From deputy to head coach: James Miller translates experience to Grand Valley

Grand Valley High School football coach James Miller speaks with a fellow coach during practice.
Ray K. Erku/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

James Miller might wear the standard Garfield County Sheriff’s Office uniform when class is in session. But, when school lets out, the getup switches, and he’s out talking Xs and Os with his offense and defense.

Miller, 39, is Garfield 16 School District’s Student Resource Officer. In addition to patrolling hallways, he’s spent the past five years assistant coaching Grand Valley High School football.

This season, he started wearing a brand new hat: Cardinals’ football head coach.

On Tuesday afternoon, watching film from their first-season — a 53-8 win over Ellicott — he highlighted just exactly how he wants his team to play. Such a plan of attack stems from his extensive background in law enforcement and martial arts, Miller said.

“The big thing we always talk about,” he said, “you will fight like you train.”

The Cardinals are coming off a respectable 5-4 overall, 3-3 league 2021-22 record. Under former head coach Scott Parker, Grand Valley also finished fourth place overall in 1A Western Slope standings.

But, the Cardinals were prone to injury then, ending the season with about a 21-man roster. This, as well having now been elevated to the 2A 6 League, presents a whole new bag of opportunities for Miller.

He decided to recruit heavily in eighth grade for this year’s incoming freshmen, he said. The current roster now sits at 40 kids.

“I have a lot of seniors in skill positions, which is great,” he said “I have a much younger team when it comes to my line.” 

Grand Valley’s Toby LeBorgne Stadium was teeming with Cardinals players running drills underneath a beating sun on Tuesday afternoon. On the sidelines, Cardinals’ senior and starting quarterback Steven Hicks said seniors have already joined Miller to visit and recruit at the middle school at least three times already.

“We went up there, and we were like, ‘Hey, play football for us,’ ya know?” he said. “We have a lot of freshmen this year.”

The nearby town of De Beque has also contributed at least six athletes, including the likes of senior Nick Ramthum and juniors Anthony Middleton and Scottie Vines. Vines, a go-to wide receiver, won a state championship in high jump last year.

After the Colorado High School Activities Association restructured the league this year, Grand Valley joined Rifle, Aspen, Coal Ridge, Moffat County and Basalt in the 2A League 6 division.

Grand Valley formerly played in the 1A Western Slope division, which included smaller schools like Meeker and Roaring Fork.

“Things have changed since my freshman year when I got here,” Hicks said. “We were known for losing, and then Coach Parker came two years ago and turned it around.

“We had a winning record both the last two years, and I think Miller’s gonna do a good job taking over that.”

Like most divisions in Colorado high school football, teams in the 2A League 6 are stacked. Rifle of course won the 2020-21 3A state title. Moffat County finished with an 8-2 overall, 4-1 league record in the 2A West last season. Basalt also produced a winning record last season.

“We’re not going to allow anybody to intimidate us,” Miller said. “We’re not going to take anybody lightly either.”

Breaking down the Xs and Os, he said the Cardinals are ironing out a newly installed defense while the new, large crop of younger underclassmen are still trying to acclimate themselves to high school-league play.

He originally played football for, and graduated from, Rifle High School in the early 2000s. He’d go on to work a regular street patrol for the Garfield County Sheriff’s office for 18 years before becoming Garfield 16’s student resource officer.

Despite his head coaching now adding to his repertoire of different hats, Miller is married to a wife who comes from a family of athletes and coaches and certainly understands his dedication to game symbolic of a lot more than just winning.

It’s all about finding the value of hard work, Miller said.

“I’ve always loved football,” he said. “I’ve always thought that it taught a great deal of life lessons that you can’t really learn anywhere else.”