A CV Weekly Exclusive Interview with So Cal Coyotes’ Coach J. David Miller

By Lisa Morgan

It’s not unusual for a boss to tell a new hire or team member, “My door is always open.” We hear it all the time.  But when Coach J. David Miller told that to a new player who had come to the valley to play So Cal Coyote football, it generated this testimony in response:

“When I went through a hard time, Coach Miller and his family opened their home to me and my son. We slept on their sofa and ate at their table until we got back on our feet. He means it when he says his ‘door is always open,’ and ‘his phone is always on.’ Everyone in this organization is like that. It’s a family. The Coyotes teach you that faith is bigger than your problems.” — Jordan Warford, Special Teams Captain, SoCal Coyotes – 2017 Pacific Coast Champions

In a few weeks Miller, head coach of the five-time champion SoCal Coyotes and founder of their non-profit sports leadership organization, will be honored as one of eight significant Coachella Valley individuals chosen for the 2018 Ronald McDonald House of Inland Empire’s annual gala, ‘A Few Good Men.’  This black-tie affair will take place September 21st at the glittering Agua Caliente Resort in Rancho Mirage, a far cry from some of the gritty remote outposts where Miller earned his chops on the battlefields of developmental pro football.  Like the esteemed men with whom he’ll share the stage, the Hall-of-Fame enshrined “Coach” is not easily corralled. Miller is also a 13-time author, an award-winning entrepreneur and sports executive, and a nascent elder at The Bridge Calvary Chapel in Cathedral City. 

His fellow honorees on Sept. 21 include County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, a polished politician; Frank Harrison, a generous philanthropist as well as the desert’s number one contractor/founder of General Air Conditioning; restaurateur, Jack Srebnik, owner of The Slice, a beloved local restaurant and pizzeria; Joel Johnson, a distinguished valley attorney; Dean Rathbun, a partner of United American Mortgage Corporation; popular morning radio show host, Adolfo Ińiguez; and Darrell Mike, Tribal Chairman of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians.  When the Coyotes open their season Saturday, September 8, against the San Diego Bulldogs, all proceeds from the 2018 Kickoff Classic will be donated to the Inland Empire Ronald McDonald House and the programs that support the families.

ON JULY 19, THE DESERT WAS STUNNED when Coachella Sports and Entertainment Stadium Authority formally announced “The Shield” at 1 Coyote Way, Miller’s vision for a sprawling, $300 million, 125-acre, multi-use campus that will be the most ambitious development in Coachella Valley history.  The plans were, and are, jaw-dropping. The centerpiece: a 12,000-seat, air-conditioned stadium, anchoring a unique place of gathering across 125 acres for sports, entertainment and faith. The Shield will be supported by a commercial district that includes medical office buildings, surgery center, high-tech medical solutions, a wellness hotel, food emporium, restaurants, and senior living, where young and old engage. The land has been set aside and is under contract; steps for funding are underway.

Coach J. David Miller

For six long years, well before The Shield became a hot topic on every channel of the evening news, Miller, through “lots of prayer and humbling work,” had been earning the right to be in the same conversation with the Coachella Valley’s most influential leaders. “Coach Miller is changing the Coachella Valley landscape, literally and figuratively,” says Dr. Ben S. Wehrli, a prominent local surgeon, and founder of Coachella Valley Foot and Ankle. Wehrli has worked with Miller and his Coyotes since 2014 and alerted Miller to the exploding needs of the local medical community.  “Coach Miller believes the best way to predict the future is to change it,” Wehrli says. “He has the work ethic, the vision, and especially the faith to get it done.”

The SoCal Coyotes are a record-setting professional football team that NFL executive, Ted Sundquist, former General Manager of the Denver Broncos and winner of two Super Bowls, named “America’s number one developmental program.” With over 20,000 followers, their success has been featured in national media around the country, including USA Today, The New York Times and ESPN.  Most notable is the Coyotes’ work with Coachella Valley youth. Each year, the non-profit organization impacts upwards of 30,000 youth of all ages through their ‘Above the Line’ skills and leadership development programs.

When his team became the industry standard, Miller doubled down and launched a league, and made the Coachella Valley its headquarters. Developmental Football International (DFI) is a league where every team shares the same scalable, replicatable, franchise-able disciplines and disciple-ship that have made the Coyotes a national brand.  Miller describes DFI as ‘the Chick-Fil-A of pro football,” with the teams serving as conveyer belts to manhood that soon will pop up in communities across the nation. To pull it off, Miller assembled some of the brightest minds in the sport, including famed sports attorney Jack Mills, who represents Baker Mayfield, the NFL’s number one overall pick. The DFI Commissioner is Joel Williams, former director of the National Football League Players Association, who predicts 100 teams in 100 DFI cities in the next 60 months.

CV Weekly was granted an exclusive interview with Miller to find out more about his and his teams’ visions:

CV Weekly: When was the first time you can remember thinking about all this, beyond the team?

Miller: “God put a vision in our heart for this project in fall 2013. My mind could see the lights, even a giant Ferris wheel, towering over this grand project, with thousands and thousands of people in a campus environment. The irony is we played that season at Xavier College Prep, which is literally directly behind the property where The Shield will now be built. Nate Lewis, our quarterback, laughed and said, ‘Ferris wheels? Really, Coach?’ But when God puts a vision in your heart, it doesn’t just go away. You know it’s going to happen. The only question is when. You wake up each day wondering, ‘Is today the day?’ The goal is to serve Him every day with all we’ve got, with every resource we’ve got, with every ounce of energy we’ve got. Today could be the day, and if it’s not, then worst case, you got to be part of helping everyone around you get better.”

CV Weekly: Plans for The Shield at 1 Coyote Way indicate a fierce commitment from you and your partners for not just the Coyotes, but youth sports and sports tourism. How will everything from pro soccer to youth tournaments come together?

Miller: “That’s a very important question, because Coyote football is a tiny fraction of the lifelong memories Coachella Valley residents will experience at The Shield. Our non-profit is dedicated to developing youth and youth sports at all levels. The future of our valley lies in the hands of our youth. We’ve been working non-stop for six years to build leaders in this community, and sports is a magnet for participation. The Shield is the realization of a dream that serves an entire community, not just any single sport.”

CV Weekly: When news hit – “New Plans Announced for the “Shield at 1 Coyote Way,” to many in the Coachella Valley, it seemed to come out of the blue. It is such a massive project. How did your idea multiply from a place for your football team to play to 125-acre mixed-use development?

Quarterback Michael Karls

Miller: “It was humbling, long before it was exciting. Years ago, we realized very quickly this is a vision for the entire valley, not just for a coach, not just for a football team. We knew we had an opportunity to impact everyone. So we prayed and prayed. We knew it would take a company the size of a Richmond Honan, and visionary men like (developer) Scott Honan and (financier) Michael Metcalf, to fall in love with the Coachella Valley and the people who live here, just like my family has. Lots of prayer, lots of phone calls, lots of trips to the desert. There are so many great people involved the project from every direction, and all of them deserve credit. We’re humbled every day to be a part of something so big. Michael Metcalf says every time he drives in here, the mountains themselves remind him just how big our God is, and how small our problems are. Can you think of any imagery stronger, or truer?”

CV Weekly: With the newfound profile of the SoCal Coyotes growing up in a hurry, how did you get your start in football, coaching, and sports franchises?

Miller: “Respectfully, none of this happened in a hurry. There have been many important lessons along the way, as a journalist, author, as an Arena Football League player and executive. Without mentors like Mouse Davis, June Jones, Joe Haering, and even the late Tim Marcum, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Without Mouse, we would’ve never coached a down. Mouse and June taught me the “Run ‘n’ Shoot offense” in 1984, and we’ve never looked back. Mouse has made many trips to the desert to help build the Coyote program, and to make sure we still do it right. (Coach laughs).

“Curt Pesmen has been a direct influence in my life for 30 years, since he was my editor at SPORT magazine in New York. Directly or indirectly, they are all major influences on what we’ve accomplished, and impact everything you see today in the Coyote organization. Mouse taught me that we all take a little piece from every leader in our life, but you’ve got to do the work to put it all together and make it hum. Even after it’s uniquely your own, it isn’t – it belongs to everyone in it. Others must find fulfillment of their own dreams, to make it unique to them. Critical mass starts happening when everybody’s getting their buckets filled.”

CV Weekly: It doesn’t hurt when you wake up and the H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation tells you that today is the day.

