Helena Capital's Mike Miller setting 'myself up for heartbreak' as long softball coaching career nears its end

Mike Miller with team
Posted at 7:59 AM, May 21, 2024

BILLINGS — The Helena Capital Bruins softball team can give its coach quite a going away/birthday present this weekend. Not that the Bruins’ program hasn’t already given Mike Miller a lifetime of memories. But Miller is retiring after 30 years as the program’s head coach and 33 years altogether, and the final day of this weekend’s Class AA state tournament falls on his 67th birthday.

Miller has been a foundation, literally and figuratively, of the program. He not only recently earned his 400th career victory and has two state titles (2004, 2009) and two other championship appearances (2005, 2007) on his resume, but he was a force in helping the program build its own softball fields on land adjacent to the school in the mid 2000s.

“I actually laid the majority of the blocks in the dugout myself,” he said, also acknowledging the various individuals and businesses who provided helping hands.

For his longtime work with the program, earlier this spring the softball fields at Northwest Park in what was formerly a parking lot were renamed “Mike Miller Fields” in his honor. It’s been quite a trip for the former East Helena smelter worker and state of Montana employee who was an assistant basketball coach at Helena High as he pondered whether to take a stab at coaching softball at a rival school.

Miller talked with Mike Scherting of about his softball life. Some of the answers have been edited for brevity and clarity:

Q: How did you get involved with softball at Capital?

A: “At that time, I was playing competitive slow pitch softball with the current coach there and I’d played a little fast pitch, so I’d go throw to his girls a little bit. He was leaving and he said, ‘You know, you should probably think about putting in for that job there.’ I said, ‘OK, I'll think about it.’ … Anyway, I put in for the job, and they gave it to the current JV coach at that time and asked me if I was interested in being the JV coach. I said, ‘I don't know, I'll have to think about it.’ I said, ‘You know, I'm a Helena High guy.’ Anyway, I said, I'll try it for a year. That was in 1992. In 1995, I became the head coach. And I'm still there.”

Q: Did you go into it blindly, or looking back do you think you had any idea what you were getting into back then?

A: “Well, looking back, no. I feel I’m a competitive guy and I felt at the time that I was a pretty good softball player and I felt anybody could teach somebody to do that. It was a little bit of a struggle, a little bit eye-opening at first. Over the years it became very clear to me that it didn’t matter what I could do. It only mattered what I could teach other people or convince them what they could do.”

Q: By the time you got the head job did you feel pretty confident?

A: “I don’t remember my exact words, but it’s kind of like, OK, things are going to be different now. We had a lot of seniors coming back and we had some guy coming in thinking that he knew everything in the world about softball. I believe we lost our first nine games. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ Over the years it got a little better. I got a little smarter and I relied on a little bit more help.”

Q: There’s been a lot of changes in the sport since you first started.

A: “When I first coached, if a girl tried out with her own glove she pretty much made the team. We used to have to carry gloves; we had a bag of gloves that we carried with us for the girls that didn’t have them. … Early on, if they could just throw it fairly hard and throw strikes their team was very good. And (players) started adapting to where they could throw different pitches, change ups, maybe throwing outside more, and you had to adapt. Suddenly, you had to be able to hit other pitches and recognize them early on.”

Q: You’re probably one of the few coaches left who has seen the progression from the pitching-dominant, small-ball game that it was to one now of strong offenses and home runs. Do you like where the game is now or is there a happy medium that you would like to see?

A: “As far as the game itself, I think it’s good and you certainly don’t want to try and hold anybody back from advancements in the game. After I’d been coaching for a bit, we kind of learned that what we’re really doing is teaching life lessons through softball about the value of hard work and being good teammates and stuff like that.

“I like now that you’re able to showcase girls’ talents. I wouldn’t want to diminish their abilities to hit the ball hard, you know, say we’re going to pick a different ball or we’re not going to reward the ball hit over the fence and that kind of stuff. I like the direction now that we value their successes and their abilities.”

Q: It seems the development of the players, if you were to put it on a chart, it would be a very upwardly going arrow.

A: “I agree with that 100 percent. I’m going to say towards the late ‘90s it got to be more that girls are like, ‘this softball is pretty cool.’ They see it at the college level and it gives them the opportunity to play more games than just high school. They can take it to whatever level they want to play. I think it’s kind of a natural progression, but it’s certainly been going on for a very long time.”

Q: Whenever coaches reach milestones, like your 400th win, every coach jokingly says ‘well, that just means I’ve been here a long time.’ But if you were to write a how-to guide for young coaches to achieve that longevity, what would it say?

A: “Obviously, you surround yourself with good help and assistants that kind of share your same values. I’ve been pretty blessed. When you go back and look at the coaches we’ve had, we’ve had a number of them for a long time. I have a volunteer assistant that started the year before I got the head coach job. His name is Gary Dunn. He’s been with us 31 years as a volunteer. My wife (Lynn) has been with us for pushing on 20 years. So, I think that’s a lot of it, that you get a consistent message from within your program, but they’re loyal to each other. I think that’s pretty important.

“As a coach, you have to be able to recognize that the game is changing and approaches to teaching it are changing. You need to stay on top of that. I would say this, that there’s a lot of time when parents or other people don’t agree with you. Making tough decisions is hard. But I think as long as you stay consistent and fair, I think that’s really important. I always tell people; the buck stops with me. I’m not afraid to step up and say, ‘I’m going to make a decision and here’s why.’”

Q: As you enter your last week, have you had a rush of nostalgia?

A: “When we had the re-naming of the field, to be honest, that was overwhelming to me. Not because of the field so much, but because there were a lot of players from our past that came (to the ceremony) to witness that and just said hello and all that stuff. That’s kind of what I’ll always miss. I mean, all the wins and the state championships and all that kind of stuff, it’s really great. But my best memories of softball are probably off the field with the players and things we’ve learned, staying in touch with them and going to their weddings.

“I always tell the seniors, ‘Listen, you’ve got to give your best because I’ll be here next year, but you won’t.’ Now, I’m kind of in that boat. There’s a lot of ‘lasts’ this year … it’s the last home game, it’s the last this, it’s the last that. I said I’m not going to let myself think about that until it truly is the last, until it truly is over. I’ve kind of set myself up for heartbreak for when it actually happens.”