He’s Seen It All
After 24 years in the college football coaching ranks, at seven different schools, new University of New Mexico defensive coordinator Jeff Mills knows well the highs and the lows.
He was a graduate assistant at Washington when the Huskies won to back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1990-91. He was Idaho’s defensive coordinator when the Vandals won a Big West Conference title and went to the Humanitarian Bowl in 1998.
As safeties coach during his second tour of duty at Washington, he helped revive a Huskies program that had gone 0-12 in 2008 and helped them go to bowl games in 2010-11.
The flip side? Mills’ first job in coaching was as a defensive assistant at Western Washington, his alma mater, in 1988. Paul Hansen, his college coach, was fired at the end of that season despite a 5-4 record.
In 2003, as defensive coordinator at Nevada, he was swept out with the rest of head coach Chris Tormey’s staff after 16 wins in four years.
Thus, when Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian fired Mills — along with defensive coordinator Nick Holt — after the Huskies gave up 67 points and 777 yards to Baylor in last December’s Alamo Bowl, he was neither surprised nor angry. Never mind that the Huskies had gone 7-6 on the season, or that Baylor, quarterbacked by Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, had one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.
Sarkisian, Mills says, made his decision.
“I was born into this profession,” says Mills, 47. “My dad was a coach. My brother’s the head coach at Charleston Southern.
“So, I’ve been brought up in this profession, and I understand that decisions are made.”
But, after Washington, what? And where? And when?
One by-product of a quarter-century in college coaching is friendships made along the way.
In 1999 and again in 2001, Mills had visited his friend Bronco Mendenhall — then UNM’s defensive coordinator under Rocky Long — in Albuquerque.
“I came and visited Bronco because he’s been a good friend of mine since the early ’90s, and because I had so much respect for what coach Long and coach Mendenhall were doing with the defense here,” Mills says.
“I loved the place, I loved the facility here. I loved (the UNM Championship) golf course.
“I told my wife back then, (Albuquerque’s) a great place.”
One of Mills’ coaching stops was at Youngstown State, Bob Davie’s alma mater. But he had never met Davie, hired on Nov. 17 as the new head coach at New Mexico.
As Davie went about assembling his staff, Mills asked Mendenhall, the head coach at Brigham Young, to put in a good word. After an in-person interview, Davie hired Mills as his secondary coach.
If not much in the coaching game surprises Mills, here’s something that did. Ron West, hired by Davie as defensive coordinator, left after just weeks on the job to take a position at Arizona State.
Mills, with a decade of experience as a D-coordinator, didn’t hesitate.
“That’s my personality,” he says. “I said, ‘Hey, coach, I would love the opportunity.’”
Now, he has it. He’ll run Davie’s preferred, 3-4 defense, but adds, “We’re multiple.
“Nowadays, most offenses are very multiple. You have to be that way defensively, too, but at the same time you have to find that balance of not doing too much.”
Mills calls himself aggressive by nature. Yet, as much has he admired the blitzing, gambling, 3-3-5 defense that Long and Mendenhall ran at New Mexico when he visited here, experience has taught him the virtues of balance.
“My foundation was at the University of Washington with (head coach) Don James,” he says. “Jim Lambright was the defensive coordinator, and we were the No. 1 defense in the country one year; I think the other year, it was coach Davie’s defense at Texas A&M.
“That was a pressure-oriented defense, and when you’re young, you always want to pressure and blitz. You learn, once you get older, you have to be smart; you have to pick your spots. You have to have built-in safeguards.”
And, always, roll with the highs and the lows.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal