RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Chasing his dream, as so many of us do, David Howes departed his position as head coach of the Rio Rancho High School football team after the 2019 season, after accepting a position on new head coach Danny Gonzales’s University of New Mexico football team. Howes is the safeties’ coach.
Howes spent 11 seasons as the Rams’ head coach; he’d had an assistant’s position in the past. In his 11 seasons (2009-19), the Rams went 90-41 and made three appearances in the Class 6A championship game — winning all the marbles with perfect 13-0 records in 2014 and ’16, and then falling to visiting Cleveland last season in a barn-burner at Rio Rancho Stadium.
The Observer caught up with Howes, who just turned 48, to see how his decision to leave the Rams for the Lobos and how the pandemic has affected his new team’s practices and eventual schedule — tentatively set to begin Saturday at Colorado State.
When did you — growing up in Albuquerque — become aware of the college team? We moved here in 1980 from Boise, Idaho; I was born here, but we moved to Idaho for nine years and when we came back, that was in 1981, and I would say as I started playing YAFL, by 1982, then the Lobos became the thing to see, the show in town.
Talk about some of your duties there at UNM, including recruiting. My areas that I’m currently recruiting — when I first got there I had the pleasure of recruiting the L.A. area and some of the California area — but we were in such a hurry when we got here, and we had only two weeks to get on the road and sign some guys. So we were kinda behind the 8-ball. I had an opportunity to get in Colorado; now my areas are Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico. There’s quite a few athletes I get to know.
In the past, it was the opposite; kids would come to talk to you if their families were moving or they wanted to transfer. With the NMAA in New Mexico, if kids came to talk to you about transferring, I had to stand there and answer, “Call Vince Metzgar, the athletic director.” All these years of not being able to recruit and then being thrown into the recruiting process and being able to really schmooze these guys and have a great conversation with them; it’s been a great learning process.
How do you sell UNM to recruits? The culture; the town. I’m not talking about the athletic culture (and numerous recent losing seasons), I’m talking about the culture of Albuquerque, the culture of New Mexico. We’re very unique here and we have a unique community. … Coming here and selling what I fell in love with long ago, which is the culture, the food. We like to take them to Sadie’s, Old Town, the Tram. There’s so many unique things in New Mexico that these kids are not exposed to, especially the kids out of L.A. So this is a very unique place — that’s one of the biggest selling points, is the unique cultures and the diversity of New Mexico and the beauty — a lot of the mountain stuff and a lot of the outdoorsy stuff: fishing, skiing, things we can do here. And the university itself … We have like nine categories as far as large university degrees. From a university standpoint, it’s extremely appealing to parents that are excited about academics, and kids that are excited about academics.
But what about the recent losing seasons and coaching turnover? When the culture has taken a dip over the last several years, obviously bringing coach Gonzales back and coach Long back, they kinda had that feel of really bringing that hard-nosed, physical, win-with the local guys — win with the New Mexico kids and win with the kids that maybe don’t have a ton of offers out there, bringing the guys that are maximizing their potential. … If you want to come into a place and play early, this is the place to be.
What about the guys who wonder if they’ll get exposure here, maybe get into the NFL? Anytime you’re in a Mountain West school, those type of guys that are getting those scholarship offers don’t have a big menu of offers typically; those are the Power-5 guys that are really getting pulled off the table by Power-5 schools. The draw to us is, “How far can you grow? How much can you succeed as an individual player, but within the confines of the team?” And really know how good you can possibly be, and have the opportunity for the next level. I think every kid in YAFL or high school, they’re going to the (NFL). … But when once they get to college, the expectations and realism kick in a little bit…. It’s just kind of a progression, a maturation process; they get to that senior year, there’s some of those kids who’ll have an opportunity to go on; some guys realize that their four or five years are up and football has an expiration date.
What about all the time you spend away from home? Really, this whole journey has been about timing. I’ve had the opportunity to do everything in reverse, instead of starting out as a (graduate assistant) and working through the next 20 years of this opportunity, I became a head football coach and I had to win, and I had to win consistently, and that had to be part of my résumé. It wasn’t just being a head coach, but that I could sustain a winning program, and that became my resume for quite some time, and so when my time came (with his son and daughter much older). … It wasn’t the right time then, (because I would have missed their games. (Daughter Haley graduated RRHS in 2020 and is a UNM freshman; son Josh is an RRHS senior and on the football team.) They’re kinda flipping the page in their future, and so am I.
What about this pandemic and the actual playing of Mountain West games later this month? The key is testing, that’s the key. It’s the key for the governor, it’s the key for the University of New Mexico, it’s the key for the Mountain West, it’s the key for NCAA football — is how often can you test, how efficient is the testing, how safe is it and can you keep your guys home? There’s no if’s, and’s or but’s … we are encouraging them to not (date). If they’re caught (at a party), they’re off the team. If there’s proof in the pudding; (earlier this week) we tested everyone with no positive tests. We all wear masks; it’s one of those things, that if you stick to it, we can minimize some of the stuff we’re dealing with. We take temperatures every day. … I’ve been tested (several times). (Note: On Thursday, eight UNM players and an assistant coach tested positive.)
What do you miss most from RRHS? I can honestly say I miss so many things about RRHS — when you talk about seeing friends on staff and teachers, and students in one class after another and the challenges of high school football. … You start getting bogged down by the daily routines of a longevity job like that. You want more challenges, something new, which is where I was at. Now that I’m gone, I miss those relationships — I miss those students, the younger generation. But I’m so excited about my opportunities now and no day’s the same.
High school coaches are like a father, uncle, counselor, the coach and the teacher — is it like that with college athletes? For sure. Now you’re dealing with 19-, 20-, 21- and sometimes 23-year-olds, and they’re away from home and they’re depending on you in a whole different way. Support, guidance, but they’ve got their parents at home … it’s really a different way of bonding with them. We’re a coach first, and sometimes in the high school ranks, you’re a counselor first or teacher first or dad first. We’re coaches first, and we have to close some of these bonds.
How about an update on the Rio Rancho and Cleveland student-athletes on the roster? (Cleveland High’s Marcus Williams and Hayden Wilson) are staples of hard work; you can see they come from a good program, you can see they’re very well-coached; I would rather coach with them than against them. … Marcus is very well respected. … We look forward to having (CHS senior) Luke Wysong, making his way over, and we look forward to having him in there as well. (Former Ram) Isaiah Chavez is working his way in with the 3s — they really didn’t know where he was going to fit; he is playing 100 percent quarterback right now. (Veteran QB Tevaka Tuioti has been named the starter for the opener.) … Josh Foley is one of the biggest warriors ever to go through Rio Rancho. … Playing receiver is something new for him. … (Former CHS two-sport student-athlete) Dion Hunter is playing linebacker; his size is amazing. He’s a competitor; he’s strong. So we’re looking for big things from Dion as well.
How do you think the Lobos will do on the field this season? We’re going to compete. Nothing against the previous staffs … but we’re having to work with these guys on a different expectation of work ethic. They’re learning how to work hard and go beyond limits they think they have, and we’re not budging. … They’re just learning so much and they’ve got a long way to go. We’re probably not where we probably need to be yet, but we’re going to get there. Talent-wise, we have enough talent in there to compete.
As Coach G talks about all the time, “The team that plays the hardest the longest, wins.”