Words: Devon O’Neil
He's compared in various contexts to a soccer mom, Glen Plake, a momma bear, and Phil Jackson. Kerry Miller fills a unique role in the ski industry, serving as a mentor, advocate, coach, and guardian for up-and-coming skiers. Most notably, he has helped guide a number of elite competitors through the early stages of their pro careers, including Tanner Hall, Timy Dutton, Blake Nyman, Jossi Wells and recently crowned X Games slopestyle champion Nick Goepper, as well as the late Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, who won a silver medal in aerials at the 2010 Olympics.
Miller's blunt, outspoken style makes him a polarizing figure in a sport where few fit that profile. He looks like a hippie and talks like a chipmunk on his 10th cup of coffee. He is fiercely loyal to his athletes, whom he refers to as "my kids." Though he doesn't see eye to eye with the national governing body, as a pseudo agent for many of his skiers he has longstanding relationships with key sponsors and event promoters, and a reputation for "opening the door to the industry," as Goepper puts it. Hence Miller's self-selected job title at Windells Academy in Oregon—Opportunity And Access Provider.
Yet for someone so visible, Miller has also maintained an elusive mystique. He declined interview requests for years; even those closest to him have unanswered questions about his professional background and where, exactly, he comes from. This is preferable to Miller, who refers to himself as "the COB," short for Crusty Old Bastard, and is but a figment of Google's imagination. "I've known him for 16 years," says filmmaker Eric Iberg, "and you hear all these stories about Kerry, but realistically, no one knows anything outside of what Kerry has told us."
It starts with playfully refusing to divulge his age ("I'm as old as time," he'll joke) and extends to his reluctance to discuss his family's considerable resources. Theories and rumors abound, but the basic truth is Miller was born into what he calls "the Lucky Sperm Club," and said "no thanks." The fact that he sleeps on couches and spends 200 nights a year on the road makes that distinction hard to believe, but it is real, even if the details remain part of his mystique. "My gifts, which are unique, are God given," he says. "I'm not here to inherit or share someone else's fiscal prosperity. My wealth is the service I give these kids."
Miller has never married and has no children of his own. His twin brother died young from complications tied to multiple sclerosis, which also affected other members of his family. Knowing the lack of immunity to the disease was genetic, Miller feared he would pass down the trait and decided not to risk having children. Still, biological ties notwithstanding, if you ask him how many children he has, he gives a rough estimate of about 700. "I commit to the kids as if they were mine," he says.
He learned the power of unconditional love from his parents while growing up in Ohio. It wasn't uncommon for five or six lesser-privileged kids to live with his family while the kids' parents worked through problems in their own homes. "I was raised with this," Miller says. "My parents' door was always open." For a long time as an adult, Miller, a former college racer at Kent State, kept his two worlds separate. On the hill, he ripped around with pro hot doggers like Wayne Wong and helped launch the Intermountain Division freestyle circuit; off it, he started mentoring kids who needed help and direction while serving as a board member with Big Brothers, Big Sisters in Salt Lake City. The two worlds gradually merged, and in 1996 he met Speedy, a tough kid from a broken home who would become his "son de facto." "To see all the hardships Speedy came from and how he came alive as a person, that made me be sure I did this more," says Miller.
Two years later, Darla Hall was looking for a place for her son Tanner, then a promising teenage moguls skier, to live while he pursued a pro career in Park City. Speedy befriended Tanner, and Miller agreed to take him in. "Kerry was a father figure to Tanner," says Darla. "He had a huge influence on him."
During one stretch, Miller had eight kids living with him, including future pros Mike Wilson and Timy Dutton. He shuttled them to and from school in a van. He cooked for them, disciplined them. "Think of Kerry as an uncle, father, coach, policeman and mother—heavy on mother," says Chris Goepper, Nick's father. "And he likes the underdog because there's a lot of people out there who come from means in the ski world, and he likes to try and help the underdog figure out a way to make it."
Competition results have never been Miller's goal. "Trophy individuals, that's what I want," he says. "I try to make them responsible, respectful people. Why is that my job? I don't know. Why isn't it? I think it should be everybody's job to make kids good kids."
His rules are famously rigid, but everything starts with ego. He has zero tolerance for the slightest body language that shows conceit. He once prohibited a skier from wearing flashy sunglasses because he thought they sent the wrong message. "When I find kids being arrogant," he says, "they're gonna have me as an enemy for a while. I'm gonna be all over you and closing doors of opportunity, because we don't need arrogance in this sport." The gruff, unapologetic manner in which he delivers his message is part of the reason he maintains love-hate relationships with a number of his kids. "He might be tough on them," says longtime friend Matt Christensen, "but he's given these kids something they'd never have otherwise. He tells it how it is."
"He's kind of like Plake in that regard," says Matt Titus, vice president of marketing at Dalbello. "Someone who's entirely devoted to skiing, doesn't take bullshit, and is true to himself and true to the sport. And his look—his look is iconic." Specifically, Titus is referring to Miller's stringy orange beard, which has been a permanent fixture since 1977, and matching ponytail. As Nick Goepper says, "He's always at every start gate in the U.S., and he's always going around hugging people and kissing people on the head. He's always just there: that old man with the beard at the top of the course."
Miller has a reputation for getting his skiers into big events, which makes those who are left out question whether he wields too much power. Dew Tour competition director Dan Skivington dispels that notion. "He fights for his athletes like a gladiator, but I get the same inquiries from other coaches," says Skivington.
Perhaps Miller's greatest legacy is the network of support he has built from North America to New Zealand, people willing to do anything for him and his latest batch of grommets, on a whim. His kids look after each other like brothers, with the established pros kicking down travel money to the younger ones, who will one day pay that favor forward. Miller usually spends Thanksgiving and Christmas with his kids and their families, some of whom call him "Uncle Kerry." When asked where he actually lives, he replies, "wherever my kids are."
Such devotion leaves him almost as vulnerable as a parent, and Miller has endured more than his share of loss, none a bigger sucker punch than when Speedy killed himself in July 2011. When Miller heard the news, he dropped and sobbed uncontrollably in an Oregon parking lot. Goepper, just 17 at the time, tried to console his heartbroken guardian, but the reality was overwhelming. As Miller's legions reached out in support following Speedy's death, the COB told everyone the same thing: "I'll be fine. I've got Nick and I've got my kids to keep me going."
Some of those closest to him wondered whether that would be enough this winter, as the competition circuit moved away from North America for Winter Olympic qualifying events, taking Miller with it. But Miller wasn't worried. He's following a road map that exists solely in his brain, and his kids are his yellow lines. There are sponsor pitches to write, training sessions to coordinate, relationships to uphold. Life goes on as he designed it.
"Everyone's been asking me since the day I met him, who is he? What's his deal? What does he actually do?" says Windells Academy president Mike Hanley. "I just tell 'em he's a verb. He Kerry Millers."