Vikings first-round draft pick Mike Hughes wouldn’t have reached his highest point as a football player if a longtime junior college coach named Jeff Sims hadn’t been there for him at his lowest point as a human being.
“We call this place, ‘Opportunity U.S.A.’ ” said Sims, the head coach at Garden City Community College in Kansas. “At a place like this, we have players that have to come here and fix a mistake. Mike embraced that and will go on and continue doing great things.”
Sims’ first head coaching job was at Mesabi Range Community College in Virginia, Minn. He went 13-7, including 10-1 in 2003, before spending two years as the offensive coordinator at Minnesota State Mankato.
“My son Jake was born in Virginia, Minn., and my daughter Samantha was born in Mankato,” Sims said Friday, a day after the Vikings selected Hughes, the cornerback/return man from Central Florida. “Mike will love Minnesota. And Minnesota will love Mike. He’s a very quiet guy. A humble guy who loves football and works very hard.”
Hughes still carries off-field baggage that only his long-term actions as a pro can erase. He left the University of North Carolina after his freshman season when he was charged with misdemeanor assault after a 2015 incident at a fraternity party.
Those charges were dropped after Hughes completed community service. Another report before the draft tied Hughes’ departure to a sexual assault allegation that did not lead to any charges.
“If you look at Mike’s track record, in high school [in New Bern, N.C.], he was a good dude and his coaches loved him,” Sims said. “At North Carolina, he made a young mistake, but his coaches loved him. Here, he had no issues, and everybody on this campus loves Mike. And at UCF, everybody loved him.”
Sims, 45, has coached college football since 1996. He’s coached at Indiana and Florida Atlantic, but always has gravitated to the junior college level, where he feels he can make the biggest difference in the lives of young players.
“A lot of these guys make mistakes and because of social media and all that, they have a hard time working past it,” Sims said. “We’re not justifying the mistakes they made. We’re just working with them to learn from them, get right and get where they need to go.”
In nine years as a junior college coach, Sims has had 50 former players reach the NFL. Hughes, who was selected 30th overall, is the second first-round draft pick, joining Jason Pierre-Paul, the 15th overall pick in 2010. Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David is one of four second-rounders Sims has helped reach the NFL.
“Jeff Sims is a guy who doesn’t get enough credit for what he does for guys like me,” Hughes said.
Sims said he considers it his mission in part because he also made poor choices when he was the same age.
Sims had a rough upbringing in St. Louis. His father, Ken, was estranged from the family and was a convicted drug dealer. He also went to jail for conspiracy to commit murder.
Sims played college football, but flunked out of Tulsa and turned to the JUCO route himself.
He didn’t have the talent Hughes has. A high school quarterback, Hughes won back-to-back state championships, going undefeated as a senior. After losing three games at North Carolina, he went 11-0 and won the NJCAA national title at Garden City in 2016.
“He was defensive player of the league and had only one interception because teams were afraid to throw anywhere near him,” Sims said. “He returned three punts for touchdowns that year. In the national title game against Arizona Western out there, we put him at receiver, threw him a bubble screen and he scored from 40 yards out. He told me, ‘Coach, they’ve never seen anybody like us.’ ”
With UCF going 13-0 last year, Hughes has a 24-game winning streak and a 44-3 college record.
“Losing,” Hughes said, “is really not in my background.”
Hughes is only 5-10, 189. And he ran a modest 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine.
“But Mike carries his pads extremely well, and I bet he runs a 4.53 wearing pads and a helmet,” Sims said. “And he might look small, but he’s freakishly strong. If Mike takes his shirt off, he has muscles in places where other people don’t even have places.”
And now he’s getting his shot at the highest level.
“[Sims] played a huge role in this,” Hughes said. “He definitely believes in second chances. Without him, none of this is possible.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL