Ex-Houston coach Levine: How I spent a year away from football (Q&A)

Tony Levine (pictured above with Houston in 2014) has coached high school, college and NFL players.

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Tony Levine once went from walk-on to starting receiver in the Big Ten and won three letters and twice was named Academic All-Big Ten at Minnesota. After playing some arena football, Levine coached on defense, offense and on special teams. He’s also been a high school coach, a college coach and an NFL coach.

Levine spent three seasons as the head coach at Houston and went 21-17. He led the Cougars to consecutive bowl games in his last two seasons but was fired last season.

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Recently, FOX Sports caught up with Levine to discuss, among other things, what he’s been up to; what he learned from some of his college visits in the past year and how frustrating it is to watch a team he helped build go on to win big the next season.

Q: After two decades in coaching, how have you spent your time away from football this fall?

Levine: I’ve enjoyed spending my time this fall with my family, which is something I haven’t been able to do in years. I was even able to coach my oldest boys’ (ages 10 and 8) flag football team. Football coaches rarely get to see their children play a fall sport, so being able to coach them was special. I’ve also been able to reconnect with coaches around the country. I visited a number of programs and studied a lot of football. It’s amazing how much you can pick up from this perspective. I’ve heard other coaches say that who have taken a year off from coaching, and it’s certainly true. 

Q: What is the biggest thing you’ve missed about being out of the game?

Levine: I’ve definitely missed the relationships with the players and the coaches. The camaraderie between coaches and players in a program is something that is hard to describe and tough to replicate. I’ve also missed the weekly game-planning, as well as the feeling you get on game day -– there’s nothing like it. Seeing your players and team have success as a result of hours of preparation is very rewarding.

Q: I know you visited Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Western Kentucky. Where else have you gone in the past year, and what have you taken from each of those trips?

Levine: I also spent time at Clemson, Minnesota, Rice, SMU, the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears. Each program and team has a different culture based on each head coach’s personality and background. The opportunity to get inside these programs to see how they are run was invaluable. I picked up a lot from each visit that I will incorporate into my own program when I get the next opportunity to be a head coach.

At Minnesota it was great to see the way Coach (Jerry) Kill and his staff have changed the culture there in such a short period of time from when they took over. It was good to see Coach (Chad) Morris and how he’s building SMU and installing confidence in his team — he’s doing it the right way and they’re going to have success there. And getting the chance to spend time with Coach (Dabo) Swinney at Clemson and learn some of the unique things they do to build a family environment was very rewarding. Clemson has as much of a family atmosphere within their program as I’ve seen, and it’s very evident that it starts with Coach Swinney. Also, to spend time at Western Kentucky and Texas Tech was invaluable for me offensively. Jeff Brohm and Kliff Kingsbury are two of the best offensive coaches I’ve been around — very cutting edge and innovative in what they do and how they think.

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Q: While at Houston, you were part of some of the best offenses and special teams in the nation, setting several NCAA records. What are the keys to being successful in those areas especially on special teams beyond just having great athletes on them?

Levine: Anytime you have success as a coach, I think credit should go to the players, and I was able to coach some very special young men at Houston. Offensively I was a part of two seasons where we finished No. 1 in the nation in total offense, and another season where we finished second. I also coached five different 1,000-yard receivers, and was part of an offense in 2011 that became the first in NCAA history to surpass 8,000 total yards. With special teams, I’m an outside-the-box thinker, so I’ve always been creative and aggressive when coaching the kicking game. 

I felt like I was really able to grow when I spent two years as a special teams coach with the Carolina Panthers. Up there, you’re just coaching the kicking game and in the NFL you have access to everybody’s film. So in the offseason, I studied up on all the top special teams and was able to learn quite a bit scheme-wise and personnel-wise. And a lot of that really paid off because we were able to break several NCAA records with regards to kick-off return touchdowns, blocked kicks and consecutive successful kicks. Those things happen when the players completely buy in, and you’re able to make it extremely important in your program.

Q: You hired Doug Meacham off the Oklahoma State staff to be your OC and he had success at Houston before moving on to TCU, where he’s become a very hot name in coaching. What was it you saw in Meacham back then that convinced you to take a shot on him?

Levine: Doug was on the staff at Oklahoma State when Dana Holgorsen left Houston to be their OC. I talked to about 10 coaches, including Dana, Kliff (Kingsbury) and Todd Monken — lots of guys that had (taught at clinics) with him and worked with Doug. Guys that knew him well and they’d all spoke very highly of him.

I actually tried to hire Doug as OC when I first became head coach at Houston but his daughter was a junior in high school at the time and he wanted her to finish before moving. He did a great job for us at Houston and has done extremely well at TCU. He’s a very confident play-caller, highly creative and he also relates well to the players.

Q: You were let go after only three seasons, and your teams went 16-10 the past two years and went to two bowl games. In Kevin Sumlin’s fourth season at UH, he won 12 games. In Art Briles’ fourth season there, he won 10. Your old team, filled with your recruits, is 10-1 now. How frustrating has that aspect of it been for you?

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Levine:  I’m very happy for the players and proud of what they’ve accomplished. I recruited those guys and invested a lot of time in them –- and a lot of them still stay in touch with me. We knew 2015 was going to be a special season. We felt very good about our recruiting and the development of our young players. Keep in mind, our first season we were replacing the NCAA’s all-time leader in total offense in Case Keenum and knew there would be some growing pains. In 2013, we were the only team in the country whose leading passer, rusher and receiver were either freshmen or sophomores. We were building it the right way. I don’t want to take anything away from the new coaching staff – they’re doing a great job. But if you look at what Coach Sumlin and Coach Briles did at Houston, we were right on track. It’s amazing how similar our first three years were. That being said, I’m happy for the University of Houston. I coached there for a total of seven years and was a part of some historic wins. My family and I made some lifelong friends and great memories, so it’s a very special place to us.

Q: How do you think the past year has shaped you?

Levine:  This year has been great for me both personally and professionally. It’s given me the chance to create memories with my family that we’ll never forget. Coaches rarely spend as much time as they’d like with their family, so being able to spend the past 12 months with my family has been something that I am very thankful for. It’s also allowed me to re-focus my coaching skills and philosophies. I have no doubt I will be a better head coach the next time around when the right opportunity presents itself.

Q: You’ve coached at every level — from high school to college to NFL, doing everything from coaching linebackers to receivers to being a head coach to lots of time as a special teams coordinator. What, ideally, would you want to do next?

Levine: My preference is to get back in as a head coach. I have a lot to offer in terms of running a successful, winning program — from building a culture to recruiting some of the most fertile areas in the country to having success both on and off the field. Regardless of the position, it will also have to be the right opportunity for me and my family.

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FS1. He is also a New York Times best-selling author. His new book, “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks,” came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB and Facebook.