Dave Howes strolls along the sideline during his days as a high school coach. In 2020, he was observing games from a press box, which he found quite a bit different.
Photo Gary Herron / Observer

More than 40 nights living in Las Vegas, Nevada?

What a vacation, eh?

Only that stint in “Sin City” wasn’t a vacation for former Rio Rancho High School football coach Dave Howes, who was in his first season as an assistant coach for the University of New Mexico football team.

Playing — even practicing — in Albuquerque was out of the question for the Lobos, per Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s health orders.

So the team worked out an arrangement with the University of Nevada-Las Vegas to use that school’s football stadium, Sam Boyd Stadium, as its home base for the shortened, seven-game season.

There were no late-night visits to casinos, no seeing Penn & Teller, no Celine Dion concerts — the kind of stuff your “normal” visitor to Vegas enjoys.

This trip was about three things only: football, football and more football.

“Basically, we were told, you know, ‘Pack a bag. We’ll probably be gone a week.”

So much for that, after UNM’s opener at Colorado State was canceled due to the pandemic.

“We came up with the idea that we’ll start out in Vegas and see where we go from there.”

Where they went “from there” was, in order, San Jose, Calif.; Honolulu, Hawaii; to Las Vegas; Colorado Springs and Logan, Utah — and five losses in as many games.

Then, UNM was “back home” at Sam Boyd Stadium, where former Rams standout Isaiah Chavez took the reins at quarterback and led the underdog away-from-home Lobos to a 17-16 win over Wyoming and a 49-39 victory over Fresno State.

Howes viewed the Lobos’ games from the press box, a new vantage point for him — but not necessarily a better one than being on the sideline, where he had spent 11 seasons with the Rams.

“It gives you an appreciation for all the coaches and what everybody is doing, and all the parts involved, and kind of makes me remember the times that I’m getting after those guys up in the box. I’m in that same boat,” he said, referring to a handful of his assistants when he was at the helm of the Rams.

“When we packed for a week, we figured we’d be back, re-pack, and have a chance to go in and out, because of our restrictions,” he explained. “(We told the players) ‘We’re going to bring in the computers and the academic staff and we’re gonna live here (in Las Vegas). Everything we brought was in the back of two 18-wheel trucks; if we knew we were going to be there that long, we probably would have brought another truck and some more weights.

“We didn’t have a whole lot and we tried to make do with what we had, and I thought our staff did a great job … but at the end of the day, we didn’t have enough.”

They were lodged in an old Las Vegas hotel, using what had been a large room used as a casino for the weight room, and doing “walk-throughs” before games in an adjacent parking garage.

“You just learn not to take things for granted,” Howes said. “Obviously, families you don’t see for 40 days. Fans. The atmosphere you take for granted: concessions and press, different types of food — no soda, (and) I hadn’t seen a burger for 40 days.”

Of course, with Facetime and emails, those in this UNM “party” could communicate with family members; Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales is Howes’ brother-in-law.

“I think I saw in the distance a CVS pharmacy,” he joked. “We were trying to stay in a bubble.

“We would literally wake up and have treatment at 6 a.m.; that’s breakfast, so you would come and get your breakfast and the coaches would start meeting. And then by 7, we started special teams meetings. At 7:30, after special teams meetings are over, we would get loaded up and go to Sam Boyd.

“Our staff would have all their stuff laid out in the locker rooms. They’d get in there and get dressed,” he continued. “We’d have a normal practice. (The coaches) would get back in the car fast with our video guy. Seven of us would pile in this SUV and we would drive back to the hotel before the (players’) buses. He would download all the material. The coaches met from the minute we got back; we would watch the whole practice again. We would watch each play four or five times, all the way through. That takes about 2½ hours.

“Then we’d have about an hour and a half to start your in-between work, and you’d have lunch served during that. And then you bring the kids back — they have academics from 12 to 3. So at 3 o’clock I* would get the safeties back, and Coach G and I would meet with the safeties; they would all come in and we’d watch the film again.”

Not as much fun as depicted in the movie “The Hangover,” eh? No tiger in the bathroom, no run-in with Mike Tyson, no missing tooth for Ed Helms.

As weeks went on, he said, you could see the progress, including proper tackling. At times, Howes said, he was surprised at how much some of his players didn’t know.

“What’s really neat is when we started this whole thing, ‘Effort, attitude and want-to,’ and just ‘the team that plays the hardest the longest wins’ (were keys),” he said. “Really easy, normal sayings and philosophies that should make sense to everyone.

But (we) could see many were resistant to these philosophies. What does ‘playing the hardest’ mean?  ‘You can’t take a play off.’ But what does that mean? It could mean something different to you than it does to me,” he said.

“(Our defense) is all about running to the ball … you see how many people are resistant to that as well,” he continued. “That was a daily conversation for position coaches, for players — it’s just constant, running to the ball, running to the ball, to the point of nauseam.

“No confusion, it’s just the willingness to do it, play in and play out. And some of the ones not willing to do it weren’t playing as much.”

UNM had 24 true freshmen see playing time this season, practically unheard of, he said.

“They want to get better, that’s what you want to see.”

Howes said he enjoyed his first season in the college ranks, despite the pandemic and being away from home for so long.

“I enjoy where I’m at and what I’m doing, and I’m becoming a better coach,” he concluded. “Obviously, there’s some things I miss as (a high school) head coach.”

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