Classes for the fall quarter at the University of Washington won’t begin until late September, but it’s not too early for first-year Huskies secondary coach Jeff Mills to hold show-and-tell sessions with students.
Wrapped around the fourth finger of Mills’ right hand is the most prized possession at the Washington athletic department: a ring emblematic of where the Huskies once ranked among the powerhouses of college football, and where they aspire to return.
A former graduate assistant for Don James, Mills is the Huskies’ leading authority on the 1991 national champions. Come to think of it, because Randy Hart and Chris Tormey were released in a comprehensive purging of Tyrone Willingham’s staff, Mills is the only Huskies assistant with specific memories of the way it was on Montlake.
“It was easy for a guy like me to get spoiled,” Mills said the other day, recalling his stint as an assistant to secondary coach Larry Slade in 1990 and 1991. “With the kind of success we had around here, how could you not get spoiled?”
While Mills was in his mid-20s and going places, the Huskies’ program was a century old and in its prime: back-to-back Rose Bowl titles, 22 victories in 24 games, a talent pipeline both on the field (23 players from the 1991 team eventually were drafted into the NFL) and on the sidelines (seven assistants in 1991 went on to become college head coaches).
As the Huskies celebrated their 34-14 pummeling of Michigan on Jan. 1, 1992, Mills absorbed the scene in the Rose Bowl end zone. He had been hired as the secondary coach at Montana State, excited about the opportunity but sensing the kind of perfection he’d seen with the Huskies would not soon be replicated.
Mills never has forgotten some advice he got from Gary Pinkel, the Missouri head coach who left James’ staff for Dayton in 1991,
“He told me a long time ago,” said Mills, “that it’s a tough business. Keep working and keep hanging in there, because there will be ups and downs.”
An Iowa native who went on to play quarterback at Western Washington, Mills has worked as a defensive assistant at Idaho, Nevada, and, most recently, Youngstown State.
In January, Mills accepted the challenge of coaching the Huskies’ secondary – he’ll also tutor the safeties – under defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who had previously worked with Mills at Idaho. Mills’ familiarity with the Huskies’ Wonder Years was a bonus.
This past April, when 1991 Heisman Trophy finalist Steve Emtman paid a visit during spring practice, Mills shared a story with the players about the day Emtman blew up at his defensive teammates after they surrendered two prolonged scoring drives.
Such behavior wasn’t unusual for Emtman. What was unusual is that he was a sophomore at the time, and the drives the defense gave up were during a practice.
Uh, a spring practice.
“It’s been fun for me to reconnect with all the guys,” said Mills. “I’ve stayed in touch with Charles Mincy, Walter Bailey, Shane Pahukoa and Lawyer Milloy. But since I’ve come back, I’ve been able to catch up with people like Steve Emtman and Dave Hoffman. There’s a lot of memories. I met my wife here.”
Not only does Mills own the only 1991 national championship ring on the coaching staff, he might be the only man on the planet to have worked with both James and Steve Sarkisian.
At first glance, the coach who took the Huskies to the heights of college football is the stylistic opposite of the coach on a mission to return them there. James monitored workouts in a tower, detached from the field and yet immersed in every detail of the big picture.
Sarkisian radiates enthusiasm. He thinks practices should be full of snap, crackle and pop, in an environment – here’s a term not associated with James – that’s fun.
“People are different, with different backgrounds, different personalities,” said Mills. “Coach James had been a defensive coordinator, Coach Sarkisian was an offensive coordinator.
“But the one thing they have in common is organization. No aspect of a practice is left to chance. Guys are prepared for a high level of competition.”
Fall camp opens this afternoon at 3, when the Huskies hold the first of 24 practice sessions in preparation for the season-opener, on Sept. 5, against LSU.
Mills has some work to do in helping Sarkisian prepare the secondary for a high level of competition.
Sophomore cornerback Quinton Richardson and junior free safety Nate Williams are likely starters, but beyond that, the names on the depth chart are best inscribed with a pencil.
Sophomore Johri Fogerson, for instance, looked like a free safety candidate in spring practice. He’s listed on the camp roster as a tailback. Meanwhile, sophomore Alvin Logan, who started 11 games last season at wide receiver, has moved to safety.
Put it this way: Eighteen years after they helped the Huskies win a national championship, Bailey and Pahukoa, along with Dana Hall and Tommie Smith, are more recognized than anybody in fall camp.
With a depth chart that might best be described as fluid, and only 24 practices remaining before the Bayou Bengals show up in Husky Stadium, Mills’ philosophy is simple.
“Eliminate big plays,” he said, “and try and create turnovers. Our job as a defense is to get the ball back.”
On an infinitely larger scale, the Huskies’ job is to get their self-respect back.
Of the countless questions Jeff Mills will take from his players during fall camp, none will produce a more thoughtful answer than this one:
“Your ring. What’s that about?”