after the years in management was not a problem. He had kept his hand in the art and written various pieces for newspapers and magazines and, like many of us, had written two other “books that never saw the light of publication.”
But did this book turn out to be more of a life story than Miller expected?
“Good question,” he said. “A good friend of mine who had won a Pulitzer Prize read the manuscript, and I asked him if I had too much of ‘me’ in it. He said in order to write a book about your experiences, people have to know you and know what makes you tick. They have to know what you’ve been through and the people who have touched you.
“In other words, they have to have a peek under your tent. I think this book does that. I’ve been blessed with a very interesting life, from a great childhood in Shelby County, as a Rocket football and baseball player, to a journalism degree at UK to jobs with The Courier-Journal and BaltimoreSun to the NFL and New Orleans Saints, Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears.
“The UNO experience was for the most part a good one. I learned a lot at each, was fortunate enough to meet a wonderful woman in New Orleans who has put up with me for more than twenty years. Everybody has regrets along the way, but an old NFL scout once told me, ‘Don’t look back unless you’re headed that way.’
”That’s the way I’ve tried to live life and keep it moving forward.”
Miller at Kentucky Book Fair
Where The Water Kept Rising has been available since summer at JWMillerSports.com and Amazon.com, but Miller will be selling and signing copies in Kentucky this week when he appears at the Kentucky Book Fair, at 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Frankfort Convention Center.