The Milholland Way: Cedaredge coach gives respect, gets it in leading Bruins to title
The game film he watched three years ago told an ugly truth: The attitude of the Cedaredge High School football players stunk.
But Brandon Milholland, after seven years as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Central High School, wanted to be a head football coach. And what he saw on film, he believed, he could change.
Oh, yeah, things changed.
When Milholland in 2010 became the Bruins’ fourth coach in six years, players immediately learned new ways of doing things, starting with basic conduct.
Players who dared to walk during football practice learned to run from one drill to the next. Players who carried their helmets learned to wear it at all times, so they’re always ready. Players who cussed had to do 20 pushups. Milholland didn’t demand it, but he asked his players to sit in the front of their classrooms, and many obliged.
Milholland made it clear at the outset that wearing a Cedaredge football uniform comes with expectations: Commit to working harder than you ever thought you could, do things the right way, respect yourself and respect others.
“Respect, I couldn’t demand it, but I was going to show it to them and expect it as well,” Milholland said.
Try to find a more respected man in Cedaredge right now than Milholland. Odds of finding Bigfoot in your bathtub are better.
That’s because in three years Milholland has guided the Bruins to a height never before attained by a Cedaredge football team. The Bruins, with an 18-16 victory over previously unbeaten Buena Vista at Buena Vista on Nov. 24, reign as the 2012 Colorado High School Activities Association Class 1A state football champion.
“A state championship for Cedaredge football was like a mythical creature,” Milholland said.
Now, that gold-ball trophy in the glass case that greets all who pass through the main entrance of the high school represents the standard of excellence all Cedaredge football players will strive for.
“If you’re not trying to be the best, what are you out there for?” Milholland said.
People who know Milholland aren’t surprised by the turnaround of a program that until this season had not had a winning season since 2002.
Now 32 years old, he was displaying maturity, character and leadership when he was half that age, and he can thank his height, in part, for the early emergence. Milholland was used to hearing people say he was too small to be a quarterback. That, of course, made him work harder.
As a senior at Central, the 5-foot-8 signal caller passed for more than 3,000 yards as the Warriors reached the Class 4A state final and finished runner-up.
Milholland was a good thrower, a good runner, and he had a mind for football, as Central’s coach, Vern McGee, attested.
“Brandon would come in the office and would have a play he designed and would ask us to look at it and see if it would work,” McGee said. “I knew he was going to be a coach one day.”
But Milholland had to make another stop first. No taller than his high school height when he went to Mesa State College, Milholland defied the odds and beat out quarterbacks who may have looked the part better, but they didn’t play better. Milholland started his final two years as a Maverick.
“I always compared him a lot to Doug Flutie,” said Joe Ramunno, Milholland’s coach at Mesa. “He had such great skills. ... He was a good leader and a guy who worked extremely hard. ... He has great passion and great energy for the game.”
Now it shines through in his coaching. In establishing his way of doing things, Milholland also kept the game of football fun, and he meant it when he said he would show players respect.
“He’s not a screamer. He’s not a clipboard thrower,” first-year Cedaredge High principal Kevin Gardner said. “He relates with kids, and it’s easy to buy in.”
Bruins senior quarterback and safety Dante Markley echoes that and more.
“He’s there to push you, but at the same time he’s not just a coach,” Markley said. “He’s there for you. He cares about the players. He cares about the people he’s working with. It’s truly special to play for him and be around him.”
Markley knows first-hand the lengths Milholland will go for one of his players. Markley wasn’t always a quarterback on offense. He was a running back during his junior season when Milholland started Markley’s conversion to quarterback. Then, last summer, Milholland spent about an hour after weight training every day playing catch, running routes, teaching Markley the finer points of throwing a football.
Milholland would do that for any player, Markley said.
And Milholland plans to be more accessible for years to come. After two-plus years of commuting from Grand Junction every day, Milholland and his wife, Sara, decided to buy a home in the Cedaredge area. Three weeks after the Bruins won their state title, Brandon, Sara, and their 9-year-old daughter, Kimberley, moved into their new home in Austin, several miles down the road from Cedaredge.
“My wife and I made a decision: This is where we’re going to live, where our daughter is going to go to school,” he said. “There’s so many things that make it a neat place to be, a nice place to work.”
And maybe a place to win more championships.
Milholland said the first state title is a reflection of the players, their athletic talent, the kind of people they are and their willingness to commit to the program.
Cedaredge residents knew several years ago this year’s group of seniors was talented and perhaps capable of something special, but that didn’t come with a state-title guarantee.
The athletic director who hired Milholland, Randy Brown, who this school year moved to Cedaredge’s middle school to become the principal, said the group reached its potential because Milholland got it to maximize that talent.
That started in Milholland’s first year, which yielded a 3-7 record. Year 2 brought a 4-6 mark. Year 3 brought a 12-1 record and town-uniting success and re-established Bruin pride.
Bruins senior fullback/linebacker Carter Wasser said as a middle-schooler he and his classmates looked up to the high school kids, but the football team was viewed as “kind of a joke.” It had managed more than two wins just once, and 11 wins total, in the six years before Milholland arrived. Football wasn’t revered in the community, Wasser said, adding it usually was referred to with a ho-hum, “It’s just Cedaredge football.”
Poor play wasn’t the only problem, according to assistant coach John Kuemmerlin, who was with the team three years before Milholland took over. He said bad behavior was common, evident in ways such as personal-foul penalties, and evident on that game film Milholland watched.
“We used to have a bad reputation ... and honestly, it was well-deserved,” Kuemmerlin said.
Wasser was familiar with what Kuemmerlin mentioned, and he was glad Milholland changed it.
“It’s really cool to see,” Wasser said. “It’s just a huge cultural change from how Cedaredge football was before.”
Brown witnessed the transformation, and he thinks the football program has turned a corner under Milholland.
“If you would have driven through our community toward the playoff run, we had the elementary school at the pep assemblies,” Brown said. “We had the middle school at the pep assemblies. ... Those little school boys that were playing football, they were certainly watching what was going on on the big field. It wasn’t just a high school thing, it was a community thing. I’ve got three boys in my home that looked up to every single thing that those guys did, and they truly want to be there.
“So, I think the expectation that Coach has set kind of resides through the whole community. I’ve seen it really help our school. ... I’m not at the high school anymore, but ... when I walk up there, I can see everybody walking down the hallway with their chest a little puffed out and their chin a little higher.”
Brown said the football team’s success can make a difference in all athletic programs at Cedaredge, setting a tone. And it can blossom further under the guidance of Brown’s successor as the athletic director: Milholland.
After teaching English in his first two years at Cedaredge, Milholland became an assistant principal this year and the athletic director.
On the day he was interviewed for this story, Milholland was unavailable for about an hour. First, he had to deal with a discipline issue with a student. Then, he spent the next class period as a grief counselor to a student whose mother had died several weeks earlier.
The latter speaks to the kind-heartedness, willingness to listen and receptiveness to people that C.J. Cannell, a teacher and coach at Cedaredge High, listed first among the things that stand out about Milholland.
“He connects with people very quickly,” Cannell said.
Wasser said the football players appreciated that about Milholland, too.
“You can talk to him about pretty much anything,” Wasser said. “He actually listens.”
Gardner has seen everything that others praise in Milholland and adds his new right hand in the administration always is looking to do his job better.
“He can win a gold ball on Saturday and come in on Monday and say, ‘I’m just not doing what I need to be doing as an assistant principal,’ ” Gardner said. “He cares about that stuff.”