Miller: “Very true. But before that, some great people in Indio worked with us for two years trying to make this happen.  Senator Jeff Stone, City Councilman Glenn Miller, Mayor Michael Wilson, and their team presented great possibilities. But when we met Doug Vance at the Berger Foundation, all the effort and vision came into focus. The more we got to know Doug Vance, Berger President, Ron Auen, Catharine Reed, Chris McGuire and the rest of the Berger team, the pieces began to fall together. They are special people with a passion for the entire Coachella Valley, especially the children.”

CV Weekly: What do you mean by “Building Champions, Building Men?” How is that different from what is taught in other sports, in other leagues?

Miller: “When we founded the non-profit, we realized that we were battling an epidemic called fatherless homes, disenfranchised men, and rudderless ships. Anybody can win football games. But introducing young men to God, challenging them to live a life of alignment with great purpose, healthy friends, and a sustainable income – that’s how we define a champion. What’s funny is we preach the importance of making your bed every morning – it’s the first uncontested win of the day, and a chance to get your mind right. Life change happens when you pray next to your bed and when you start making it. We’ve never ruined a kid’s life by asking him to pray too much.” 

CV Weekly: We all know what a goal-line is. What is the Coyotes “Above the Line”?

Miller: “Skillful, intentional, on-purpose and driven – the baselines of our youth leadership programs we teach in our camps, clinics and symposiums. When The Shield opens, we’ll have an interactive amphitheater where kids will love to learn, like an Imagination Station of leadership.”

CV Weekly: Beyond the new league (DFI), and beyond the schools, what else lies ahead?

Miller: “We’re working closely with Indio Mayor Michael Wilson, County Supervisor Manny Perez, and Bob Wright of the East Valley Coalition to keep adding more ball fields, keep creating more sports tourism opportunities. CSESA doesn’t intend to stop with The Shield in Thousand Palms. At our recent Sports Tourism Summit, we reported that 13.6 million visitors came to the Coachella Valley last year and spent $5.5 billion in 2017. This was pretty exciting, because we recognize how sports events and a stadium can drive these numbers through the roof.  Along with the Berger Foundation, we are already looking at another 300-acres and making real progress on a huge opportunity for all the residents of the east valley.  We will be letting you know about that very soon.”

CV Weekly: Where did you find your executive leaders?

Miller: “Well first, we had some housekeeping of our own to do. Pastor Chuck Wooley at The Bridge Calvary Chapel, who has been in the valley for 45 years, has helped me redefine accountability in my life and the lives of our players. What you say and what you do have to match. That attracts a great board of directors and other great leaders – men like Mike McBride, Sam Maggio, Robert L. Cummings, Ron DiGrandi, Conrad Negron, Mark Ramer, Fred Molo, Scott Alvarez, and Jeff Johnson, and women like Cinthia Paiz and Heidi Navarro, to name just a few. They’re all precious to me. We’re nothing without them.”

CV Weekly: How has the Coachella Valley changed your family?

Miller: “Years ago, we were grabbing a quick dinner at Applebee’s, when the subject of faith, family and football came up. Our youngest daughter, who was eight at the time, blurted out ‘What’s God gonna do with a football team?’ We’ve learned that answer – whatever He wants. This valley has taught our family to trust His process.  Our family is a tight knit bunch, doing every single job in this organization from carrying water jugs to writing business plans. We love and live for each other.  Words cannot describe my love and passion for my wife, Laurie Beth, and my four daughters, Chelsea Rhea, Savannah Bey, Kailey Satsuko, and Madison Elise.”

CV Weekly: The Shield calls for a hotel, restaurants, world-class medical facilities, and even senior living. How do you see senior living working in concert with football, soccer and even concerts?

Miller: “When you truly forge a non-profit for the community, you quickly start to think beyond football. As our partners came together and brought their expertise, The Shield grew into a unique place of gathering for faith, sports and entertainment, where the valley works, lives and plays. High school athletes will play here, at no charge. Grandmas and grandpas will live here. It’s faith, family, football – and our future.”

CV Weekly: How many times have you now heard the phrase ‘If you build it …’

Miller: “We think it’s more about ‘if you SERVE them, they will come.’”

For more information and scheduling, visit: TheSocalCoyotes.com

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