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Mills happily returns for second stop in NM

The well-traveled Jeff Mills, it seemed, had found a home in Terre Haute, Ind.WRIGHT-Rick_2012

He’d been a part of something special there last football season, in his first year as Indiana State’s defensive line coach. The Sycamores, headed by former UNLV coach Mike Sanford, had vaulted from a one-win season in 2013 to eight victories and a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth.

Besides, the move to Indiana State a year ago was Mills’ and his family’s second in three years, his third coaching stop in four years and his 11th in 26 years in the college ranks.

“That’s the life of a ball coach,” he said.

Even so, did he really want to move again?

Yes, he did.

Mills was attracted to the opening for a head football coach at Division II New Mexico Highlands University for two reasons.

Reason No. 1: he had long wanted to become a head coach like his father, Jay.

“My father was a high school coach in Iowa and Indiana,” said Mills, who was announced as NMHU’s new head coach on March 6. “We lost my dad in 2002.

“… Since I was, like, in the fourth grade, I just saw my dad and told myself, ‘That’s who I want to become.'”

Jeff Mills is shown during his stint as a University of New Mexico assistant coach during the 2013 spring football session. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeff Mills is shown during his stint as a University of New Mexico assistant coach during the 2013 spring football session. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

That first head coaching opportunity has been a long time coming.

Mills, 50, broke into college coaching in 1988. He has worked as an assistant at Drake, Western Washington, Washington, Montana State, Idaho, Nevada, Idaho again, Youngstown State, Washington again, New Mexico and Indiana State.

During his two-year stint at UNM (2012-13), Mills developed a taste for green chile, a fondness for New Mexico’s sunshine, and friendships with many people within its borders.

And, regarding the NMHU job, that’s reason No. 2.

“It’s been a whirlwind, but I’m excited,” he said from Las Vegas, N.M., in a recent phone interview. “… We love the people and we love the area, and (the Highlands job) was a natural attraction for all those reasons.”

Even in Terre Haute, it seemed as if New Mexico were calling to him.

Indiana State’s secondary coach is all-time UNM great Don Perkins’ grandson.

Anthony Perkins grew up in Colorado, not New Mexico – he played college ball for the Colorado Buffaloes – but visits his grandfather in Albuquerque whenever possible.

Vince Natali, the Sycamore’s offensive line coach, was an all-conference center for the Lobos under Rocky Long.

Natali, Mills said, shares his fondness for green chile and burritos.

“So the New Mexico connection was there at Indiana State with those two guys,” he said, “and that was fun.”

Thus, when Mills learned of the opening at Highlands, there was little hesitation.

In interviews with NMHU athletic director Jeff Falkner and a search committee, Mills stated his case and credentials.

“(The situation) really fit what I’ve always looked for as what I wanted to be a part of, leading a program and recruiting four-year players and basing it on the home base first,” he said.

“(That) was my whole presentation – first, obviously, getting to know the team here, but moving forward, building and putting a plan in place to recruit the state of New Mexico.”

At UNM, Mills had recruited southern New Mexico and gotten to know high school coaches in Albuquerque.

“So I felt like I was really a good fit for what (Falkner) was looking for, and I guess that’s the way he felt.

“One thing led to another, and here I am.”

Mills is determined that his second stay in New Mexico will last longer and have a happier ending than his first.

He came to UNM from Washington after having been fired as the Huskies’ secondary coach, originally hired by Lobos head coach Bob Davie for that same position. But Ron West, Davie’s first hire as defensive coordinator, left for Arizona State without ever coaching a game at New Mexico. Mills sought and got the D-coordinator position.

The UNM defense made progress from 2011 to 2012, but not so from ’12 to ’13. Mills’ contract was not renewed.

His departure, he said, “was a mutual decision.”

Still, when discussing his tenure at UNM and the relationships formed there, or when talking about the head coaches for whom he’s worked who helped shape his own coaching philosophy, Mills does not mention Davie.

That philosophy is fairly simple.

Last fall, New Mexico Highlands led the NCAA’s Division II in passing yardage – but the Cowboys went 3-8 on the season.

Mills, a college quarterback, likes the passing game – but likes offensive balance more. He believes in multiplicity on both sides of the ball, the better for his offense and defense when they practice against each other.

“I’ll always wish the Lobos the best,” he said. “Now, I’ll roll up my sleeves and get to work on the Cowboy clock.”