There aren’t many coaches in the Napa Valley who have a resume quite like Fred Miller’s.
The former St. Helena High tennis coach led the Saints to 11 North Central League I or Superior California Athletic League championships and a Sac-Joaquin Section title over his 18-year career, from 1980 to 1997. He recorded six undefeated league seasons, compiled an overall record of 289 match wins to 67 losses, finished as section runner-ups five times, and had numerous players go on to play at the NCAA Division I level in college.
For these reasons alone, Miller is one of six new members to be inducted into the St. Helena High Athletic Hall of Fame on Oct. 19 at the Native Sons Hall in St. Helena.
While Miller’s record on the court is impressive, it hardly tells his full story.
Miller was paramount in creating the tennis scene in the valley and many of his former disciples believe that the sport would not be as prominent as it is today if it weren’t for him.
Aside from turning the Saints into perennial championship contenders, he also organized the Volley in the Valley Tennis Tournament, a fundraiser that helped raised nearly $1 million for St. Helena Hospital. He founded the Maxwell Cup Golf Tournament at Pacific Union College, another fundraiser that aided scholarships, and started the Upper Valley Junior Tennis Association.
There’s a lot that Miller, 69, is proud of as he looks back on his coaching days, but surprisingly, his stats aren’t one of them. Miller said recently that he’s more proud of his involvement in the community, the impact he had on his player’s lives, and that they played the right way, with integrity, etiquette and sportsmanship.
Letters from some of his former players to the Hall of Fame induction committee touched on his people-oriented coaching style.
“I have won state section titles as both a player and a coach for the Saints, as well as winning SCAL title along the way,” wrote Peter Weber, a former player and coach at St. Helena. “Those accomplishments, while meaningful, do not fully measure the impact Fred had on my life. … He taught us how to be role models and how to inspire people around us. His passion was infectious and resides with me to this day.”
“To me personally, he was more than a tennis coach,” wrote Trent Ghiringhelli. “He was a mentor and sherpa helping guide the wild, reckless and talented youth of St. Helena High School to become not only champions, but well-rounded young humans.”
Said Kristin Foote, a 2016 St. Helena Hall of Fame inductee, “Fred provided a safe environment where I learned how to be a good, kind and self-aware human being. Without his patience and gentle-natured guidance, I would not be the person I am today.”
So how does Miller feel about getting inducted into St. Helena’s Hall of Fame?
“Embarrassed,” he chuckled. “I don’t seek the limelight. But now I’m going to give my talk. It’ll be fun.”
Born in Napa in 1950, Miller bounced around in his early life because his father moved constantly for work. His family lived in Ukiah and then Los Angeles, before he returned to Northern California to attend Rio Lindo Academy in Healdsburg. His father, an avid tennis player himself, noticed Miller and his brother, Steve, had talent when they lived in Ukiah and hired a trainer to drive up from Berkeley to play with them for hours.
Miller estimated he was about 7 when he started lessons, and he hasn’t stopped playing since.
Miller went on to attend PUC and graduated with a master’s degree in human exercise physiology.
“It’s helped me learn how to teach tennis, actually,” he said. “I understand how the body works.”
After PUC, Miller spent some time in San Francisco teaching elementary school. But he once again grew to miss his home, and moved back to the Napa Valley in the early 1970s.
At that point, tennis was fully ingrained in his identity. But Miller noticed that wasn’t the case in Napa, so he set about to change that.
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He and his brother started doing private lessons, opened a tennis store in St. Helena, and helped start a club team at Meadowood Country Club. They also got the youth tennis scene rolling, creating a pipeline for talented players akin to Carpy Gang or Little League.
“Tennis just took over, the whole time,” Miller said. “It all just became a well-oiled machine.”
He was hired by St. Helena High in 1980 to coach the boys tennis program and found immediate success. The Saints won seven straight NCL I titles, dropping just three league matches during that span.
In 1987, the school merged the boys and girls tennis teams together and moved up into the SCAL. They maintained success in the first four seasons in the league before hitting a peak in 1991, when they went 22-3 overall, 14-0 in league, and won the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III team championship.
They made it back to the section championship match five of the next six years, but finished as runners-up each time.
Jack Oliver, who started lessons with Miller when he was 5 and was the one who nominated him for the Hall of Fame, thought that the Saints could have won many more section titles if his coach hadn’t placed such an emphasis on integrity.
Miller didn’t follow the commonly used practice of stacking lineups, where coaches adjust their players’ seeds to set up favorable matchups that all but ensured match wins. While the Saints had the talent and numbers to do it, Miller preferred playing the right way – even if it meant not winning.
“(Jack) thought we could have won five more section titles if we stacked, because we were pretty deep and we could have figured out a way to do it,” Miller said. “In fact, the kids would ask me why we don’t it. … It’s not part of the deal: integrity, ethics, sportsmanship.”
That was more or less Miller’s approach to coaching. He was all about delivering life lessons and giving his players a blueprint for how to lead their lives.
Among the things he’s most proud of is how involved his team was in the community. He gave his high school players summer jobs as instructors at his seasonal youth camps. The Saints also helped local businesses with fundraisers. In turn, those businesses invested back into the tennis program, making it almost self-sufficient and nearly independent from high school funding.
“I was getting a lot of support, which I’m pretty proud of actually, because it was an entire community success story,” Miller said. “Not just me, not just our stats.”
Under Miller’s guidance, tennis eventually became one of the more popular sports at the high school. Players from baseball and track and field would stop by after their respective practices, lace up their tennis shoes, and play until it got dark.
“Everybody was coming out from all angles,” Miller said.
Miller finally retired from high school coaching in 1997 and turned all his focus to private training, which he still does to this day. He currently plays six days a week and said he’ll give seven lessons on a “standard day.”
Miller likes to say he’s in preventative medicine; he earned the title “the cheapest shrink in town” because of the life guidance he provided through tennis.
“Preventative medicine is teaching people how to be healthy before they get sick,” he explained. “That’s how I actually view my job. It’s always been that way for me.”
While he admits he’s forgotten much about his coaching days, the news of his induction brought memories flooding back and helped him remember all the good he’s done in his life.
“I’m very grateful. I am,” he said. “I put in the sweat and the time, and now that people are bringing back all these memories, it’s like, I did make an impact. So I’m happy about that. I achieved something.”