At various points throughout his coaching career, Tony Levine would ask athletic directors and other coaches for some advice.
What is the best way to become a head coach?
The answers were invariably the same -- you need to be either an offensive or defensive coordinator at the highest level; or you need to take a job as a head coach at a lower level, then work your way up. Levine always listened, realizing these were two pretty big gaps on his own résumé if they served as job qualifications. He had never held either job -- unless you count serving as ninth grade football coach when he was 23.
Levine would simply have to break some pretty deeply ingrained notions about what made the perfect head coach. He had done a bit of that in four years as an assistant at Houston, having been contacted about other head-coaching opportunities. But there never was one that made sense for him or his family.
Until Dec. 10.
When Levine left home that morning, he told his wife he would be home around 4 p.m. That afternoon, when he should have been pulling his truck into the driveway, Levine was holding a news conference in front of 20 cameras -- as the interim head coach at Houston.
Two weeks later, he was promoted to replace Kevin Sumlin -- having never been an offensive or defensive coordinator, or a head coach. How about that for a unique path?
"I have coached on offense, coached on defense and coached special teams for 10 years. I've been a director of football operations. I've been a strength coach, I've been recruiting coordinator. Out of college, I had my own sports marketing company," Levine said in a recent phone interview. "I have coached at every level and every position. I was just never offensive or defensive coordinator and never a head coach. But to me, all of the great experiences I have had have really prepared me for this position."
Levine had been special teams coordinator, along with tight ends and inside receivers coach during his tenure as a Houston assistant. What many casual fans may not realize is the role the special teams coordinator plays with the entire team. There is only one other coach who holds entire team meetings and is as responsible for game management as the head coach -- that would be special teams coordinator.
So Levine was already quite familiar with speaking to his players, with what it takes to manage a game. Learning under Sumlin the past four years put him in a great spot to continue the continuity that already has been established at a program coming off a 13-1 season and a bowl victory over Penn State. Levine led the team in that game, so he goes into spring practice Wednesday with a perfect 1-0 record as a head coach.
Now comes the huge challenge. Levine is charged with maintaining that level of excellence without the face of the program. The most popular question in Houston this spring: How do the Cougars go on without record-setting quarterback Case Keenum? First up to fill that slot is David Piland, who started eight games in 2010 after Keenum tore his ACL, throwing for 2,641 yards and 24 touchdowns. Piland was able to redshirt last season, but he was completely involved during practice, shadowed Keenum during meetings and traveled to games, all while adding weight and strength.
The experience gives Piland an advantage, but Levine said every position is open for competition this spring. His pre-spring practice depth chart is blank.
Another concern is developing receivers. Not only did Houston lose Keenum, the NCAA career passing leader, the Cougars also lost their all-time receptions leader in Tyron Carrier, their all-time yardage leader in Patrick Edwards and first-team Conference USA performer Justin Johnson.
"A couple years ago, we had Kevin Kolb leave, and everybody asked [former coach] Art Briles what was he going to do. Along came Case Keenum," Levine said. "We've had tradition here at quarterback, we've had tradition here at wide receiver. I made it clear to our team that now it's their turn to step up and contribute for us on the field. Nobody has to be Case Keenum and nobody has to be Patrick Edwards. They just have to be themselves and help us continue the success we've had and be consistent."
So the high-powered offensive scheme remains. Defensively, Houston will switch back to the 4-3. The Cougars have seven senior defensive linemen, so that definitely helps the transition. Replacing Sammy Brown is a major priority this spring.
There is no doubt this is a critical juncture for Houston. The Cougars have to maintain what they have done, all while keeping an eye to their next destination -- a home in the Big East in 2013. They have turned to a man without the usual credentials on his résumé. But Levine brings continuity, consistency, energy, passion and a deep-rooted commitment to the city of Houston.
Now we will see how all those traits serve him -- and this program -- moving forward.