OKEENE, Okla. — Growing up in nearby Canton, Chad Miller knew about the tradition of Okeene football.
A 2013 Canton graduate, Miller saw the Whippets win back-to-back state championships in 2006 and 2007 when he was in middle school.
Miller, an assistant at Enid High the past two years, is excited to be the Whippets' new coach even though Okeene won't be going to the playoffs this season after choosing to drop to 8-man independent after going 4-6 last season in Class A.
"It's a special opportunity to take this program into 8-man,'' said Miller from the Oklahoma Coaches Association Convention in Tulsa. "This community has a great tradition over the years. We're carrying on the same tradition, but we can establish a new legacy in 8-man football.''
Miller and his wife are expecting their first child in November. That also played a factor in the decision.
"It's great to be back in the area where I grew up,'' he said. "I'm close to family and they can help us out. My wife and I are blessed to be a part of the Okeene community. They have welcomed me with open arms. I'm grateful for that. We have bonded together.''
Miller took the job in May, a month after the school board's petition to the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association to drop to 8-man was approved.
"I never heard any negatives about the move,'' Miller said. "At the end of the day as long as we keep the kids' best interests in heart, that's all that really matters.''
The Whippets were the smallest school playing 11-man last season. The Whippets' average daily membership (ADM) of 78.06 would place Okeene well into Class C.
The school board — while voting to drop to 8-man for high school — voted to continued to play 11-man middle school football. The Whippets currently only have 18 players out — and that's with a co-op with Aline-Cleo. However, the numbers are expected to rise in the next few years with larger classes in middle school.
Miller sees the final decision about 8-man or 11-man for the 2020-21 seasons being made at the end of the season when the districts will be realigned.
"A number of factors will go into that,'' he said. "We will see where the chips fall. We'll do what's best for the kids whether it's 11-man or 8-man. I know the administration feels the same way.''
Miller said being an 8-man player has helped him with the transition. He said the learning curve hasn't been that difficult for the players.
"We have really stressed the Xs and Os,'' he said. "It comes down to being able to execute and do our jobs. Football is football.''
Miller has been aided by the return of Hall of Fame coach Jeff Wardlaw, who has been at Fairview the past two seasons. Wardlaw took the Whippets to two state championships and had only one losing season as the head coach from 1991-2014.
"He helped set up the program Okeene has today,'' Miller said. "As a first-year head coach, it's great to have someone as a mentor that you can look to in certain situations. If you have a question about something, he's someone you can go to for answers.''
In turn, Wardlaw can turn to Miller for questions about 8-man.
"We're working together and helping each other out,'' Miller said.
Miller retained two assistants from last season — ex-Whippet Reed Brickman and former Fairview player Hunter Kahn.
Miller said tradition is the biggest asset for the Whippets in a transitional season. Winning is the first motivation for a program that has had high expectations.
"Okeene has a proud tradition,'' Miller said. "The kids have a good mentality and high expectations. That's something that has been ingrained in them. We just hope the changes are the best for the players and best for Okeene. The kids have done a good job of buying in and doing what's asked of them. We know that they will definitely play hard and do the right thing. When you have those components going for you, you will have a team that will compete at all times.''
Miller said what he was most impressed with was his team's work ethic with most of the players working eight to 10 hours on summer jobs.
Miller and his staff have "tried to keep it positive''
"We're trying to find the right words so they don't get down on themselves,'' he said. "We're not necessarily trying to buddy up but we want to coach them the right way and keep up the encouragement. We want the older kids to mentor the younger ones to have the kind of environment to push themselves to the limit so they can do the best they can.''
Miller had always wanted to be a coach.
"Football has always been a passion,'' he said. "I had an older brother (Cotton) play the sport and what he did inspired me to do what I could. I learned a lot of life lessons in athletics.''
Miller was heavily influenced by former Enid High head coach Steve Hayes, who is now the quarterback coach at Henderson (Texas) High School.
"Steve taught me a lot about what it takes to be a head coach and how to manage a team,'' he said. "He showed me the right way of doing things. I want to carry that on at Okeene.''
Miller felt Hayes was a coach that you would want your son to play for. He especially tries to emulate that. He said Hayes didn't do anything different from Day 1 to the last day of the season.
"We kept chugging along and did the best of our ability,'' he said. "At the end of the day you are content with them. The won-loss record will not show the impact he made on players doing the right way and creating the right relationships. I want to be role model and show them how to live their lives as Christian men.''