May 7, 2004

Former NFL Player Tackles Engineering

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Most professors in the College of Engineering have resumes that include bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees, research publications and field experience. Their backgrounds do not include a career in the National Football League.

Enter Prof. Matthew Miller, mechanical and aerospace engineering, former offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns from 1979 to 1983. After starting for three years at tackle for Colorado University, Miller played in Cleveland for four years and then moved to the Denver Gold of the United States Football League for two seasons.

Raised in Durango, Co., Miller, like many boys his age, had eyes for the gridiron. “As a kid, growing up in a small town, I think that was the dream, to play for a team in the Big Eight,” he said.

The young Miller also had an affinity for engineering-related activities. “I knew I liked technical things. I liked building things — I liked tearing things apart, in terms of trying to understand things. I grew up in the mountains in Colorado, so my major, Geology, was one of trying to understand some of that process,” he recalled.

Some of Miller’s curiosity for engineering came from his father and grandfather. “My dad and grandpa weren’t educated engineers, but that’s what they did. They worked with their hands and they built things,” he said.

Miller’s years at Colorado included some very successful seasons. “One year we won the Big Eight, went to the Orange Bowl, played against Woody Hayes and Ohio State. My senior year I was All-American and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, fourth round. At that point, that was what I wanted to do.”

“I tend to do things full go. When I’m focused on them, that’s what I’m most focused on. So when I was playing football — that was what I was doing,” Miller said. When his football career ended due to recurring injuries, Miller’s focus shifted to a new stage of his life.

While playing in Cleveland, Miller put his geology degree to use during the off seasons. “I had been working in the off seasons for an oil and gas company in Cleveland as a geologist — going out on rigs, catching samples and doing the prospecting for a little oil and gas company. We had our wells down in southeast Ohio,” he explained.

However, the end of Miller’s football career coincided with the collapse of the oil and gas industry in Ohio. As a result, Miller fell back on his passion for mechanical processes and set his sights on a career in engineering.

“When you’re a kid growing up in Colorado and you want to be an engineer, the school that is the pinnacle is the Colorado School of Mines. So [my wife and I] moved back to Colorado and I did another B.S. I was able to do it in two years because I had a lot of stuff that transferred. I had a 4.0, never got a B — I was just so totally jazzed about school. When I was 30 years old I had a totally different outlook from my freshman counterparts,” he said.

From there, Miller and his wife moved to Atlanta so Miller could attend the Georgia Institute of Technology. “That was when I talked my wife into going to grad school for an M.S., I told her, then I’d get a job — but I just stayed.” Miller earned his masters and Ph.D. in five years, after which he began looking for a job.

Upon entering the academic world, Miller tried to keep a clean separation between his football career and his engineering career. “Especially early on, I was really reluctant to have [my football career] be part of my deal, just because that’s not necessarily what you want to be known for in that particular circle,” he explained.

“Whenever [my football career] came up in the course of a conversation at a conference, people would start talking a little bit slower to make sure I followed,” Miller said. He has since earned a reputation as an academic, which prevents colleagues from stereotyping him. “Now, it’s no big deal,” he added.

When it came time to leave Georgia Tech, Miller was unsure about which career path he wanted to choose next. “I didn’t necessarily think the whole professor business was what I wanted to do — but I was interested in it. I’d taught a lot while I was a grad student, so that part was fine, and I liked the research, I liked that challenge,” he explained. “The timing was such that this job came up when I was looking. I came to work here in January 1994 — that was my first semester,” he said.

At Cornell, Miller teaches a sophomore mechanical engineering course, is the academic advisor to the football team in addition to his normal load of advisees and sponsors graduate student research. He has been particularly passionate about working with undergraduates.

“I teach a big sophomore course, one that has every one of our mechanical engineers in it, and it’s amazing how different these guys look when they’re seniors than when they were sitting out there in 212. It’s one of the real perks of the job, I think, to watch that transformation,” he said.

Miller has a greater opportunity to watch his advisees change due to the relationship he forms with them.

Josh Conlon ’04, one of Miller’s engineering advisees, said, “Freshman year, I remember thinking he was a little too controlling. But once Miller got to know me — which he tries to do for all of his advisees — he was able to offer me a lot of useful advice over the years. Now, I’d like to say we’ve become good friends.”

Much of the conversion mechanical engineering students undergo is due to Miller’s intense work ethic. “Miller is extremely passionate about mechanics of materials. He expects a lot from his students because he realizes how difficult the field is and knows a solid work ethic is a must in order to succeed,” said Holly Chance ’06. Miller’s dedication to his students stems from the pride he derives from working with them.

“Our product, and sometimes we lose sight of this because we get so jazzed up about our findings and research and teaching stuff, but our product is people. If we lose sight of the fact that what we produce are individuals, then the whole thing becomes a little bit fake. Individuals are the things that last, if you have some small effect on them as they’re going through here,” Miller said.

In order to produce successful engineers, Miller believes they have to be pushed to work hard.

In describing the transformative experience of his 212 course, Miller said, “It’s not necessarily painless. It’s not a touchy-feely course, and I guess I probably coach it as much as I teach it. I sense that that’s probably my style, if I step back and look at it. The idea, sort of like ‘no pain, no gain,’ is one that resonates strongly with me. In reality, that’s exactly what people have sent their kids here to have done, to have them challenged. That’s how you get better. We all get better by putting the time in and developing things.”

Students from 212 agree that Miller’s work load can be intense. Most entries for Miller on cite burdensome assignments as Miller’s weakness. One entry said, “If you don’t mind getting ‘strain hardened,’ then go ahead and take his classes.”

Mechanical engineers also agree, however, that Miller is available and willing to help them work through the assignments. “He’s extremely good about helping students with assignments and is nearly always helpful — when you put in the effort he requires,” said John Goff ’06.

Miller also focuses on motivating his students to succeed in the engineering school. “A lot of us get into this rut where we think that engineering is this daunting task that we’re going to have to overcome, but Miller does his part to make it real to us and to basically tell us to hang in for the long haul. He’s like a pledge master for MechEs,” Goff said.

“Football has colored the way that I view students and the whole educational process. From the perspective that if you want something bad enough and you’re willing to work for it, you can make it happen. That’s what sports tend to reinforce. It’s never going to hurt to work a little harder — that’s always a reasonable response to any barrier that comes up against you,” sai
d Miller.

Miller likes to bring former students in to his class to speak to his current students. “While his class is very difficult to succeed in, he has students that have previously had trouble in his course come in and tell the class that they have since went on to succeed in a form of motivational speaking,” Chance said.

“I think eventually, most kids in my class know that I care about them and that they’re going to be fairly evaluated. There are going to be some guys that are going to struggle with the course, but I’m not going to do anything that’s unfair, I’m not out to get them,” Miller said.

Katy Kapphahm ’06, recalled an incident where Miller’s football career added a bit of humor to the class.

“In reference to the disrespect some students had by walking in and leaving his class, he told us, ‘The next person who walks through here better keep their feet moving cause they’re gonna get hit. I’m pretty sure I can still take out a knee,'” she said.

“But seriously, he often brings in senior mechanical engineering students to give us tips and words of wisdom, tell us it will be over soon, or sometimes that it won’t. I really think he wants us to succeed, and that’s what makes him a great professor,” Katy said.

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo
Sun Senior Writer