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A Part of the Master Plan

The Falcon\'s Al Miller has become a heavyweight among the NFL\'s elite strength and conditioning coaches
by: David Purdum
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The voice on the phone said it was Linda Knowles, Bear Bryant’s secretary, but Al Miller knew better. Growing up just 40 miles from Bryant, Miller, a coach himself, had fallen for the ‘Bear Bryant’s on the phone’ gag before.

“OK, yeah, sure,” he sarcastically replied to the imposter secretary.

Then, suddenly there was another voice on the phone. “Boy, when he got on that phone, there was no denying whose voice that was,” Miller remembered with a chuckle. “I set up in that chair and took notice right quick.” With only two years of experience under his belt, Miller became Bryant’s last strength coach at Alabama in 1982. After leading the Crimson Tide to a Liberty Bowl victory that season, Bryant retired, ending his Hall of Fame career. Miller was just beginning his.

“Al Miller’s been a big part of any success that I had in the National Football League,” said Dan Reeves, who handed Miller control of the Denver Broncos’ conditioning program in 1985, much like Tom Landry had done for him in Dallas.

“That was one of the first jobs that Coach Landry had me do was to put in our first strength and conditioning program in Dallas,” said Reeves. “We had been knocking on the door and had been close a number of years; that kind of put us over the hump, though.
We went to the Super Bowl that first year in 1970 and didn’t win it but went back again in ‘71 and ended up winning the world championship.

“We were there about three of five years, back in the Super Bowl. So I don’t think there is any question, that convinced me back then how important a strength and conditioning program is, and how important it is to have someone like Al Miller who really relates to the players and gets them excited about the program and what the program is doing for them.”

Miller, who just completed his eighth season as the Falcons’ strength and conditioning coach, worked with Reeves for 19 of his 20 years in the NFL. Together, they took four teams to the Super Bowl: the 1987, ‘88, and ‘90 Broncos and the ‘99 Falcons.

As the 2004 Samson Strength and Conditioning Professional Coach of the Year, Miller’s 20th season was one of his best. “Our kids are really strong across the board,” he said of NFC South champion Falcons. “We’re not a real big football team, with a large number of 300-plus pounders, but we’re strong for our size.”

Atlanta’s starting offensive line averaged less than 300 pounds, yet produced the league’s top-ranked rushing attack. The Falcons also produced the league’s fifth-ranked defense, without a single 300-pound starter. By design, Atlanta was a compact, powerful team.

“That’s one of our main objectives, power output,” Miller said. “In all sports, regardless whether it’s football or golf, it’s predicated by force into the ground.” To generate that force and stability, the Falcons are a 95 per cent free weight team.

“I’ve been down through the evolution, Universal machines, Nautilus machines,” Miller said, “but I’ve gravitated back to the free weights, that’s where my journey began.

“It’s been proven by people that are a lot smarter than me, scientists that are in the business, that the one thing (free weights) do is build a tremendous amount of stability in the body and, if done right, produce power.

“Once we can develop that force, then we can minimize the amount of time it takes to develop that force; hence, power is what we come back with.”

Miller and assistant strength coach Rocky Colburn have as many as 1,600 individual workouts in their database. Each regimen, which Miller calls “fingerprints,” is extremely detailed oriented, with the goal of reaching each player’s maximum potential. “Each player is different,” Miller said. “Each of them has different needs, a different position, different age, different injury background, different conditioning level, different amount of years of training. All these things have to be taken into consideration when you start putting them on a program.”

“He tries to do everything he can to make our guys better,” said Colburn, who played defensive back for Miller at Alabama and has been working with his former coach for six years in Atlanta. “He’s much like he was back then, intense and to the point. His goal is to try to make each individual player more explosive and more athletic, and he does that by always having a plan on how to improve a player.”

At the professional level, Miller expects his players to put forth their best effort and says it’s the design and particulars of the workout that are the most important aspect.

“I’ve been guilty of this in the past: All strength coaches want their guys going in there and lifting as heavy as they can, running as fast they can, so then we can out there and bark on some stump about how great we are. The truth of the matter is that you get to the fort before the horse a lot of the time and you end up being detrimental rather than productive. I think that the planning and the program that you put a player on is very, very important. I really believe that.”

Even with the precisely tailored workouts, players can become disinterested doing the same routine every day. Miller’s creativity doesn’t let that happen. Reeves pointed to Miller’s “Speedball” games, during which players are allowed to throw the ball at any time from anywhere on the field, all the while getting a tremendous conditioning workout.

“I think when you’re in that profession,” Reeves said, “you have to look to get your guys excited about working, probably four to six months out from football season and show then how it’s going to be beneficial to them down the road. To do that, you have to be on top of things, be creative. If you do the same things over and over again, your veteran guys become very stale.

“Al has done a great job of knowing what the latest things are, keeping up with them and yet still accomplishing what we were trying to accomplish from the very first day. That was to give your players a chance to be better once they’re out on the field and do a better job enhancing their chances of having a situation where maybe you would decrease the possibility of injuries. “You’re never going to play the game without having injuries,” he continued, “but I do think that a good off-season strength and conditioning program creates a situation where you could have less chances of those injuries of taking place.” Even after 20 years coaching at the highest level, Miller is constantly investigating the next big thing.

“You always think you’ve made the best mouse trap available,” he said. “Then you start seeing something in one year and you start saying, ‘We need to do more of this. Then you go back in there and you start thinking and creating. It’s an evolution all the time. You should always be talking to people, critiquing where you are and where you want to go.”

Although an intense competitor on the sideline, Miller, who also works with the gunners on punt coverage, doesn’t considers himself a great motivator. “It has to come from within,” he said. “As the old cliche goes: It’s not the more talented person, rather the one that is willing to pay the price that’s going to have the success.”

Seeing and showing a player his improvement is what makes the 57-year-old coach motivated.

“You can take a kid and make a difference in them and show them how to work and what the benefits will be. That’s what I like being able to take and show them the benefits of the workout and show them that they are making progress. As long as they work hard and the program’s constructed right, they’re going to have success. It’s kind of like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s easy to do, as long as you’re doing it right.

“If a kid’s got some pride, he’ll be self-motivated. I’ve had a lot of them that I’ve failed to motivated, a lot of them that I’d wished I could have motivated, but I failed miserably, and those are the one’s that stay with me the longest.”

Bookend No. 7’s

John Elway and Michael Vick, not a bad pair of No. 7’s to bookend a coach’s career. Elway arrived from Stanford unpolished from a conditioning standpoint. Miller got him interested in his workout program and effects were dynamic and immediate.

“John Elway was one of the most gifted young men I’ve ever worked with,” Miller said. “He was such a great athlete that the things you gave him to do he escalated with them extremely fast. He had such a tremendous desire to get better, and if you would do anything with John that he knew would make him better, he was interested, you had his undivided attention.” In contrast to Elway, Vick arrived in Atlanta after three years in Virginia Tech’s acclaimed strength program under Mike Gentry. “They did a great job with Mike,” said Miller. “He was very strong when he got here.”

The biggest thing that Elway and Vick had in common is their competitiveness, said Miller. “They are such great competitors, like Phil Simms (who he coached in New York in the early 1990s). Boy, they’d want to beat your eyes out.”

Miller’s career reached Hall of Fame status in 2003. He is a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. He is also a member of the Northeast Louisiana University Hall of Fame, where he was a standout receiver in the early 1970s.


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