Levine travels lengthy path to UH’s top job
Tony Levine doesn’t bring his job home. As head coach of a college football team, his time spent with his family is limited. He even spent the night once on his office couch after a late night of studying game film to prepare for the Cougar’s next opponent.
The times that he does return home from his office, he puts his cellphone away, tucks his four children into bed, walks the dog for 30 minutes and then spends time with Erin, his wife.
Levine’s family often stops by his office, too. Occasionally, his children will even stand next to him or sit on his lap as he addresses the media after a game.
“Regardless of any occupation or profession, you’ve got to have balance,” Levine said. “It’s certainly not easy. It’s a lot tougher, especially during the fall months, because we’re in season. But (my family) understands. They enjoy the season as well and are around the office as much as they can.”
In 10 seasons, Levine has coached at every level of football. He went from being a high school coach to stints as a special teams coach at Auburn, Louisiana Tech, Louisville and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers before making his way to UH. After a disappointing 5-7 season during Levine’s first year at the helm, the Cougars are 5-0 and on the cusp of receiving national attention in a nationally televised game against BYU.
But during those stints as an assistant, Levine always envisioned himself one day becoming a head coach.
“It’s always been a goal and a dream of mine,” he said. “Any clinic I’ve been to, any veteran coach I’ve been around and any chance I’ve had to grow professionally or learn from other (head coaches), I took advantage.”
He got his first gig as head coach of the freshman team at his alma mater, Highland Park High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, in Fall 1996.
St. Paul, in addition to being his hometown, was the place where he exercised his musical prowess in band.
Levine comes from a family of musical gurus. His father, Marvin, was a big-band trumpet player, his brother Jeff is a high school band director and both his maternal and paternal grandmothers were proficient pianists.
Levine was a two-time high school all-American saxophone player, though he initially wanted to play trombone.
“When I was in the fifth grade, my arms weren’t long enough to hit the bottom note,” he said. “So they handed me the saxophone and that’s what I ended up going with.”
Levine received a number of musical scholarships — the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, North Texas, Indiana and the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire — all of which are nationally accredited jazz programs.
However, Levine also excelled as a football player. He was chosen for the Minnesota All-State team as a wide receiver after his senior season. He was recruited by South Dakota State, then a Division I-AA program, and Hamline, a Division III program — with no Division I offers.
In Spring 1990, with his high school graduation approaching, Levine was still undecided on what career path to choose, until a phone call changed his life.
On an April night, Levine answered the telephone.
Assistant coach Dave Spiegler says, “This is coach Spiegler from the University of Minnesota.”
A career path forms
Levine said he initially thought it was one of his friends playing a joke on him.
“I was wondering if you made a decision on where you wanted to go to college yet.”
“No, I had not,” Levine says.
“Would you be interested in coming to the University of Minnesota as a walk-on?”
“Yes, I would love to…”
“Stop. Talk to your family and call me back and…
“No, I’d love to come. And I don’t need to talk to them.”
Levine said his decision to pursue football over the musical scholarships was because he felt he could always play the saxophone and enjoy music, but he didn’t want to have regrets or wonder if he could have played college football at the highest level.
Levine stood 5-feet-10. Spiegler said he was “overlooked” from other programs and chose to take a chance on him.
“He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He had to go compete against teammates that were recruits on scholarship,” Spiegler said. “But he had a poised confidence, ran his routes and, no matter what, you could tell from the look of his eyes he was going to give a solid effort.”
Entering the 1993 season as a redshirt sophomore, Levine and Minnesota opened at No. 17 Penn State. After the Golden Gophers’ star receiver Omar Douglass sustained a groin pull in the fourth quarter, Levine entered the game and pulled in his first two collegiate receptions.
The following week, Levine’s team played its home opener against Indiana. He hauled in seven catches for 141 yards and a touchdown in the 27-10 victory.
Head coach Jim Wacker called Levine into his office five days later and awarded him with a full scholarship.
“It was a tremendous blessing,” Levine said. “I put in a lot of hard work, and that is something that I certainly will never forget.”
Levine graduated from Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in sports management and is tied for eighth all-time with three 100-yard receiving games in the program’s history.
Levine then played in the Arena Football League for the Minnesota Fighting Pike. Against the Texas Terrors, he scored two touchdowns — one returned fumble and one receiving.
After his one-year stay at Highland Park, Levine was hired at Southwest Texas, now Texas State, as an assistant coach for tight ends and wide receivers. One of his receiving pupils was Travis Bush, someone he would see again.
After Bush graduated in 2000, the two separated: Levine left to Auburn for a coaching job, and Bush made coaching stops at TCU, Texas State and UTSA.
After Levine was hired as the head coach at UH in 2012, he thought of Bush.
‘Top of my list’
“I had a list together of guys I’d like to have a part of my staff,” he said. “He was a top of my list. We’re fortunate that he is here with us … He was certainly an intelligent football player, and I knew he’d be a great coach.”
The feeling was mutual.
“He was a coach whom I admired as a player. (We) respected and played our tails off for him,” Bush said. “He was someone whom I kept in touch and tried to model (his) certain coaching philosophies. He’s the number one reason I came over here (at UH). I wanted to continue to work and learn from him.”
Bush was initially hired as the running backs coach, but after the team’s disappointing loss to — coincidentally — Texas State, a game in which the offense scored only 13 points, Levine promoted him to offensive coordinator.
Under Bush’s direction, the UH offense finished 15th nationally with an average of 479.6 yards per game, and the passing game ranked 11th nationally with 328.4 yards per game.
Levine has coached special teams for 10 years and said he prides himself on paying close attention to detail. It’s resulted in making both his coaching staff and his players better.
“He really has. It’s always good to have someone there who knows a lot and gives you different ideas,” said special teams coach Jaime Christian. “He’s made me become a better special teams coach through schemes and make me pay more attention to detail.
“I’m talking about a guy’s name spelled wrong on a depth chart to a line going over a hole punch. He wants everything perfect and holds everyone accountable.”
Levine said he credits his master’s degree as an educational specialist in adult education for making him not only a better coach, but also a better teacher toward his players. Senior cornerback Zachary McMillian, who was recruited by Levine to play special teams, said he’s one of a kind.
“I’ve never met a more prepared coach as far as knowing situations and what to do at the right time,” McMillian said. “When I graduate and leave, I would definitely say he’s meticulous and the most prepared coach in the game.”
Although he may be intense while on the field, Levine has a humorous side. Hehas pulled an April Fools’ Day prank in each of the last two years.
More than a coach
In 2012, he made the announcement of switching former star running back Charles Sims to cornerback. In 2013, he announced the addition of ‘O’ to the trademarked UH logo — which would then make it “UOH.”
Other than his family at home, Levine has had to look out for another family — his players.
“We’ve got exactly 127 young men in our program,” Levine said. “I’ve got a responsibility to not only help them become the best football player they can be, but to be the best student to get their degree, if one day they get married they can be the best husband and, if they have children, to be the best father they can be.
“It’s more to it than deciding if we’re going to punt or go for it on fourth-and-one as a head football coach,” he said.
During the season, Levine said he doesn’t get to play his saxophone as much. But after an August practice last season, he walked toward the UH band to grant a few words of advice, and his “emotions got the best of (him)” as he grabbed a member’s alto saxophone and began to improvise a 14-second melody that had the members cheering.
Levine said his favorite song to play on his Selmer Super Action 80 alto saxophone is “Now’s the Time” by Charlie Parker.
“I guess when you get locked up in Minnesota during the winter, you learn to play saxophone,” Bush jokingly said.