Jeff Mills arrived at New Mexico Highlands University last March, taking over the Cowboys football program a month after signing day.
Recruiting at that stage was like fishing Storrie Lake without a rod and reel. Not only was most of the available talent already taken, but he and his staff could neither make home visits nor bring recruits to the NMHU campus.
“The rules were such that all I could do was call,” Mills said recently in a phone interview from Las Vegas, N.M.
Mills, a former University of New Mexico defensive coordinator (2012-13), inherited 40 players from a 2014 Cowboys team that went 3-8. Somehow, he and his assistants managed to build the roster to 85 by the time fall camp began.
Predictably, Highlands lost its first seven games of 2015. But the Cowboys hung together and won two of their last three.
Now, 11 months after his arrival, Mills feels that in some ways he’s just getting started.
Yet, he also believes the foundation for success is in place.
“I think everything’s lined up for us to make great strides going forward,” he said. “Not with just the football program, but the athletic program and this university.”
Mills got his start in coaching at the University of Washington. He was a graduate assistant in 1991, when coach Don James’ Huskies went 12-0 and shared the national title.
“What I learned from coach James,” he said, “is you start (recruiting) in your home state.”
Thus far in the process, 10 in-state players have signed with NMHU: cornerback Aaron Bean (Atrisco Heritage), wide receiver Jimmy Gallegos (Sandia), running back Hunter Graham (Alamogordo), linebacker Jake Harrelson (Ruidoso), offensive lineman Bradley Hatten (Grants), linebacker Xavier Hoover (Gallup), offensive lineman Isaiah Lowery (Sandia), tight end Marvin Malave (Cibola), offensive lineman Santos Taylor (Cleveland) and linebacker Idan Urrutia (West Mesa).
There are those who might say, and have said, that a college football team can’t win with New Mexico players – whether the team in question is UNM, NMSU or even NMHU, which competes in the NCAA’s Division II.
Mills clearly disagrees, but he also knows our neighboring state of Texas is a football recruiting gold mine.
Two members of his staff, tight end coach Matt Talamantes and defensive line coach Jacori Greer – a former UNM player and graduate assistant – have Texas roots.
“Jacori Greer is our recruiting coordinator,” Mills said. “He’s a man that I trust. He’s got great character. He’s a very passionate young man.
“We’ve got a great staff that I’m excited about, and the energy really came through (in recruiting).”
Seven players from the Lone Star state have signed NMHU letters of intent. The Cowboys have signed one player from the state of Washington, where Mills has contacts, and one from Arizona. And he’ll be looking in the Houston area, Southern California, south Florida.
Still, he said, most of Highlands’ recruiting, in-state or out, will be done within a day’s drive of Las Vegas.
Coaching has taken Mills to Seattle, Albuquerque and Reno, Nev., among many other places. He’s comfortable in cities big, middle-size or small. But among his favorite stops was Moscow, Idaho, a town of some 24,000, where he twice worked as an assistant at the University of Idaho.
Las Vegas (population about 14,000), he said, has a similar feel.
“I’m able to go home at lunch and see my wife (Carmen),” he said. “… It’s nice to be in a smaller area. That’s what I found at Idaho, and that’s what I’m finding here. The people have made me feel welcome.”
Beyond football, Mills believes he has plenty to sell at Highlands: a stable administration, a student-to-teacher ratio of 18-1, solid job-placement numbers.
On the field, he said, success will not happen overnight. The Cowboys have won just seven games the past three seasons.
“Anything like this, the transition from a transfer program to a high school program, takes time,” Mills said. “We’re going to be young again this year.
“We’re going to be a freshman- and sophomore-laden team, and that’s fine, because eventually those young men will become juniors and seniors.”