Jim Miller, the Buffalo Bills' new contract negotiator, will never forget his introduction to major league bargaining.
He had just left his job as a sportswriter for the Baltimore Evening Sun and was working as a spokesman for the NFL owners. It was 1982 and the situation was tense. The owners were beginning negotiations with the NFL players' union on a new collective bargaining agreement. Both sides figured a strike was coming, and the owners had hired Jack Donlan, the quintessential hard-line negotiator, to head their bargaining committee.
"The first negotiating session was held in a big ballroom in Miami, and it looked like a United Nations meeting," Miller says. "There was a big table on one side, and the other table was way over on the other side. Stan White, who played for the Colts, was on the union committee, so we knew each other. After we all got in the room, Stan and I walked over, and I shook his hand. Well, it was like the end of a hockey game. Everybody took it as a cue that this is how we're gonna start this off, and everybody on both sides walked over and shook hands.
"Well, Donlan was ticked off; I mean ticked," Miller recalls with a chuckle. "Later on, he said to me, 'You don't start a negotiation by playing patty-cake with them!' So I got a real quick education that if you're in a negotiation, you've got to snarl a bit before you smile."
Miller has had quite an education since then in the way the NFL operates, which is why the Bills hired him in March as their vice president for administration. Miller, a 49-year-old Kentucky native, is the No. 3 man on the team's organizational chart, behind team president Ralph Wilson and general manager John Butler.
Miller spent the better part of the past 15 years working alongside two famous figures in the world of pro football.
The first was Donlan, former executive director of the NFL Management Council. Donlan was the point man in the effort of hard-line NFL owners to break, or at least cripple, the players' union. Miller spent five years working for the council, first as a spokesman during the 1982 strike, then as an adviser to NFL teams on player contracts and the details of the bargaining agreement. That was, in effect, his master's education in NFL administration.
In 1986, he joined the New Orleans Saints as the right-hand man of general manager Jim Finks, who had helped build Super Bowl teams in Minnesota and Chicago. Finks turned the Saints into winners in just two years and almost became NFL commissioner in 1990. Working for Finks was like Miller's doctorate in football operations.
"Donlan taught me how to be tough, and Finks taught me when to be tough," Miller says. "Donlan was hired to come in and shoot up the town, and that's what he did. But day to day, working with Jim Finks was much, much tougher than working with Jack Donlan. Jim was very demanding. But he wanted to get the best out of you. If things were going well, to use an expression, he'd blow your skirts up just to make sure you didn't get too comfortable."
Miller oversaw the entire business end of the Saints' operation. That included virtually all contract negotiations once Finks was diagnosed with cancer in 1993. After Finks died in 1995, Saints owner Tom Benson began making major changes in the organization, and that included the firing of Miller in 1996.
Out of a job, but still getting paid by the Saints (his contract had another year to run), Miller spent his time off writing a novel about a familiar topic -- player agents. It's titled "The Fooling Game," and the plot revolves around a fictitious team called the Baltimore Bluecrabs.
"It's a murder mystery about football . . . and three player agents get murdered in various and sundry ways," Miller says with a smile. "I kind of live my dark side through the novel. I get back at a lot of people in the book."
It's actually Miller's second manuscript (neither has been published). His first is about his first love, baseball. Titled "Priests and Poltroons," it's about the 1894 Baltimore Orioles.
Miller has a tattered copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia in his office, and he's a member of the Society of American Baseball Research.
"The history of baseball is the history of professional sport in America," Miller says. "Nothing's changed. The owners in 1890 locked out the players. The players formed their own league. In 1891, when the players' league failed, the owners said we'll get back at you. So they merged leagues and a lot of jobs got lost and they cut salaries in half. So you've still got players thinking they're underpaid and owners thinking they're paid too much."
Historical perspective is an asset Miller has regarding NFL player relations. He was in the room when the '82 deal was struck. He has dealt first-hand with its two subsequent incarnations, because he was the Saints' resident "capologist," in charge of managing the team's salary cap.
In short, he had exactly the credentials the Bills were seeking. Butler had grown weary of handling every single contract negotiation on the team, and Wilson felt the need for another set of eyes to help Butler and team treasurer Jeffrey Littmann manage the salary cap.
"To have a Jim Miller available was a great hiring for us," Butler said. "He's got vast experience from the management council and understands the league office, and he's a guy who understands the cap so well. It allows me to do more of what I love best (evaluating talent)."
As his VP title suggests, Miller has broad responsibilities with the Bills. He oversees the marketing department and expects to hire a new marketing director this month. He works closely with Bill Munson, director of operations, in the drive to fill the luxury boxes and club seats at Rich Stadium. He's busy opening new team offices in Toronto, Rochester and downtown Buffalo.
Come next offseason, he will help Butler negotiate contracts.
"John was just besieged in contracts," Miller says. "He did every contract for three or four years. I don't know of any other GM who did all the contracts."
Miller said his murder mystery is not an indication he has a distaste for dealing with agents.
"I love it," he said. "At this point you know the agents and you know pretty much who you can get a deal with quickly. I enjoy the repartee with them, for the most part. . . . And then there are some guys where you delay the phone call to them until Friday at 5 o'clock."
Those are the times when Donlan's lessons in snarling come in handy.