NEW YORK — Red Miller, who turned the hapless Denver Broncos into a defensive powerhouse and guided the team to its first Super Bowl, in 1978, in his first season as a head coach, died Wednesday in Denver. He was 89.
His wife, Nan Miller, said the death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of a stroke he had Sept. 11 at his home in Denver while watching a televised “Monday Night Football” game between the Broncos and the Los Angeles Chargers.
When Mr. Miller took over as head coach for John Ralston in 1977, the Broncos had been perennial National Football League also-rans. The team had only three seasons with winning records and had never made it to the playoffs since its first season, in 1960.
Players on the Broncos had soured on Ralston, who they thought was aloof and ineffectual; a dozen players issued a statement after the 1976 season expressing their lack of confidence in him.
Mr. Miller’s approach to coaching was decidedly more hands-on. He was bloodied during practice while demonstrating a blocking technique to Claudie Minor, a 280-pound offensive tackle, without wearing a helmet. He joined rookies Steve Schindler and Rob Lytle in a training-camp rookie “talent show,” in which he banged out ragtime on a piano.
Mr. Miller did not inherit a mess from Ralston. The Broncos were coming off their best season to date, with a 9-5 record, and many of the pieces for their first playoff run were already in place, including the core of the 3-4 defense that became known as the Orange Crush.
Anchored by All-Pro players such as linebackers Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson, defensive backs Bill Thompson and Louis Wright, and lineman Lyle Alzado, the Orange Crush became one of the most feared defenses in the NFL under Mr. Miller’s leadership.
The biggest addition to the roster that year was veteran quarterback Craig Morton, whom the Broncos had acquired from the New York Giants in a trade.
The Broncos had an explosive first season under Mr. Miller, attaining a 12-2 regular-season record.
After beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-21, and the Oakland Raiders, 20-17, in the playoffs, the Broncos faced Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII at the Superdome in New Orleans. Denver’s offense crumbled in the face of Dallas’s “Doomsday Defense,” turning the ball over eight times, seven in the first half alone.
In the third quarter Mr. Miller replaced Morton, who had thrown four interceptions, with his backup, Norris Weese, and Denver’s defense held the Cowboys to just 13 points in the first half despite all the turnovers. But Dallas prevailed, winning 27-10.
Mr. Miller led the team for three more seasons and to two more playoff appearances, accumulating a 40-22 regular season record. But he was fired in 1981, after an 8-8 season, when Edgar F. Kaiser Jr. bought the team and replaced him with Dan Reeves, the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.
Since that first appearance in the Super Bowl, the Broncos have returned to it seven more times, winning three titles.
After he left the Broncos, he was briefly the head coach of the Denver Gold of the short-lived US Football League, then worked as a stock broker. He married Nancy Gilbert in 1990.
In addition to his wife, he leaves a son, Steve, from an earlier marriage, which ended in divorce; a stepson, Jeff Vasilion; and five grandchildren. His daughter, Lana Ritzel, died in 2011.