Max Miller was living the good life, far removed from football.
He spent 14 days in September in Hawaii with wife Sally, picking through aloha shirts and exploring beaches. And he played golf on weekdays at Lake Tahoe.
All that, yet Miller is back coaching football.
Miller returned to Rio Americano High School last week for two reasons.
He vows to salvage a season that was on the brink of collapse when players were at odds with the previous coach over team policy. And he wants to quench his never-ending desire to mentor youngsters and win football games.
Miller, 72, the winningest coach in Sac-Joaquin Section football history, relishes his latest challenge.
"It's true, and you know Max," Sally Miller said after her husband's first practice as a head coach since his final days at Cordova in 2007. "This is who he is. The football field is where he belongs, surrounded by kids who want to learn."
Miller's last stint as a head coach included two ambulance rides to a hospital because of exhaustion. He doesn't just coach; he pours every ounce of his soul into it. After victory or defeat, he's spent and disheveled, looking grayish and sounding hoarse, and that likely won't change.
Last week, while on a golf course in Truckee, Miller took a call from Rio Americano principal Brian Ginter, who pleaded with him to take over the Raiders. Miller and his wife hopped into their car, nearly forgetting their golf bags, and raced back to Sacramento.
Last month, 11 players quit the Rio team after a teammate wasn't allowed to miss a game to participate in a baseball showcase. The players later asked to return and were reinstated by Ginter, against the wishes of coach Christian Mahaffey, which led to Mahaffey's dismissal.
Miller was greeted with a standing ovation by his new team, which brought him to tears, but he composed himself and expressed his feelings. The players were wrong to leave their coach. They would be punished, sitting out parts of games and engaging in community service. They would call their former coach and apologize. And they would move forward.
The first step came Friday night, when the Raiders scored a 30-6 victory at Cordova, where Miller earned most of his 258 victories. Just 48 hours earlier, Miller had ditched the spread offense and installed his familiar I-formation. Then, he unleashed his new back, converted lineman Jordan Vinson, for three touchdowns.
Rio Americano ran four basic plays vintage Miller.
"Phenomenal effort by our guys," Miller said later that night, his voice already hoarse. "I don't know if any team in America had less time to prepare with all the new stuff we put in. These kids needed a feel-good win."
Said Rio Americano quarterback Mark Lyon, "We're in awe of coach Miller because you can see his greatness, and you can see what coaching means to him."
Miller said his return to coaching is personal, too, because he knows these players. His grandson, John, is a junior defensive back and captain who used to call Miller "Papa." He now calls him "Coach."
Miller told his new players last week about his first stint at Rio Americano (1976-80), when he coached his defensive back son, Greg, now one of Miller's new assistant coaches. Miller said he wants the school band and cheerleaders at every home game; he wants the full football experience for Rio's students.
"I'm here for the kids, because it's the right thing to do, and I made sure I had coach Mahaffey's blessing, because he wants the best for this team, too," Miller said.
After his first practice, Miller talked to his new players about family, about how his father, Max Sr., passed away during his first stint at Rio.
"So shake your teammate's hands, hug each other, tell your parents you love them," Miller told his players. "This season is for the rest of your lives. And remember, I'll be here for you."
Said grandson John: "I'm definitely proud to have him here. I've heard so much about him as a coach. I know him as a great grandfather, so this is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
And how do you secure a starting job, John?
"Easy. I know his favorite food."