NOT YOUR RUN-OF-THE-MILLS SEND-OFF
Ink Free News / Sports on Tuesday, November 2, 2021
By Mike Deak
WARSAW – Very few get to go out on their terms in sporting life. So many athletes try to get one more year, one more shot, even in some weird jersey that doesn’t look right re: Michael Jordan on the Wizards, Jerry Rice on the Seahawks, Greg Maddux a Padre. Coaches are often in the same boat, living out a lifetime bouncing around looking for that high one more time.
Not often do coaches get to stay in one place, end on a high note, see their ambitions out. Jim Mills is one of the lucky ones. Not only was his team successful, but he got to ride out his final year doing exactly what he planned to do.
The cross country road is never a smooth one, especially in a sport at Warsaw that has a long history, often a long roster, and even longer expectations both inside the program and from those challenging the Tigers each meet. It’s not a secret that Mills was a tough coach who had his own set of expectations, but that often infused the pride of being a Tiger for those who chose to take on the challenge of running at Warsaw as well as his stops along the way before settling in Tiger Town. Some of those runners have really stood out to the longtime head coach, who called it quits following this past weekend’s IHSAA Cross Country State Finals.
“Jake Poyner who has records of 4:09 (1600 in track) 9:09 (3200 in track) and currently is the Grace College cross country coach is one of the most detailed athletes I’ve ever coached,” stated Mills. “Robert Murphy, who came back to coach with me, was the first athlete in the history at UIndy to qualify for the D1 national track and field championships. Amy Yoder, three-time state champion, two-time D1 national champion, 15-time All-American at Arkansas.
“I could write a book on the runners who have made me look good, I’ve always said great athletes make great coaches. I’ve been blessed.”
Mills wraps up a 40-year coaching career that’s seen the sport completely change from the ‘just go run’ days in the 1980s to now having science and technique play a major role in today’s modern runner. Mills also noted the early days of coaching didn’t allow access to athletes like he has now year-round. Mills coached in the Wawasee system early in his career, as well as with the St. Joe Valley Track Club. He then shifted to East Noble, where his daughter, Aly, and Yoder ran together and had a heaping helping of success.
In 1997, Mills came to the Warsaw system, where he took over the Edgewood program, then in 1999 took over as the head coach for Warsaw boys cross country, where he stayed for the remainder of his coaching career. Mills noted names like Poyner and Murphy who ran for him that are in the circuit, but also coached athletes like Justin Bell in the Wawasee system, who is the longtime boys coach at NorthWood, and Aaron Wolfe at Edgewood, who later went on to coach boys basketball at Warsaw and now NorthWood.
“When I took over at Warsaw, they had three different coaches in four years,” offered Mills. “The team was basically 4-5 in the conference each year. We probably had 10-12 runners on the team. We struggled for several years just getting more athletes. I was fortunate to have Greg Davis and Rob Peters as assistant coaches for many years to help get consistency in our program. In 2007 we got a bunch of skinny freshman who in the beginning I thought we were in trouble, but this group were hard workers and I believe helped change the direction and attitude of our program.
“Warsaw had not won a conference title since 1990, but starting in 2011 we have won the conference eight years. We have also won the sectional every year since 2011 and regional since 2012.”
Mills isn’t wrong in his assessment, as Warsaw won the NLC boys cross country title eight times in the past 11 years among the 15 total titles in the program’s history. The number of athletes making an appearance at the IHSAA state finals numbers in the dozens, Warsaw making five team appearances at state under Mills and placing a program-best fourth in 2011 with the Poyner-Murphy-Ellis Coon-led Tigers.
But just marveling at history isn’t much of what has made Mills one of the true characters in the sport. His quick wit, his honest delivery, his fire, but also a compassion for understanding the sport tied to the athlete has made it a fruitful run rather than just a long one.
“I’ll tell ya, I’ve seen everything you can see in this sport,” Mills said as his team won a sectional title at Manchester in early October, but far below his personal expectation of where the team should have been. “I could tell you stories all day about all of these kids who I’ve seen run, but just know that I love it. Even on days like today when we sucked, I still love these guys. We’ll give it a try again next week and see what happens. We should win, but hopefully run better than today.”
That was Jim Mills in all his glory. Passionate, Brutally honest. Big picture guy. But also qualifies why his teams put in all those miles.
Mills’ Tigers would qualify for the IHSAA State Finals this past weekend, and even in finishing 24th, used a Ricky Bobby analogy from Talladega Nights to sugar coat the weekend. ‘If you’re not first, you’re last’ – might as well have fun with it.
“Retiring is the most difficult decision of my life,” Mills said. “I’ve spent over half my life coaching young athletes. It has helped keep me young. I will miss watching the development of our freshman to seniors, I will miss the joy of seeing our slower runners getting a personal best not caring if they were at the back of the pack. I will always respect our slower runners more as in practice, they always work as hard yet know, they will never finish at the top. That’s what I love the most about coaching our sport.”
Mills will be honored in a retirement ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 27, at 10 a.m. at the WCHS TRAC. The cross country programs plan to have several activities tied to it, including a fun run, corn hole and volleyball. For more information, contact Lynn Murphy at email@example.com.